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BACCA Writers

Keeping a Journal Isn’t Virtuous

“Oh, I could never do that. I don’t have the discipline.”

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of keeping a journal, which got me thinking about walking. I lived in New York City for many years, and I walked a lot. Not to “go for a walk” but to get from here to there. Especially during the years I lived in Manhattan, walking was usually my preferred mode of transport – from home to work to entertainment / friends and back home at night.

Before.
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels

Then, when I moved out of New York City, I stopped walking. My method for arriving at most of my customary destinations no longer worked. I had to use a car or bus or train or combinations thereof to get anywhere at all. First came years of disbelief. “People get in a car to go somewhere just to go for a walk. That’s insane!” Eventually I accepted my new non-walking reality. Years went by, and I reluctantly grew accustomed to driving everywhere.

After.
Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels

During the pandemic I began to make plans with friends to meet up outdoors, where we could chat safely while getting in some steps. As the months went by, I began to form a new habit of going for walks. Still, though, each time I go for a long walk, I confess to feeling virtuous. I expect I’ll get over myself, but at this point the habit is new enough that I remain self-conscious about it. In the early stages of a new habit, it can be a short distance between awkward self-congratulation and slamming on the brakes. “Oh, I tried it for a while, but it didn’t work out.”

Lately, several people, discussing why they don’t keep a journal, said similar things like: “Yeah, I never got into the routine. Good for you, though, for having the self-discipline.”

“Sometimes I wish I had developed the habit years ago. It’s too late to start now.”

“I never found the time for a journal. I’d start one and abandon it after a few days.”

I guess I can understand why people make remarks like that. I imagine it has to do with unfamiliarity, the way I had come to feel about walking distances.

Now.
Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels

My rediscovered and morphed version of “going for a walk” rather than just walking as transportation is still new, not automatic the way journaling has become for me. I need to give myself a little boost to stand up from what I’m working on, get the right shoes on my feet, maybe even drive somewhere, and walk around outdoors. I imagine that a similar hesitancy is at play when people distance themselves from the possibility of starting a journaling practice. To establish either habit takes some time and determination.

Journaling isn’t a panacea. It won’t appeal to everyone. I suspect, though, that a journaling practice can benefit people who assume it’s not for them. Yes, it requires a commitment. Yes, it rewards some regularity of routine. Beyond those constraints, however, it’s incredibly flexible. Like a good friend, it’s there when you need it, even after you’ve been apart. Like a trusted mentor, it provides perspective and guidance. Like a spring day, it’s refreshing and energizing. Like an inner sanctum, it’s private and safe.

Nothing at all to do with virtue. Like going for walks, journaling is its own reward.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Gotta-Gotta Has Its Uses

It’s snowing as I write this on a Sunday afternoon in January. The white stuff has been coming down in central Virginia steadily and relentlessly for more than five hours. It’s expected to continue for quite a while, after which it might shift to freezing rain tonight.

When it snowed here two weeks ago, my neighborhood lost power. Living in a completely electric-powered dwelling, I was left without heat, light, and internet, and did not have the use of kitchen appliances. Lucky for me, the power came back on later that evening. (For some people in the area, the power was out for as long as a full week. The public utility – cough – Dominion Energy – cough – has a lot to answer for.)

When the weather predictions about this snowfall began several days ago, reports differed from one source to another. The chatty woman at the UPS store told me to expect over a foot of snow. NOAA’s forecast predicted half of that. Two apps on my phone disagreed – because it’s impossible to predict the future. Even for weather experts.

I noticed I was feeling keyed up and udgy this weekend, and I knew why. Those cold, dark hours earlier this month, when the public utility gave us no projected time the power might be restored, were uncomfortable and full of uncertainty. Were a lot more of those hours heading my way? Thoughts – planning, list-making, trading bits of advice with friends – occupied my attention as I went through the steps. Do the laundry. Whiz up extra nutrition-packed blender drinks and keep them outdoors in a thermal carrier. Doublecheck that the shelf-stable food supplies are plenteous and accessible. Fill the thermos with boiling water. Go for a long walk the day before the storm was due, even in cold weather, because there may not be any walking possible for a while. Complete all the next several days’ essential desk tasks, just in case I won’t have the use of a computer. Make contingency plans with friends who have 4-wheel drive and/or a spare room, if my power goes out and theirs stays on. Sad to say, I’m developing a bad-weather routine. It did not include creative writing – not even this blog post.

a metal thermos bottle with the cap off
Fill the thermos. Image from PIxabay.

