There’s a new year on the rise …

“Instead of telling our young people to plan ahead, we should tell them to plan to be surprised.”— “Dan in Real Life

Temporarily sucked into a whirlwind of tying brightly colored packages with string and swept up in my determination to get my apartment all sparkling and shiny by the new year, I’ve finally managed to pull myself away from the world of stove-cleaning and wrapping paper. The exhausting buzz of energy has sent my thoughts wondering down the path of New Year’s resolutions. Do we need them, and do they work?

Resolutions can range from the mundane—weight-loss regimens, healthy eating, or exercise—to the abstract, such as finding happiness or self-acceptance. I wonder how many of us keep these resolutions. Personally, I’ve made resolutions I didn’t keep, and I probably realized this before I even declared it. “I’m going to go vegan.” “I’m going to exercise four days a week. “I’m going to meditate daily.” Yep, I’ve run the gamut from promises of yoga or jogging to assurances that I’d eat more edamame or celebrate each cycle of the moon.

So this year, I find a number of those old “one-of-these-days” promises rising up to greet me: Take two yoga classes a week. Read two books per week. Finish reading [insert series name here].

Considering how much has happened in 2010, I don’t feel too bad if any dusty resolutions didn’t make center stage in my life. Even if there’s a lot that I haven’t finished, there’s a lot that I have finished. So I think I’ll resist the temptation of resolutions for next year.

Yet I can’t hide the fact that there are a few things that I find myself resolved to do next year. I have one manuscript crying out to be revised. It’s just not ready to collect dust on the shelf. And I have another manuscript in the works that continues to surprise me. I don’t know where this story will end up yet. Urban fantasy? Paranormal romance? It’s somewhere in the middle right now, sometimes veering off onto one path for a while, only to swerve right back.

This blog is one lovely step in my journey, part of my writing and my life. So I think I’ll just resolve to continue on with my writing voyage and see where I end up. It means putting faith in the uncertain and the unsettled. But so does anything in life that’s worth doing. I have goals, but I think that I’ll also just plan to be surprised: by my characters and by their stories, and also by life.

So here’s wishing everyone a happy Yule, happy holidays, and happy New Year’s!

Now tell me: What are you resolved to do in 2011?

Baby, it’s cold outside!

December 14. Wind chill advisory: 15 below zero (F). I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in the brochure when this PA girl packed up her things and moved to the lovely mountains of Virginia (And yes, they are, truly, lovely—sometimes breathtaking.).

I’m currently sweater-clad, sitting cozily in my office, thinking warm thoughts about sunshine and orchids while a Katy Perry song runs through my head (Can you guess which one?).

As much as I might love sunny weather—sitting on a blanket next to my dog while I wear flip-flops and a tank top and scribble poetry in my journal; or thinking thoughts about the goddess while I plant seeds in the tiny container garden on my balcony—I try to remind myself that raindrops and snowflakes also contain the potential for countless stories.

In college, I sat in the lobby of the “humanities” building on my undergraduate campus, talking with a much-admired professor about the creative process. We both admired the inspirational power that rainy days hold over writers. I think that cloudy, blustery days in general force us toward an introspection that can propel the creative process forward.

In the PA mountains, it snows November through March, sometimes starting in October and carrying on into April. The warmth of stories provided a cozy refuge, but art also provided a vehicle for the exploration of winter: its meaning, its potential. The short collection of poetry I wrote that semester, under that professor’s guidance, was aptly entitled, “What the Heart Thought of, That Winter, Spent Frozen in the Pond.” On the cover, I printed a photo I’d taken of the pond behind my familial home, of water reeds bent frozen and bedecked in frost and snow, leaning over the icy surface of the pond, while leafless trees stood behind in a seemingly reflective state. And among the sleepy trees were evergreens, reminding us of the potential of life.

Maybe the Virginia summers have spoiled me, but winter seems longer and more brutal each year. I try to remember that winter is a season of quiet introspection before the fertility of spring, that it contains in it the sleeping seeds of another year. There is something to be learned from cold, from dark, from clouds, from frozen rain and snow.

And there must be, because so many of my stories find inspiration in the rain, in the winter, in the cold or in the dark. I met a character one night as I lay in bed, nestled under blankets and protected from the cold. I saw the scene: Rain poured down, and she stood at the window with her face pressed against the glass. She was waiting for something, but I didn’t know what. She was searching for something, but she didn’t know how to find it. Something was lost. There was sadness in her eyes and potential in her story.

So maybe today I’ll work up the nerve to walk over to Starbucks and buy myself a chai tea latte (I doubt it.). At the very least, this evening I will hole up in my office and listen to the wind while I curl up, sipping tea (brewed in my kitchen). And when the wind howls outside and hurls itself at the window, I’ll listen for stories.

And I’ll only whine “a little” when I have to walk the dogs.

Old friends:

Old stories, like old friends, are calling. I’m wondering if I should answer.

Maybe it’s that my brain is suddenly open to the possibilities. There’s now a much larger space for creativity and art in my life.

I’ve always wanted to do so many different things. Life is too short and the world too diverse to focus only on one small part of the human experience. My favorite vacation spot: one I’ve never been to before. My fave color: I have to pick just one? Hmm … The golden yellow of dawn, the flamboyance of turquoise and the coolness of teal, the in-your-face pop of fuchsia, the juicy tartness of bright green. Bob Dylan, Jewel, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry–all have a place on my mp3 player. I have favorites, but my greatest joy is learning and expanding my knowledge. Variety is the spice of life (yes, I know, spoken like a true Sagittarius).

