4 Things Trappist Monks know about Safe Spaces for Creativity

Abbey and church buildings painted white with red trim against a blue sky
Abbey Mariawald, the only existing Trappist monastery in Germany. Founded 1470 A.D. Heimbach, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about safe spaces to create art. On the weekend, we visited Abbey Mariawald, famous for its split-pea soup. Judging from the number of motorcyclists, families, and hikers, they’ve hit on something with universal appeal. They also have a private life that soup-eating tourists don’t see.

  1. While tourists are welcome in the shop, the cafeteria, and the patio, the rest of the Abbey was closed up tight. The Abbey, the Abbey church and the long wall around them were painted a dazzling white. If you want to go in, you have to ring the bell for the Porter and tell him your business.

Physical defenses. We went into the church at 2:00, the time for the None service. We didn’t have to speak to the Porter, but there were 4 physical barriers:

–A glass double-door entry to get into the church,

A metal grille with a gate labelled “Nur für Beter” [only for those who want to pray]

–A fence-like rood screen between the congregation and the monks.

The hoods of the monks. Trappists wear white robes with hoods, so each monk had yet another way to make an individual safe space while singing or praying.

The monks chanted the short service in Latin and the ethereal sound swirled around us. It felt magical.

It would have been impossible to sing that way with a constant stream of doors opening and closing.

Monks know how to structure their space and their time so they can make their art in community.

2. A writing community can be a safe space. Two other writers and I held a one-day writing workshop at the local YMCA. We created a “writers’ buffet” with a variety of writerly tools to choose from, ranging from writing prompts to character and plot development and an exercise on the dreaded inner editor. Everyone liked the tools. But the most empowering thing we did was create a supportive atmosphere for writing.

3. Writers stop writing because they don’t feel “defended.” Jennifer Louden’s and Jennie Nash’s  (Author Accelerator ) recent webinar about getting scary work done advertises a course, but also truly inspiring and insightful tips. According to Jennifer and Jennie, writers don’t stop writing because of fear of failure or even fear of success. Writers stop writing when they don’t have a protected area to create their work.

What’s even worse: When we don’t have a safe space and we stop writing, this can devastate our creativity because then we’re not keeping promises* to ourselves.

*Keeping promises: For a sort of evolutionary narrative what taking out the trash has to do with creativity, check out Chris Fox’s short video.

Cows resting and grazing in a beautiful green meadow with the hills behind changing colors for fall.
These cows at the Abbey Mariawald apparently feel well-defended. Cows might be a useful addition to your next writing group. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

4. How to create defenses for your creative space. In his excellent book, Motivation for Creative People, Mark McGuiness writes about separating internal and external outcomes to create a safe space for ourselves to write.

Focusing on the outcome: publishing, prize, earnings etc. takes us out of our safe space.

Focusing on the goal of making the-scene-we’re-working-on more exciting, funnier, or more vivid takes us deeper into our safe creative space. This is what we mean by “flow.”

The monks at Abbey Mariawald have been singing and praying since the year 1470.  We could take a page from their book** and

–Separate the business and creative sides of our work.

–Choose physical spaces that let us fall into the work

–Seek out other creative people to get the writing juices flowing

–Practice keeping small promises to ourselves.

**I love this tactful request to tourists to return “borrowed” notebooks. What might you request to make your creative space safer?

Note from the monks of the Abbey Mariawald asking that you return the notebook if you accidentally take it with you

“Dear visitors of the Abbey Mariawald, We would like to offer you the chance to follow along in the Divine Office and in this way to lift your heart up to God. If you happen to take this notebook with you when you leave, please make your confession to your priest and let the notebook wander back to us. The monks of Abbey Mariawald.”

 

 

 

 

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Forgiving yourself for what you did “on purpose”

Window with six panes looking out on a street with church and palace towers in the distance.
Forgiving yourself can change your perspective. Image: View of yellow palace housing University of Bonn from Greek/Latin library. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Whack! The little girl smacked her tiny rainbow umbrella down on the restaurant’s marble table with an unexpectedly loud crack. No one was hurt; nothing was damaged–or even knocked over–but her eyes widened in horror.

“But I did it on purpose!” A storm of tears followed and she hid her face against her mother. I wanted put an arm around her and say, “We’ve all done things on purpose. I’ve felt exactly the same way. And so did St. Peter.”

When we see the shocking results of something we’ve done “on purpose” we’re dismayed. Sometimes we hurt someone we love and that makes it even worse. But sometimes a “small” failure horrifies us needlessly. We send ourselves off into a spiral of critique and hurt ourselves most.