My usual weekend sort-of routine has been disrupted. I’ll admit that I enjoy a certain amount of routine in my weekends, especially during the past 20-odd pandemic months. If it’s Sunday, it’s time for a long walk in the woods, followed by a laundry or two. If it’s Saturday, I get to read a book. I might do more in the kitchen than during the week, fixing something for dinner that requires longer prep time, or baking. Typically, in an aspect of my weekends that I treasure, these activities all happen without deadlines or timetables. I mosey from one thing to another, taking breaks as they happen.

It felt like all those relaxed weekend possibilities went – poof – once it was clear this snowstorm was coming. The “gotta-gotta” engine was running things. That engine used to run my life a lot, and am grateful that it doesn’t so much, these days. My body remembers how, though. The elevated heart rate, shorter breaths, easily distracted thinking – oh yeah. Like riding a bicycle. As I explain in the “Come to Mama” tool in my book, FLOAT, “A self-defeating, buzzing energy I’ve come to call ‘gotta-gotta’ takes over when I’ve been in the land of windowless light, filtered air, and hard surfaces for too long. Gotta-gotta is the welcome mat for workaholism, compulsion, and further depletion. In the throes of gotta-gotta, proportion and balance don’t have a chance to be taken seriously.”

I noticed gotta-gotta taking over this weekend. While I understood the wisdom of making plans to take care of myself and my short-term obligations, I didn’t want to see my hard-won equanimity buried in a snowdrift until springtime. I wanted to use the gotta-gotta when it was called for, and then drop back down into something that works better long term – something calmer and deeper. There’s good news on that front.

I’m glad to report that, although it’s still snowing, I’m getting to the end of this blog post. This wasn’t possible to write while in the throes of gotta-gotta. So, although there are now several inches of snow outside my front door, and they’ll need to be dealt with before I can venture out, it’s also true that indoors the lights are still on, my heartbeat is back to normal, and I plan to fix another cup of tea as soon as I wrap up this post.

Another cup of tea. Photo by Ayla Palermo

Stay safe and sound, everyone. Here’s to calming down enough to write.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Time for the Heavy Lifting

A coaching client of mine emailed the other day to ask why I hadn’t yet begun the “heavy lifting editing” on their book manuscript in progress. Turns out that previous experience with an editor had taught my client to expect cutting and pasting — or slashing and burning — from the start. My behavior wasn’t measuring up to the client’s expectations.

I got to thinking. I saw that, especially with this project, there are multiple kinds of heavy lifting involved in the collaboration between writer and coach, and they each have their own timing.

I reflected on where we were with the project and what had happened so far. They’d sent me 80 or so pages, and asked for an edit of the first portion of those. I did a line edit on those pages, with marginal comments and questions about structure and context. We met a couple of times to discuss these things, and to plan a working outline for the book. After those coaching sessions, the client requested time to think through some new ideas we’d brainstormed about the architecture of this book-length project, and the basic design of each section and chapter within it.

It wasn’t yet time for me to get into any heavy lifting. We were still defining what we were building. With several hundred more pages to write, the client was doing plenty of heavy lifting already.

Along those lines, my client also said: “I think after we get through this first chapter we will have a better idea of how to proceed in the future.”

With that thoughtful sentence, the client was exploring our working process. Makes sense, since they’ve never done this before. And we’ve never done this together before. They’re right about the “heavy lifting,” too — and there’s more than one kind involved for this project. It’s a good metaphor.

After reflecting on these things, I wrote back to the client: Yes, you’re right. I wait to move blocks of text around until I feel we both have a strong sense of the way we’re going to structure the book. For me, that kind of editing makes sense only when the overall architecture — the plan for the book — is clear. Once we have that in place, I’ll be glad to dig in and sling paragraphs around.

