Why I write

I have contemplated few mysteries as much as, “Why do I write?” It’s right up there with, “Why are we here?” Recently my pal Toni Radcliffe invited me to participate in a blog hop addressing this very question.

My first response to the challenge was, “I’m too busy writing.”

Wait, but why am I busy? I relaunched a freelance writing career two years ago. I’ve never had so many assignments, but it’s still a struggle. I need to work even harder to make it sustainable. There are far easier ways to make a living, but I’ve never been more content with how I spend my days. I write mostly because it makes me happy.

But being happy is not the same thing as leading a meaningful life. I want to strike a fine balance between getting what I want and doing the right thing, which involves generosity, hard work and sacrifice. If I continue writing without making enough money to pull my own weight in the long run, that could be a selfish choice. Now is a good time to take stock, and look at how my internal engine of creativity and productivity has improved.

What am I working on?

Few books have affected my life more profoundly than Carol Lloyd’s Creating a Live Worth Living. It’s a self-guided, 12-week course in career design for creative people, and I’ve worked through it several times, either alone or with a buddy. It’s far more practical and less pseudo-spiritual than the more well-known The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It has helped me sort out what really matters, and how I operate differently from other people.

For example, Lloyd asks students to figure out their work style. Last time I worked through the exercise several years ago, I didn’t believe the “whirling dervish” fit, but as I come more into my own strength, this metaphor manifests.

The whirling dervish has turned out to be a popular model for many of my students who cannot imagine focusing on less than three full careers at a time. What is important about the whirling dervish is that the three careers are interdependent on one another. They don’t pull you in three different directions, but spin you inward!

Besides the fact that photography, fibre craft, gardening and cooking have become more integral to how I live, my work as a writer spins inevitably on different courses.

Two years ago I hired a writing coach, Jodi Helmer, and began focusing on freelance journalism. This has begun bearing fruit, and I now contribute regularly to several magazines. Two I am most proud of: Edible Toronto and Gluten-Free Living.

I have an assignment for each of them currently in the oven, but look online for my recent essay: Nettles, Better a Bite Than a Sting. Look in the October 2014 issues of Gluten-Free Living, which should hit news stands soon, for my update on what is known about non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For the same magazine I also write a column, “Study Sessions”, surveying the most recent scientific research about celiac disease, related disorders and the gluten-free diet.

I expected freelancing to absorb all my writing creativity for a while, especially because a history of depression, anxiety and inattention has curtailed my energy for most of my life. But the reverse has happened, like the centripetal force that propels a dancer. The more I write, the more I write. Improved self-confidence partly explains this.

Apart from journalism, there is one thing more than any other I want to accomplish in this life: to write a novel. I dabbled in fiction throughout my early life. At times it became all-consuming. I started working in journalism in my 20s, but then I had small children and no time for additional projects. Then personal trauma in my early 30s utterly changed my self-concept, initiating major depression. My writing became fragmented and unfocused. Fiction fell by the wayside. I kept journals to figure everything out. Writing helped me survive, but seldom could I follow through on anything.

A breakthrough came during National Novel Writing Month in 2003 when I sketched the first draft of a novel. I did it again in 2004. This work related to some of the trauma from nine years earlier. Then I struggled to revise and get it off the ground, but my concentration, memory and self-confidence were still inadequate for the long haul of writing a novel. Then I had major writer’s block that went on for years, possibly related to my mother’s death in 2008. But despite setbacks, my life was getting better.

Last January, I broke the writer’s block by setting aside time every day and starting a series of exercise to write about the same characters and situations from the 2004 draft. My enthusiasm grew. I am happy to say a more thoughtful, mature manuscript is finally in process.

Besides paid assignments from magazines and work on the novel, I have non-fiction essays and occasional poetry underway. I blog regularly to build a platform for my paid work. None of this feels like too much. At the age of 50 I am writing harder than I ever thought possible, until recently. Old distractions and mechanisms of avoidance keep falling away like the shell of a chrysalis. I haven’t experienced so much energy and focus since my teens.

How does my writing differ from others in this genre?

So I’m working on a novel and writing about food, none of which identifies how I see myself professionally as a journalist. I have a bachelor of science in wildlife biology, minor in ecology. Natural history has always been another passion, and in university I was groping toward becoming a naturalist. Hopefully I will have more opportunities to write in that vein.

Take a look at the main sections of any major newspaper or information website and you will not find a nature section. Environmentalism may relate vaguely to the majority lifestyle, but only tenuously with the business and economy that govern our society. How can something that surrounds and sustain us be left so far out of the equation?

