I have a whole post planned about busyness, about what it’s been like these past months to balance work and study and writing, but this week was full of Thanksgiving prep and pie-eating and I’ve run out of time. Because something cool is coming and it starts in just a few days.
I’ve loved watching all my friends participate in NaNoWriMo this month, and while strict word count goals have never really been my thing, I’ve been a little sad at having to watch from the sidelines. At least until I finish my degree, November is going to be a month of exams and assignments for me. December, on the other hand, offers a little more time and a lot more Christmas cookies. And so, this year, I’m doing my own month-long writing event. I’m calling it DRAFTCEMBER!
Here’s the deal. I like working with a little less structure than NaNo allows, so I won’t have a word count goal. If I make 20,000 words, GREAT! If I make 50k, AWESOME! But I do need motivation, so I’ve come up with a series of reward platforms.
So what counts toward word count? Anything. I think I know which story I’m going to work on, but that could change. I might work on two stories, or three. Blog posts count as well. Anything that is creative and makes me smile.
I love these words by Ray Bradbury, and I think they’re a good representation of the true spirit of Draftcember:
“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun–you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself, You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is–excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms, without such vigors he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health!” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing.
Would you like to join me? Please do! Create your own reward list and your own rules. Post about it or don’t. But together let’s make December the most fun and productive month of the year, bursting with zest, gusto and Christmas cookies. Be big! Be bold! And write your heart out, my Draftcember warriors!
Five years ago I dropped out of university. It was a combination of things, but mostly this: I didn’t want to be an anthropologist. I didn’t want to be a journalist. I wanted to be a novelist, and I didn’t have the time to pursue two goals. It was a hard decision, but it was also incredibly easy. By then I was used to making these kinds of sacrifices. I wanted to be a writer and I was willing to give up anything to make that happen.
Five years is a long time, but in many ways not long at all. Good things have happened in pursuit of my dream; bad things, also. But I’m privileged to be chasing after a dream that rewards the years, that values insight and maturity over youth and enthusiasm. I’m getting better at this, and I’m also getting better at the life that comes with it. More and more, my goal has been to write rather that to be read. And so, in many ways I’ve already achieved it. I’m living the life I dreamed of when I was 21. I’m happy.
Perhaps as a consequence of this, I’ve found myself in pursuit of a new dream. An additional dream. Another grand awakening of the soul. It started years ago, but it also feels incredibly new. I’ve always had it but I’m only now taking the first steps to make it real.
Always, besides be a writer I’ve been clutching help people. For a few years there I lived a sweet delusion that I could use one to achieve the other, but, dear past-Beth, writing with an agenda is no way to make great art. In fact, it’s a great way to make terrible art. That’s not to say that art can’t help people — it often does — but readers can tell when you’re proselytizing and it never feels good.
I’ve known this for awhile, but it’s taken some time to find the way. The way my skills and strengths and life experiences, limited though they seemed, could become something important. How could I help people? What did I have to offer? Nothing felt like enough. I was still searching when I went overseas last year. And that’s when things really got rough.
New York for Christmas with the family seemed like a magical idea. Christmas trees and cold and holiday windows and maybe even snow. I guess I never thought about the other side of New York until I got there. Poverty. Homelessness. Loneliness and greed. I remember walking the Brooklyn Bridge with my family and thinking: I shouldn’t be here. What right did I have to holiday in a place where people were starved for food, warmth, shelter? How could I enjoy Christmas knowing so many people were out there in the cold, hungry and alone?
New York broke my heart. But that’s necessary sometimes. Only after breaking can something begin to mend.
On Christmas eve we went to a church service near Times Square. It was a church started by Australians and it felt like a little piece of home. The sermon was on waiting for a plane, waiting for a dream to be realized, waiting for direction, and at the end of the service we were given bundles of blankets and food to give to the homeless people we passed on our way home. I remember the first homeless woman we encountered on our walk to the subway station. She cried when a man handed her the gift. Are you sure? she asked him, as if she couldn’t believe this humble bundle was for her.