Another kind of heavy lifting

The paragraph-slinging I’ll be undertaking is one kind of heavy lifting. There’s another important aspect to this project. It’s the client’s first full-length book — a complex braid of memoir, the science of trauma, and wisdom — and it contains sensitive subject matter. So not only do they need to find the words and make the sentences, and organize them into chapters and sections with an overall arc, flow, and momentum — they also need to find the inner resources to develop and sustain an arms-length stance to the entire enterprise.

Writing about difficult topics from their own life, particularly those that are likely to trigger some members of the intended reading audience, this author has the extra challenge of distancing enough from their own past trauma and growth to be a clear communicator with a consistent perspective. Doing that involves building some strong muscles, and allowing for plenty of recovery time.

The inner work my client has already done — to be capable of this kind of writing — is impressive. That preparation has made it possible now to immerse in deep and painful memories, then surface enough to express in language things that have become possible to articulate, and then climb all the way out, shake it off, go to work, feed the cats, have supper with the spouse, etc. It’s a kind of heavy lifting that takes all the time it requires. From the pages I’ve seen, it’s already apparent that the client’s voice is clear. Their purpose is well defined. People will benefit from this work.

And another kind

Also, it’s the first time they’ve worked with a writing coach. As with any relationship, trust builds over time. We first met a few years ago, when they came to me for a quick creative boost. They had a short deadline for a presentation that needed some finishing touches. So initial trust was there, but now we’re developing a deeper working relationship. Things are going well, and we’re already making real progress defining the book and its architecture.

But last time I contributed the equivalent of a car wash and detailing for a vehicle that the client had already built and road tested. Compared to our prior work together, our process this time is more like designing and assembling an airplane. It makes sense for us to do this work on the ground, not mid-flight.

In short, a project like this requires several kinds of heavy lifting. The author has to bear the most weight, and for the longest time. You might say they’ve been carrying a lot of it their entire life. In fact, this writing project has the potential to lighten their load, if we proceed deliberately and with care. I’m really looking forward to doing my part.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from Central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Critiques and the US Constitution

BACCA’s Origin Story

As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.

After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.

That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.

Evidence! Proto-BACCA’s first meeting in the author’s 2011 calendar.

We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.

At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.

Changes over Time

Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.

Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.

A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.

Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution

I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.

Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.

A reproduction of the beginning of the US Constitution

The US Constitution is written down.

So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).

In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.

Amendments Take Time

Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.

We’ve posted our ratified expanded critique guidelines to the BACCA website. [updated after original blog post]

We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.

PS For a brilliant hour all about the importance of the US Constitution, I recommend What the Constitution Means to Me, written and performed by Heidi Schreck.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

When Things Must Change

I’ve been making a series of short videos geared to my creativity coaching work. One of them was to be around the topic, “when projects shift, morph, and change.”

It’s gotten very meta around here.

While drafting the script for this video, my writing started to, uh, shift, morph, and change.

I came up with scenarios that face creative people. But these scenarios were all set in the Before Times. After writing several of these, I had a d’oh moment. I noticed that everybody is now faced with exactly this challenge. Why? One word. Pandemic.

From February of 2020 on, it sank in gradually how massive the changes were going to be, and for how indefinitely long they were going to last.

I, for one, was not happy.
Image by Irina Kukuts from Pixabay

I, for one, was not happy about moving my office home to my apartment on 12 March. I liked my office. I loved the meetings I’d had there for years, all the a-ha moments shared with clients, all the fruitful collaborations with colleagues and friends. 

Seven months in, however, I had given up my office lease. New tenants arrived, satisfying my landlord, and letting me off the hook. 

Adapting to these changes is taking the time required. We’re all at various stages of denial, frustration, resignation, bargaining, and so on. (Watch out, Kübler-Ross.) 

Watch out, Kübler-Ross.
Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay

Everyone I know has become a marvel of resilience, sometimes in multiple ways. In the past eleven months since the mid-March 2020 stoppages, who among us has not changed their life drastically? Whose work has not been altered or eliminated and re-shaped? Whose family life operates in the same way? Whose typical week looks the same?

