Left brain, right brain, left knee (the brain and the creative process)

Dorothy McQuaid from Backroom Whispering Productions and I talk about writing and the creative process. Like Real People!

Everything you never knew you always wanted to know about the different functions of your brain, and how they influence the way you write.

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Growing up and other animals (chapter 1 fragment)

A fragment of the first chapter of my novel. Becca has just arrived at the hospital in her home town, Reno, after receiving some alarming news about her father.

I ran up the steps to the front desk, and then all the way to the hallway where my family was waiting for tidings from behind the red door of dad’s room. Sam and Veronica sat on plastic chairs attached to the wall, both of them looking gray and exhausted in the harsh neon light. Sam’s face was drawn, with unfamiliar lines crossing it, and I got a sneak peek, almost too intimate for comfort, of what she would look like thirty years from now.
I held back and waited for them to see me. After a while I clumsily approached. “Hey.”
For a few seconds they both stared at me, and I had the weirdest flash of anxiety that they’d send me away and say they’d rather be alone. Then Sam got up and pulled me into an embrace. “Becks,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Veronica got up, too. Her jaw-length, mouse brown hair seemed thinner than I remembered, and her polka-dotted bow hairband only accentuated its brittle state. The sharp face that Sam has inherited looked almost emaciated in this older version. The skin under Veronica’s left eye was a grainy purple; it might have been exhaustion or – as I later found out to be true – the remains of a black eye.
I took Veronica’s hands in mine. “I’m so sorry.”
She nodded. “Me too, Becca. For you, I mean.”
The circumstances made us transcend our issues, even if just for a moment. For once we respected each others’ roles. Worried daughter, loving stepmother.
“What did they say?”
“It was a heart attack. Oh my god, Becca.”Her hands shook so badly that I had to steady them between my own. I smelled a waft of liquor on her breath. Maybe a residue from the night before, or some self-prescribed emergency medicine from her hand bag.
“Here, sit down.” I helped her back into her chair. “So are they giving him meds?” I was hoping against hope, but if that had been the case he wouldn’t still be in critical care.
“No,” Sam shook her head. “They’re going to do this thing called PCI. Like, surgery. But he’s going to be fine. Right?”
“The doctor will be with us soon,” Veronica said mechanically.
“Okay,” I said, and sat down on a bolted chair next to them. “Then let’s wait together.”

In the end we had to wait another full day to see dad. I went into his room last. When I walked in the door, of the many things that struck me as strange – the fact that he looked so small and old outside the context of our home, the tubes that fed into his arm – the strangest was seeing his name on the chart at the foot of his bed. Gus Vanderburgh. He was always so overwhelmingly my father that it had been a long time since I had considered him as an independent human being. And yet here he was, Gus Vanderburgh. A man with his own opinions about life, and anecdotes with people I’d never know in them, and parameters for happiness I’d never understand. That was the moment it hit me. He would die, and no longer be my father. And there was nothing I could do, no ideal-daughter-goal I could fulfill, to keep him here. I started to cry.
From up close his skin looked like crumpled rice paper. I sat down on a chair by the bed and stroked his hand. As if he’d read my thoughts, he said: “I never was much of a father to you, was I?”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true.” He smiled laboriously. “There’s a couple of things I want to say, honey, in case I don’t get another chance.”
Trying to pull myself together, I took a tissue from the box on his night stand and wiped my face. I waited for him to speak. His breathing sounded like someone sanding wood in slow-motion.
“Is she mad at me?”
“Your stepmother.”
I was taken aback. “Eh. No, of course not. I don’t think so.”
He looked me over with that unreadable expression on his face, as if he was tucking his impressions away for later use. He cleared his throat, and in spite of myself my heart leaped up.
“Your nose is red.”

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There is always beauty (Mood Blanket 2016)

When I’m not writing, I’m usually eating, sleeping or crocheting. Right now I’m doing a CAL (crochet-along) for a Temperature Blanket 2016 – but instead of actual temperatures, I’m charting my moods. Every day I crochet a square, in a yarn colour representing the mood of that day.

I did NOT think this would be such a powerful thing, but it is. I find that as I spend a few minutes each day wondering how I feel, and paying tribute to how I feel, no matter what mood I’m in, that really helps me to not only appreciate my day and my life, but also feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with it.

Would you like to join me?

Here’s a free pattern for the squares!
(are you a knitter? I based my pattern on this one by Shelly Kang)

Here’s a colour chart per skein from left to right:
(of course you can substitute for your predominant/significant moods)

1) depressed, self-loathing; 2) sad, lonely; 3) solid, at peace; 4) good; 5) strong, happy, peaceful; 6) joyful; 7) boisterous, fun but bit hyper; 8) shielding anxiety from self, pushing boundaries; 9) anxious; 10) blind panic or agression towards self, ‘fight or flight mode’.


