Where I Find Inspiration

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I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking and writing about process, habit, and other parts of my creative life.  Today, I want to take a little time to think and write about inspiration.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by inspiration.  I’m not talking about the motivation to write, or the push to start a project.  I’m talking strictly about the ideas side of things.  Writing, like most art forms, involves a process that gets you to completion, but the creative idea, the inspiration for the story or character, can come from a variety of sources and through a variety of processes.  Said another way, this post is going to be about where my ideas come from, their source if you will, rather than how I get them written down.

There’s a saying that comes up in most writing communities I’ve been in: There are no new stories, just new ways to tell them.  This is to remind you that there are so many stories in the world about so many things, that nothing is truly original anymore, it’s all informed by the stories you’ve been exposed to, but also that this isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t make your story any less worthy of being written.  Only you can tell the story you want in the way you want to tell it.

Most of my examples in this post are going to come from the Western Literary Tradition, because that’s the one I was taught in school and while I’ve branched out to try to read works from other cultures, most of my experience is still with Western stories.  Any story about star-crossed lovers is likely to invoke comparison’s to Romeo and Juliet, anything where a character kills their father will bring up references to Oedipus Rex (with or without the accidentally marrying your mother part).  Even major corporations do this as they’re making new stories.  Take the Lion King movies as examples.  The original is a retelling of Hamlet.  1.5 is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadLion King 2 is Romeo and Juliet.  I’ve definitely done this in the past.  I’ve retold an older story, or at least borrowed heavily from one.  And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.

The special magic I bring to the equation is how I tell the story differently.  What’s unique about my star-crossed lovers?  How is my retelling of the hero’s journey different from every other hero’s journey before it?  (And let’s be frank, most stories can be boiled down to a hero’s journey.)  That’s where the inspiration comes in.

I draw ideas from all around me.

When I’m creating a character, I may borrow a piece of their description from a favorite character in a book and a piece from someone I know in real life.  I may give them a verbal quirk one of my friends uses, or one of my own.  I may put someone in an outfit I saw while I was out shopping, or one hanging in a store display.

When I’m creating the plot my characters move through, it’s informed by everything I’ve ever watched or read.  I can use the tropes and ideas that are familiar from a star-crossed lovers’ story to set up an expectation that’s how things will end, and then subvert that idea by letting the lovers triumph and find a happy ending together.  When I’m writing an epic fantasy set in a medieval like society, it’s hard not to reference or draw on popular works that have gone before me, like The Lord of the Rings.  Even if I haven’t read the books or watched the movie in years, that series is so foundational to fantasy in the Western Tradition, that I can’t really avoid comparisons or overlap because so many other fantasy stories I’ve read draw on it.  I may not do it intentionally, but there’s going to be something that could be pointed to as similar.

The same is true for how I create my world.  How I decide the magic (or science) of a vampire works in my own fictional world will draw on the original legends, on Dracula, and on a number of different modern vampire novels, stories, and movies I’ve read.  This will extend to role-playing games as well.  I try very hard to mix and match and bring my own original spin to things and make something relatively unique, but there are some things that are going to overlap simply because that’s what is thought of as a vampire.  After all, if they don’t drink blood in some way, are they still a vampire?  How I construct the nature of my world (or my vampires, werecreatures, fae, etc) will have repercussions for the plot as well.  Dracula would have been a very different book if the character hadn’t had some way to mesmerize his victims.

There are a lot of ways that my characters, worlds, and plot lines come together in unconscious ways.  I don’t always realize where the inspiration came from or where I’ve read an idea before.  There are also ways that I do this very consciously.  Many of my stories are a way of sharing something about myself.  A lot of my main characters are women, and a lot of them are white (or would be default read as so in most cases).  This is partially because that’s my identity, and thus the one I feel most comfortable writing about.  I’m not saying that everything my characters go through is based on my own life, but usually at least a few bits and pieces of the problems they encounter, be they external, internal, or interpersonal, are things I’ve experienced or struggled with.

Another way I consciously draw inspiration from the world around me is trying to add diversity to my cast of characters.  In the US at least, most readers will assume a character is white unless there are specific ques in the text telling you they aren’t (like a physical description or a mentioned nationality).  My particular writing style is fairly descriptive.  I know basically every physical characteristic and detail of my characters if they get any substantial amount of page time, and while I don’t tell readers all of it, I do try to give enough to invoke an image that will be at least similar to my own image of the character.  I’m doing to mention hair color and style, eye color, and skin tone.  I’m probably going to tell you about the kind of clothes they wear.  Something I’ve been trying to be much more intentional about since my first book is to make my fictional world better reflect my actual world in the abundance of diversity it contains.  I want there to be a possibility of readers seeing themselves in my books, even if it’s not the main character.

This effort to diversify extends beyond the obvious (in the US) demographic of race (which I need to continue working on).  I want to include diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, gender identity, sexuality, age, and life experience.  (That isn’t necessarily the full exhaustive list, just the major ones I focus on a lot.)  Sometimes I’m doing this before I even start writing (I tend to have ideas for characters before I have the idea for the plot) and sometimes I look back through a draft and see where I can insert diversity in ways that help give my world more vibrancy.  This can involve quite a bit of subtle tweaking to make the changes fit well into the existing narrative, but that’s work I’m happy to do to improve my story.  And it’s work I know I could get wrong, so it’s something I want to pay a lot of attention to during my editing phase by getting a diverse range of readers to give me feedback on how well I’ve done portraying various characters in ways to look realistic and respectful.

When you boil it all down, I get inspiration from everywhere.  I take inspiration from the world I live in, the stories I’ve read/watched/played, the things I’ve experienced, things others have told me about that they’ve experienced, dreams I’ve had, or artwork I’ve seen.  I have a half-drafted novel that came about entirely due to an image I saw posted online ages and ages ago.  If I ever published that one, I’ll be thanking that artist for the inspiration, even if I can’t find the original image posted anywhere after all these years.