Whose typical week looks the same?
Image by JoeBreuer from PIxabay

For writers, the forced isolation has sometimes been welcome. (See introvert stereotype, etc.) However, even for people who are comfortable spending most of their time alone, the reduced social contact of the past eleven months has also challenged people’s confidence, which can lead to a loss of creative momentum.

Forced isolation.
Image by Harut Movsisyan from Pixabay

For those directly harmed by the pandemic, through loss of employment, compromised health, and even loss of life, the idea of having projects shift, morph, and change does not bear considering. More vital questions demand full attention.

For the rest of us who are able to continue to tolerate the danger and uncertainty, hoping that things will get better eventually, we draw on inner resources and sustain ourselves. In my circle, those tactics include cultivating old friendships, and availing ourselves of distanced culture, video calls, home cooking, nature walks, favorite books, contact-free library pick-ups and drop-offs, puzzles, knitting, closet reorganization projects, gardening, time with companion animals, and, of course, bread baking.

Bread baking
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

So, as everything remains in flux, and as the US examines itself – or insists on not looking – and as the world struggles with this massive public health crisis, we continue to muddle through.

What changes that you’re making will remain permanent in your life when we’re free to go about again and travel, meet, etc.? Do you feel you’re making progress in new directions, or are you just responding to the external pressures and changing as needed? What will the pandemic have taught you, when you look back on this time? What will have changed for you?

What will have changed for you?
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Silent Companion

 “[T]he habit of writing … for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. … What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.
—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

How I Started

One winter night when I was young, I sat looking out my bedroom window at the dark street in front of my parents’ house. My parents and I were on a long-distance phone call – they in the kitchen, I on the long-lobbied-for extension recently installed in my room – catching up with a family friend. The friend had called cross-country to give us the good news that a recently married couple we all knew and loved were expecting a child in May, and wasn’t it great?

As I listened, my parents’ unseen reactions seemed tinged with something. Hmmm. I’d gone to the November wedding. I counted on my fingers: one for December, two for January, three for February, and so on. When I got to six for May, I started over again, to find my error.

I knew about a mostly unspoken rule that said babies are supposed to be born more than nine months after the wedding. I also concluded this couple had broken the rule. I had questions. Lots of questions. It would not be smart, however, for me to ask my parents. While Bohemian in many ways, they each had a strong Puritanical streak that manifested from time to time, and this had all the earmarks of such an occasion. I didn’t want to be in the room when they hashed it out between them.

I didn’t have any friends to talk to about something like this. I grabbed a green spiral-bound notebook from my schoolbag and wrote out the months, to be extra sure. Wow. The mother-to-be must have been pregnant already when I helped her get dressed on her wedding day. I had no idea.

I turned to my green notebook. I needed to sort out my feelings about this good news that turned sideways when it revealed a transgression. I found a steadfast companion that night.

green spiral notebook
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash; edited by AMC

After that night, I kept pulling out the green notebook before I slept. It soon became a habit. I appreciated the safety of having a place to try out my thoughts before I spoke them or acted on them. I had a place where I could confide in complete privacy. As a thirteen-year-old girl I had many questions and puzzlements and uncertainties. The best place to express them, it often turned out, was in my green spiral notebook.

Many years have passed. I still maintain a blank notebook. After the green wirebound notebook filled up, I experimented with form. For a few years I made entries in a miniature bound journal my choirmaster gave all the choristers every December. This may have been to foil my eyeglass-wearing parents in the event they got nosy. I can now barely decipher my tiny handwriting – full of abbreviations and codes – in those volumes. Once I was out of my parents’ house I settled on the sewn and taped binding of a “composition book” with a marble-pattern cardboard cover. The main thing didn’t change: now as then, my journal is a welcoming open creative space. I seek a coherent narrative for this life, and the pages of my journal are where I conduct that search.

Why I Treasure My Silent Companion

Following are one big and three small gifts I have received from cultivating a journaling practice.

Three Timeframes

Unprescribed, unsupervised, unlimited, the regular putting of pen to page gives back so much. And it doesn’t just happen while you’re writing. I find that an ongoing journaling practice takes place in three timeframes – during, after, and before.

