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.)

Close-up of a camera, with a plant visible through the viewfinder. Photo by Reghan Skerry.

Announcing Project366 for 2019/2020!

Photography

Here’s the thing: I love writing, and I love photography. I love studying them, I love doing them. And I’m not terrible at either of them—on a good day, I can admit I’m actually pretty ok at both of them.

But it’s always been hard for me to actually make myself write, or make myself take photos.

And it’s not easy to explain why. Perfectionism’s a problem, definitely. Sometimes it really is a lack of motivation, and sometimes it’s that I build it up so much in my head that I can’t bring myself to start. (Or worse, I have a couple of bad days in the middle of a project, and I put too much weight on them… and can’t get started again.) Sometimes, I think I’m just lazy.

I’ve done well at getting past these blocks when it comes to writing. I write more days than I don’t lately, and I feel good about what I’ve been producing. I’ve made writing friends, people I talk with on a regular basis—about the process, and the challenges—and who help keep me moving forward. (And vice versa! Helping other people get through their own blocks actually does wonders for my own motivation.)

Photography… I’m not quite there yet. I’ve had good moments, and I’ve got some acquaintances who, when I can get over myself and share my photos, are really supportive. (Seriously: thank you. It means more to me than I can say, and I feel awful for not even opening Instagram and returning the favour in… five months? I am so sorry about that.)

With writing, I tend to have concrete projects I can work on: specific stories that I can take from concept to (eventually, hopefully) finished draft. A lot of the photography I do (or try to do) doesn’t work like that, so I’m always trying to overcome the inertia to get started.

Obviously, I need to figure out how to approach photography the way I do writing, and find specific projects to work on.

Looking ahead to 2019.

Art + Craft, Personal, Writing

I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to escape from 2018, but… here we are! 2019! Only a week in and already so weird but… so far, things are marginally better than last year, so I’ll take it.

I’m not going to dwell on 2018. On a purely personal level, it wasn’t terrible. I didn’t reach most of the big goals I’d set out for myself, because I genuinely dropped the ball, or because I underestimated the amount of work involved, or because it’s really hard to focus on certain creative projects when the world is on fire. But, overall, I’m really proud of what I did accomplish. I’m happy with the stories I worked on, and the photos I took, and the general progress I made. I wish there’d been more, but… it was good.

And those big goals I didn’t reach last year? I’m moving them to this year. And, no, I’m not going to tell you what they are just yet. (Though if you’ve been reading the newsletter, you know about at least two of them.) I’ll announce them—and any other big projects I come up with—when they’re ready, or when they’re about to start. I’m really excited about all of them, and I can’t wait to share them with you. (The first major announcement will come in about two weeks.)

Big goals aside, for the first time in… I don’t know how long… I’m making something that could actually be considered ‘resolutions,’ though I’m reluctant to use that word for some reason.

Vintage SLR cameras in my office by Reghan Skerry

The 2018 Reboot | Finale

Productivity

Technically speaking September was only four months ago.

But 2018 has been the longest year ever, and it feels like it was at least two years ago that I decided I needed to make some changes.

Back in August, every project I was working on had either stalled or was moving too slowly to see any real progress. My motivation had plummeted. I was in a rut, and I needed to get myself out of that rut, and I needed to figure out how to avoid falling into it again. And so in September, I came up with a short list of things I wanted to do by the end of the year. They weren’t huge goals—and they definitely weren’t dramatic—but it was about building a system that could support my bigger goals going into the future.

We’re fast approaching the end of the year, so it’s time to look back at how (and whether) my reboot has worked, and where I’m going from here.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Diary | Post-Mortem

Writing

It’s been a week since NaNoWriMo ended, and I haven’t looked at—haven’t even thought about—my draft since then.

That’s a good thing.

I’m not abandoning the story. I’m going to get back to work on it first thing Monday morning. But I needed a break, needed to get myself out of the weird headspace that the end of the month (or the entire month) had put me in. If I’d tried to start writing again before I’d had a chance to recover, the story would have suffered. It wouldn’t even matter if it was any good (even for a first draft), I wouldn’t have been able to separate the story from the stress of writing it, and I probably would’ve wound up hating it.

This break was absolutely necessary, even if it’s left me feeling a bit adrift all week.