I consider 3-7 to be ‘good moods’. As you can see, in reality I have a lot of 8-9 as well. But no matter how I feel… it’s good to make beauty out of these mood swings. :)

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Scared to get real

photo: Alvaro Barrientos

All my life I’ve been unbeatable at fantasizing. Day-dreamer is my middle name. If I was bullied on the way home from school, I’d fantasize about sweeping back in as a warrior queen, striking down the bullies from high up on my horse. If someone was harassed on the bus, I’d go away in my head to a parallel universe where I was stronger and more sure of myself and not too scared to say something. I used to dream up the image of myself as a good person, because to be one in real life seemed so far-fetched.

All my life I’ve been unbeatable at being scared. Maybe that’s a better, more honest way of putting it. And dreaming up the image of myself as a good person was my comeback, my outlet, in a world too overwhelming to take up arms – for it or against it.

I’ve gotten better. The world has gotten smaller and more comprehensible, and years of hard work have taught me my rightful place in it; whether I’m a hero or not, I belong.
But that tendency to go away inside my head is still there. The shores of fantasy land are always beckoning, ESPECIALLY when in the real world there’s a risk of running things into the ground.

This is why I started writing in English. Under a barely functional pseudonym. And – at first – about stuff that barely mattered. Why? Because I was scared. In order to be able to write AT ALL I needed to make my book like a fantasy in my head. Something that couldn’t possibly be real. Something that couldn’t possibly rock anyone’s boat or disturb anyone’s peace. A real book, that people can actually dislike, or worse, ignore? Ha! Never.
I need my space, I need my peace.
I need this fantasy.

And now…yeah. You guessed it. Now the fantasy is starting to get real.

I haven’t quite finished the manuscript yet. I’m waiting to revisit my finished draft, and tinker with it some more. But there’s only so much tinkering you can do, you know?
At some point you have to stop tinkering.

Heidi-Montag‘Cause why? ‘Cause that’s why.

And when I finally finish, then…I’ll have a finished manuscript. AND THEN WHAT?
See, this is not something I threw together one rainy Tuesday afternoon. This is the one place where I let my dreams take the shape of reality. This is an actual thing that actually matters to me. Hello world. This is my best offer.

What if it sucks? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it but nobody buys it? What if I can sell it and a few people buy it but nobody likes it?

I have to laugh at myself at this point. It’s the only thing I can do, really – but I’m also laughing because out of this great, absurd mess something beautiful could come. And I don’t mean a best-seller.

What I mean is that this fear gives me an opportunity to feel a connection with all the writers in the world, and all the people who ever dared to create something out of nothing. This fear allows me to understand all the people who ever dreamed of something and then made that thing a reality, even though they were scared. This whole bloodcurdling roller coaster ride is an opportunity for me to see that I’m not alone, that I can be a real person in the world and do real things, even if they fail. And that failing won’t mean that I’m a bad person. Only that I’m part of this world.

So I think that’s where this tunnel of fear is leading me. This book is helping me become part of the world. And I’m ready to step out on the other side into the light and say hello.

And I’m also scared shitless.

It’s a glorious experience.

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Goals: catalyst or kryptonite? (a post about NaNoWriMo)

Goals are the perfectionist’s kryptonite.

Yeah, I know, quite a statement. But it’s true – at least for me. Some writers thrive on goals, others choke on them. And since NaNoWriMo is all about goals, this might be a good time to assess in what category you belong.

So writers, check in with yourself: goals, catalyst or kryptonite?


First of all: what is NaNoWriMo?

Says Wikipedia:

National Novel Writing Month (also known asNaNoWriMo /ˌnænˈrm/na-noh-RY-moh) is an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.

The first of November was this last Sunday, so as we speak aspiring writers all across the globe are popping their finger joints and stacking up on coffee and playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on repeat. An uplifting notion.

Goalgetters, rejoice!
So why would you participate in this or any other writing challenge? In other words: what’s the use of writing goals*?

*= in this context, I mean quantitative goals, like ‘a 1000 words a day’ or ‘finishing my manuscript three months from now’.

Well, most of us flawed humans are, on a day-to-day basis, lazy and scared and set in our trusted ways. We’re conservatives by nature. We’ll do anything to keep scary, uprooting change from happening. Therefore, for a lot of people, setting a writing goal can be a much-needed kick in the butt. It can tip the scales from ‘boy, I wish I could find the discipline to write every day’ to ‘okay, since I HAVE to have a 1000 words by tomorrow I’ll set my alarm at six and do my writing in the morning’. Dandy! Suddenly you’re an achiever!

