Saturday, June 21, 2014

My First Writing Retreat!

Today I have some wonderfully exciting news to share.  Nothing publication-related (I wish!) but it’s probably one of the next best pieces of news…I’m officially registered to go to my first Highlights Writing Workshop this August!!  I have been hearing about these workshops since I first joined SCBWI and have always dreamed of being able to go to one.  The Highlights Foundation supports children’s writing in many ways beyond the Highlights magazine that generations of children know and love from pediatrician waiting rooms.  From what I’ve heard, they have amazing farmland and forests in Northeastern Pennsylvania with private cabins in the woods, yummy food, and lots of quiet time for writing.  Many writers go there on retreat throughout the year just to get some uninterrupted time away from the constant thoughts of bills, cleaning, text messages, dinner prep, day jobs, and everything else that doesn’t include their latest writing project. I just wrote about how we need to calm the self-talk that constantly flows through our minds, and these retreats will hopefully do just that for me.

  My particular workshop lasts for 5 days and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of having 5 days where I don’t have to worry about anything but writing.  I know 5 days is really just a drop in the bucket, but at the same time I don’t know if I’ve ever spent 5 days focused on just one task.  Probably the closest I’ve ever come was when I was writing my generals during grad school (a time that I’ve mostly blocked from my memory), but even that was only a 48 hour period.  Given that those two days were some of the most stressful in my life, I’m crossing my fingers for a very different experience this time. Actually, I can already guarantee that this retreat will be nothing like that.  Not only do I LOVE hearing and talking about writing, which is something I can’t really say about my generals topic, but I guess there are going to be chefs making large quantities of awesome food at this retreat.  Uh-oh. I already warned my husband that I’ll likely come back a few pounds heavier.

However, that isn’t the true reason why I’m going.  (*new mantra*: It’s more than the food. It’s more than the food.)  No, I’m actually this excited because I’ll be attending a workshop on revision run by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. They are both highly respected editors who have worked in children’s publishing for a long time, and Harold literally wrote the book on children’s publishing—“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books.”  This workshop on revision couldn’t come at a better time for me since I’m currently trying to revise my rough draft and I’m not sure how well I’m doing.  What a blessing to have two experienced editors tell me all the tricks of the trade, meet other serious writers who can help with critiques, and have the editors read my work themselves.

Originally, I had debated waiting until next year when I would be “ready,” but then I decided that was just a fancy way of saying that I was scared to go.  In fact, I can even give you the super fancy psychology term for what I was doing: self-handicapping.  I was purposely hurting my chances of success (by saying that I didn’t want to go this year) because then I’d have an excuse if I ultimately failed.  I could always just say, “Oh, it’s not really my fault that I don’t know how to revise. I wasn’t able to go to that workshop.” So instead, I’m going to go and really try to give it my all.  I can’t wait to write more about it in future posts.

But seriously, can we talk more about this food? God, I’m going to be in trouble.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Intersection of Psychology and Writing: The Curse of the Self

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how excited I was to have a lot of time to write (full days!) while I was in between semesters.  Unfortunately, that time is coming to a close. I only have one week before summer semester starts and I still have A LOT of work to do for my new class.  So, I decided it was a good time to pause my writing for a week or two and then come back and look at what I’d written with a fresh perspective. 

One of the reasons I thought this would be a good idea was because of how quickly I was writing over the past month. I wrote about 100 pages or 30,000 words over the last four weeks.  Now, I know that’s not NaNoWriMo level, but for me that’s an extraordinarily quick pace.  I’m so excited to have made so much progress so quickly, but the one drawback is that I started to lose my sense of the novel a bit.  Particularly as the chapters piled up, I started having a difficult time keeping everything straight and making sure the scenes were flowing.  I did take the time to outline the whole first draft, but even still it’s difficult to know if the book is making sense when you’re in the trenches. I figured the best thing I could do was take a step back, put it away, and then reread.

Okay, so this is where the psychology comes in.  Right now, I’m prepping a class focused on the “Self.”The Self is basically your subjective conception of who you are as a person. One of the premises of the class is that having this sense of self is a gift because it allows you to reflect on yourself, your past, and the future, but it can also be a curse. Because humans can self-reflect, we can create all sorts of negative emotions for themselves, imagine horrible potential futures, and relive bad memories again and again.  People also keep up a running monologue in their minds, and much of that monologue can be quite negative.  Moreover, in the class, I’m going to discuss how silencing all that self-talk can give people peace and lead to less depression and self-involvement.

Now, I love when my psychology world and writing world come together, and I think this is another great example of it.  I didn’t immediately make the connection, but then I started thinking about why I’m putting my writing away for a few weeks.  My goal is to stop obsessively thinking about it, maybe even forget it a little, so that when I read it again I can have a more objective opinion about it.  I want to see what is actually on the page instead of what I want to be on the page.  This idea reflects one of the general points of my class, which is that too much self-reflection can be harmful.  Living inside your own mind, instead of in the real world surrounding us, can either lead people to be extremely positively biased (i.e. thinking they’re the best thing since Nutella (a personal favorite)) or getting bogged down in self-criticism to the point that they find it hard to work. 

All of us have to deal with these issues, but writers can be particularly at risk because we spend so much time locked away in our own minds, struggling with plot holes and sketchy dialogue.  If we let ourselves listen to that negative monologue or keep replaying the last bad critique we got, we’re at risk of not being able to see our work realistically.  That’s why we have to put the writing away for awhile—so we can detach from it to the point where we can be critical of the work without being critical of ourselves.  That’s also why trusted readers and critique partners are so important.  Even if we can never fully detach, at least someone else can.
I know all of this is easier said than done.  Many people throughout the world spend their lives trying to fight against the noise of the self in order to achieve inner peace.  I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to shut off those inner voices, or if I’d even want to do that completely. For now I’m just going to settle for turning down the volume on myself a bit, in the hopes that I can hear my characters better.