Creative Composting for Writers

When I started writing, I lived on an Iowa farm, in a county known nationwide as the “black dirt capital of the world.” Record crops were grown there, in the most nutrient-dense soil in the country.

Then I moved to Texas twelve years ago. I tried for years to grow something–anything–in my front yard. I watered faithfully, but after a few weeks, the bushes curled up and died, the flowers shriveled, and the firm succulents went squishy.

What passes for “dirt” here is a bit of leached-out clay embedded with rocks and gravel. There is almost no top soil at all, and certainly none of it is black. Not even brown. Just sort of dingy gray. One weekend, I asked the advice of the older man across the street, a retired wheat farmer from Nebraska whose vegetable gardens were green and lush.

“Compost your yard,” he said. “Pile up all kinds of vegetable peelings and leaves and grass clippings, let it get warm and decompose, then use the rich formula to give your plants something to grow on.”

Something to Grow On

When he said that, I realized he was talking about more than my dried-up yard, although he didn’t know it…  I was twenty-seven years old when I took a writing course for children. At that time, I’d stored up twenty-seven years of experiences, plus twenty-seven years’ worth of books read and absorbed. I also had three small children, so ideas were unfolding before my very eyes on a daily basis. I had more ideas than I had time to write down, much less develop.

Fast forward thirty-three years to arid Texas. I’ve had nearly 50 books published, plus scores of articles and some short stories. Even so, sometimes my inner reservoir of ideas feels a lot like my gray hard rocky soil out front. Some days I feel like I’m about as successful growing stories as I am at growing flowers.

We all get there, if we write long enough. For me, it means that my writing life needs composting.

Artist Dates

One of the things Julia Cameron advises in The Artist’s Way is to take a weekly “artist date.” It’s for feeding your mind with images and experiences you need as a writer. Weekly nurturing experiences restock the pond that perhaps you’ve fished from for years. An over-fished pond leaves us with diminished resources. Our work dries up. The pond needs to be restocked. You do that with artist dates.

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”

You go alone–no spouses, friends, children, or grandchildren.

Cameron suggests things like a visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. A long walk, sitting to watching a sunrise or sunset, going bowling, a free concert in the park: all such experiences qualify.

Crop Analysis

Are you expecting a bumper crop of writing to come from soil that was depleted some time ago? Is the fruit of your writing labor smaller than it used to be? It could be that it’s time to do some composting.

What are some of your favorite ways to feed and nurture your creative side? What do you do to fit creative composting into your writing life?

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Unlocking Your Potential

Winston Churchill once said, “Continuous effort–not strength or intelligence–is the key to unlocking our potential.” I believe he’s right. Over the years, the writers I’ve seen succeed were the ones who refused to give up.

I’ve been surprised sometimes too. Some of my most brilliant writing students gave up after a rejection or two and never were published. But I have books on my shelf from medium-talented students who refused to give up on their dreams–books published by large New York publishers.

Plugging Away

I’ve been remembering that principle this month during NaNoWriMo when I was either sick or gone or interrupted. Many days, I felt weak and the novel sounded silly and self-serving, but I kept plugging away. Last week I was about 8,000 words behind. Today I am slightly less behind–but only by doggedly plugging away.

Samuel Johnson said, “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.”

In a like vein, Helen Keller (below–one of the most determined people you’ll ever read about) said, “We can do anything we want to as long as we stick to it long enough.”

That’s good news to me! Is it to you?

(continued below)

It’s Your Choice

We may not be the most talented writers. We may not be the most clever or well read. We may not have an MFA in writing or be able to afford expensive writing conferences. BUT we can each choose to persevere, to stick to it till we finish.

Know where you want to go, and map out a clear strategy on how you plan to get there. There are many ways to study and grow, ranging from free online courses and books to expensive MFA programs at prestigious colleges. But in either case, the only person with an advantage is the one who refuses to quit.

Is that YOU?

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Jane Austen and Me

I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen a lot since visiting her home in Chawton, England, in September.

Another time and another place, but some lessons to learn that apply to me as a writer today.

Kinship of Writers

Jane’s home in Chawton was where she revised Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice for publication. Here she also wrote Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and part of another novel before becoming ill. After visiting Jane’s house in Chawton, I felt a kinship with her. She lived in the kind of home I would have loved (see below): several hundred years old, two stories, cozy fireplaces in every room, big flower and vegetable gardens, set on a cobblestone street lined with tiny shops and thatched-roof cottages.

Her writing desk (above) was tiny. I was struck by the contrast between her small desk, just big enough for her paper and ink well, and my two desks back home covered with computers, printers, books, notebooks, and assorted junk. Jane had no shelves of how-to writing books, no writing room of her own, no Internet or cell phone.


She wrote in the mornings, after breakfast, before helping her mother and sister with household tasks or visiting or entertaining numerous nieces and nephews. She put her writing first in her day, before it got taken over by friends or family or other obligations. There was a lesson for me!