So in this case, and that’s important, THE GOAL LOWERS THE PRESSURE. It doesn’t matterwhat you write, just that you are writing. Here’s a handy checklist to see if writing goals can be a catalyst for you:

  • You spend a lot of time on concepts, thoughts and ideas, but little time behind your keyboard.
  • For years, you’ve been toying with the idea of writing, but something else always takes priority.
  • You feel like you never get anything done, or at least, not as much as you would like.
  • You have a hard time finishing stories or manuscripts.
  • You get hung up on writing THE MOST ORIGINAL THING, like, EVER, and you end up weighing every word thrice and getting stuck on page one.
  • You know you’re a slacker by nature.

Goalgetters, beware!
Writing goals are a two-handed sword: setting a goal automatically means that you can fail. No biggie though, right?

Well, here’s the thing. To a perfectionist, at least the kind of perfectionist I am, failure IS a biggie. It’s a huge-ie. It’s a laying-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-becoming-self-destructive-with-blame-and-guilt-ie. In general, a perfectionist is someone who’s mortally afraid to fail, and pins their entire sense of self-worth on completing (self-set) tasks successfully – and the standard for ‘success’ is usually impossibly high.

(here’s a cool post that explains it perfectly)

So yeah, to me setting a strict and rather far-fetched goal – finish a whole novel in a month, why dontcha? – is really like kryptonite. To me, THE GOAL HEIGHTENS THE PRESSURE. Here’s a checklist to see if this goes for you, too:

  • Once you’ve set a goal, you start feeling nervous and unpleasant, like ‘OMG the clock is ticking!!’. The goal becomes paramount in your thoughts, like a giant roadblock.
  • You always make your to-do-lists too long, telling yourself you’ll feel good if you do half; but you still end up feeling like you should have done it all.
  • Your day is filled with purposeful activities from dawn till dusk.
  • As a writer, you push and push yourself. You don’t let up or ‘go with the flow’.
  • You’re a hard worker by nature. You are super competitive.
  • You feel easily stressed, threatened and/or under pressure.

Finding balance
It’s cool though (to quote Eminem (’cause why not)). I’ve learned to find ways around my choking perfectionism. I’ve also learned – and am learning – TO BE KIND TO MYSELF. And if I can do it, so can you.

My ‘goal’ for NaNoWriMo
What I want right now is to finish this version of my novel. What I want is to trust that this version is going to be good enough to show to agents. And, most importantly: what I want is to keep my writing as organic and, well, FUN as it is right now.

So what about you??
Any writing goals for November? Feel inspired, or just plain scared? Don’t let NaNoWriMo be your kryptonite, okay? Writing goals can be inspiring and freeing (not to mention a swift kick in the butt) as long as you keep track of why you’re setting the goal in the first place (TO HELP YOURSELF).

So, go forth and be proliferous…and HAVE FUN EVERYONE!!

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Why lowering your expectations is a good thing (sometimes:))

So, I baked a pear pie today.

Not exactly an extraordinary feat, right? Well, maybe for the average person, it isn’t. But when I woke up this morning, I felt so sore and tired, I thought all I’d be able to do was lie in bed and maybe crochet a little. For me, baking that pear pie means I aced my day.

If there’s one thing that being chronically ill teaches you, it’s how to lower your expectations. For the longest time I felt bad about spending whole days in bed, writing and crafting but not being able to, say, get my own groceries – because it wasn’t ‘normal’.
I wasn’t able to let go of normal. I kept comparing myself unfavourably with normal, and falling short. Until one day somebody said: “What if this IS your normal? I mean, societal norms aside, is this life really so terrible?”

And I realized: you know what, it’s not. It may not look like the average life of somebody my age – but it actually feels pretty fulfilling, to me. Letting go of the norm has enabled me to reset my whole idea, all my expectations, of what a good life should be and what it should look like. It has set me free.

This is what they call a blessing in disguise. And it doesn’t just apply to chronically ill people, though it does seem like people who’ve had a lot of adversity in their lives often have an easier time with this lesson. But really, I think this is true for everyone:

Once you let go of your expectations, you discover that anything can be happiness. That’s it. It’s that simple.
An impromptu meetup with old friends in a bar can be happiness. A smile on an elevator can be happiness. Baking a pear pie on a rainy day? Definitely happiness.

PS. It’s delicious. :)

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