1. During

While I’m writing in my journal, I’m in the moment, and can let the words pour out, often unexamined. The passage of time is unimportant. I remain uncritical, open to what the pen in my hand puts onto the page. This process becomes a deeply ingrained habit. It helps keep me going, sustains me when I’m feeling under pressure, rewards me with insights revealed through the act of writing them, and gives me the place to puzzle out answers so I can gain understanding and take action on incomplete pieces of my life.  

2. After

From time to time, I flip back and review pages already covered with my handwriting. Here, I can examine everything. Retrospectives of prior years’ entries can be useful and enlightening. Some patterns permit detection only in hindsight. From a longer view, I can appreciate genuine progress, and also note ongoing themes that recur in cycles of a year, or a decade, or longer – like the rings in a tree trunk or geologic strata. As Virginia Woolf discovered when she returned to old volumes of her diary, “I found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”

3. Before

Once the journaling habit became embedded, I began to notice, as they cropped up during the day, ideas and observations that felt like they belonged in my journal, even when it wasn’t at hand. One approach is to just carry the book around with you wherever you go so it’s always at hand. When I did that, I asked myself the clever question, If I’m carrying a bag big enough to hold my journal, why not toss in a few more things? Some unpleasant neck and shoulder issues ensued. Instead, I now can opt to carry small, lightweight methods for making temporary jots that I can add to the journal later. Smartphones make this easier (although sometimes, I find, things really want to be written, not typed). These ‘before’ contributions to an ongoing journaling practice are worthwhile contributions to the contents, and are also reassuring and self-reinforcing evidence of the centrality of this relationship between my journal and me.

Silent companion central

Good Enough

Journals are wonderful antidotes to perfectionism. Uncritical and impossible to shock, patient and unfazed, my journal can handle whatever I introduce. Its quality just does not matter.

Other Voices

When you allow yourself free rein in your journal, you “invite your quieter, more thoughtful voices to come forward and be acknowledged.” A M Carley, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers. Accept the possibility that there are sources of wisdom within you that are not accustomed to being heard. Make them welcome.

Positivity Rebalance

My journal is a time-tested method of correcting for negativity bias, our human hardwired focus on what’s wrong at the expense of appreciating what’s working well.

Beyond Study Hall

I use my journal for much more than I did all those years ago in my bedroom at my parents’ house. No longer an adolescent, I am less interested in parsing out who said what in study hall. Crucially, I now have a sturdy community of friends and loved ones with whom to share life’s questions. The value of my journal has only increased over the years. It remains my silent companion. Open to whatever I write, annotate, or doodle, it welcomes me every time. Virginia Woolf’s ideal, a framework “so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind,” is attainable.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Inspiration – Two Ways

Is inspiration something that comes to you, or is it something you can go after?

For a nonfiction book I’m writing, I’ve been asking that question. My new book offers practices to supercharge your creative flow, ways to harness the creativity tools you already use, and ideas for applying your big-picture vision to everyday tasks. So you can imagine that inspiration is pretty central to the entire book.

I’ve come to see that, for me, there’s more than one kind of inspiration.

tree canopy with sky above
Mother Nature comes through with inspiration. Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Receiving the Cosmic Download

This is the kind we’ve all seen portrayed in movies, fiction, and other popular culture. It comes from outside ourselves. In this scenario, we’re powerless to resist. The upside? Van Gogh’s sunflowers and starry night skies. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Or so we’re led to believe. However, being ravished by inspiration, while certainly dramatic, may not be what I need on a Tuesday afternoon.

For one thing, this kind of inspiration visits now and then – if we’re lucky. It may never visit at all, and, if it drops by, may never return. What then? Are we destined to languish as passive vessels, waiting for another dose? That seems a bit boring. Also ineffective. And immensely frustrating.

Also, this external kind of inspiration is likely to show up more often if we make it welcome. A great way to do that is to seek little bits of inspiration on the regular.