And it’s given me a chance to look at my experience of NaNo objectively, and really think about what it taught me this year.

The 2018 Reboot | Week 6 Check-In

Productivity

I’ve been kind of obsessed with todo lists this week.

I know. Try to contain your excitement.

Really, though, it’s a bit of a dilemma for me. For a long time, my go-to bio on social media included the phrase ‘list-maker,’ right after ‘writer’ and ‘photographer.’ I love a good todo list.

But I have no idea how to make one work for me.

It’s one thing if it’s a specific project, and I can just check things off until I’m done, but in a more general context… no idea. I’ve never found a system that works for me, whether it’s pen-and-paper, or bare-bones digital, or a digital system with all the bells and whistles. I always start with enthusiasm, sure I’ve found the perfect setup, but within a few months, things start slipping, I start putting things off, and then I start looking for the new perfect tool.

(The one exception—in that it really did work for me for about a year—was Habitica. Since I was in a fairly active guild, if I didn’t check things off it affected other people, not just me. But the todo list aspect didn’t actually have all the features I needed (specifically, more customizable repeatable actions).)

I know that it doesn’t really have anything to do with the tools I use. It’s me. (Though I do have a few issues with the Eisenhower matrix. I can see how it’s useful, but… yeah. I might go into detail on that at some point, once I’ve figured out how to articulate my thoughts.)

I need to figure out how to use a to-do list effectively, and how to motivate myself. If nothing else, I know that after a certain point, just checking things off a list doesn’t cut it.


Now. On to the goals themselves….

Improve the quality of the art I’m consuming, in order to improve the quality of the art I’m creating.
I’m still doing well here. I’m back to watching some good movies, and the books I’ve been reading have been… mostly good. I’m still on the fence about one of them… or two of them, really… but they’re not bad. And I’m almost done one of them, so I’ll be a little more careful choosing the next one.

Find a way to structure my time in order to support my bigger goals (creative and otherwise).
I’m starting to see some progress here. With NaNoWriMo coming up, I’ve got something to work on and a clear deadline, which definitely helps, but I’m doing better in general. I’m still nowhere near where I want to be, but baby steps.

(I’m also running up against my cat’s obsession with routine. If I’m on the computer—or even in the office—at the ‘wrong’ time, Lucy will throw a tantrum in the other room, which doesn’t do my focus any favours. I’m trying to train her out of that, but… well, it’s taken nine years to train her out of waking me up before six a.m. on a weekend, so… we’ll see how that goes.)

Develop workflows for writing and photography. And blogging.
After last week’s realization, I haven’t been working on the blogging workflow recently. Though maybe I should—between these updates, and the NaNo prep diary, and my newsletter, I need to figure something out. And I’m still studying photography workflows; most of the advice that’s out there is more geared toward wedding and family photographers, and I don’t do that (much). So that’s a case of studying, and learning how to apply those lessons to what I do do.

I am back to fine-tuning my writing workflow (there’s NaNo’s influence again). So that’s something.

Experiment with productivity and journalling systems, and find something that works for me.
This is where the whole todo list obsession comes in.

I’m still experimenting with different systems, and I’m slowly (so slowly) starting to move toward something that might work for me (for now). It’s a hacked-together combination of digital and analogue, and I still don’t know how long I’ll be able to maintain it. (I did some tests, and a standard size Moleskine just fits in my favourite bag. Sort of. It would be easier with a different wallet, and it seems like I ask this at least once a year but why the hell are women’s wallets so stupidly big?)

But I’m making progress, and that’s the important thing.

Finish the work on the office.
I don’t really have a lot to report here. I’m still decluttering, but that’s still just a case of going through old magazines and making sure there’s definitely nothing I want to keep. I’ll probably be doing a little more next week.


Overall, it’s been a good week. For the first time since I started this reboot, I feel like I’m seeing some changes, rather than just reading things and hoping for the best. And the timing couldn’t be better: we’ve got exactly two weeks before NaNoWriMo starts, and that’s going to be the first real test of this whole thing.

I might be just a little bit nervous.

