Sketchbook #50

Photography, Writing

The first month of a new year is always strange for me. Between the new year and my birthday, I’m thinking of big goals and big dreams, and my motivation is as high as it ever gets. 

Which is good, because January is also difficult. I’ve got to rebuild routines that the holiday season shattered, and find my way back into stories I haven’t thought about in a month. I have to navigate a minefield of existential crises, brought on by that same new year/birthday season. January is dark and rainy or so cold I can’t even bring myself to walk to the coffee shop to interact with someone that isn’t my cat. If it wasn’t for those big goals and dreams, I don’t think I’d be able to make it through the month.

All things considered, 2020 is off to a pretty good start.

First of all: I finished Project366

I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t think it was going to happen. I fell behind on posting the photos here when I was painting the apartment, and the whole project stalled entirely in November. I came this close to just admitting my heart wasn’t in it anymore and giving up. But stubbornness won out over technical difficulties and lack of inspiration and the logistical nightmare of editing and posting that many photos over the space of a week. 

I’ve pretty much decided that I won’t be doing an official 365/366 project again anytime soon. Or any sort of photo-a-day project that lasts more than a month. Projects like that are great for some people, and I’m especially in awe of anyone who creates and posts a photo every single day for years, but they just don’t work for me the way I always hope they will—eventually, they always turn into a source of guilt and obligation, and that isn’t fertile ground for making art.

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve been playing with some new gear—nothing fancy, but I do have a phone that works in the cold again—and that’s done a lot to reignite the spark, but mostly I’ve just been decompressing and not making solid plans just yet. But I have a feeling I’m going to start looking for something new to work on very soon; I do have big plans for the year, and I’m starting to get antsy to take pictures again. Right now, though, it’s nice not having that obligation hanging over my head, y’know?

It’s been a good month for writing, too. I’ve made good progress on Violet Lane: the current goal is to wrap up this draft by the end of March, and I’m on track to hit that target with room to spare. (Unless I’ve severely underestimated the wordcount for act three, which is always a possibility.) My feelings about the story are kind of mixed—I like it in theory, but I’m still not 100% certain I’m on the right track—but I’m having fun with the writing itself, so I’m not tempted to scrap the whole thing and start fresh (again).

I’m close enough to the end that I’m starting to think about what I want to work on next. For months now, I’ve been sure that These Modern Things was next in the queue, but I’ve suddenly got two other ideas (one novel, one screenplay) that are demanding my attention, and that might feel a little more in line with what I want to be doing long term. 

Maybe. I don’t know.

Now. February.

My primary goal, of course, is to continue progress on Violet Lane. I’m kind of tempted to say I’ll wrap up this draft by the end of the month—and that’s actually reasonable at my current pace—but I’m not going to commit to a certain milestone. If I finish early, that’s great, but I’m not going to push.

I realize that ‘keep working on this thing, but probably don’t finish it’ is kind of a boring goal.

I also want to start building some photography practice/study sessions into my week; I’ve been doing that for writing—two hours a week dedicated to improving my understanding and ability without the pressure of finishing anything—and I’ve been really happy with how that’s going. I want to do the same with photography.

And, of course, there are a few other things I want to do, mostly related to the business side of things, but I’m not ready to talk about them here. 

January is a strange month; even in the days between drafting this post and actually posting it, it’s thrown me some curveballs. But January is over and the year has barely begun. 

Onwards.

Black and white photo of an open notebook with the year '2020' and word 'grit' written on the first page. Photo by Reghan Skerry.

2020 in Preview

Art + Craft, Personal, Photography, Writing

The year—the decade—isn’t even two weeks old and it’s already testing my optimism. I keep sitting down to write this post, and I just stare at the blinking cursor, trying to figure out what to say about my goals for the new year, trying to figure out how to say that I’m still hopeful. That despite everything, my goals for this year are more ambitious than they have been for the last few.

But maybe that makes sense. Everything’s terrible, so why not take some risks? This isn’t a year for ‘find a hobby’ or ‘build a sustainable writing routine.’ That was about building a foundation. This is a year to make some real, concrete changes. 