Seeking Inspiration

Can we intentionally go after inspiration? Why not? True, the big kind – when a whoosh of ideas, energy, direction, emotion, and inspiration manifests in your awareness unbidden – is powerful, and wonderful to experience. In fact, everything I’m doing with my new book will make the “whoosh” kind of inspiration want to visit. We’re putting out the welcome mat for it.

There’s a powerful argument, though, for a more active version. The kind that, when you make up your mind to seek it out, is often less big, and also can be much more frequent. I believe in cultivating this kind, the kind that doesn’t need to come from outside yourself. We can invite it in by focusing on something in our environment.

If I’m feeling a little lacking in creative get-up-and-go on that Tuesday afternoon, I can take steps – manageable steps – to go after some inspiration. Two perennially powerful go-tos are taking time with nature, and practicing focused breathing. After all, the root of the word ‘inspiration’ is the word for breath. I propose three other small tools here, adaptable even to urban living.

lightbulb held in the air
Odd juxtapositions can be inspiring. Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

  • Notice Five Things

I can go for a walk around the block and commit to noticing five things I’ve never noticed before. The way a roofline meets a downspout. The contrast of a child’s yellow toy with the bark of a tree. The sounds of traffic combined with the squeak of a loose road sign in the wind. The cloud formation that looks like layers in a parfait. The smell of burgers and coffee from the diner. Just focusing my senses on my direct experience can act as a palate-cleanser and send me back to work with new ideas and a clear head.

  • Describe to an Alien

Or I can stay home and change my position, from desk to couch, for instance, and sit there. After a quiet moment, I can choose something to look at closely. Then I can find words, the most accurate words possible – crossouts are permitted – to describe my selected object to an alien, without naming the object or its function, as though my visitor has no frame of reference for this thing. By changing my language, I’m playing 52 pick-up with my assumptions and opening up my imagination. A stapler, a coffee table, or a frying pan will look different to you after you do this. Your work is likely to look different, as well.

  • Tour the Vault

A third way I can get inspired is to take a look at things I have stashed away in Evernote. (Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be Evernote specifically – that just happens to be the place I habitually tuck bits of information, examples of cool ideas, research, inventions, creative expressions, images, sounds, etc. For you it might be notebooks, scrapbooks, vision boards, a Pinterest page, a closet shelf, etc.) I am always pleasantly surprised at something that’s waiting in there. Makes sense, because I use it as a parking lot for things I don’t want to make room for in my awareness. And it does its job! When I visit, it’s like opening a treasure vault. I recently found great links to pertinent articles on topics of interest for a writing project.

Welcome them Both

underwater hand holding a sparkler
Surprise yourself. Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

I believe that both forms of inspiration are important, and that it’s helpful to welcome them both into your creative life. They seem to get along well.

In fact, the best part, I feel, is that the more I seek it out, the more inspiration seems to be willing to come by for the big ‘whoosh’ moments. Somehow, it’s gotten the message that there’s a place for it here.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Maya for Writers

Several ancient schools of thought, originating thousands of years ago in India and in China, tell us that when you give something a name, you cut it off from the great swirling unknowable unknown that we call the universe, the mystery, darkness within darkness, or the nature of reality. Of course, those are all names, so it becomes impossible to write about the underlying nothing, since the moment we use words, we confine the thing that is too big for words.

Austin Guevara bokeh lights pexels-photo-237898
Pulling focus to create uncertainty. Photo credit Austin Guevara pexels-photo-237898

How do creative artists, including writers, manage that paradox? On the one hand, the writer’s tools are words. On the other, in order to touch the universal, we must abandon words, abandon thinking altogether, in fact.

Leaving Thought Behind

This is why, for example, forms of meditation recommend that we ‘just be,’ focusing on breath, and briefly acknowledging and then dismissing thoughts as soon as they appear. In this context, thoughts are sometimes compared to clouds in the sky, waves on the surface of a deep ocean, or cars passing by on the road. They come and go, and have no meaning.

A teacher recently posed the problem, “Describe to me last week – without using words.” He concluded that the task was impossible, because there is no ‘last week’ without words and symbols. Ideas, relative positions in time, in fact the notion of time itself, are all constructs. All Maya.