That may have turned into a bit of a ramble, but I hope it at least gives you a sense of where I draw my inspiration from.  Are there specific places you find inspiration or a particularly good story about where you found inspiration for a work?  I’d love to hear about it.

Creative Ruts and How I Get Out of Them

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Everyone struggles and falls into creative ruts sometimes.  This has happened to me so many times I probably don’t remember them all.  It might be that I can’t find a way forward on a particular project, it might be that life has gotten me so stressed and twisted up that I can’t find time for my writing or creative projects (which usually just makes things worse and turns into a vicious cycle), or sometimes I’m just not feeling particularly inspired for a while.

I have different strategies for different kinds of creative ruts.

If I’m struggling with a specific project or story, one of the best strategies I’ve found is to step away and work on something else.  The problems I’m dealing with in that project stay in my mind as I work on something else, so when I come back to it, I often find there’s a solution waiting there, having simmered on the back burned for however long.

If it’s life stress, or worse a cycle of life stress, I’m struggling with then I have to be very intentional about correcting course.  I have to intentionally carve out time for myself amid the stress.  This might be time to pamper myself a little, which can take as disparate forms as baking a treat, dyeing my hair, or giving myself permission to binge watch a show for half a day.  This might be carving out time for the project itself by turning off my phone, putting on headphones, or moving to a different location all together.  I’ve found that, for me at least, when it’s life getting in the way, the problem won’t just resolve itself over time.  I have to make a solution.

When I’m just not feeling like working on something creative can be the hardest struggle to overcome.  I’ve found from experience that pushing myself to keep writing, sewing, or whatever creativing I’m doing, is likely to end in frustration and a product I’m not happy with.  So, when I get to that point, I often just need a break.  I have to be careful not to let that break get too long, but a day or even a few days, distance can really help.  After that, or sometimes instead of it, I try for small attempts.  Can I write a sentence or paragraph?  Can I just do one seam or press anything that needs it?  Can I try to just spend five minutes on the project.  Sometimes it’s five minutes of pulling teeth and I put the project down again.  Sometimes I end up spending an hour or longer and get out of my rut.

In this last situation, I also sometimes combine strategies.  I’ll carve out specific time and either put on my headphones or go to a place specifically to write.  This combined strategy tends to work best with writing.  Other creative endeavors usually respond to the try for five minutes method turning into a longer session.  One of my strategies for trying to sit down for at least five minutes of writing and switching projects is to work on a prompt.  Sometimes that will be one of my image prompts, sometimes it’s one of the may prompts I’ve collected on Pinterest over the years.

This last strategy seems to have worked this time (I’ve been struggling to write for the last month, but have been doing pretty well this week since I started this prompt).  I thought I’d share the beginnings of this prompt, which is fairly typical of the type of scene I start a project with.  Dump a character into trouble, and get to know them as they get themselves (or get help) out.

The Prompt:

Write about the dragon who rescued the princess from the knight.

The Scene:

Princess Velya didn’t know how her father’s men had missed Sir Godfred’s ill intentions.  She’d been bringing up her concerns about him for months.  No one took the words of a royal princess seriously though, so here she was.

Her wrists were bound in front of her and tied to the pummel of her saddle.  Her faithful gelding, Strider, had been killed in the initial skirmish when Sir Godfred and his group of soldiers ambushed her party in the forest.  She’d just been out for a little exercise for her and the horses.  Strider had done his best to get her away, and fought hard when the soldiers tried to take control of him.  She’d been so proud of his loyalty until one of them thrust a spear into his chest.  She was never going to get the sound of his dying scream out of her head.

Velya had managed to slide off the side Strider wasn’t falling toward, to avoid injury, but she’d only made it a few steps before she was surrounded and roughly wrestled to the ground.  They’d held her there, struggling and yelling until they’d subdued or killed the rest of her guards and attendants.  She wasn’t even sure who had survived and who perished.

She ground her teeth as she stared ahead of her at Godfred’s back.  He was a power hungry, cruel man, and she wanted nothing to do with him.  He’d been one of many knights to seek her hand, and one of the few she’d told her parents very clearly would not be acceptable under any circumstances.  Her father had even agreed that he would not be considered, since there were so many suitors and most of them were higher ranked and better favored among those at court besides.

“You will regret this,” Velya murmured to herself.  “I will make sure you regret this.”  She would fight with everything she had to make sure whatever foul plan he had didn’t come to fruition.  She would not be used as a weapon against her parents, and she would not allow such an oaf as Sir Godfred to use her against her kingdom.

When they left the forest, and the buildings began to loom ahead, Velya’s jaws tightened.  The monastery.  He’d brought her to a church.  If he’d paid off some of the monks, or gods forbid, the abbot himself, then there was nothing stopping the thrice damned man from trying to force her to participate in a marriage ceremony.  With enough witnesses, it would be upheld even if she was under duress and her parents hadn’t sanctioned the marriage.

Velya looked around, trying to think of a way to escape.  The soldiers had a strong hold on the reigns of the horse she rode, and it belonged to one of them anyway, so she was unlikely to get it to bolt for her.  Once they were inside the church yard there would be very little chance of getting away cleanly, especially if they closed the gates behind them.

Velya tried to remain as still as possible, holding her head high to appear the haughty princess assured that they wouldn’t harm her, while still searching for any means of escape.  She wouldn’t let Sir Godfred win.

When the gates clanged shut behind them, Velya flinched.  Damn them all to the seven hells for putting her in this position.  If she’d been doing anything but riding, she’d have been better prepared to defend herself and her people.  Her father had her trained in unarmed combat, as well as the sword and the use of daggers and other such small weapons.  When she was out riding there were always half a dozen or more of her father’s guards with her, so she didn’t carry weapons of her own.  It would have looked to suspicious to the common people who might see her on the road or in the fields or forests.  She wasn’t supposed to be an armed royal like her brother or father.