Maybe that’s why I chose to be a writer. Writing takes us to places mundane and extraordinary. We can go from a wardrobe to Narnia, down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass to Wonderland. When the writing is at its best, we journey deep inside of ourselves.

So when I brew a pot of tea and finally sit down at my computer, I find myself surrounded by characters and stories, all practically shouting, ‘Pick me!’ So many creatures, from dark elves to house sprites, and characters, from Harvard students who dig archeology to women who kick ass in the ring and in the boardroom, from seasoned witches to those just learning about magic, are right there, waiting for me to enter their stories and continue writing.

I’ve learned enough to know that stories don’t get told if I stop writing every time another tale or character knocks at the door. Every manuscript takes dedication; I keep writing even if I start spinning my wheels. Writing is a journey into uncharted territory; of course the roads are winding and rocky. But you can’t just leave the story stuck in the mud. Yep, I know that. It’s the effort, the struggles, the problem-solving that makes writing such an adventure.

I love so many different types of books–different tones, different genres, different types of characters, etc. From a career standpoint, I worry about the pitfalls of wanting to write in a number of different genres. It’s not a matter of dedication. It’s just that so many different parts of the human experience have value, and I want to explore those experiences as an artist. And many writers have done this (Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Alice Hoffman come to mind). For now, I’m following my heart. Every one of us has a unique path–we have our stories, just as our characters have theirs.

It’s nice to know those old stories and characters (yes, Neesa, I know, you’re not old, per se) are still in there somewhere. It means they’ve stuck with me, and maybe if they have staying power for me as a writer, they’ll have meaning for readers as well.

But it’s one word, one scene, one story at a time. And just like a road trip, you can’t be en route to South Dakota and suddenly decide you want to go to Maine. But just because you’re on your way to the Badlands now, that doesn’t mean that Acadia National Park can’t be part of your journey later.

Well, I’m off. Going to put some chains on the tires and keep on truckin’.

The ‘Secret’ of Writing: Write

Wait, that can’t be right? Can it?

After a long hiatus, I’m returning to LJ *sound of trumpets*, a little ragged and weary after a whirlwind end of the semester. While I absolutely love teaching writing, the amount of feedback I give my students could trigger carpal tunnel, and it certainly keeps me up until all hours of the night. But hearing back from them after the semester ends reminds me that it’s all worth it. I had a student write to me over the summer to thank me for how helpful my class was to me in her internship. You don’t always get that kind of feedback, but it’s nice to know that all of that red ink hasn’t been for naught.

Ah, so on to a new challenge then: the blank page. I’m returning to a manuscript that I paused on in August to focus on teaching. It can be hard to regain momentum, but after a couple years of striving for a balance, I’m starting to find an approach to writing discipline that works for me. Even if my writing routine varies, my dedication to the story doesn’t waver. Writing exercises, manuscript critiques, small side projects, all of these things keep going throughout the semester and make sure my current novel-length WIP is never far from my mind.

Writers know that real writing isn’t jotting down a neat idea or writing an opening scene. Real writing is sticking to a project, even when the writing sucks (‘cuz sometimes it does), even when it’s exhausting and feels endless. Because if the product of writing is a story (or poem, play, song, etc.) then the end result needs to be a story. Just like art isn’t a bunch of doodles, just as a song isn’t a tune that came to you in the middle of the night, being a writer means having the discipline to write and finish your projects, whatever they might be.

And true writers know this. The key to writing is discipline. Sure, writing is creative, writing is spiritual, and writing fills the blank page and makes something out of nothing (or so it might seem). But in order to be a writer, we have to create that something.

So when a non-writer says to me (so sure of him/herself), “I have this great idea that you should write into a story,” I politely say, “I have enough ideas. But you should write that.” Writing isn’t a great idea. A great idea is a “triggering town”–that little blink-and-you-miss-it town you drive through on your way to your destination.

Inspiration is great. Full-fledged stories take work, dedication, and discipline.

Discipline and dedication in the process of writing come in many shapes and sizes. Some writers wake at 5 a.m.; some work until 5 a.m. Some work 9 to 5; others carve out an hour or two each day to write. There’s no magic formula. Because I teach, my schedule varies throughout the year. I sometimes feel guilty when I’m grading papers while my other writer friends are revising their work. Because of my schedule, my writing moves slower than others’ might. But I still have a schedule, even if it varies. My dedication to finishing the piece doesn’t change, regardless of the time of year.

When another writer talks about her/his writing practice/schedule/routine, I think we need to keep in mind that every approach is individual. We can incorporate aspects of that approach into our work (writing at a coffee shop was some of the best advice I’ve ever received), but we need to find what works for us.

One of the worst things we can do is to feel guilty because we read that another writer, whether best-selling author or aspiring, has a higher word count per day, or writes 9 to 5, or writes every day. Those can be crippling if they don’t fit into the reality of your life. If you only write three or four days a week, that’s still good progress. I write four days a week, about three hours each day, when class isn’t in session. This doesn’t count time at crit groups, networking with fellow writers, reading in my genre, reading books about writing, critiquing others’ work, writing in this blog, etc.

As long as you have a schedule that works for you, that’s what counts.

And so, as I finish a semester of teaching writing and begin a season in which I focus more on my own creative endeavors, I find myself examining the uniqueness of every writer’s approach to discipline. People outside of the field may marvel at the craft of writing. But it’s as much discipline as it is creativity.

So tell me, what approach works best for you? Has it changed over time? And how did you find the best approach to the process?