Last week, I hiked up to Ruby Jewel Lake with my husband. The three-mile trail was steep and rocky, with patches of ice and snow, and the air was thin (we were over 11,000 feet). To add to the fun, we lost our way and wound up making an exhausting climb off-trail to get to the top. As I was hiking, I kept thinking two things. The first was my Difficult-Hike Mantra (which is a similar to my This-Workout-Is-Kicking-My-Ass Mantra; more on this later). The other was that all the tricks and tools I was using to get me up that mountain were the same tricks and tools that get me through daunting creative challenges, like writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days with the other NaNoWriMo* fans.

Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.

Cold but alive. And grateful I made the effort to get to the top.

(ASIDE: For those who were wondering, yes, I’m taking on NaNoWriMo again. This will be my ninth consecutive year of participation and I hope I’ll write my best first draft ever. I just have to decide what the heck I’m going to write about. I’m not too worried just yet. I usually get a great idea sometime before November, usually on October 31st.)

Here are my hiking rules that also apply to writing a novel:

1) Wear layers, eat right, and drink your water. To perform at all, I need to take care of myself. The better care I can give myself, the better my performance can be. Eating healthy food, getting exercise and plenty of sleep, and even dressing warmly on a cold day can help me to get my novel written. (Many NaNo veterans swear by caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. As someone with food sensitivities, I stick with fresh, whole foods, but you know what you need to survive. Sometimes a tasty bribe can give you the little kick of motivation you need to get to the next ridge.)

2) Take a map, a GPS, or both. After we lost the trail under the snow and had wandered a bit, the GPS helped us find our way again. Story maps or outlines can be essential to staying on track with your novel, although sometimes it’s the detours that lead you to the true heart of your story. I work with guideposts more than outlines, but some sort of map, no matter how sketchy, can make all the difference.

3) Use all the support you can find. While hiking, trekking poles propped me up when I was exhausted and shaking, in danger of losing my balance on the rocks. My biggest NaNoWriMo prop is my supportive husband, who will cook dinner and otherwise inconvenience himself so I have time to write. Other key props are my battered copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, the NaNoWriMo forums and pep talks, and the buddies I keep in touch with while we are all struggling with our rocky novels. (In case you didn’t know, you’re allowed to get some help with achieving your goals.)

4) Focus on what you want, not what you fear. This is where my mantras come in. When the hike was the hardest, I found myself thinking “I’m not going to cry” and feeling the tears well up. Focusing on what I didn’t want was making it come true. When I switched to thinking “I can do this; I am strong,” the tears went away and I actually felt better. It was still a hard hike, but I was right. I did make it to the top, and I’m sure focusing on what I wanted — to finish the climb — made it possible. I think the same way when I need to get my word count in for the day: “I can do this.” And so can you.

The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.

The view from Ruby Jewel Lake. It was worth the climb.

5) No multi-tasking. I have to follow this rule whenever I get tired or the air is thin. I get fumble-fingered and clumsy. If I try to put my coat on while I’m walking up the trail, I’m sure to stumble, possibly even twist an ankle. Instead, I stop, put on my coat, then start walking again. Otherwise, I risk an accident to myself or my equipment. I have only so much time and energy to devote to my hike and I don’t want to do anything that could cause a delay or keep me from the top. I find the same rule helps with my NaNoWriMo writing sessions. I turn everything else off and focus on writing until I hit my goal for the day. I also focus on the one thing that needs to happen next in the story as I write. I don’t worry about poetic descriptions, clever metaphors, or award-winning symbolism. I just get down the key information for the scene and move on. I can add layers when I re-write.

6) Pace yourself and take breaks. My most important rule, whether I am climbing a mountain or writing a novel. If I go too fast, I’m sure to burn myself out and never make it to my goal at all. If I don’t take breaks and rest, I am in danger of getting overly tired and hating what I’m doing. Having to push extra hard when I’m already feeling beat-up is a sure way to turn me into a cranky kid who just wants to go home now, please, when what I really want to do is finish my hike. Or my novel.

Do you have hiking rules that apply to the creative process? Or tips for those taking on NaNoWriMo? What have I missed?

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and if you want to know more, check out their great website.