I’m not going to go into all of them here. Some are obvious and don’t need further explanation (finally get that photo thing off the ground, finish Violet Lane, keep querying), some are too personal, some just aren’t within the (current) scope of this blog. Some I’ll talk about later, but I just want to keep them to myself for now. 

But there are a few things I do want to publicly commit to:

Focus on improving my craft.

I said back in September that I felt l like I’ve hit a plateau when it comes to my skill, both as a writer and a photographer. That feeling hasn’t gone away.

Like I said then: it’s normal. And, really, I wouldn’t want to be satisfied creatively—I think an artist’s vision should always exceed their skill, at least a bit. It’s not that I think I’m a bad writer or photographer, I’m just not where I’d like to be, and it’s time to level up.

I’m not 100% sure about my game plan, here.

I know I want to work on building my technical skills, whether that means studying the writing books I’ve collected over the years, or working on specific photo projects, or taking classes, or something I haven’t thought of yet. 

I want to do more work—I want to take more photos and spend more time writing. I’ve done well, building a sustainable practice, but it’s time to expand on that. I need to be careful not to push too hard—burnout is always a real risk for me—but the pace I usually work at now doesn’t allow for much growth. 

And I want to build my creative confidence. I don’t (just) mean when it comes to sharing my work—I’m getting better at that, even though it’s still difficult. I want to be braver in the work that I create; I want to stop holding myself back from taking the photographs I want to take, or writing the stories I want to write. This is a process, and I don’t expect it to be a quick one, but it’s something I need to do.

So, yeah: not exactly a clear plan, but at least my goals are clear. I’ve got time to figure out how to get there.

Reevaluate my relationship with social media.

I’ve been wrestling with this for a while, and I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. Instagram and Twitter are terrible distractions that make it harder to focus on the work I want to be doing.
  2. Facebook and Twitter are actively harming society and chipping away at democracy, and the people in charge embrace it because it’s lining their pockets. (Instagram itself isn’t as terrible on that front, but the ad revenue still goes to Facebook.)
  3. I’m sick of Facebook’s constant presence. I’m not even on Facebook, and I can’t get away from it. It’s creepy
  4. I miss blogs. I miss the old internet, back when it felt fun and creative and serendipitous. Back when it was still weird.
  5. Instagram is one of the things that has stalled my progress as a photographer. Yes, it’s helped in some ways, but it rewards sameness rather than creativity, and it’s hard not to play to that.

Any one of those is reason to jump ship—taken together, I’ve reached a point where it’s hard to justify my presence. At the same time, there’s part of me that feels like I need to be on those networks, for personal or professional reasons. I feel genuinely guilty when I don’t post to Instagram or Twitter for a few days, and I hate it.

So this year, I’m going to figure out a solution. I’m probably going to step back from the services that bother me most, or abandon them completely. I’ve already taken some steps in that direction, curating my feeds a bit, and I’ve already left Pinterest (they finally made it too difficult to avoid the cluttered home feed).

I’m definitely going to breathe some real life into this blog, rather than relying on those other services. (I might go back to the self-hosted version of WordPress, to get back a little control with that, but my account is paid up until the fall, so I’ve got time to think about it.) 


Mostly, though, my goals for 2020—writing and photographic and personal—are summed up in the watchword I’ve chosen: grit.

Very few of the things I want to do this year are going to be easy. And it’s going to be a difficult year, just in general. (I didn’t know how difficult when I started thinking about my plans, but… well.) I’m going to to be tempted to give up, or slack off, or set my sights lower.

“Grit” is what’s going to keep me going.

Sketchbook #49

Photography, Writing

I kind of feel like I should start this with some kind of ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ riff.

November was… a month. You probably could’ve guessed that—I barely posted to the blog at all, and I’m nearly two weeks late with this particular post. It’s not that it was a bad month, but… there was a lot of stuff going on (most of it good), and I’ve been kind of terrible about managing my time.

I’ll start with the ‘worst of times,’ because that’ll make the good stuff even better.

Sketchbook #48

Photography, Writing

I thought that October was going to be busy, that there were a lot of things that would get in the way of my creative goals.