They stopped her horse near the entrance to the monastery.

Velya leaned forward and got a good grip on the pummel of the saddle.  If they wanted her off this horse, they were either going to untie her, or bring the whole saddle down with her.  She would not make this easy and she would not let them make it look good.

“Time to come down, princess,” Sir Godfred said as he dismounted.

“I will do no such thing,” Velya said, her voice easily carrying across the yard so that everyone could hear her.  She could see some monks in the doorway and still more over near the other buildings.  She would make sure there were plenty of witnesses to her displeasure.  “I will not follow orders from a knight who has disgraced his position by taking me against my will.”  Let him chew on that.

Sir Godfred made a tutting sound, like you would use when a child was misbehaving.  “Do not be willful, princess,” he said, his own voice pitched to carry as well.  “We must see that you are unharmed after your fall, and the monastery was nearer than the palace.”  His voice dropped as he approached her, these words for her alone.  “Do as you are told, and my men need not harm any of the monks here,” he threatened.

Velya stared him in the eye as she replied, her voice loud and firm.  “I would not have fallen if you and your men hadn’t intentionally slain my horse in an attempt to capture me,” she declared to all within earshot.  “You will release met to return to the palace,” she continued, even as he reached for her.  “You are an oath-breaking traitor, and I will not go along with anything you want me to do.”

Sir Godfred’s hand closed over her wrist, the metal of his armored glove digging into her flesh as he gripped hard and pulled.

He was a fully trained and armored knight, and she was but a slim girl with a little training in self-defense.

Velya found herself sprawled on the ground beside the horse.  Her hip and shoulder hurt where she’d landed on them.  It was probably a miracle she hadn’t hit her head as well.  Or maybe she had learned something from the unarmed combat training about how to fall without hurting herself.

“How clumsy of you, your highness,” Sir Godfred sneered.

Velya clenched her jaw.  No one was saying anything or raising an alarm.  He must have paid them all well to look the other way.

That’s when she head the roar, and felt the strong draft of wind beating down on them from above.

Looking skyward, she saw one of the great dragons descending from the sky, it’s powerful call shaking her very bones as it descended with strong flaps of its large and powerful wings.

The horses scattered as they screamed.

Velya curled herself into a ball, praying none of them would trample her in their haste to get away.  There were several heartbeats of chaotic sound and motion and she prayed to the gods to spare her life.

Once the horses were gone, Velya uncurled and looked up.  Sir Godfred was staring up at the sky as one giant, three-toed foot descended right for him.

Velya didn’t even have the presence of mind to scream as the giant foot came down, Sir Godfred between two of the toes where he stood above her.  The giant claws dug into the dirt on either side of her, and then she was being lifted, the foot tightening down around her as she heard the giant wings beat against the air and felt the sickening lurch as the dragon leapt skyward once more, taking her with it.

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Sapphire knew her brother would be furious when she arrived home, but she couldn’t just lay there in the forest and listen as the princess of the local kingdom declared herself captured by an unfaithful knight.

She’d acted before thinking it through of course.  She could have just threatened the knight and made him release the princess.  She could have raised her voice in alarm and distracted the men, but no, she’d flown in, scooped up the princess, and flown off.  What was she supposed to do now, except take the girl back home to get her brother to help her sort it out?

Sapphire landed on the rocky outcropping near the top of her brother’s home and very carefully deposited Princess Velya on the rock before stepping back.  She didn’t know how the princess was going to react to all this.

Sapphire let out a breath of magic and her form shifted and morphed, shrinking her to the size of a horse.

Princess Velya sat up and looked around.

“Wow, it’s beautiful,” she said, her eyes caught by the view from the rocky outcrop.

“Yes, the views of the valley are quite spectacular from this high,” Sapphire replied.

Princess Velya’s head slowly turned so she was looking at Sapphire.  “You got small,” she said, blinking quickly.  “You…Did you…save me?” she asked, looking suitably bewildered.

“I could hear what you were saying to the knight,” Sapphire replied.  “I thought it best to remove you from his presence so I could find out what was really going on.”

“Thank you,” Princess Velya said, her words coming out with such force that Sapphire actually took a step back.  “I think he was going to try to force me to marry him or some such,” Princess Velya went on.  “I’m so grateful for you taking me away from him.”

“You are most welcome,” Sapphire replied.  Oh good.  The Princess wasn’t upset with her.  That was very good.

“Sapphire?” her brother called, stepping out of the door that led inside the cliff.  “What’s going on?  You weren’t supposed to arrive for three more days.”

“I’m sorry to impose on you early, brother.” Sapphire said, turning toward him.  “But it became rather urgent that I arrive,” she added, tilting her head to hopefully draw his attention to the princess.

“Oh, you brought a guest,” her brother said.  Standing stock sill.

Her brother, unlike Sapphire, did not look much like a dragon.  He was only about four feet tall in his natural state, his body built more like a salamander or newt than like a horse, and yet he stood more like a man.  He was at least blessed with the scales of a dragon, his in a deep green, and all the protection and magic that came with their shared heritage.

“I’m very sorry for intruding,” Princess Velya said, shifting so she was kneeling on the rocks rather than half laying down.  “Sapphire has just rescued me from quite a predicament.”

Emerald looked at her, his bright red eyes glowing slightly with intensity.

“She had been captured,” Sapphire said.  “Removing her from the situation seemed like the obvious priority.”  At least it had at the time.  Returning her home probably would have been the smarter course of action, but it was too late for that.

“In that case, please come inside,” Emerald said.  “We can see to any hurt you may have and provide you with clean clothes before returning you home.”

“Thank you,” Princess Velya said with a smile for them both before she moved to stand.

She made an odd sound in her throat as she did, her face going suddenly very pale.