I love handmade objects. They have a life to them that you can see and feel. It’s easy to believe that they move when you aren’t looking, that they have thoughts and feelings of their own. I’d love it if every single thing around me were made by hand: from the furniture and rugs, to the lamps, picture frames, the books and the book-ends. Unfortunately, that’s an expensive proposition. You either invest money in buying things made by others, or you invest money in materials and time in making the things yourself. Either way, it’s a costly ideal.

I’m cleaning out my studio (again), and I’m struck by just how much of my storage is plastic. Plastic is cheap, easy to find, and fairly durable. It keeps my materials tidy and clean until I can use them. But it feels soul-less and it bugs me to have so much of it in a room where I am making things with my hands. My plastic boxes and drawers lack the aesthetic appeal of the materials they hold. They are slick and cold, unlike the warm, soft, textured papers and fabrics I work with.

Plenty of storage, but most of it's plastic: neat, clean, dead.

Plenty of storage, but most of it’s plastic: neat, clean, dead.

I keep remembering something I read a few years ago. In his 1969 interview with The Paris Review, the writer Robert Graves pointed out that nearly everything in his office is handmade and that it’s that way for a reason.

ROBERT GRAVES

Do you notice anything strange about this room?

INTERVIEWER

No.

GRAVES

Well, everything is made by hand — with one exception: this nasty plastic triple file which was given me as a present. I’ve put it here out of politeness for two or three weeks, then it will disappear. Almost everything else is made by hand. Oh yes, the books have been printed, but many have been printed by hand — in fact some I printed myself. Apart from the electric light fixtures, everything else is handmade; nowadays very few people live in houses where anything at all is made by hand.

INTERVIEWER

Does this bear directly on your creative work?

GRAVES

Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.

I find the idea that how the things around you were produced can affect your state of mind, especially your creative mind, intriguing. I can sense it might even be true. Like Graves, I am sensitive to how things feel, even the inanimate objects around me. I’m more comfortable surrounded by natural materials and maybe how they are manufactured matters, too.

A few of the precious items I like having close.

A few of the handmade items I like having close.

I’d love to test Graves’s theory. Even if he’s wrong, having my work spaces filled from floor to ceiling with objects made by hand would be satisfying. I guess I’ll have to settle for the pile of hand-crafted objects that I clutter my desk with and work on improving the studio storage one small piece at a time. And in the meantime, I’ll do the best creative thinking I can, despite the handicap of a manufactured environment.

Do you think Graves’s is right? Does a handmade environment make for a better setting for creative work? Or was he crazy for being so sensitive to his surroundings?

Confession time: I’ve always preferred knitting to crochet mainly because I think knitted projects just look better. Crochet can look cheesy, even tacky, to my eyes. Recently, I’ve started finding pictures of crocheted projects online that are stunning, even elegant, and I’m intrigued. I want to learn how to make some of these beautiful things. Fortunately, there are generous people out there happy to share their projects and their patterns with the rest of us.

Lime Green Lady blogs about crochet and knitting, showing off projects she has designed herself and sharing her patterns as well. Projects include a granny square blanket, a granny square baby jacket, and toys, from a hot air balloon to a mermaid.

Since finding that granny square afghan at a yard sale, I am collecting examples of granny square projects I like. Granny squares may be old-fashioned, but the vibrant rainbow colors in Lime Green Lady’s blanket give them a fun, new look.

Photo by Lime Green Lady

Photo by Lime Green Lady

Lime Green Lady designs her own patterns and likes to make toys, particularly vehicles. I adore this rocket ship. The bullet shape and the arched fins make me want to jet off into space.

rocket_LGL

Another vehicle pattern is for a toy train, complete with a string of cars. I love her use of color.

Pattern and photo by Lime Green Lady

Pattern and photo by Lime Green Lady

For those interested in learning how to design their own crocheted toys, read her post of tips. And for those who only knit, never fear, she has some great knitted projects, too.

Pattern and photo by Lime Green Lady

Pattern and photo by Lime Green Lady

perfectionism

I know Anne Lamott doesn’t say that perfectionism ruins everything. She says your writing. But my experience is that it can ruin anything you are trying to do, from cooking dinner to painting a sunset.

Perfectionism can tie me up in knots so tight I don’t even start. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and NaNoWriMo. Both emphasize throwing perfectionism out the window and just doing what needs to be done today toward living my dream.