It turned out to be even busier than I expected: I’ve only had one full week without interruptions (even today they’re testing the fire alarms in my building, which is always a joy—that’s why I’m working on this blog post instead of fiction), I’ve had inconvenient (but not serious) health issues crop up, and it’s just been generally difficult to stay motivated.

But I did it.

I’ll start with Violet Lane. I wanted to reach the midpoint by the end of the month. I’m not quite there, but I’m close. It’s on the horizon. And I like the story. It’s really good (considering it’s still very much a first draft, and ‘really good’ in this context means disjointed and messy and kind of terrible in some places), and more importantly, I’m having fun with it. It’s still not easy to write, and I’ve definitely had days when it just wasn’t working, but overall, writing it is a good experience this time around.

Also, I mentioned it on Twitter, but getting back into a proper mid-writing-session coffee break has done wonders for my writing routine. The caffeine helps, obviously, but mostly it’s the process of actually grinding the beans and heating the water. It gets me away from the work for a few minutes, but in a way that focusses, rather than distracts. It’s fantastic, and I love it.

Sketchbook #47

Personal, Photography, Writing

September wasn’t terrible.

It wasn’t great. Losing power for two and a half days knocked me off my stride, and it took me longer to recover than it should have. I haven’t been happy with my photos lately (I already mentioned that). I’ve been dragging my feet on pretty much every big important project I’ve got going right now, and looking for any excuse I can find to avoid working on them.

But I’ve made it through the first act of Violet Lane. It’s been slower than I’d planned, and I’m still having a hard time settling into a consistent writing rhythm, but I’m having a lot of fun with the story. For the first time since that very first draft, lo these many years ago, it feels fresh and exciting. Tearing everything down to the foundations helped immensely in this case, and I’m glad I took the risk.

I’m taking photos. Even if I’m not thrilled with the results, just the fact that I’m carrying a camera on a regular basis and taking photos is a win. 

September hasn’t been terrible, and after July and August, I’ll take it.

But I do need to get past ‘not terrible’ and start making real progress again.

I said last month that I haven’t been pushing myself hard enough, and (obviously) that’s still true. Creatively, it’s because I’ve hit a bit of a roadblock, in both my writing and photography, where I’m not quite sure what the next steps are. I’ve reached the limit of my skills; that’s not a bad thing (it happens to all of us, all the time), but it does mean that I need to think about how to ‘level up.’ I’ve got some ideas for how to do that with photography—I’m more aware of my weaknesses there, and as a medium it lends itself to dedicated practice—but I’m having a harder time figuring out my options for writing. (If you have suggestions, let me know. I might have an idea, but I have to think about it a bit more.)

The other reason I haven’t been pushing myself hard enough is simple fear. 

Sketchbook #46

Art + Craft, Photography, Writing

I ended last month’s creative review by wondering if it might be time for a reset. I knew I had to figure out some stuff with how I manage my time, and I had to figure out what I was going to do about Violet Lane. From a technical standpoint, I was happy with the photos I’d been taking, but from a creative standpoint, I was getting bored.

I must have forgotten about all that as soon as I wrote it, because when I sat down to write today’s review, I was sure that this funk I’m in has only been a couple of weeks. Not a couple of months.

Ugh.

I’ll start with the good news, because there is good news. I’ve figured out what I’m doing with Violet Lane. 

Sketchbook #45

Photography, Productivity, Writing

I have no idea what’s going on with July. It’s been one of those months that’s simultaneously been dragging on forever and is disappearing in a flash. But July is almost over (however that happened), and I guess it’s time to think about how it went.

I’m going to start with photography, because that’s the bit that doesn’t make me want to tear out my hair this month. (Fair warning for when I get to the writing bit of this update.)

I’m still in that rut I mentioned in June, still taking far too many photos of flowers and not enough photos of literally anything else. So that’s not great. But I’m still carrying a real camera a few times a week, and I do like the photos I’m taking, even if they’re kind of boring. 