“Are you well?” Sapphire asked, moving closer.  “You can lean on me if you need support.”

“Thank you,” Princess Velya said through tightly clenched teeth, reaching out to put a hand on Sapphire’s shoulder.  “It think the fall from the horse hurt me more than I realized.  Putting much pressure on my left leg causes a great deal of pain.”

Emerald glanced at Sapphire, his look inscrutable to most humans, but Sapphire could see the dozens of questions in his gaze.

“The knight pulled her from the horse,” Sapphire explained.  She’d been very careful when she picked up the princess, even in her haste, to make sure she wasn’t causing any damage to the girl.

“And I’m incredibly grateful to you for rescuing me from him,” Princess Velya said.  “I should be able to walk with a little support.”

“You probably shouldn’t,” Emerald said.  “Walking on an injury only makes it worse.”  His glance at Sapphire held very different questions this time.

“I could carry you on my back,” Sapphire offered.

“That seems presumptuous,” Princess Velya replied uncertainly.

“It is simply the easiest way for me to carry you inside,” Sapphire replied, crouching down so the princess could easily sit upon her back.

“Come now,” Emerald said, taking Princess Velya’s hand.  “Let us help you inside so we can tend to you properly.”

Thankfully the princess nodded and carefully sat side-saddle style on Sapphire’s back.

Sapphire stood slowly, making sure the princess had her balance before following her brother inside.

As soon as they were through the doorway, Emerald clapped his hands and called out orders to the servants.  A bed was prepared and supplies for healing the princess, and food and drink were brought.

Sapphire followed her brother to the nearest guest suite and walked the princess directly into the bed chamber before slowly crouching down.

Emerald steadied Princess Velya as she stood and helped her the two steps to sit on the bed.

“We’ll take good care of her,” Maria, her brother’s housekeeper, said as she breezed in with two maids behind her.  “You two go on and make sure a message is sent to her family.”

Sapphire did as she was told, making her way back to the hallway.

“I’ll send a sprite,” Emerald told her as soon as the suite door had closed behind them.  “I will inform them that we have rescued the princess from someone who was causing her harm, and that she will be returned as soon as her wounds have been tended to and she is fit to travel.”

“May I take her?” Sapphire asked.  She wanted to see the princess safely home.

“I will inform them that the princess will arrive home by dragon,” Emerald replied.  It was always best to announce themselves in advance so as not to frighten anyone.

“Thank you,” Sapphire replied.

“And as soon as the pixie has left, you are going to tell me everything,” Emerald responded.

“Yes, brother.”  He was only worried for her.  Sapphire knew that.

On Creation and Completion

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my creative processes and what I get out of them lately, in case the past few regular posts haven’t made that obvious.  My creative process looks a bit different for free-form things like writing than it does more concrete things like sewing or cross-stitch.  These are the three types of creation I’ve been doing the most of lately, so they’re what’s on my mind.

My writing processes are all over the place, but I take more joy in the drafting stage than most other parts of the process, including actually finishing something.  With cross-stitch and sewing it’s a bit different.  I enjoy the process.  The individual steps and seeing the project come together are enjoyable, but seeing the final finished project is a huge rush all by itself, even if the last thing I did was super easy and only took a few minutes.  That act of completion is just so amazing.

So, for my writing, I seem to enjoy the creation itself the most, but for most other crafts, the completion of the project is the most enjoyable part.  I find this interesting.  And I think it might have part to do with the fact that a writing project doesn’t always look or seem either complete or incomplete, especially when it’s just words on a screen, but you can tell with just a glance if a sewing or cross-stitch pattern is complete or not.  A little less so at the end stages when you’re doing finishing work, but certainly during the bulk of the project it’s either in pieces or has big gaping holes with no color or stitches.

All of this got me thinking about why I create.  Why do I want to make things or write stories?  Part of the answer is that I enjoy the act of creation.  I love making things.  Whether it’s new words, a new shirt, a teddy bear for someone, a cross-stitch that makes me smile when I look at it, or a cardboard creation to keep the cats from getting at the cords under my desk.  Believe it or not, that last one brought a lot of satisfaction with it.  I could get at my cords easily, but the cats could no longer walk on the power strip where there’s a switch they could accidentally flip to turn everything off.  It happened once, my cat was not amused by the yelling and cursing that ensued.  We’re both much happier with this new arrangement.

Sometimes I’m really proud of the final products I make, like the Regency gown and Spencer jacket I made so I could fit in with the bridal party at my friend’s Regency themed wedding.  Sometimes, it’s just the satisfaction of making a solution with no extra costs, like that cardboard cord protection.  Sometimes I’m writing a story just for me, and never plan to share it with anyone.  Sometimes I’m writing a story I want everyone to read.  But no matter what the motivation is, I enjoy the creation process.

Taking joy in the process as well as the finished product is one of the best things about making of any kind.  Yes, you have an awesome thing when you’re done, but you also spent time (sometimes a huge amount of it) doing something you enjoy.  Sometimes, when the editing is hard, or the ideas aren’t coming, I need that reminder that the creation isn’t all about the end product.  It’s about the process and the enjoyable time (and sometimes friendships) I make along the way.

I think what I’m trying to say, is don’t forget to take joy in the process, and if the joy is gone from the process, maybe it’s time for a break to make something else for a while.  My writing has been a bit of a struggle lately, but I’m finding a lot of joy (and some peacefulness in my own head) from working on cross-stitch projects (mostly gifts for others).  So, I’m trying not to stress the lack of writing progress right now.  Trying to force it can lead to stress, so doing my one or two sprints in the morning is enough.  And if every few weeks I miss a day entirely, that’s fine too.  There’s only so much creative energy and time, so at least I can spend it on the project that’s giving me joy.

With the state of the everything right now, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself, especially when it comes to your hobbies and the things you’re doing because you want to do them.  If it’s no longer enjoyable, a break might serve you better in the long run.