The 2018 Reboot | Week 5 Check-In

Productivity

It’s been a while since I checked in on this little project of mine (here’s the explanation for my absence, if you missed it), but I’m happy to say that it’s only the check-ins that I’ve missed. I haven’t been neglecting the reboot itself, and I’m actually kind of impressed with the progress I’ve made in the past few weeks, despite everything.

Let’s get to the individual goals, shall we?


Improve the quality of the art I’m consuming, in order to improve the quality of the art I’m creating.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect this to go very well the last few weeks. When I’m sick or on vacation, I tend to go straight for lighter fare, the kinds of things that don’t require a lot of mental energy. And I did that this time, too… except the books I chose turned out to be really good. Still light, low-consequence YA, but the kind of stuff that both held my attention as a reader, and impressed me as a writer.

On the other hand, I haven’t watched a single movie in two weeks. So, you know… win some, lose some. (I’ll be rectifying that today.)

Find a way to structure my time in order to support my bigger goals (creative and otherwise).
This was a massive failure during my time off, but I’m not going to feel too bad about that. I knew going in that my structure was going to fall apart in those two weeks.

But I came back feeling really motivated, and with a list of projects that I wanted to dive into this week. (I was actually kind of scared that I was trying to pack too much into my schedule, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue.) It’s only been three days, but it seems to be going well so far.

However, I’m still not quite where I want to be, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to maintain the current standard when this initial rush of energy fades. I’ve got to do more work on this.

Develop workflows for writing and photography. And blogging.
The last time I checked in, I said that this was going to be one of my primary goals in the coming week. Researching it, at least—I knew I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the actual work.

I have been researching it. And I’ve been learning a lot.

First off, I’m still happy with the fiction-writing workflow I’ve been developing. I want to fine-tune it a bit, but it really does seem to work for me.

Photography… I’m still not sure. I need to clarify my goals a little better on this front before I can move forward. And that’s ok.

Blogging… meh. Mostly what I’ve learned there is that a lot of the information that’s out there doesn’t really apply to me. I’m not looking to turn this blog into a career, or blog just for the sake of blogging. (I have to stop typing the word ‘blog’ soon, before it starts to look like utter nonsense.) Honestly, most of the advice about ‘blogging workflows’ that I’ve seen is just advice on how to churn out content day after day, and that’s never been my goal here.

This is going to be something I have to figure out entirely on my own. (Fun!) So… again, I have to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish, and figure out how best to do that.

Experiment with productivity and journalling systems, and find something that works for me.
Real progress!

I mean… things kind of slowed down when I took time off. (I didn’t use a planner much while I was sitting around hoping the rain would stop.) But I did spend a lot of time reading up on different systems, and thinking about what might actually work for me. And I have been experimenting with a few systems—and if I don’t know yet what does work for me, I’m getting better at figuring out what doesn’t. (So far: I’m definitely better off keeping my calendar digital. To-do lists and trackers are still a toss-up. I am finding some DIY planner/journalling ideas that seem to click for me, but most of the typical ‘bullet journal’ stuff still doesn’t.)

I’m moving in the right direction with this one, and I’m fully confident that I’ll settle into something that works in time for the new year.

Finish the work on the office.
My progress here is kind of slow, but it is progress. I’m still working on decluttering (though that’s shaping up to be a bigger job than I’d planned), and things are starting to come together. And now that it’s mostly a matter of figuring out the fine details, and now that I have reasons to want to be in the office for longer periods of time, I’m finding out just how well everything is working in practice, rather than just theory.

It’s mostly good. Like I said: there are still some details to work out, but… it’s good.


In all: it’s been a good few weeks. Not as much active change as I’d like, but it was a good opportunity to catch up on some of the research I wanted to do for the reboot, and put myself in a position where I could tackle the real work when my schedule evened out again. That’s where I am now, and I feel really good about how things are looking for the next week or so.

Snapshot #110 | 10 Things for 23 September 2018

Personal

Currently…

1. watching… the Captain Marvel trailer. Several times in a row. I am so incredibly excited for this movie.
2. spending… a lot of time thinking about notebooks.
3. making… ice cream and bread at the same time, because this is a weird time of year.
4. trying… to choose which books to read next. (It shouldn’t be this difficult!)
5. having… a small epiphany re: some of my anxieties around creative work.
6. getting… ready to (finally!) paint the living room. That’s one more step toward getting rid of the awful builder’s beige for good.
7. listening… to a lot Talking Heads lately. (Or… I just want to listen to ‘Life During Wartime,’ ‘Psycho Killer,’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ on an endless loop. I should probably just watch Stop Making Sense again soon.)
8. craving… a change.
9. starting… to daydream about hot coffee and scarves and fingerless gloves.
10. realizing… that I haven’t written this month’s ‘Sketchbook’ post yet. So it’ll probably be late.

