Saturday, January 8, 2011

Community and Rhythm--Two Keys to Producing a Book

It's deep winter here in northern New England, and I'm thinking about summer--quelle surprise!  As the furnace tries to warm my cold toes in their sheepskin slippers, I'm remembering a beautiful lake that stretched to the horizon, blue sky and warmth, and sitting in an Adirondack chair on farmhouse porch.  This wasn't just any farmhouse porch; it was on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, far from my normal life.  I had my laptop on my knees and I was shaping a scene from my next novel.  

Even today, when snow is blanketing the fields outside my home, I can remember how beautiful it was to be on retreat.  How the sun warmed my shoulders, how the breeze felt on my face.  I was far away from my normal routine, but I was in familiar territory with my fictional world.  I remember we were on our afternoon break from the class I was teaching, twelve marvelous writers with whom I was privileged to spend the week on this little island.  I imagined them at the beach down the road, watching the shimmering expanse of Lake Superior.  Or maybe they were in our classroom in the Milk House across from my farmhouse porch, working on their storyboards for their books.  Or maybe they were taking a well-deserved nap in their cottage, after having written late into the night!    

After the Madeline Island retreat was over--our week together that July--the twelve writers went back to their normal lives as I did.  But miracle of miracles, they stayed in touch with each other.  Nine formed groups of three for support.  This week I received packages in the mail from two of them:  complete drafts of their books!  Because of the encouragement and support from their retreat buddies, they'd actually put together complete manuscripts.  Yes, there was much work still to do, but the evidence was there.  I was so pleased. I am sure they will publish.  

Others contacted me after the retreat too.  Some came to my classes at the Loft or Hudson Valley Writers' Center and showed me their progress on their manuscripts.  This is no small achievement, writing a book, and the determination that was ignited on that little island fueled them during the fall and winter months.  Some emailed me that they were writing every day; others got stuck and came for help.  But few stayed out of touch.

We'd formed a community, and I knew how important that was.

The Tangible Benefits of Community and Rhythm
I've published twelve books, with my thirteenth coming out this year.  Each book has taken determination, it's meant conquering big learning curves in my own skills, it's asked my faith and belief when I had little to give. Over the decades I've spent as a professional writer and writing teacher, I've come to recognize two elements that are "make or break" for us book writers.  If we have them in place, we have a good chance of writing and finishing our books.  If we don't, the climb will be mostly uphill.

Community is first.  Book writers need each other.  We're a very particular breed of writer, in it for the very long haul.  When I wrote short stories, I could spend a year on one, but it was short.  It didn't boggle the mind like a three-hundred-page book.  Teaching book writers and writing this blog have been my effort to create community among our special breed.  Ironically, book writers tend to isolate themselves--which is just what we don't need to do.

Where is your community?  Do you have regular support, regular check-ins with others working on books?  It can be online, it can be in person or by phone or email.  You need this.  We all need this.  Otherwise, it's a short drive to feeling rather crazed by all those words.

I'm impressed at how often, after one of my classes and especially after the retreats or online classes, the groups stay in touch.  Not everyone, of course, but many people.  They recognize the need for support and reality checks.

The other aspect of writing a book that needs to be in place is a writing rhythm.  This comes from having a good writing practice, a regular time you touch in with your creativity.  Preferably every day, but if not every day, then at least three times a week.  That seems to be the minimum.

Why?  What happens when you stop working on your book, stop entering the "dreamspace" of your writing and the week goes by, then more weeks?  Well, if you're me, you have a lot of rumbling bad feelings about yourself as a writer, like you've broken some important promise to yourself and your creativity.  My Inner Critic gets very excited, starts telling me how little I'll amount to.  And my list of excuses gets pretty long.

It's a real balancing act, isn't it.  To have enough time and space to fill the creative well, so we have something to write about in the first place.  And to have a strong enough rhythm so we're putting what we get, onto the page regularly.