But the real progress has been in the super-secret Big Scary Project. I’m still not ready to launch, but I have made some huge steps forward this month. (That ‘next step’ I mentioned at the end of June—the one that required an incredibly tedious bus ride? I actually tackled that the day after I said that it was going to be my top priority for July. And the bus out there wasn’t air conditioned, so it was pretty much exactly as painful as I imagined it’d be. It was slightly better coming back—at least there was a/c.) 

Point is, I’m incredibly proud of the progress I’ve made on that project this month, and I’m super excited about the next steps. If I can keep the momentum going, I’ll be ready to make some actual announcements by fall.

Now. Writing. (Feel free to skip this bit. Last warning.)

Sketchbook #44

Personal, Photography, Writing

“Maybe I’ll have some answers by the end of June,” I said

Why do I set myself up like that? 

I’m being a little overdramatic. The first two weeks of the month were good. Really good. It took a few days to figure out what I was doing with Violet Lane, but I’m well into the second draft now, and it feels like the big changes (cutting down the number of point-of-view characters, eliminating one character entirely, et cetera) are the right ones. I’m still wavering a bit on the tone (I want to make it darker, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I might have to rework the main character again), but in general, I’m happy with it.

My progress with photography is… ok. I’m in a bit of a rut—so many flowers—and I’m trying to figure out how to push myself out of my comfort zone with that. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m in a bit of a rut when it comes to my routine in general—I do the same things and go to the same places, travelling the same routes, at roughly the same time every week—so I’m not seeing anything new. Nothing is feeling fresh or interesting. (I haven’t gone on as much as a day trip in over a year. The logistics for that kind of thing get tricky when you don’t drive.) Plenty of photographers have found inspiration in mundane environments, but I’m dealing with a general sense of frustration that’s just feeding on itself right now, and I need to figure out how to break myself out of it.

That said, the flower photos are ok—some of them have been quite good—they’re just boring.

Other than that things have been pretty much progressing as expected: I’m having fun with the website redesign, I’ve been making some real progress when it comes to figuring out my long-term plans (which… yeah, I kind of worked on that a few months ago, but I’ve been refining the ideas and framing them in a way that means I can work toward them rather than just dream about them), and I took a few small steps toward that big project that I’m still not announcing, even though I fully intended to do so this month. (More on that in a minute.)

… and then I came down with a cold. Nothing much has happened since last Wednesday. At all.

Sketchbook #43

Writing

May has taught me that I really do need to build a better system for managing my writing projects.

It started off well enough—I had finished drafts of both The Black Sun and Violet Lane, vague plans for my next project (very tentatively titled These Modern Things), and I was excited to move forward. And then… not much happened.

May wasn’t awful. I’ve been brainstorming the new story and figuring out what I need to do with Violet Lane, and I’m waiting to hear from readers of The Black Sun. I’ve been beta reading a story for a friend. So it’s not like I haven’t done anything this month but… it kind of feels like it.

Levelling Up

Writing

One of my resolutions for 2019 was to “actively seek out inspiration,” to not only look for the art and media that made me want to do things, but to engage with it more.

I also said I’d keep you up to date with that.

Um.

Right. Yeah. Sorry.

I haven’t figured out a way to talk about it that feels natural for this space. I tend to shy away from writing reviews or critiques—even short ones—but I don’t know a better way to do it. (If you have an idea, drop it in the comments! I really do want to sort something out.)

But I have been doing the important part: over the last couple of months, I’ve been more intentional in the movies I choose to watch and the books I choose to read. This time, it’s not just a matter of pulling myself out of a rut (though… it’s kind of that, too), it’s about looking at the media that thrills me, and picking it apart and figuring out why I love it so much—and why it frustrates me, because most of the time, the stories I love the most are the ones that infuriate me. Not only are my standards higher, but I spend more time thinking about the story, working through character arcs and plot threads, and eventually—inevitably—seeing the places where they fall apart.

(And, no, I’m not talking about Game of Thrones—I’ve never watched it—but I do have to acknowledge that it’s part of the reason I’m thinking about this stuff right now. I’ve been watching the discussion over the past few weeks, and it’s given me a lot of new ideas about craft and storytelling.)

(I am talking about Avengers: Endgame. At least a little bit.)