Anyone who has ever seen the original Star Trek (and most people who haven’t) knows that Vulcans are humanoids that value logic above everything else. Spock, who is half-human, half-Vulcan, constantly battles with his feelings, certain that they will only cloud his judgment and impair his ability to make a decision. While the writers of the show made sure we realized that without feelings, humans aren’t human, Spock was right, too. There are times when our feelings just get in the way.

SpockMeme

I suffer from insomnia. Last week, I was awake for hours in the middle of the night. I do not function well without a full night’s sleep. When I finally got up in the morning, I was groggy. I spent time goofing around on Facebook, trying to clear my fuzzy brain, but it didn’t help any. I accomplished a few simple tasks, but I knew that I wasn’t going to feel any better as the day wore on, and I had work to do.

Faced with the question of what to do next, I decided to go for a run.

Did I feel like going for a run? Not at all. Running’s hard and I felt tired. But I couldn’t focus well enough to do any more writing, and I couldn’t face any of the other things on my list. So I talked myself into going. I know that I sleep better at night if I get some exercise during the day, and I wanted to be sure to sleep that night. Also, it was sunny and warm out, and I had the time to go. There was nothing to stop me.

I promised myself I would keep it simple and do the short trail. I would walk whenever I needed to catch my breath and I could stop whenever I’d had enough. Even as I stepped out into a glorious fall day with my shoes laced up and my excited poodle by my side, I didn’t want to run. I didn’t feel like it. But I did it anyway.

Because I had promised myself I could quit whenever I chose to, I kept close tabs on how I was feeling. By the time we reached the place where I originally thought I’d turn back, I wanted to run farther. We covered twice the distance I had expected to. As I alternated walking and running, I started to feel better. Not I-can-conquer-the-world better, but much less I’m-too-tired-to-sit-in-a-chair than I’d felt before.

“I don’t feel like it” is my adult brain’s diplomatic translation of my inner brat’s “I don’t wanna!” scream. I may have committed at some time to regular exercise, eating right, or spending an hour writing blog posts, but when the time comes to act on the decision, nine times out of ten, I don’t wanna. I no longer feel like it. I am attracted to different shiny things (a new novel, a knitting project, the latest in art supplies) or to something that seems far simpler (watching TV or even taking the dreaded nap). If I act on my feelings alone, I don’t get a whole lot done, because most of the time, I don’t feel like doing anything hard, time-consuming, or scary. If it looks like work, I’m outta here.

This is where Spock comes in. Feelings are like children. You don’t want them driving the car. (You also shouldn’t stuff them in the trunk, but that’s another post.) I channel Spock for a bit and talk myself through my resistance. I remind myself of why I decided I should exercise every day, why I choose to eat broccoli instead of cheese, why I put this appointment to write on my calendar. When I made these decisions, I had my long-term goals and my own best interests in mind.

My feelings don’t care about that. They don’t think about the future, unless they’re worrying about something imminent and probable, like an alien invasion. They blind me to what I really want, making me think that what I need is something else entirely. They try to convince me not to do what I’ve already decided to do, because now that the moment’s here, well, it isn’t that hot of an idea. I mean, I didn’t know I’d be feeling like this, or I never would have promised to do what I said I’d do.

Much as I am lauding the “ignore your feelings and do it anyway” approach, I admit that it’s more complicated than that. There are feelings we need to listen to. If my “I don’t feel like it” is an upset stomach or a sore knee, I might want to think twice before going for a run. Some of the things my body feels are warnings, to keep me from hurting myself and to let me know when I need to rest. But “I don’t feel like it” because I’m a little tired is not one of those feelings.

When the time comes to do what you planned on doing, whether it’s your daily creative session, getting some exercise, or eating a healthy meal, don’t let a wimpy “I don’t feel like it” slow you down. That voice doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Get Spock to come talk to you and tell you the truth: it’s just a feeling. You can ignore it and get on with your project, your training, your dreams.

I didn’t feel like running, but by the time I got back, I was so glad I’d gone for a run. I had a clear mind, a renewed sense of well-being, and this blog post bouncing around in my head. I was ready to get to work at last.

How about you? Do you have things you know you want to do but you get stopped because you don’t feel like it? How do you deal with your resistance?

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