That was the start of things. I still wanted for a method, but I’d found my cause. I was going to help the homeless. And with that realization came a sense of urgency. It wasn’t enough to know what I was meant to do, I needed a how. I needed a big idea, and these things don’t always come quickly.
While I waited (oh, how good I’ve become at waiting), I volunteered. When I got home I signed up with a local community group providing emergency relief to families in need. It was heartbreaking and healing, frustrating and energizing. I’d been there three months when the government cut our funding. Suddenly we had all these volunteers and nothing to give. Time wasn’t enough; we needed money. We needed resources. We needed income that didn’t rely on the whims of the political machine.
And that’s when I found my how. Halfway through this year I enrolled in a new degree: Business, with a focus on managing not-for-profits. Last week I finished my first semester. Three weeks ago I had my Big Idea. I know how I’m going to change the world, or at least my little corner of it. And even when it means struggling through subjects like economics, I’m going to make it happen. Funny how, when you care about something strongly enough, I can’t so quickly becomes I must.
I have so much more to tell you, dear friends, so many plans and dreams and Big Ideas, but this post is long enough for now. And I have time. My next semester is still months away.
Here’s to big ideas, for dual-wielding dreams, to heartbreak and I musts. Here’s to now. Cheers.
The sea casts a net to find me. It sends salt out over the hills, a fine mist that clouds windows and sticks in throats. It glimmers, a blue jewel in the distance. I don’t come.
Michael drives me past the beaches on dreary winter afternoons. Come, says the sea. Come. But I turn my face away.
I dream of it sometimes, a giant swell that comes to eat the shore. It pulls at me, lifts me up, tugs me out into its great expanse, but I always pull free.
I am a sticky-fingered child. I am an unfulfilled promise. I am hiding and I don’t know why.
Months pass and the call becomes easier to ignore. I’m busy. I’m waiting. I’m losing myself in other things. But the sea is patient. Endlessly, it pulls and tugs, endlessly it calls, reeling me in.
It hits me like a thunderclap. It’s time to go back to the sea. It fills my mind, drowning all thought, and I can’t ignore it, not anymore.
I don’t want to.
I go one morning, early, and the wind is so cold it wrings me out, pulling the moisture from my bones. I watch from a distance at first, viewing it from over a coffee mug I hug to my chest to keep warm. The sea, the sea, the sea, my heart sings, and I don’t know why I have left it so long.
It’s like this: coming home after a long absence. In my travels I have loved other places and other things, but I know no love like this. Long ago, when I was a child, a lonely corner of my soul got snagged there, and though I wander I feel stretched thin until I make it back. I am home. I am home and I don’t know why I ever left.
Except, I do. In my heart, I do know why. It’s because I allowed myself to feel old for a moment. Because I was waiting for news and hope felt like a faraway thing, a bird perching on souls other than mine.
But I know now, hope is not a thing that visits and leaves you wanting. It is a mark on your skin, forged through disappointment and failure, and it only grows deeper the longer you fight. Hope is a battle scar. And I wear mine with pride.
I go back to the sea. I crawl right up to its frigid edges and I feel it fill me again, that lightness, that letting go. The sea purges me. It washes me clean. It welcomes me back without judgement, without rebuke. The sea is ageless and I have not been gone so long.
It receives me gladly, with gifts and good tidings. And this: A sliver of glass, the colour of the sea at its edges, worn down over 20 or 30 years and more beautiful for it. I’ve never found one before. Never, in all my life. It means something, that I’ve found it now.
I go back again the next day. I spent a whole day there, exploring beaches and cliffs, watching the waves pound upon the shore. I cry sometimes because it’s more ferocious and lovely than I remembered. Some people find God in a church. Some in the work of their hands or in the pages of books. I have always, always found God in the sea.
Then comes a day when I run out of time. The sea calls and I don’t go to it because I am an adult, and I feel the press of adult things. I do chores. I run errands. I go to work. I see the corner of blue at the end of my street and my snagged soul can do nothing but stretch a little further.