Image of smoke rising in a vortex
The illusion of smoke. Photo credit Rafael Guajardo pexels-photo-604672

Maya, a Sanskrit word sometimes translated as illusion, has multiple, nuanced meanings. In Western popular-culture shorthand, maya has come to mean the shared trance that we unknowingly, collectively agree to, so that we can function in the modern world. Buying into the trance of maya, we pay our bills, go to our jobs, drive in traffic, give birthday gifts, vote for politicians, accept the names of things, and in countless other ways entertain the culturally accepted method of viewing the world. Underneath maya, though, is that limitless unknowable everything. Is being free from maya the goal of those seeking enlightenment?

My first response to the teacher’s question about communicating ‘last week’ without words, was to imagine a kind of interpretive dance, or a quickly drawn image that somehow elicited in the viewer an intuitive grasp – somehow – of the notion of ‘last week.’

Maya for Writers

Assuming for the moment that a dancer or artist might be able to do that, what does the writer do, faced with this challenge? Even the most artful, obscure poem uses words, does it not? And words, unavoidably, conjure up in each one of us our previous uses, memories, knowledge, and responses to them. In fact, words have richness and power because of all our associations with them. This is true for the writer and for the reader.

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The magic of a child and an illuminated fountain. Photo credit Darren Lawrence pexels-photo-3822110

If writers cannot possibly escape maya in our work, can we use our shared unreality for good? Do we use language – our creative tools – in ways that can shift that shared maya, for a moment, into a slightly new light? Do we apply metaphors and similes? Do we arrange words in unexpected sequences to permit the reader a brief glimpse of something beyond the words, into the unknowable?

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

The Snow on the Roof

Creativity Coaching

I’m in the midst of training as a creativity coach. Eric Maisel offers these trainings to people across the world. Our cohort includes students from most continents, representing many art disciplines, backgrounds, ages, and careers. Every week, we get a new set of questions to ponder and then respond to. Everyone sees what everyone writes. It’s routinely astounding to see what comes back each week — the interesting and, to me, unpredictable, ideas, observations, anecdotes, and heartfelt interpretations that our various class members bring to the group.

blue tile roof with bands of snow
The snow on the roof. Image courtesy Visualhunt

While Maisel’s course is enriching my working life in many ways, it’s also feeding my inner creative life. One of its several big lessons is this potent reminder of the value of shared creative time with a group. I always enjoy seeing it in a new setting.

Songwriting

I got an early introduction to the phenomenon many years ago, at a summer music retreat in the Pacific Northwest where I had the pleasure of taking a songwriting class led by Charlie Murphy. One day, he distributed little scraps of paper, on which he’d written short phrases. We discovered that several of us had received the identical phrase — in my case, “the snow on the roof.”

red barn with snow and ice hanging off of roof
The snow on the roof. Image courtesy Pixabay.

Our little group of five or six people went off into the woods with two directives: first, to spend a few minutes in silence, jotting down our own ideas for a song inspired by those few words. Then we were to meet and together co-write a set of lyrics that combined all our ideas. I came up with some ideas about the cycle of water in nature — from rain to snow, from river to ocean — that sort of thing. To my amazement, when we compared notes, I discovered that no one else had gone there. At all. In fact, each of us had produced, in just a few minutes, a completely different approach to those words, “the snow on the roof.” One person imagined a woman adventurer in the 19th century homesteading in the American West. Another focused on a contemporary family’s mundane life. And so on. It was such a gift, for each of us to see what five other creative minds had invented, in the space of such a short time.

Writer Group

That lyric-writing experience has stayed with me. It helped prepare me for the BACCA writer group, which has been meeting regularly for over eight years. Our monthly critique meetings offer that same quality of surprise and delight. Each of us contributes such a different take on the works in progress that our writers share with one another.

stucco house in the woods covered in thick snow
The snow on the roof. Image courtesy Pixabay.

I always benefit from the responses the BACCA writers bring to my work, and trust that it’s reciprocal. BACCA gives me regular reminders that we cannot predict how someone else will interpret our words. Just as “the snow on the roof” prompted unique trains of thought in the minds of our little band of songwriters all those years ago. And just as my fellow creativity coaches interpret Eric Maisel’s lessons and comments.