Inspired | August 2018

Links

Every month, I share the articles and sites that I found most interesting. Here’s what caught my attention in August.

On Woman’s Weekly, and why we should all care about their new contract policy by Joanne Harris: “Womag writers are the canary in a very deep literary mine. If we, the more influential and better-protected folk of the literary world, allow their rights to be exploited, then sooner or later companies like TI Media will come for the rest of us.”

Jami Attenberg’s #1000WordsofSummer Turned a Corner of the Internet into a Supportive Literary Community by Amy Carleton: “Writing is work. And writing well, amidst all of our available distractions, online and otherwise, can be hard work. But this summer, one writer found a way to turn a potential distraction — the internet — into a motivational force and an affirming pop-up literary community in only two weeks.”

Is social media influencing book cover design? by Holly Connolly: “Like the recent revival of zines, the encroach of digital has resulted in a renewed appreciation for the physical – and beautiful.”

Writing and the Creative Life: The Tactile Experience of Writing by Scott Myers

The only paper remnant I have kept this whole time are the index cards. That I have refused to give up.

So I asked myself why keep working with index cards? I knew the answer immediately: Because of the tactile experience.

How to accept rejection: why failure can be the first step towards success by Donna Ferguson

Canaries and Coal Mines: Women in Games and the Birth of the Alt-Right by Leena van Deventer [video, 16 minutes]: “To me, navigating creativity in a post-truth world hinges on communicating and working within your values, and assisting others to do the same.”

The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong: “Today, The Verge is publishing an interim edition of Sarah Jeong’s The Internet of Garbage, a book she first published in 2015 that has since gone out of print. It is a thorough and important look at the intractable problem of online harassment.”

Electronic Devices Privacy Handbook: A Guide to Your Rights at the Border by the BC Civil Liberties Association

This handbook is meant to help you make sense of the current state of play with respect to electronic searches at the Canadian border and at US preclearance zones in Canada, and to provide tools to protect your privacy when travelling with electronic devices.

Mike Garson’s first performance of “Life on Mars” with David Bowie, 22 September 1972

What’s the most interesting thing you saw online this month?

Sketchbook #36

Photography, Productivity, Writing

Most months, I take this post as an opportunity to reflect on the creative goals I’d set, and decide what I want to try to do in the coming month. Sometimes, taking that time to reflect leads me in a direction that doesn’t really fit into the standard format I’ve established for these ‘sketchbooks.’

Which is a roundabout way of saying this might be long, and it might ramble a bit. I’m trying to figure out some stuff, here, and if this isn’t the best way for me to do it, at least it’s been effective in the past.

Ok? Let’s go.

The way I’ve been managing my creative life—the things I’m working on, my creative energy, my time—isn’t working.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy with the things I’ve been doing lately. I love the stories I’ve been working on and the pictures I’ve been taking. This isn’t the usual feeling of ugh, I hate EVERYTHING that comes over me every so often, or the low point in my usual three-month cycle. Some of it can (probably) be attributed to the heat this summer—I haven’t had the motivation or attention span to do much work. Some of it is a general anxiety, and I know exactly what’s triggering that. (More on that in a minute, because it’s relevant.) But this goes deeper than that. It’s a restlessness and general dissatisfaction with my current processes, rather than with the work.

For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about writing and photography in terms of “projects:” concrete, measurable goals, whether it’s NaNoWriMo or a specific manuscript, or 365 photos. For a while, that was exactly what I needed—something to work toward, with some degree of accountability.

And that’s great.

Until this month, when all of those projects managed to hit stopping points at roughly the same time. I finished the 100 Days of Black & White photography project. I sent The Black Sun to my beta readers. I launched my newsletter.

… and then I wondered what the hell comes next.