I felt this alienation personally during the years I lived in a small apartment, under-employed and well below the poverty line. Nature inspired and fed my soul, but was easy to neglect. I tried planting seeds in a small garden behind my building, but someone else saw my fresh-tilled soil and planted potatoes. Disappointed, I withdrew my roots even further. I had not been raised to cope with landlessness. Deprived of opportunity and self-sufficiency, I entered the paradigm affecting the majority of Earth’s human population, where no one expects to be able to improve themselves.

When the planet barely sustains you, it’s hard to care about the environment. Unfortunately, true sustainability probably will require us to drop our expectations about wealth and comfort, and adopt a much simpler, more difficult standard of living. The only way to achieve it will involve developing a consensus in society. We must learn to ascribe value to simple living, rather than equating it with poverty. Most people cannot endure the constant barrage of images promising big houses, fast cars and abundant leisure. Whether or not we can negotiate a global shift in beliefs and desires will determine our survival as a species.

I’m nowhere near that place myself, but these ideas launched a journey of rediscovery. As with all life’s major problems, I wrote about it. And so this blog began: Speed River Journal, an urban naturalist’s progress.

Why do I write what I do?

Environmental scientists debate about the state of wilderness, and about humanity’s intervention in climate change. Is nature something pure and remote? To save the Earth, do we need to preserve something pristine where mankind does not interfere? Do such places even exist any more? Is nature equipped to protect itself? Since our species has become so intelligent, have we the responsibility to use our technology to make things better, perhaps lift the world to a higher state? Or will we only make things worse?

These questions are akin to the mystery, “Why do I write?” Humans are congenitally self-interested. History shows we never clean up our worst messes. This does not come from a failure of ideas, but lack of genuine altruism. Overall, it is not in our nature to make the necessary sacrifices.

I write about nature because we are embedded in it. It is our meaning. I hope that some people by reading might become a little more intimate with it, relating to it as something not out of reach or accessible only on long weekends. Earth, air, soil, water and living things are here and now, wherever we are.

Journalism is meant to inform. It is more intent on giving people all the facts than persuading them one way or another. It tries its best to be truly objective. The best I can do is be aware of my biases and try to see the all the sides of an argument.

The most compelling vehicle for information is good storytelling. In this regard, good journalism and good fiction are kin. Neither form should try to sell anything as much as make you think. Fiction is sometimes better at scraping away our expectations of what the characters should do or say, uncovering ideas that are universal and sometimes unspeakable.

How does my writing process work?

I used to eschew routine. Wanting complete freedom, I expected inspiration to drive me. If I waited long enough, it would come.

This is a futile approach, although we must put ourselves in the path of inspiration and be patient, working hard all the while. Muses have a magical, unpredictable quality, but you can’t reach them by wasting time or avoiding unpleasant emotions. The mind must be engaged. If you want inspiration to write, you must be writing.

Writing is a way of being. It’s an immersion in words and ideas. To achieve this I’ve built more rituals into my life to keep me in the path of oncoming light.

Rituals make life predictable. But that’s the point: I know what comes next, without having to talk myself out of doing something else. This would have seemed monotonous to me even two years ago, but it has become compelling and powerful.

Some variety is necessary, of course. For example, I break from routine by going to a quiet writers’ meetup on Monday mornings.

To establish new habits, I give myself incentive. Sometimes bribery works. For a week of good habits I reward myself with points to download music from iTunes. No writing means no new music. A system of rewards and penalties reminds me of the priorities, and they are becoming second nature.

Such stratagems might not work for everyone. Natalie Goldberg says the mind is the writer’s most essential tool, and we must become expert in its use. Everyone’s works differently. Get to know your tool.

So here’s my ideal day, not a rigid schedule, just a structure to hang things on and keep me focused:

7:30 am. The alarm goes off. In the bathroom I play a game on my phone for a few minutes.

7:45. My morning ritual includes a sun salutation (energizing yoga stretches), working in the garden for at least 15 minutes, and making a pot of tea and a nutritious breakfast.

8:30. I arrive at my desk ready to work. Recently I started filling out a journal first thing, to track certain habits and moods, be more mindful of my well-being. At the bottom, I write three points of gratitude. Next I read and clear my email inbox. Then I use GQueues productivity software to identify my tasks for the day. Things get checked off as I go.

9:30. Read the news and a few blogs using Feedly.

10:30. This is my first block of writing time. The morning’s priority is finding new work opportunites: story ideas to pitch to editors, essays written on spec, and blog posts to build a platform for my work. It’s hard to think about advancing myself, so I’ve set marketing as a morning priority, unless I have an assignment due within three working days.

11:30. Exercise, shower and lunch, ideally a salad. I usually eat lunch while looking at online forums or social media, but taking a longer break from the computer might be preferable.