But Michael knows me and he knows my heart, and in the dead of night, when I return home from work, he bundles me into the car. He drives me, heartsick and wanting, towards the thing that feeds me. He takes me back to the sea.
“I am losing precious days,” said John Muir. “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
I have learned to love the mountains, but I will always, always, heed the call of the sea.
The busier I get, the more I like to linger. I linger over the coffee pot in the morning, drinking up the steam. I linger in the lunch room, over a book I don’t have time to read. I linger in the shower and on the yoga mat and by my scooter as I’m leaving work in the afternoon.
These moments are me moments. Moments to notice things, to breathe. To watch the clouds, to sniff the air, to turn my mind to higher things than just the work of my hands.
Lately I’ve been lingering more and more by train tracks, those ugly rusted lines of metal, and I’ve been longing to go someplace. Honestly, this longing never leaves me, but it’s hard to find the time or the money to go. Planning complicates things. Planning adds snags to the equation, reasons to stay at home.
But then I found myself with a day off in the middle of the week and something whispered to me: this is your chance. Go.
And so I did. I jumped on a train in the early morning and I went. I followed the tracks up into the mountains, where the cool wind blows and plateaus and gullies are blanketed by trees.
I took a day. I went on an adventure.
And so I lingered. I looked, I listened, I ate far more than was good for me, and then I stayed a little longer, because two hours just wasn’t enough. The mountains do something to me. I feel freer, somehow, that close to the sky.
And after, after food and fires and lookouts and adventure, I stepped back on a train and let it carry me back down, to the city, and along the coast to home. I spent nine hours on a train that day, but it was worth it. And besides, the journey was half the point.
I’m writing a book set on a train at the moment, though “writing” sometimes seems too generous a word. Drafting, too, seems wrong because that to me implies logic and linear thought. Instead, I’m circling, dancing across the page, generating reams and reams of material, some of which I’ll use, most I’ll probably discard. It doesn’t bother me, really. This is the mulch, the fertilizer I’m sowing into the rich ground of my imagination, so that one day soon my crops will grow tall and proud. I’m preparing a way for the story to come.
Today, Laini Taylor released the very first scene she ever wrote for Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It bears only a small resemblance to the finished product, but you can see the seeds of what was to come. You can see the way she set her mind free to roam, to create, to ask questions she didn’t yet have answers to.
I think, sometimes, when we sit down and write “Chapter One” at the top of the page, we start creating borders in our mind. This is what a good first chapter should look like. This is how a story should begin. This is what has been done before. Sometimes we find ourselves wandering tired old paths, recreating stories we’ve told before, rather than starting something new.
It had never occurred to me that maps and petrol money and finding cheap accommodation wasn’t necessary to have an adventure. It had never occurred to me I could just step on a train and go. But oh, what a day I had when I did.
So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m lingering on the page, sniffing the air, turning my mind to higher things. I’m hopping on a train. I’m adventuring. I’m going someplace new.
A few Thanksgivings ago we started a tradition. We’d each write write what we were thankful for in a card and seal it up for the next year. It was a way to measure our blessings, to reflect on all the good things we bring to each others’ lives.
This year, as a large portion of our family was celebrating Christmas in New York – for some of us our first overseas trip, for others, the first trip in 30 years of marriage – we decided to write cards again. My mother-in-law picked out the cards and my talented sister drew on the envelopes, things that reminded her of each of us. She drew me a deer in mid-leap, with antlers over the “B” in my name.
On Christmas day I sat down to write in my card… and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure why. I had so much to be thankful for. After three years of planning, saving and dreaming, we were finally traveling again. We were in the greatest city in the world, and on Christmas!
But… it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Nothing on this whole trip had gone exactly to plan. The California leg was too rushed – we spent the whole week herding people from place to place, sleeping on trains and buses, walking more than some of us had walked for years. New York wasn’t quite as I remembered. The streets were grimier, our neighborhood rougher, and the subway stations were full of the lost and desperate. We’d hoped for snow, but other than a few pretty flakes, the city was drier than California. And I hadn’t written. My well was as empty as it was when I left home.