The world is so much bigger and richer than we can imagine. And any one of us is capable of imagining entire worlds. So do the math. The more that we are willing to engage with the imaginations of the people around us, the more we expand our own creative life. Everybody wins.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming. Anne’s recording of her song, The Snow on the Roof, based on her ideas from the Charlie Murphy class, is available here.

Blue roof image photo credit: theilr on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

Red barn image by Tuomas Laatikainen from Pixabay.

Pink house image by pasja1000 from Pixabay.

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BACCA Writers Events

Editing and Publishing

Continuing my exploration last time here of the nature of editing, I’m back to write about a new adventure that extended editing into publishing. I’m an editor who became a publisher for my friend and fellow BACCA writer, Andrea Fisher Rowland.

More than a year ago, Andrea and I began to work together to get her poetry collection, Family Album, polished and published. After completing the final touches on the manuscript, we also put our heads together about a cover for the book. I gave her several choices to use as starting points, and she picked her favorite, from which I made a final cover. Over the months that we worked on Family Album, Andrea learned that, contrary to expectations, her illness had taken a turn, and that she would not be expected to live much longer. We doubled down, to make sure the poems were ready for publication as soon as possible.

front cover of Family Album
Family Album, the poetry collection

I decided to offer Andrea a publishing deal. The “deal” was unconventional in several ways, and not a typical commercial publishing agreement. But as her friend, I knew how important it was to Andrea that her collection be available to the public, and I knew how to make it happen. Some years ago, I inherited a small music education publisher, which I still operate. I also published my own writer handbook, FLOAT, and through my business I have advised and assisted numerous authors who publish their own work independently. I figured these experiences qualified me to extend the offer to Andrea. Her delighted response told me I had made a good decision.

Then Andrea asked me to publish her novel, High Tide, as well. I was familiar with the first half of the story, because I’d been reading it section by section as Andrea sent it to BACCA for our monthly critiques. Time was not on our side, however, and the work of polishing the novel extended past its author’s lifetime. Dorene Fisher worked with Andrea during her final days to review the text line by line, and after Andrea’s passing, Dorene and I continued. The language of Andrea’s novel is exceptionally sensitive and poetic, so we editors focused on sustaining the author’s tone and light touch, while adjusting for chronological continuity. Happy byproducts of this effort include a new friendship for Dorene and me (thanks, Andrea!) and a lovely sense that Andrea has been in the room with us, cheering us on and providing guidance. BACCA writer Noelle Beverly did us the great honor of reading through the edited version and making important and useful suggestions, and both Noelle and Carolyn O’Neal provided extensive moral support.

Front cover of High Tide
High Tide, the novel

Andrea died in June of this year, after holding Family Album in her hands. At her sister’s request, I also gave Andrea a version of High Tide, its cover inspired by her request for imagery of two swans in flight and a blue and gold color palette. As publisher, I also needed to tick the requisite legal boxes, turn the edited manuscript into a print-ready book, get ISBNs assigned, and complete the numerous other behind-the-scenes tasks that precede any publication. Now, after a summer of work, I expect to receive the first printed proof of High Tide any day now. Soon it will be out in the world, ready for its reading public.

Accordingly, we’ve put together two events to celebrate the publication of both of Andrea’s books. All are welcome to attend. My fellow BACCA writers play an essential role here, as well, since Noelle Beverly and Bethany Carlson Farris have each extended themselves to make these events possible, on Saturday morning, 7 December at Baine’s Books & Coffee (Scottsville, VA) and on Tuesday evening, 12 November at Renaissance School (Charlottesville, VA) respectively.

For details about both events, follow this link! Be sure to save the dates in your calendars. Both events promise to be warm, regardless of the outdoor temperatures.

With gratitude to Andrea for entrusting me with her work, to my co-editor and friend Dorene Fisher, to Andrea’s kind family, to BACCA for the warm support we have come to rely upon from one another, and to future readers everywhere, thank you, all.

photo of Andrea
Andrea Fisher Rowland

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from Central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming. #becomingunstuck