Daily Writing Practice

Delightful By Contrast*

Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it. ~ Henry David Thoreau
So much for taking advantage of a few hours' comp time. I managed to leave the office at noon as planned, but then I made the unfortunate decision to check work e-mail as my lentil soup warmed on the stove.

It’s now after 4:00 and my iPhone sits on the counter beside me. I‘m waiting for responses to several e-mails and phone calls, hoping to douse Friday afternoon embers before they spark into weekend fires. IT malfunctions prevent me from accessing the database I need to fix problems flinging themselves at my inbox. The frustration winds into knots that cramp my shoulders and throb in the base of my neck. The tension headache pulses just behind my eyes. This was to be my time to write, to reconnect with my manuscript. Instead I'll pound some random thoughts into submission and force them to coalesce into a blog post.

I’ve been thinking about the fine line between routine and rut. I've been thinking about it a great deal since returning from Ireland. Because I seemed to have escaped the latter, yet I now struggle to regain the former.

I’m pretty taken with my routines. I guard them jealously. These are the small bits of my day I can control while the rest of life swirls heedlessly around me. The precious hours between 4 and 7 a.m. when I write, run, contort my limbs into camels and plows; that hour before bedtime when I settle in with the book of the moment; the Saturdays when miles of pavement pour forth in front of me and I race to the finish, knowing a quiet day of writing is the only other item on my to-do list.

I started my manuscript in early July and quickly settled into a productive pattern: writing every morning before and most evenings after work, all day Saturday after my long run, a few hours on Sunday in between errands and cooking. I planned my writing around Brendan’s interminable work days, making the most of the little time we have together.

The beauty of a long holiday is the chance to step out of the well-trodden path that threatens to harden into a rut. Yet, one of the things I love most about travelling is the creation of a little world that only you and your travel companion inhabit - a world of private rituals and routines that shape your adventure and later, your memories.

Simplicity defined our Kerry Way routine. And in this simplicity we found our bliss. I would rise while the B&B was yet asleep and make a cup of dreadful coffee from the Nescafe instant packets tucked into the tea service tray in our room, then creep barefoot to the guest parlour to write. To write until I could smell bacon frying, to write until I could hear the dog barking, to write until footfalls overhead told me other guests were waking. Brendan would collect me and we padded with feet still sore from the previous day's miles to the dining room, our stomachs whimpering with hunger, forced to wait until the civilized hour of 8:30 to be fed.

After a breakfast of - wait for it - muesli with whole milk, soda bread slathered with butter and orange marmalade, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast (for her); scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage with toast (for him); a full pot of coffee, black, our work began. And what a job it was: to hike 12-20 miles along the Kerry Way to the next bed and breakfast, to a hot shower, a dinner of fish and chips or lamb stew and pints of Guinness and Bulmers, to reruns of American shows we've never seen, to that day's Irish Times and one or two pages of our vacation reads, and at last, to our pillows where hours of fresh air and hard walking led to instant, sweet, deep sleep. Rinse. Repeat. 180 miles. Eleven days on the trail, five more mucking about Co. Galway.

I showed up at the page every morning. Routine maintained. But the thoughts I thought I would have during those long hours on the trail  - of my  characters, their plot still in a tangle - I had not. I thought, in fact, of little else but my next footfall, for deep bogs, rocky climbs, meadows strewn with gorse marked our way. I thought of the hot shower and cool pint that awaited a few hours and many miles away.

In other words, I broke out of my rut of living days, months, years into the future, and explored the precious path of Being in the Moment. I let go. It almost hurts to look back at the photos Brendan and I took of each other along the way, for the peace and happiness we found is writ large in our eyes and limbs. There was nothing more on our minds at those moments than the quiet joy of being where we were, doing what we loved most, with the only other person we could imagine sharing the moment.

But one cannot spend the rest of one's life on holiday. Unless one is Sir Richard Branson.

So, it's back to the grind. Or not.