Creativity as Process and Pattern

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my creativity and my creative pursuits and how to continue to do them and enjoy them even when I’m not feeling especially inspired or motivated.  I’ve realized that most of the creative things I do follow a type of process, and that I take comfort in that process.

Take sewing for example.  You have a pattern that needs to be cut out of the fabric and then there are steps that need to be done in a certain order to sew everything together and finish all the edges and make it into a complete and finished item.  The same goes for things like cross stitch, crochet and knitting.  There’s a pattern you’re following, even if it’s something as simple as making a row with a few dozen stitches made a few dozen times to make a square.

I find that this applies to my writing as well.  It’s not always quite as obvious, but there are patterns to most writing.  Whether it’s a pattern of rhetorical choices made in a persuasive piece, a pattern of plot in a narrative, or a structural pattern for something descriptive.  There’s always going to be an underlying structure to the final product that shows the pattern I was working from.

With my writing, these patterns are often something invisible, something that only exists in my head, but they’re also a tool I use for revision and improving the piece.  With fiction, I don’t usually write the pattern down in advance, but I do map it out after the first draft.  But that’s just my discovery writing style process, and I have been experimenting with plotting out stories in advance.  That plot outline is the pattern you’re applying to the narrative.  There are all sorts of ways to think about that pattern and how to create it: seven-point plot structure, three act structure, or the snowflake method.  All of those give a sort of template for the process at least if not the actual structure of the plotting pattern itself.

I find patterns comforting.  Humans are a bit hard wired to see patterns (which is why we read so much into what is actually random or coincidental).  I can use that to my advantage when I’m doing something like a sudoku or picture-cross puzzle, where it’s obviously about patterns, but I can also use that pattern recognition tendency in things like my crafting hobbies and my writing.  Almost every sewing pattern I’ve used that has a modern style sleeve has basically the same instructions.  I can use that familiar pattern to help me make a better sleeve next time.

With my writing, the process of it all, the drafting, revising, and editing, helps me keep going even when I’m not feeling particularly motivated.  The habit of doing something every day at the same time helps my brain shift into the familiar pattern of writing work at that time each day.  I find it easier to write during my morning sprints than almost any other time these days.  My brain is so used to getting up, getting ready, and settling down to write before anything else, that it falls into the thought patterns that help me write.

In times like these, when the motivation or inspiration may not always be there, having the process to fall back on is great.  If I can’t think of anything to draft, I can work on revisions I’ve made notes about before, fill in details for a plot, character, or setting I’ve been working on, or copy edit something that’s nearly finished.  I can keep doing the work, even if it’s only for a short time, and that keeps the pattern of my daily writing work happening.

In the end, the process is how you get from an idea to a finished piece.  Whether it’s the process of laying out the colors to go in each square for a cross stitch pattern, making those stitches, following the pattern directions for a sewing project, or following the process of drafting and revision that works for you, it’s all about process.  Despite the romanticized vision of sudden inspiration, creative products don’t just happen.  Someone puts a lot of work into them by following their own personal creative process.

Right now, I’m taking some much-needed joy in appreciating that process for its own sake.

Life in a Time of Pandemic: Diving into Hobbies

Cross stitch of a jar of fireflies with the words Be the light incorporated in the design.
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This one isn’t going to be talking too heavily about the pandemic itself, but I still wanted to tag it as such for those who just want a break from talking/thinking/reading about anything relating to it.

For the rest of you, this is going to be a lot more about crafting and writing and hobbying in general than anything else.  I was inspired to write about this because the university I work for started up a recuring series of stories on our staff/faculty newsletter/newspaper article site about all the hobbies people are picking up, or diving further into, because of the pandemic.

The stay-at-home to keep your exposure risk down mentality has had me fairly confined to my apartment.  Since March, I’ve only really left my apartment for groceries and other essentials, a few doctor and dentist appointments, and one week-long staycation at my in-laws (we all had a two-week quarantine prior to and right after).  It’s meant a lot of time that used to be devoted to things like my daily commute (about 2 hours total per workday) and driving to various social things (easily a recovery of another 2-3 hours each week) are now time I have for other things.

Not all of this time is going to a hobby.  About half an hour of my morning commute time is now devoted to more sleep, for example.  But the new daily routine I’ve worked out for pandemic conditions is helping with my commitments to my hobbies and my ability to follow through with them.

Prior to the pandemic, I took a regional express bus to work.  It’s about 30 minutes on the bus in low-traffic (my morning commute window) and 45-60 minutes in high traffic (my evening commute window, time highly dependent on driver and whether they take the shoulder when allowed).  This time has usually been writing time for me.  One NaNoWriMo, I started doing sprints with others on our online spaces during my commute, then the time between when I got to the office and when I had to start work at eight.  In Pandemic conditions, that has transitioned to being a 20-minute sprint called by chat bots every day at 7am, 7:30am, and 8am.  I usually make one or two of them every day, and there are a few other regular attendees who join me.  This has turned into an amazingly consistent morning writing habit.  I even get up that early on weekends now (though that’s more about consistent sleep times being better overall).  This regularity, started in October as NaNo Prep, has led to a daily writing streak over 130 days long already.  I’m a little amazed at myself.  And even if I’m only making one sprint a day, that’s 20 minutes, and I can rack up a significant amount of words or editing work over the course of a week or a month even with just 20 minutes a day.  It’s been pretty amazing how productive I’ve been so far this year.

My evening recovered commute time hasn’t been devoted to writing as much as my morning recovered commute time.  It’s allowed my partner and I to be a little more intentional with dinner timing.  I have a post-work routine set up where I’ll wash my face and do the other little hygiene things I do at night, and then help him finish up dinner prep.  It’s nice to have that time with him each night sharing a meal and enjoying a little time together.  After that is my time to either hang out with him longer, do a little online socializing, game, or engage in another hobby.  And of course weekends end up involving my hobbies now that out of the house socializing isn’t an option anymore.