She also wrote about what she knew and experienced–and what interested her–despite pressure from her publisher to write what would make more money. They wanted gothic and historical romances, not her “simple little stories” about her everyday village life and how several families affected each other. (Remember: although her books are historical to her present-day fans, she was writing contemporary fiction.) Her heroes and heroines who learned about their character flaws and overcame them–like Darcy’s pride and Lizzie’s tendency toward hasty judgments–were considered too tame for the reading public.

Write Your Passion

I loved reading Jane’s responses to the publisher’s pressure. Her replies (there were photocopies of her letters) basically said that she could only write what they wanted if she were literally starving, and even though historical romances might be more popular or profitable than her “domestic stories of country villages…I would hang myself before I could finish the first chapter…No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, though I may never succeed again.” Wouldn’t that same publisher be astounded today to see the thousands of fans who still flock to the Jane Austen walking tours in Bath, the Jane Austen Centre, and her home in Chawton, who buy her books and watch movies made of them? Isn’t there a lesson for all writers here?

Perhaps this is what Jane was thinking when she wrote (in Mansfield Park):

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

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Successes and Setbacks

“The only copy of your manuscript is stolen from your car. Articles and stories come back with unfailing rejection…Finances grow ever more perilous. This is, with variations, the script for the first ten or fifteen years of many successful writers’ careers. But they hung on.”

This quote comes from one of my favorite book of meditations for writers called Walking on Alligators. It talks about the nearly universal experience of published writers: their successes are interspersed with fairly regular setbacks.

Have you accepted that truth yet?

Re-framing Failure

Even though the overall pattern of your writing experiences will probably be upward (assuming you don’t quit), it will be full of ups and downs. Ups will include sales and good reviews and awards. The downs–those drops on the chart–include rejections and delays and canceled contracts.

The setbacks are NOT failures or reasons to quit–unless you allow them to be. They’re both places of learning and places of rest. They are simply steps on the way to the top. More importantly, they can have a positive effect.

Upside of Down Times

Compare it to climbing a mountain. It’s usually an up-and-down experience as you work your way to the top. There are periods where you climb upward steadily. Sometimes you also go down–lose a bit of altitude–before starting the next steep climb. Are the downhill stretches failures? No. Setbacks? Not really, although it can feel like that.

Downhill spots have their bright side though. For example, when I “fail” to sell something, it forces me to slow down and ask some questions. And more than one time, the failure to sell a series idea gave me an initial disappointment (lasting about five minutes) followed by a rush of relief that I didn’t have to force my exhausted body into another grueling writing stint just yet. The setbacks can be restful, if we let them be. They can allow you to recoup some energy.

The periods in our writing life that seem “down” can also be times to rethink and regroup. Maybe we need a course correction. Perhaps that rejection is trying to point us in a new direction in our writing. Or that negative review might be telling us that our real love (and talent) is in writing poetry, not baby board books.

But It’s Worse Than That!

What about when the negatives are too frequent? As Harriet Beecher Stowe once said: “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Judging from personal experience, I have to agree with her.

Have you ever seen a negative happening (bad critique, rejection, few people coming to your workshop, etc.) be transformed into something positive? No need to give specific names or publications, but can you share an unwanted writing experience that turned out, in some way, to be a good thing?

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Writing Momentum: the Unexpected Bonus

During the six weeks so far of running the October-November writing challenges, I have rarely missed writing daily. My goal for putting my writing first each day was to accumulate more pages. Despite a couple of personal setbacks, that has certainly happened.

I’ve logged in anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, depending on the day’s schedule. I’ve accomplished more in the last six weeks than in the three months preceding the challenges. That in itself is enough reason for me to keep doing the writing first. But there’s more!

An Awakening

There’s been an unexpected bonus attached to writing first in the day whenever possible. I noticed it at the end of the week. My personal plan was to write first, just Monday through Friday, for as long as my schedule allowed. By Saturday morning, I had a long list of chores and errands that had piled up. They would take all day probably, so I promised myself I’d get my daily writing done at the end of the day.

I looked longingly at the writing notes spread out on my work table. I knew from experience I’d be too tired to write anything of substance late in the day.

And I had so enjoyed the writing the first week. Writing done before I was tired from the day’s events was relaxed and many times, even fun. I also found myself thinking about my characters during odd moments of the day, as my brain chewed away on a few plot tangles I’d uncovered. I’d gained momentum, and I didn’t want to lose it.

Momentum: the writer’s friend

The dictionary defines momentum as “strength and force gained by motion.” The momentum of writing each day had become a strong force gained by daily motions.

So that Saturday morning, I laid my errand list down, closed my office door, and wrote for a couple hours. Then I started on the chore list. (Did I get them all done? No. I’ll finish the necessary ones though.)

For the first time in many years, I had actually been eager to write. I remembered that kind of excitement thirty-plus years ago when I took a writing course. Back then, I couldn’t wait to get the babies down for naps so I could write. I hadn’t felt that way for so long that I’d forgotten how wonderful it was.

Try It. You Might Like It!

What a terrific added bonus for writing first thing each day. If you have lost the joy of creating, give this method a try for a week or so. Go to bed earlier so you can get up earlier, if necessary. See if it makes a difference.

As the quote on my wall says, “Art wasn’t meant to be created in stolen moments only.”

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