But then I realized: that’s exactly the point. That’s the very purpose of travel. To defy our expectations, to take us out of our comfort zones, to challenge and grow us. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood that when things don’t go exactly to plan, that’s when the magic happens.
When I eventually wrote in my card a few days later, I wrote about the good things that had happened on our trip so far. I wrote about secret Santa shopping at the Christmas markets in Central Park, how we all had to huddle together against the cold, and buying hot apple cider when it seemed our fingers might fall off. I wrote about the grandeur of Yosemite in winter, the coyote that walked right onto the path in front of us with a deer leg in its mouth, the snowball fight on the bridge. I wrote about picking up our first real Christmas tree, all seven of us trailing after Michael as he carried it, lumberjack-style, through the city streets.
But I didn’t stop there. I also wrote about the trials and disappointments, the illnesses, grime and near-misses, and how wonderful it can be when things don’t go exactly to plan. Passing sleepless hours on the plane, eyes gritty and sore, but being awake to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. Driving windy mountain roads in a rainstorm, trying desperately to stay alert, and the warm bed and amazing meal that met us when we got there. The snow in Yosemite melting before we made it to the valley floor, the roads to the Mariposa grove being closed, but then finding a bridge covered with snow at the end of a long hike. Constant, drizzling rain on our first visit to the West Village, running into the first pizza store we saw, and discovering it has the best pizza in New York (according to assorted celebrities). Going back three more times because the pizza was just that good. The simple blessing of a warm place to sit and free hot chocolate.
Nothing on our Great Overseas Christmas Adventure went exactly to plan. And I like it better that way.
After Christmas, our trip continued to surprise. A few days after writing in that card, something tripped inside me and suddenly I was bursting with inspiration, more than I could possibly contain. Turns out the best thing I could possibly do for my writing was not write, not even think about writing, go for months without a single idea.
On New Years Eve we tried to catch the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty from afar, but we missed the ferry we’d intended to catch. Online bookings for Liberty Island were closed, and the previous day the in-person line had stretched right down Wall Street, but on a whim we decided to try our luck. There was no one there. We reached the front of the line within minutes and booked ourselves on the next boat to Liberty Island. On the way, we froze our faces off standing outside on the deck, but we didn’t care. It was beautiful, miraculous, and we were so, so happy. I’ve never been quite as cold as I was that day. My fingers and toes hurt so bad I was actually worried about getting frostbite. But I never stopped smiling, because here was a moment that went beyond planning and booking and lines. Here was a moment that was magic.
On Mum’s birthday in DC, it rained and rained and rained. We were wet from the moment we stepped out of the car, and cold, too. But I’d never, ever take that day back. The quiet conversations as we walked from monument to monument. The awe on people’s faces as they read the inscriptions on the Jefferson Memorial. Stealing warmth when we found it, in public restrooms and in cups of hot chocolate. Seeing Mum feed a piece of popcorn to a squirrel, her simple delight. And that night, going back to our favorite Irish Pub and finding it better than we remembered, so incredibly cozy on a cold, wet night with its low lighting and open fireplace. Being able to share that with my family, especially with my mum on her birthday, was just magical.
On the day after my parents and sister left for home, we drove to Colonial Williamsburg with a rebellious GPS which took us an hour out of our way. But if it hadn’t, we’d have never seen the gentle Virginia countryside, the one-lane roads, the farms and woods and villages. That night, buying chocolate at a candy store from one of my favorite books. Holding every scent, sound and sensation inside me, storing it up because I never, ever want to forget what it feels like to step inside a world you only ever imagined.
And perhaps most magical, on the day we were due to fly back to California, it finally properly snowed on the East Coast. Michael woke up at 4am dreaming of snow. He checked out the window, but there was nothing there. A few minutes later he checked again and… there were thousands of tiny flakes falling from the sky! We played in the snow until 6am, when the hotel owner opened up breakfast for us because he was worried we might freeze. We made snow angels, threw powdery flakes into the sky, blew snow off tables until it stuck to our lips and eyelashes, turning us into snow kings and queens. After breakfast, we went out again. We played and played and laughed and cheered until it was time to head to the airport and back to a warmer climate. We thought we’d missed it. But the weather had other plans.