So what else have I been getting up to?

Almost all of the hobbies I’ve dived back into or added to my hobby collection are needle crafts.  I’ve enjoyed sewing for years now and I’ve taken some of the recovered time during the pandemic to finish off some works in progress and things from my pending sewing projects pile, as well as starting a few completely new things.  I’ve also started trying my hand at cross-stitch.  I mentioned some of this in a recent post about crafting goals for this February, and I’ve posted about the memory bears project I finished for a friend.

One of the first projects was new flannel pants for me that fit properly, had pockets, and had the just enough to seal around the leg style elastic at the bottom.  I made one pair out of jersey too but the pattern didn’t translate quite as well to the stretchier material.  I’m most proud of this pair of rainbow heart pants.  I pattern matched the pocket and it just looks so lovely.

A pair of flannel pants made from a white fabric with a rainbow pattern of hearts featuring a patch pocket sewn on to match the pattern below it.

The biggest project since March was finishing up the memory bears I’d agreed to make for a friend.  With six of them to do and a decent amount of prep needed on the various fabric pieces, it took a lot of time, but I’m very proud of them.  Since I’ve covered this type of project on the blog before I’m not going to go too in depth about it here, but I’m very proud of the set I completed for her.

I’ve also been working on other little things, like mending that I’ve been putting off, converting a few old pairs of jeans into skirts, and I have some fabric that arrived in the mail this week to make a new button-front blouse for myself.  I’ve been wanting to make more of my own clothes for a while now because I can’t seem to find things that fit properly and are made well these days.  It ends up costing me time, and sometimes the fabric supplies are more expensive than just buying a new shirt, but being able to make the pattern exactly fit me so that it looks good and knowing that the construction and finishing will hold up to the test of time (and are all things I’m capable of fixing and repairing) is worth it.

In a completely different and more decorative direction, I’ve been trying my hand at cross-stitch.  I actually started because I had some old craft kits from my mom (copyright on the directions is from the 1970s).  I made a few of them a couple years ago that were coasters.  Basically, it was cross stitch with yarn, a big plastic needle, and the plastic grid stuff you can find at craft stores.  The last kit I had was crewel work.  It was a bookmark, so a material similar to what cross-stitch uses but with wider warp/weft threads with a picture printed on it.  I followed the directions to make free-hand embroidery stitches that followed the printed picture.  It was a ladybug on a stem with leaves, and it actually came out quite nicely.

It was really nice to get a physical thing out of it, so when I was spending down a gift card to a craft store, I included some cross-stitch kits.  This had mixed results.  The first two, which were very cheap in their defense, didn’t have enough embroidery floss included in the right colors.  I had some super close embroidery floss (mine was glossy while the kit came with matte, but the color was almost exact) so I was able to finish my first kit, which was a little baby dragon.

The next kit looked like it might have done a little better, but I also planned for what to do if I ran out of thread, so I was able to make an adaptation to the pattern to use more of colors I had and less of the color I ran out of.  This one is a Unicorn, and I’m quiet proud of my on the fly adaptation of it to accommodate the lack of thread I needed.  I’m gifting this one to my niece for her birthday.

The third kit was a much better kit (it was also more expensive).  It came with an actual hoop and more than enough of every thread I needed.  I even still have extra thread.  This one took longer, mostly because it was bigger and the stitch counting was a bit more complicated with all the gaps.  I’m pretty sure I did something slightly out of alignment with the pattern, but no one is likely to be able to tell, so it’s fine.  It was a nice project to work on while chatting with friends online or while watching a twitch stream or anything else that struck my fancy.  I also just love the message of this one, it resonates with me.

Cross stitch of a jar of fireflies with the words Be the light incorporated in the design.

I have a fourth kit from that initial order, which is a paisley cat design.  I’m looking forward to that one and may even try to incorporate it into something bigger like a throw pillow.  Or maybe it will just be another think I hang on my wall.  We’ll see.  Before I get back to that I’m trying to finish up the February sewing project goals.

I’ve completed one skirt and I’m down to the seam finishing on the second skirt.  After that I’m starting on the mockup of the shirt, which will then be recreated from both the new material I have on order and the material from a shirt that matches one of the pairs of jeans I’ve converting into a skirt.  I’m hoping the shirt turns out well in mockup, because then I can take the mockup apart and use it as a definitive pattern for a shirt that fits me the way I want.  Having a pattern made out of muslin will hold up better than one made out of pattern paper, which is only slightly more durable than tissue paper for those unfamiliar with it.

So that’s where my crafting and hobbying has been since March.  There’s been an incredible amount of writing, and a decent amount of sewing and other needle craft creation happening.  It’s another one of the silver linings that’s come out of the pandemic for me.  I’m devoting more time to the things that make me happy and give me joy and a sense of accomplishment.  I’m hoping I can carry some of these things (like the regular sleeping schedule) with me after pandemic conditions are over and make them part of my normal from now on.

If you’ve taken up (or dived deeper into) any new hobbies lately, I’d love to hear about them.

February Fiber Arts

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For those of you who have been around for a while, you may have noticed my interest in making and crafting in addition to writing.  This is mostly centered around sewing related crafts at the moment (altering or adapting clothes, sewing in general, and recently cross-stitch).  One of the groups I belong to online is doing a low-key February creative crafting challenge.  Basically, it’s just us picking a goal for the month and sharing our progress and encouraging each other.  Nothing fancy.

My goal for this is to finish three in-progress items and at least start (hopefully finish) a fourth project.  I’ve been working on my third every cross-stitch project, and I’d like to get that finished this month.  I have two pairs of my mother’s old fancy jeans (by which I mean in pretty colors with embellishments) that I’m turning into a couple skirts for me.  Completing those two conversions is on my list.  And I have a shirt that goes with one of those pairs of jeans that I want to use to make a shirt in my size probably a fairly simple collared shirt style but I don’t know if I’m going to work from a pattern I have or try to create a pattern from a shirt I own that I really like the cut and fit of.

