Tag: Writing Life

The Perpetual Tide and Ebb of the Creative Process

I had a good workday yesterday, keeping to my to-do-list and ticking off all the items. That’s the power of a list, that sentiment of accomplishments that fills you up when you’ve crossed all points. (Here’s a good read on the subject of checklists).

But it was more than that. I was pleased with the work; I was pleased with myself. I looked at my day and congratulated myself. 

It doesn’t happen often. Life usually happens. An unexpectedly early delivery, computer breakdown, a distressing phone call. There’s always something, and I’ve learned to juggle priorities. As long as I focus on my priorities, I can handle disruptions. If I’ve done my top three priority items on my list, I’m happy about my day.

Crossing off all the items and feeling good about the work, that one chapter, or those two photos, now that’s a rare combination.

Because creative work cannot easily be judged as, say, a piece of …

A red squirrel eating a peanut in the snow. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

Speaking of interruptions, the little red squirrel came by, and I ran out to take photos. Now I have to re-focus and return to my text. 

It’s easy to decide if a product such as a toaster meets the quality standards. But how do you decide whether an artwork is good? Herein lies the difficulty. The doubt creeps in. Small mistakes or minor flaws are enlarged until you only see them. Is this really the best I could do? Maybe if I had more time, I could have … I should have … 

Euphoria and doubt, back and forth, the perpetual tide and ebb of any creative process.


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How to Write a Book

How to Write a Book

I admit that “How to Write a Book” sounds like clickbait, but it’ll come to that – eventually. I’m planning on documenting the process of writing my first non-fiction book here, so you’ll see how to do it, post by post.

Or, to be more exact, how I do it. There’s, of course, no silver bullet, no handy manual on how to actually write a book. If anybody claims that, they’re lying. Or delusional. Sure, you can learn some of the technicalities: show, don’t tell; kill your darlings*; beware of adjectives and adverbs. And so on. But there are no shortcuts or miracle solutions; you learn how to write by writing and reading a lot. There’s no way around it.

I’ll document what I do here, on the blog, and I hope you’ll find it inspirational, if not instructive.


My Winding Path to Writing a Book

So (gulp) writing my first non-fiction book. It’s the book I needed to read myself, a (not always so) gentle push to live my creativity, let go of the fear and just do it. Write the book. Create the collage. Take the photo. Just do it!

I always thought that I didn’t have enough time or energy to be creative, to do the things I wanted to do while I was climbing the corporate ladder. Given enough time, I’d dazzle the world with my art.

And, lo and behold! November 2019 came and I resigned my fancy job at Microsoft. “Now I’ll show them!” Or not.

2020 was NOT the year my books would be written, or stunning photos exhibited. True, Covid-19 made everyone’s lives a misery, but even so, I thought I’d do more with my freedom. Instead, I agonized about every word, every photo; nothing I did was good enough, and the fear paralyzed me.

It took most the 2020 to figure it out. I dragged myself out of the hole I had dig myself in, found new routines and created a plan. Hence, the non-fiction book.


Close up of a vintage-style typewriter with the words "Just do it" typed on the page.

Getting Started

To start with, I need to do some research. I’m sorry I cannot say more about it. I don’t like being secretive, and I’m not afraid of somebody stealing my idea. Ideas are dozen a dime; it’s the execution that counts. No, what I’m afraid of is jinxing it. (It seems I haven’t conquered all my fears, after all.) I may share more later if I start feeling more comfortable.

Before diving into that pile of books (and it’s a symbolic pile since almost all my books nowadays are electronic), I do need to have a proper reading list. I’m sure my future me will thank me.

Cal Newport has a great article on building a research database, and I think I’ll keep it simple with an Excel file. There are more advanced ways, but I feel an Excel file meets my needs. I don’t want to over-complicate things; I like to keep things simple.

That’s it for now. I’ll cover the research phase and building the research database in the next posts.


* About killing your darlings. The saying has been attributed to many authors, from Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner to G.K. Chesterton, Chekhov and Stephen King.

King leads this attribution game nowadays, very likely due to this sentence from his excellent book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Most scholars point to British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”, he wrote in his book On the Art of Writing.


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The Theory Of Willlessness

A pine tree top against a background of dark storm clouds.
Before the storm. Photo © Mihaela Limberea

Nothing can be willed into being, only waited on, for, or waited out.

A.K. Ramanujan from “Journeys: A Poet’s Diary”

I often find myself thinking of Ramanujan‘s words, especially when the blank page stares at me, the cursor steadily flickering its accusatory blink. I delete more than I write. The inner critic is always on duty. But write I do, in the end. After all, “you can always edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult would know.