On my way home from the airport, I started reading Joss Whedon’s biography, and what struck me most was how so many of his great successes were preceded by monumental failure. Job losses, rejections, moving back in with his father. Series cancelled, movies ruined, pitches turned down. And then, blockbuster movies, cult TV series, biographies and fame.
I think my favorite part is how he spent three years writing a script, only to have it reworked and butchered by a director who didn’t share his vision. Not to be deterred, a few years later Joss completely reworked the project into a TV series. He kept some of the characters, the premise, the plot, but he turned something pretty terrible into something brilliant: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
For Joss, the end was never the end. Failure did not equal defeat.
It’s the 6th of December and I just finished packing for our Overseas Christmas Adventure. On Wednesday, I finish up at my job, and not just for the year. On Friday, we fly out. We’ll be gone a month and it’s unlikely I’ll be posting any updates while I’m away, so this may be my last post of the year.
There’s something significant about traveling at this time of year. Choosing what to carry with you and what to leave behind. Leaving one country, arriving in another. Time in airports, on trains and buses, with nothing to do but reflect. Celebrating Christmas in a place where you have nothing but a bag full of clothes and the people you love the most.
If our life is a TV series, this is the final season. The season in which everything changes. The season of big decisions and big milestones. Our housemates are having a baby, we’re traveling overseas, and when we get back, I’ll be starting a new job, a new adventure.
I’ll be honest, I started the reflecting early. My resolutions for 2014 were this:
– Make Major Life Decisions
– Query Project 1 and write Project 2
– Find Wonder and Adventure
And I did. I made the decisions that needed to be made. I queried The Sea Wolves and signed with an agent. Project 2 was derailed a bit by revisions on TSW and a fun Project 3 — a story that was like a pressure release valve when I needed it most — but I’m coming back to it now with a new vision and a new dedication. I found wonder in the woods and by the sea and after a year of Writer Beth I’m finally embracing Adventurer Beth once again.
Sometimes it feels like you’re stuck in the sand and no matter how much flailing you do, you just aren’t making it any closer to your goal. But you are. I am. We achieved some things this year, you and I.
I don’t have a clear vision of what 2015 might look like, but I know what I’m taking with me on the journey. I posted this photo to Instagram originally, and this is the description I gave:
“The succulent, because even in the desert things can grow. The teacup, because we ask for what we need and it is given to us. The notebook because words are precious and powerful and should be carefully curated. The pencil, because mistakes can always be erased. The fox, because cute 😉 #LIVEfree2015″
Every item is important in its own way, but the notebook is particularly precious to me. I started this journey with just a notebook and an idea, and I want to get back to that. That simple gratitude, that wonder, the slow, miraculous unfurling of stories under my pen.
There’s something holy about this: a notebook, an idea, and time for dreaming.
Maybe I lost track of that that somewhere between full time work and querying, computers and ambition, but I’m going to get it back. That’s what this trip is about for me — returning to those days of free hours and a free mind, undirected dreaming, a well of inspiration that starts somewhere in my soul and spills forth from there.
Christmas is my favorite time of year. It encompasses everything I believe in: family, faith, gratitude, compassion, giving, love, joy, peace and pine trees. It’s a time for reflection, for choosing what to bring with you into the new year.
Christmas is always significant to me, but this one feels particularly important. I have a feeling I’ll remember this Christmas for a very long time.
Whatever this time of year means to you, travel or home, ham or Chinese food, I wish you peace, joy and a little bit of time to write.
I’ve been thinking lately about my blog, it’s purpose, who reads it, all those little things. I read somewhere that you shouldn’t blog about writing because it’s self-indulgent, and maybe (probably) that’s true, but the thing is, this blog is self-indulgent. It was designed that way. I write for my past self, the girl I was, who gobbled up writing advice like it was manna from heaven. I write for my current self, to force myself to slow down and reflect on where I am and where I’m going. And I write for my future self, so I can measure my own growth and recall those important moments, like the time I almost gave up and the time I was really glad I didn’t.