So that’s my Fiber Arts goal for February.  I’ll probably share an update about what progress I made and some pictures in my post on March 5.  In the meantime, have some pictures of my first two cross-stitch projects and the starting materials for the skirts and shirt.

I hope you’re all finding ways to keep creative this year.

Finding Creative Motivation Amidst Stress: 4 Things to Consider

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It’s a stressful time for almost everyone right now.  I’m not going to get into the why or even what’s specifically causing me stress right now, but I did want to talk about some of the strategies I’ve been using to retain my motivation to write during these stressful times.

I’ll be talking about a few strategies today:

  1. Make sure you’re meeting basics needs first.
  2. Don’t beat yourself up about things outside your control.
  3. Refilling your creative well. (Idea courtesy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.)
  4. Find (or engage with) your community.

I wanted to start with Making sure you’re meeting basic needs because it’s something that folks often forget to consider when thinking about their creative side and/or their hobbies.  We don’t always remember that if we aren’t meeting basic needs it’s going to be that much harder to try to be creative or productive outside of that.

What do I mean by basic needs?

There’s the oft mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the first two levels of which cover most of what I mean by this.  The primary being food, water, shelter, and other basic necessities of life.  This includes things like financial security, general safety, and health and wellness.  In the current world situation, this may be something that you’re struggling with that is new or different.  Suddenly being without a job may mean you have a lot more time you could spend writing or being creative, but it may also come with a massive amount of financial insecurity and stress.  Having a job right now may come with unique and different job related stress, whether that’s worry for your health (if you are public facing) or trying to navigate doing your work remotely now.

Meeting these basic needs is important.  Your general and overall wellbeing can be effected if any of these needs are being met, and that’s going to affect how much time and energy you have to devote to being creative.  How you meet these basic needs may be different for everyone.  We all have different thresholds for tolerating stress or lack in these areas.  But if you find yourself lacking the motivation and energy to be creative, look at these basic needs and see if something is missing.  If so, how can you shore that up?

That leads me into my second thing to consider.  What is outside your control?

If meeting these basic needs is outside your control, don’t further stress yourself by being negative about your lack of ability to be creative right now.  If you’ve lost a job and are unable to find a new one (a situation many find themselves in right now) that’s largely outside your control.  Do what you need to do to keep looking for that next job, but don’t stress the fact that this is taking away from other aspects of your life.  That’s normal.

This, again, will look differently for many people.  You may still be working, but have additional stress from your new work situation.  This can be just as detrimental to your ability to be creative.  Don’t add extra stress berating yourself for not doing enough to be creative.

Basically, this point boils down to “be kind to yourself.”  Be understanding about where you are and what’s going on in the world and cut yourself some slack when you need it.

Full disclosure: This part is something I’m still working on.  I’ve had a few really bad weeks recently where I wasn’t writing and wasn’t doing anything to refill my creative well, and was seeing extra stress at work and in life, and I was getting on my own case about not writing and not spending time on my creative endeavors.  This was not helpful.  It only added to my spiraling stress levels.  It took a pretty epic stress episode for me to realize that I wasn’t taking this into account.

So be kind to yourself, be understanding of yourself, and look at the why.  If you can identify the why, then maybe you can address it in some way to get back that creative motivation.

Refilling your creative well.

As I mentioned, this idea (and possibly this exact phrasing) is something I encountered during my attempt to go through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with a few of my writer friends.  We all had varying and mixed results.  I had some very strong reactions to the way she presented material in a few of the chapters and ultimately stopped reading when one chapter just rubbed me entirely the wrong way.  But all that aside, this idea has been very helpful.

What this means, is to remember to consume the things that give you creative energy.  This may mean taking more walks to be out in nature.  This may mean spending time with art of some description.  It may mean spending time with the creatives in your life that you admire.  For me, this is about consuming stories.  Reading is the best way for me to do this, but watching a show or movie, attending a play, or playing a story-based video game can give me the same creative well-filling effect.

This doesn’t necessarily lead to direct inspiration.  It’s more that seeing how others are telling stories activates the right parts of my mind to think about and consider how I tell my own stories.  At least that’s how it works for me.  Sometimes the way an author does a certain thing (like werewolves, or time distortion, or non-linear storytelling) will give me a direct idea for how to write or rework something I’m working on, but it’s not always that simple and directly.  It mostly manifests in my being noticeably more productive and energized around my writing when I’m reading regularly.

Engaging with others who are pursuing similar creative goals also helps me.  If I’m writing, talking to other writers about my story, their story, or anything related, can help refill my creative well.  If I’m working on sewing projects, talking to my friends who sew can help me find inspiration and energy to work on my projects.  And that leads to my next point.

Find (or engage with) your community.

I’m very lucky to live in an area with a very active NaNoWriMo community.  Many of the regulars in this group have become my personal friend group over the years.  I also recently discovered the CosTube community (that’s the costuming community on YouTube) and have plugged in with a few newly created (or newly discovered) Discord communities relating to that.  So that’s the community experience I’m going to be talking about, but yours might look different.  Mine has too over the years.  This could be just your normal social group.  This could be your roleplaying group.  This could be people you only know on the internet or people you see in person all the time.

Connecting with your community may be harder than normal right now, but I would encourage you to find way to reach out and make this work for yourself.  I’ve had reasonably good luck with digital solutions in this area, but I’m also an early millennial who grew up with above average technology access, so I’m a bit more plugged in and willing to engage over the internet than the average person my age or older.

To be clear, I don’t mean social media, or at least not just social media.  I’m using a variety of tools depending on the group: Slack, Discord, Zoom, online forums, group text messages, real phone calls, etc.