I wish I could have picked up where I left off, stepped right back into that productive pattern, that familiar routine. But life has gone a bit pear-shaped since our return. Our work schedules have yet to right themselves. Frustration distracts me. The diminishing light and cooling temperatures mean no more late afternoon writing sessions on the patio, my back warmed by the summer sun. I still have so many hand-written pages to transcribe into Scrivener that I'm producing little new material. I feel scattered and disconnected, as if an essential part of myself is missing. Left in the west of Ireland, on the side of a hill made of granite and covered in gorse.

Just yesterday, three weeks after our return, I felt a spark. I gave my brain free rein as I transferred early morning scribbles from September 16 into my computer manuscript. I stopped playing secretary to my notebook and returned to being a writer.

Which was my plan for this afternoon. Until I looked at that cursed e-mail inbox.

While I wait for my phone to ring, I may as well peruse our vacation photos. To see what peace looks like. Join me, won't you?

The Kerry Way Slide Show

*All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline will seem delightful by contrast. ~ Andre Maurois

The Story Takes Flight

  I clicked on "Compile" and Scrivener, the writing project management program I'm using to write my novel (italicized because I feel so goofy saying it, the cliché that I am as I tap away on my laptop in this Seattle coffee shop, with my travel mug at hand. At least it's not raining and I am drinking decaf) pulled together a multitude of scenes, a handful of chapters and the lump of Part One into a WORD document, formatted, paginated, appearing to be something so much more than it is.

And now it sits beside me, 159 pages in dreadful Times New Roman font, the 31,900 words I have written since July 7. I just had to see what all those words looked like on 8.5 x 11.

If I flip through the pages and don't read the actual sentences, it looks like a real manuscript. Paragraphs are indented, quote marks indicate dialogue, there are even chapter headings. Scrivener helpfully (hopefully?) created a title page for me, though I do believe I changed the "A" in my title to "The". Hmm. Scrivener. Must fix that. One simple word shifts the meaning and tone of the story.

If I read the pages more carefully, I see scenes that end in mid-paragraph, ellipses where I left a sentence dangling. I see "NAME", which stands in for a character (as in, "NAME crouched next to de Castelnau's supine form") who is a John Doe until I decide what he should be called. I see tenses that shift mid-page, I see notes to myself typed in a scene instead of into Scrivener's handy sidebar. I see what Anne Lamott assures writers they will create in a project's early days. I see a shitty first draft. The first third of a shitty first draft. There is far more excrement to be written before I even attempt revision.

But I see some wonderful things, too: tension and surprise, attraction and intrigue. I see darlings I'm certain I'll have to murder in future drafts - those bits and pieces a writer thinks are the best things they've written, those clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions that really only get in the way of the story. But they are fun to look at. I'll save the assassinations for later.

I compiled and printed this happy mess out of curiosity, but also out of anxiety. I am stepping out of rhythm with the tango my story and I practice every day. It's holiday time. In a short while (I've since left the coffee shop and type at you now in the dark of my living room, the wee light of dawn still hours away), I will heft a bag full of hiking gear into the trunk of a car and Brendan and I will make our way to the airport, through security, and onto the train that will whisk us to the North Satellite and our flight to Dublin.

I fear I will lose my characters along the way, that the momentum which has carried me these past two months will stall somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and slip beneath its cold, grey waters. So, in addition to my writing practice notebook - a brand new Moleskine with pages so white and fresh my hand trembles in anticipation - I am packing these 159 pages (double-faced, not to worry - tucked into a manila enveloped and slipped in the outside pocket of my carry-on, you'd hardly feel the weight). Just in case.

I may never once open the envelope in the sixteen days we are away. In fact, I probably shouldn't. We take vacations to escape from our current life, perhaps to rest the body or challenge it in new ways, but certainly always to rest and reinvigorate the mind. Getting some distance from my story's cast and setting, from the sticky plot points I haven't determined how to resolve, may be the best way to ensure I'll see this thing through to the end of its beginning. Because that's all it is. A beginning. My obligatory shitty first draft.

So I bid you farewell. It's 3:30 a.m., finally time for more coffee - the full throttle stuff this time. I've got my morning writing to get done, in my brand new Moleskine. Then I've got a flight to catch.