So, why not make this blog private, let it be my own personal journal where I can be as earnest or morose or ecstatic as I want? Because Diana Peterfreund, Justine Larbalestier, Carrie Ryan, Maggie Stiefvater. Those blogs are the reason I’m here, still writing. I still go back and read their archives from time to time, for encouragement and perspective. And I don’t know, maybe I’m being completely egotistical, but I have this idea that one day a young writer might read back through my archives and find some small encouragement.
I’ve been having these crazy spider dreams. I’ve had them before, but never so frequently. I’m lying in bed and I can’t sleep, just staring at the ceiling. Suddenly, I see something move. It’s a spider on a web dangling right above my face. I watch it, entranced, until I can bring myself to scurry out of bed and turn the light on. I can’t get back to sleep until Michael searches the whole room.
And the weird thing is, in that whole period, I’m not conscious of ever having fallen asleep. To my mind, I was awake the whole time, unable to sleep, spiders making webs a few feet above my face.
I know the real cause of these dreams, but the funny thing is, this morning I was making the bed and I happened to look up at the platform my husband built to house the projector when one of us is sick in bed (yes, I have an awesome husband). There, just a few feet above our pillows, was the dessicated body of a dead redback spider.
We’re heading back overseas in a few weeks. Last time we were in New York it was Thanksgiving and people were just starting to set up the Christmas tree stands on the street. We went to a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and a holiday market and tasted a few holiday-themed drinks, but the whole time we were there we kept saying “wouldn’t it be lovely to stay for Christmas?”
We’ve never had a cold Christmas before. Our Christmases include barbeques and air conditioners and the beach, which is lovely in its own way, but not quite the same. We grew up on Christmas movies featuring snow and fireplaces and mittens, and we’ve always kind of yearned for that experience. SO, we decided to pack up our favourite family members (just kidding, people who aren’t coming) and cart them to NYC for Christmas!
We hear it might be cold, but unless you’ve actually experienced those kinds of temperatures, it can be hard to gauge what that might mean. I’m guessing coats and gloves and thermal underwear? If you have any tips on what kinds/brands of coats etc we might look for (we’ll be buying in LA) please pass them on!
(P.S. If you’re planning to rob our house while we’re away, I’m afraid we have housemates who are staying home for Christmas. Feel free to stop by for puppy cuddles, though.)
I write a lot about motivation and dreams and keeping the faith here, but it occurred to me recently that there’s an element I haven’t talked all that much about. I’m a fairly self-reliant, self-motivated person and I can also be a bit proud. It’s hard for me to ask for help sometimes (all the time) or admit I’m falling short.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to keep believing you’re going to make it. Sometimes you’re just too tired to believe in that dream anymore. Sometimes you’re just hanging by a thread, and no matter how hard you try to push through you just can’t do it. That’s just a fact. It happens.
The truth is, dreams aren’t achieved by one person all on their own, and our ego is our biggest weakness. In these situations, what you really need is to let down your defenses, admit your doubts, and rely on the people who love you. You have to let them step into the gap between your dream and your reality and have faith for you.
Wednesday was a big day for me. I did something I’ve needed to do for a long, long time. I did the thing that scared me most. That morning, before I did the thing, I was walking down the street and I passed this kid dressed in school uniform. I was feeling pretty terrified and I wasn’t paying all that much attention to what was going on around me, but I did notice this kid was both in primary school and taller than me (what are we feeding our kids these days? They’re all giants!)
Just as I drew up level with the kid, he looked at me seriously and held his arm straight out by his side. “Five,” he said, and I reacted just in time. I held out my hand and as he passed he gave it a good slap.
Just a few hours before I had to go do a very scary thing, a random kid gave me a high five on the street.
I’m a person of faith, so I read certain things into that small interaction. Things about God and promises and faithfulness. But here’s something I think applies to everyone, believers and non: Sometimes the universe gives you exactly what you need.