1:00. Second writing session of the day. This is devoted to a current assignment, if I have one. Otherwise, the afternoon sessions should be devoted to more marketing. If I’m having trouble focusing, I might use a timing application on my phone to set a reasonable time period to work on one thing, usually 90 minutes, without glancing at email, social media or other distractions. This technique has improved my work habits significantly.

2:30. A break to do some fibre craft, usually handspinning.

3:00. This is time to connect with clients and colleagues, send email or visit work-related forums such as Freelance Success.

3:30. Third writing session devoted to current work assignments.

5:30. I pour a glass of red wine and write fiction for two hours. I find alcohol in moderation is useful in letting the creative mind make unexpected leaps. It is not beneficial when I need to absorb information or write accurately. I would never drink while researching, revising or proofreading.

7:30. Work ends and I make dinner

8:00. Dinner with Danny. We usually watch a movie or TV.

9:45. Clean up the kitchen.

10:00. To combat insomnia I avoid social media and computer games for two hours before bed. My evening ritual includes manual creativity such as spinning or knitting, a moon salutation (relaxing yoga stretches), herbal tea and a bedtime snack, and finally reading in an armchair. Internet is only permitted if I want to use my phone to look up something on Wikipedia or a dictionary. I used to read in bed, but my brain didn’t have a clear association between bed and sleeping. Now I avoid the bedroom and getting horizontal until it’s time to sleep.

11:45-12:30. I’m usually drowsy by the time I go to bed, and fall asleep within 10 minutes.

This has been working well. If it needs to get better, that’s another question to tackle as time goes on. For now I’m focusing on the abundant positives.

Why do I do all this? My greatest hope is that something I write will benefit someone else. That would bring a glimmer of immortality.

Pass it on

Part of this blog hop is to tag three more writers to answer these questions.

Tom Franklin at Franklin, Ink is a fiction writer I’ve known online for probably a decade. I’ve appreciated his dedication to the writing process. I learned from him an important principle.

Discipline means remembering what you want.

Tom has told me that idea lacks something for him: a call to action. But with my history of depression, problems with concentration and short-term memory have done more than anything else to curtail my energy and hopefulness. Learning to know and remember what I want has aided my recovery immeasurably.

Michelle Rafter of WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age has served as a role model and unintentional mentor for me the past two years. As I’ve guest-blogged for her, Michelle’s Blogathon allowed me to see the writing I was already doing as a stepping stone to launch the career I always wanted. But I’ve never asked Michelle what motivates her as a writer, so I invite her to respond.

I’m also tagging two other writers I got to know through the Blogathon. Jennifer Willis shares some of my passions: science and fiction writing for starters. We have exchanged guest posts about the intersection between environmentalism and spirituality. Meanwhile, Barb Freda is a fellow food writer and we have exchanged guest posts about foraging in Bermuda and Ontario. I wasn’t able to connect with Jen or Barb about doing the blog hop, so I hope one of them will. How other writers work and what inspires them are fascinating insights.

12 thoughts on “Why I write

  1. Your note reached me, and now I know what I will blog about tomorrow! I will link back here. What a fun idea. Great, thoughtful post. I love your schedule!

  2. “Why do I do all this? My greatest hope is that something I write will benefit someone else. That would bring a glimmer of immortality.”

    You’ve done that for me innumerable times here and on LJ. Don’t blush–it’s true. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Joe, and it means a lot to me as a writer that you read and comment so often.

  3. My full version of the quote is “Discipline is remembering what you want — and acting upon it.” Something I need to continually remind myself.

    I’ll get to work on my own responses to these four questions starting tomorrow. It’ll be a great excuse to avoid revising for another few days!

  4. Thank you for playing I found this a very engaging and thoughtful read and enjoyed what you did with what are really quite twee questions.

    After so long now in Lima I’m really feeling the disconnection from the natural world, both in terms of gardening & bushwalking activities, and the connection to where my food is coming from. If I think too hard about what I’m eating here I shudder, but I don’t have the resources to fix it entirely (though I’m making more effort to travel to the organic market and I’m reducing meat even further and trying to avoid the ubiquitous chicken as much as possible, poor creatures). I’m suffering from serious nature deficit despite escaping as often as I do, and I long to be back on my beautiful island, living the connected life.

    Since career and education plans will keep me away a little l onger, I’m going to have to find ways to provide that balance living in Melbourne, and count down the remaining time here in Lima.


    1. Toni, I hear you. Danny and I are faced with moving this fall. It will probably mean leaving the city where I’ve lived for 22 years and a terrific community with strong arts and environmental leanings. On the other hand we hope to have a little land of our own. Maybe we can plant fruit trees and raise chickens. It’s going to be an adventure, but emotions have been tearing me apart the past few days. Big changes are never easy.

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