Writing Lately

Taking my own advice, I continue writing, despite alarmist media reports, gradual movement restriction in Sweden, and my own distraction. Creativity is hard work at any time, not only during a pandemic. So, I sit down every morning, turn on my computer, and start typing. 

I’m writing a short story at the moment. I was working on a novel but decided to pause it for a while. With a story, I can (hopefully) be done quickly, and that would give me a feeling of accomplishment. It’s also good fun writing it, and fun is a good thing these days. 

The funny thing (see what I did here?) is that I had completely forgotten about it. I had a few loose ideas, but I was working on a different thing at the time, so I just wrote them down, saved them in a “Writing Ideas” folder for later, and then promptly forgot about it. 

A few days ago, two years later, I was looking for something else and came across this file titled “The Author.” I had absolutely no idea what it was. I opened it, read the couple of pages it consisted of and, not to sound my own trumpet, but they were good! With a few funny twists thrown in for good measure. So, I grabbed the file, got to work, and ended up in that creative bubble where everything seems far away, even the coronavirus, and the world is warm, and nice, and fuzzy.

The learnings?

Koala by Mihaela Limberea www.limberea.com
A cute koala for your enjoyment. View on Black Photo © Mihaela Limberea

1) Always carry paper and pen with you and jot down any idea that you get. You will not remember it later. I’ve placed small blocks of paper and pens strategically everywhere in the house and my pocket when I’m out. You could argue, of course, that you can use your smartphone, but I favor paper and pen. I enjoy leafing through the pages, slowly, back and forth, for the incommensurable joy of the unexpected connections that sometimes may jump at you from the pages.

2) Use a folder to organize these loose thoughts so you can easily find them later. Whether the folder is digital or analog doesn’t really matter, it only needs to suit your organizational system. You do have one I trust? 

Then let them marinate for a while, while you can carry on with your ongoing projects. You can come back any time to look for some ideas when you’re stuck or ready to kick off a new project.

Chance, or fate, or just the butterfly effect may sometimes lead you to the end of the rainbow too. All you have to do is trust your creative genie.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay calm and soldier on. And don’t forget to laugh. 


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Our Power Is Patience

“Novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQ as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

Photo © Mihaela Limberea

I find solace in this Kurt Vonnegut quote in my moments of doubt, struggling with a text that doesn’t resemble in any way the picture I have in my head. I continue hammering at the keyboard, hoping to reach that exhilarating state when everything becomes possible.

From Suzanne McConnell’s book, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style.


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Catching The Heart-Beat Of Life

The secret of it all is, to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote. No prepared pictures, no elaborated poem, no after-narrative, could be what the thing itself is. You want to catch its first spirit – to tally its birth. By writing at the instant the very hear-beat of life is caught.

Walt Whitman on writing from ”Walt Whitman Speaks: Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America.” You can find it here.

The New York Review of Books published the introduction (in a somewhat different form) in the April 18th, 2019 issue; a good read available here.


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C as in Creativity. Or Corona.

151 words. That’s all I’ve written yesterday. 

527 words. That’s how many words I’ve deleted yesterday.

Welcome to the corona world!

While I’m not anxious about the coronavirus (yet), I do feel some healthy concern, and I admit that I find it hard to concentrate on anything. Every day, I sit at my desk from 9 to 12 and write, mostly my new book, sometimes the blog, sometimes a poem. Some days everything is easy, the words flow, and I feel on top of the world. Some days … not. And that’s OK. As every creator knows, ups and downs are part of the creative life. We muddle through those days and hope for a better day tomorrow.

But this is new. It’s not writer’s block or lack of inspiration or ideas. This is just staring at the monitor while wondering whether I should check the WHO site or the corona tracker for updates, call my parents to check they’re still fine, talk to my sister who’s, of course, working from home, or just work in the garden and escape from it all.

These are unsettling and, for lack of a better word, weird times. The uncertainty, not knowing what will happen, not knowing how long it’ll take or what the long-term impact would be, take its toll. And it will get worse before it gets better. This is just the beginning.

So how are we to live through this unreal and frustrating reality? Holed up in our homes, social distancing and binge-watching all TV series? 

Dark storm clouds.
The storm clouds are still gathering. Don’t lose hope. Keep calm and carry on!
Photo © Mihaela Limberea

I don’t think so. 