There are things I could be working on: the Violet Lane outline. Various updates I want to make to the website. The big photo project that I keep hinting at and that I swore I’d be ready to announce this month (and which, by the way, I am not ready to announce this month). I’m not working on any of them. (Or not much. I have been picking away at the Violet Lane outline, and I’m really starting to like that again, but it’s going slowly.)

And, like I said: part of it comes down to anxiety. As soon as I sent The Black Sun to the last of my beta readers, I was instantly aware of all the flaws in the manuscript. (But I’m being good about that, at least. I know where this uncertainty is coming from, and I know that I can deal with it. I won’t look at the file, let alone make any changes, while it’s in beta. I’ve gotten some initial response, of the don’t worry, it doesn’t suck! variety, so that’s nice.) Plus I’ve been doing that thing I do with Instagram, where I feel guilty about not having anything to post, so I don’t log in at all, and then I feel guilty about that.

On top of that, the progress I’ve been making on the office revamp has been its own source of stress. As much as I love what this space is becoming, it’s a mess right now. The closet is a disaster area, I’ve still got one ugly old bookcase that I can’t throw out until I’ve found places for all the odds and ends that I’m still storing there. The cat has officially claimed my new comfy reading chair, even though she’s got a bed in the room already (which she’d been using happily until two weeks ago). And every so often, the scale of this hits me and sends my not-so-inner minimalist into a tailspin, thinking about the money I’ve spent (nothing excessive, but still more than I’m strictly happy with) and what’s going to happen when I move (which I’m not planning unless something really big changes in the few months before the lease is up for renewal). I joked the other day that, between the office and my bedroom, I’m basically building a fully-functional tiny house, only… it wasn’t a joke. Not really.

So, yeah: I’m dealing with some stress.

But there’s always stress. I’m not going to meet any of my creative goals unless I figure out how to work around that stress. And the way I’ve been working until now isn’t helping me anymore.

The problem with projects is they’re finite. Eventually, they come to an end (or at least a logical and/or necessary pause), and you have to transition to something new. Different projects require different approaches, even different schedules. Every one of them needs some kind of plan, and every one of them starts with a certain amount of resistance. (At least for me.) I need to overcome inertia to start, and when it’s just one project, that’s fine, but when it’s everything, it’s… not fine. It’s really difficult.

I’m also starting to think that maybe this project-based approach doesn’t actually move my work forward as much as I’d like. I mean, yes, the two photo-a-day projects have noticeably improved my photography. But how much of that is the project itself, and how much of it is just taking photos on a regular basis, and sharing them publicly? Feedback is a huge motivator for me as an artist (as much as it freaks me out), and a creative community of some kind is essential (as much as that freaks me out sometimes). The projects themselves are irrelevant.

That said… routine can be a killer, too. I’m not the kind of person who can sit down at the same time every day and churn out 1500 words, regardless of what I’m working on. (I mean… I can. I’ve been that kind of person, and it was a big factor in my burnout. I’m not going down that road again.) And I definitely don’t want to ritualize the creative process too much. If I need certain circumstances in order to be able to make art, whether that’s a certain environment, or a certain schedule, or even a specific scented candle, then everything falls apart when I can’t repeat the ritual. (Again: I’m speaking of my own experience, here. If the ritual is what works for you, then go for it!)

The trick, then, is figuring out how to consistently produce work, whether fiction or photography or something else entirely, and get regular feedback, without turning it into a chore. It’s figuring out how to focus on the process, rather than the outcome, while still keeping my long-term goals (which still haven’t changed, so at least that’s something) in sight. It’s figuring out what really motivates me, and how to tap into that.

I don’t know how to do that.

It would be nice if I could wrap up this blog post with some clear answers, if I could say for sure what I was going to do. It’s taken three days and over a thousand words just to articulate the problem in a way that makes sense to me, and I’m still thinking about what the solution is.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in September: thinking about my creative process, and my day-to-day routine, and looking at ways that I can improve it. I’m going to try to get back to regular posting on Instagram, though it probably won’t be a specific project. I’m going to work on the Violet Lane outline and continue to try very hard not to worry about The Black Sun.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime… if you’ve gone through this, and come to any conclusions, I’d love to hear what helped you. If you’re still going through something like this, I’d love to hear from you, too—we can puzzle over the dilemma together.