For my writing group, I’ve found that my natural limit of focus for an online meet up is about two hours.  So I’ve been planning those accordingly.  I used to do an in-person writing meet up every Sunday for three hours.  I transitioned it to online and recently cut it back to two hours instead of three, because I wasn’t able to sustain it for the extra hour anymore.

Finding the CosTube community has reinvigorated my interest in sewing generally, and making my own clothes and costumes specifically.  I’ve had several projects hanging out in my WIP (works in progress) pile for months or years that I’ve actually made some progress on recently.  My engagement there has been combination of watching YouTube videos and seeing pictures others are posting (which arguably is part of my well refilling) and engaging directly on Discord with other sewing and crafting enthusiasts I came into contact during a recent CosTube event.

Having other people to talk to about your project or ask advise or questions can be incredibly powerful.  Heck, just being in the same “space” with someone while working can be incredibly motivating.  That’s the general idea behind the writing meet ups, surrounding myself with others who are also writing, and that extended a bit into my sewing space as one of the Discord servers I joined dose “sewing sprints” which are based on the popular NaNoWriMo writing sprints.  Basically it’s just time spent together on the Discord while working on your sewing project.

This community engagement can be really powerful, but do be careful that it doesn’t become competitive (which can be a turn off for many) or toxic in any way.  Things can be toxic because the people aren’t kind or become condescending.  A group of people that look down on you for being a beginner isn’t going to help you improve any.  There is also such a thing as toxic positivity, though it can be much harder to spot.  Find a community space that is about the community and helping and uplifting the whole group, not one that devolves into competitions or cults of personality where certain members are just there for the attention.

Do what works for you.

Ultimately, you’ll have to find what works best for you, but these are a few things I find helpful that I wanted to share to help you along the way.  If you have other ideas or suggestions to share related to this, I’d love to hear them.  Where do you find your writing community?  How do you refill your creative well?  How do you keep the motivation going?

I hope you’re all able to find and keep your creative motivation no matter what’s going on in the world around you, but either way go out and be kind to yourself and others along the way.

Making in All Its Variety

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So I recently attended a virtual event called CoCoVid, which was a quite amazing way to be introduced to the world of CosTube, which is apparently what they call the subsection of YouTube dedicated to costume creation.  If you are at all interested in cosplay or historical costuming, I would recommend a quick Google for either of those two things, and wish you a fun adventure falling down that rabbit hole.

A comment someone made on a Discord server I joined as a consequence of that experience got me thinking about “making” and what it means.  Someone mentioned being a writer but that not being a “craft.”  My argument was that they don’t say “practicing your craft” about writing for no reason.  (I’m not going to get into how craft/crafting and make/making are connected, as it’s intuitive to me.)

I ascribe to the definition of making that I’ve heard Adam Savage use (probably on a pod cast or a Tested video on YouTube, possibly both).  I’m paraphrasing, but the basic gist of it is that if you start with nothing but an idea and you then create a thing (a dress, an object, a book, a computer program) then you are a maker, because you made a thing that didn’t exist before.

I really love this way of thinking about making.

I am a maker.

I write stories and create characters, worlds, and books from nothing at all.

I use cardboard, scissors, tape, and whatever other supplies I can get a hold of to fashion custom storage solutions or whatever else strikes my fancy.

I take ingredients and the memory of a dish and I play around until I’ve made that delicious stir-fry I used to get back in college.

I fiddle around on a computer to get a design settled and then use the laser cutter at the university I work for to make the fanciest of fancy popsicle sticks with writing on them.

I follow recipes and adapt them and make the most amazing cheesecakes in cake, pie, and cupcake forms.

I take fabric and thread (and often follow instructions and patterns) and I create a dress, or a shirt, or a reusable mask.

There’s so much joy in creation, and I get that joy no matter what kind of creating I’m doing.  Whether you think of yourself as a maker or not, if you create things, go forth and create.  If that creation gives you joy, I hope you’ll share it as much as possible.  Being able to take joy in the things you do and share that joy is one of the best things in the world.

NaNoWriMo Wrap Up

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Today is the very last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I wrote 67,831 words in 29 days, passing the 50,000 word mark (with 5,0005 words at time of validation) on November 22, 2018.  I’m spending most of today continuing to write my story in the hopes that I can reach “The End” before midnight.

It’s been a turbulent November this year.  I’m part of the Municipal Liaison team for my area (ML is a fancy term for an unpaid volunteer).  There are three of us.  The region is active enough that it needs three of us.  Due to work demanding time, energy, and overtime, for one co-ML and the other ending up sick not once but twice during November, I was a solo act for possibly half the month.  I know this was no fault of theirs, and I love them both dearly for doing as much as they did while overwhelmed with work/illness.  It just meant more time being an ML and slightly less time for writing. Continue reading

Art Culture

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On my recent vacation, we spent a couple days in Asheville, NC, which is one of the centers of art culture in the state.  I just wanted to take a few moments to appreciate that about Asheville, and talk more generally about what I mean by art culture, and how I find it wherever I go.

First, what do I mean by art culture?

This isn’t just an artsy way to say “art and culture” or a trendy phrase I picked up somewhere.  To me, art culture, is a way of life, a way of being, and a way of being in community with others.  Art, as I’m using it here, is a very broad term that encompasses almost any creative endeavor.  That can be the art of cooking, the art of weaving, the art of book binding, the art of painting, the art of writing, the art of making, the art of architecture, and anything and everything in between.

So what I mean by art culture, is a person, place, or community, that embraces that definition of art and the support of art and everything that comes along with it.  This might mean having accessible studio space in a community, a university providing free materials for students to use in their maker spaces, a local community willing to pay artists for their work with an understanding of how time intensive it is to make, or a local business that encourages art related groups to come and meet there even if it doesn’t lead to extra revenue for them.

Asheville is a great example of the broad definition of art culture. Continue reading