Granted, there are certain constraints that we simply have to live with (sorry, grandma, no visits!). However, I think we should try to hang on to some degree of normality. Working from home? Get out of pajamas and dress for work. Then work, not check Twitter for “a five-minute break” and be gone down the rabbit hole of social media for an hour. Have a set schedule for work and follow it. Do your chores as you would normally do. Do your laundry on Fridays as usual. Get out the trash on Wednesdays as usual. 

The mundane is the new black. We shun the everyday life, dreaming of adventures in faraway lands, but in a crisis, we find ourselves longing for that everyday. We wish to be able to sit in a traffic jam again; to rush breathlessly from work to the kindergarten before it closes and be greeted by a teacher giving you the evil eye; to quarrel with the neighbor about his tree leaning dangerously over the fence. 

So, what now? How do we keep writing? How do we keep creativity alive in the times of corona?

Simple. Working.

The worst thing in a crisis is to be idle. It just gives you more time to feel anxious. The danger is that anxiety spreads faster than the virus.

Creativity is your butt on the hard chair, every day, whether you create or not. Creativity is hard work, whether you feel like it or not. Especially if you’re not feeling like it. Do the work. Show up. Every day. Click To Tweet

Me? I’ve done my time, written some paragraphs in my book, and a blog post. Now I’m going out to work in the garden. It’s a whooping plus five degrees (that’s 41 Fahrenheit) here in Stockholm, and the sun is out!

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay calm and soldier on. And don’t forget to laugh. 


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It Was A Hand In The Darkness And It Held A Knife

Tree
Photo © Mihaela Limberea

I finally found some time to listen to Neil Gaiman talking to Tim Ferriss in ”The Tim Ferriss Show” (a podcast that I highly recommend; it’s one of my favorite podcasts). The interview is almost two hours long, and I wanted to have time, and peace of mind, to really enjoy it. And take plenty of notes.

It’s always such a pleasure listening to Neil Gaiman’s hypnotically soothing voice talking about creativity and writing, books, his friendship with Terry Pratchett, fountain pens (he writes with a fountain pen) and the New York Fountain Pen Hospital (yes, there’s such a thing, the place to go if you want to buy a new fountain pen or repair the one you have).

I have included below a few points that have resonated with me. It wasn’t easy; I could have gone on much longer but wanted to keep the length of this post manageable.

About Ian Fleming’s writing process (yes, James Bond’s creator), who didn’t like writing. His method? Lock yourself up in a not too good hotel, in a not too good room in a town you don’t want to be in (as to avoid distractions and getting comfy), and write ”like a fiend” until you’re done.

Most important writing rule: you can sit here and write, or you can sit here and do nothing, but you cannot sit here and do anything else. All you are allowed to do is absolutely nothing or write. You give yourself permission to write or not write, but you end up writing eventually as doing nothing is boring, and your wandering mind will start sparkling ideas. Not having to write takes off some pressure as well.

On first drafts: nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. That is just you telling the story to yourself.

Setting up a Groundhog Day: writing (a novel) works best if you can do the same day over and over again. Figure out a daily practice that works for you, and repeat that day, every day, day after day after day. Austin Kleon used the same image in his new book ”Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad”: every day is a Groundhog Day. 

You can read the whole podcast transcript  (and, of course, listen to/watch the podcast) on Tim Ferriss blog.

Neil Gaiman Quotes from the Podcast

All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.

What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. (…) I think it’s really just a solid rule for writers. You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.

Part of what I discovered, particularly about being a novelist, is writing a novel works best if you can do the same day over and over again. The closer you can come to Groundhog Day, you just repeat that day. You set up a day that works for yourself. (…) I would do that day over and over and over and over. 

 I also think that the most important thing for human beings is to be aware of the change. The biggest problem we run into is going, “This is who I am, this is what I’m like. This is how I function.” while failing to notice that you don’t do that anymore

The biggest thing, looking back on it, that I learned from Terry <Pratchett> was a willingness to go forward without knowing what happens. You might know what happens next, but you don’t know what happens after that, but it’s okay because you’re a grownup and you will figure it out. 

Bonus: listen to Neil Gaiman’s audiobooks read by himself. Such joy! My favorites: Art Matters (this should be handed out for free in all schools, by the way!), The Graveyard Book and Coraline.

Complete with: Tim Ferriss interview with  Amanda Palmer (singer, songwriter, playwright, author, director, blogger, and Neil Gaiman’s wife); and Austin Kleon’s A Portable Routine.

Wondering where the post title comes from? It’s a line from one of Gaiman’s old notebooks that eventually become the beginning of The Graveyard Book; Gaiman talks about its genesis in the interview.


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