So my second question this week is this:  How's your writing practice?  Does it support a regular creative rhythm in your life?  Do you have a way to keep your attention on your story?

 One of my students from that Madeline Island retreat recently sent me this quote from a favorite writing book, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.  Butler speaks to fiction writers primarily, but I find his ideas are true no matter which genre I'm working in.  He puts into words the sobering facts about writing rhythm, and (despite my irritation--who is he kidding!!), I know from experience it's quite true.      

Butler writes, "Once you are engaged in writing a piece of fiction from your unconscious, it is crucial that you write every day, because the nature of this place where you go is such that it's very difficult to find your way in. It's pure torture. But even though it's terrible getting in, once you're in, if you keep going back every day, though it's still always daunting and difficult and scary, it's not nearly so much so. You may find--this is dangerous, but you may find--that you can take a day off every six or seven days. When you do this, you'll be grumpy and out of sorts and things will be uncomfortable, but after a day you can get back in. But you take two days off and you're on very thin ice. If you let three or four days go by it's as if you've never written a word your entire life. That doorway closes and seals itself up; you don't even know what part of the wall that door's in anymore. I don't care how much you've written in your life; those defenses are strong and they won't let you go there." 

How does this play out in my life?  I have a family, a teenager (enough said!), a full-time teaching job, and I still need to figure out how to write?  Butler is talking about the dreamspace of a writing project, how elusive it is, and that the easiest way to keep it vital inside is to write every day.   But in reality?  Sometimes I can do this; and I prefer to do this.  But sometimes everything hits the wall, and I can't.  So my writing rhythm certainly suffers.  I know enough now to sure I get back to my book within a day or two.  And he's right, it's torture to try and regain the lost ground, but I do it.  

That's where the community comes in.  My cheerleaders.  I reach out and talk about what's happening and they remind me:  Just sit down and write two sentences, you have time for two sentences.  Oh, how hard that is, the sitting down, the opening of the computer file, the terrible writing I produce in those two sentences.

And the next thing I know, I'm being called to dinner and I've written four pages without realizing it.  That's the magic.  

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  In your writer's notebook, write, as honestly as you can, about your current community as a book writer. Who is out there supporting you?  If you don't have a community, what inside you is holding back from getting one?  Don't want to appear needy?  Afraid of rejection and ridicule?  Weigh what you've heard above with these feelings.  What new year's resolution could you make to get yourself what you may really need, to finish your book?

2.  Again, in your writer's notebook, freewrite about your current writing rhythm.  How strong is it?  How clearly does your book thrum through your every day?  If the beat isn't loud enough, what do you need to do to change that--one small step you can take in 2011?

These questions are not about beating yourself up for what you haven't done well/perfectly/like so-and-so who just published her book.  Now's a new year, let the old one die in the dust behind you and face yourself and your creativity as a new person with new possibilities. 

What would you like to do differently? 

Maybe you'd like to join me on Madeline Island this summer?  I'll be teaching two retreats this year.  So many from last summer are returning, one retreat week is almost filled.  But there's still room in the retreat that runs July 18-22.  If you'd like to learn more, please visit Madeline Island School for the Arts.  I'd love to meet you on that farmhouse porch.  


  1. When I don't write every day, I feel as though the day is incomplete. When I'm not working on developing ideas, or if I do not write even a snippet for a scene in my book, it's as though my characters and ideas are mulling around in my brain because they are waiting, they are bored, they want life. My book demands my attention each day like a growing child. Even though I am a busy mom, working full time, I sneak in moments to catch an image here, a conversation there on paper. I get up at 5 a.m. each day and have one glorious hour to myself to enter into the world of my writing. Some day I'll get the first draft of a manuscript finished, but for now I'm finding that the daily process of attending to it keeps it alive and full of surprises, and it keeps me wanting to go back for more.

  2. Sounds like you and Butler have similar thoughts on this, Northstar. I like how you spoke of the "daily process of attending to it . . " Thanks for posting!