This morning, I’m trying to start work on the umpteenth revision of a particularly stubborn work-in-progress. Instead of an umbrella beating a marble table, I’m beating up on myself. The familiar inner critic’s comments show up right away: I made this mess of a draft, I did it to myself, it’s my own fault.

A classic case of I-failed-and-I-did-it-to-myself.

I only know one remedy. Go somewhere private–like the middle of the forest–and confess my limited-ness out loud:

I can’t do this by myself. I need help. I tried and I failed. Forgive me for my shortcomings. Forgive me for my ludicrous resentment of the shortcomings of others. Let me hide my face for a while.

It always surprises me. As soon as I stop making myself the center of the universe, I can show my face again. Relief! I’m not the boss. I can start again with a lighter heart.

It’s so deceptively simple and it saves so much heartbreak.

What helps you when the critical voices threaten to shut you down?

Resources:

Carolyn Kaufman’s excellent blog posts:

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 1

Defeating Your Inner Critic Part 2

Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame and vulnerability is a good intro to her work on living a whole-hearted life.

An inspiring conversation about courage with Brené Brown and Oprah Winfrey

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Sometimes the only thing that helps stuck project

. . .is walking around it.

Am I the only one who has to move to get my brain to work? I’m getting the big creative “guns” out today: Scissors, tape, markers in all colors.

What do you all do when a project Just. Won’t. Budge?

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Sketching, the “saggy middle” and The Winged Pen

Paris metro station under construction with spikes covered with orange balls imbedded in the crumbly wall.
A “sketchy” metro station in Paris looks more like St. Stephen pierced with arrows. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

Today, I’m over at The Winged Pen’s Master Your Craft blog post series.

What–you ask–is Master Your Craft? Each Wednesday, the Winged Pen discusses prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING.

(Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.)

My post is about that devious stretch of story landscape known as “the saggy middle.” This morning, I realized I left something out: sketching.

Sketching is what you do when you’re feeling your way into a piece. This isn’t about the whole outline versus drafting controversy. As we all know, there’s more than one way to figure out a story. I always have to use ALL the ways.

Drafting, in my mind, is letting the imagination lead you through an experience.

Outlining, in my mind, is hovering above a story to see which way you’re headed before dropping back down into it.

A sketch tests a tricky part of your outline on another scale. . .if my hero said this, what would happen? Sketch it and find out. Test your thinking with your imagination.

A sketch hints at a possible sequence in your “messy draft”. . .make a list of scenes you’ve already written. Do they make a chain? Test your imagination with your thinking.

I’m sure this seems obvious to all you industrious writers, so what’s my point?

Alternating between outlining and sketching can get you there when everything seems hopelessly stuck. Libbie Hawker writes about “beats” to fill out a story outline. Rachel Aaron writes about the power of getting excited about a scene you are going to write.

Do you do something similar? Or something very different? Please share in the comments.

 Read the Winged Pen post on “saggy middles” here.

Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls.
Getting a fix on your story. Image: Close-up of unusual spikes capped with orange balls. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

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Tame Your Revision Step-By-Step: 4 Cycle Engine for Your Story

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery iconsThis post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

As always, feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

Public Service Announcement: Yesterday, my husband quoted a new study showing that cycling to work cuts your risk of death in half.

So, bike, writers, bike! 🙂

If you don’t have a commute (you lucky dogs!) you can also reduce your risk of chronic disease and death by walking two hours a week (six miles). The important thing is to keep moving daily. A half hour per day will get your creative juices going and may just save your life.

End of epidemiologist’s soapbox. 😉

“A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.*” What does that even mean? This whole concept sailed over my head for YEARS until I realized it means:

A story sets up the worst possible scenario for a character, makes it worse in every possible way until the whole situation explodes, and then ties most of the loose ends together to make it satisfyingly tidy.

*Those of you who don’t overcomplicate everything were perfectly happy with the first statement. Thanks for your patience!

CYCLING is a simple way to set traps for readers to incorporate story structure into your novel. Many brilliant people have written about story structure and how to use it elsewhere*.

*Need to read up on story structure? Try Blake Snyder’s classic and breezy SAVE THE CAT (start with chapter 4). Or watch Dan Wells’ inviting and efficient series of videos.

**Or go all in and join the whole Writing Excuses team on this amazing writers’ cruise.

Dan Wells gave an excellent revision workshop that began with a deceptively simple question to organize your whole revision: “Did you meet your goals?”

i.e. What did you want to do when you set out to write this book? Make your best friend laugh? Puzzle people with an intricate mystery? Dueling characters with dazzling reparteé?

If you know what you want to do, you can get help to do it better. I wasted a lot of time thinking that the experts were going to tell me what my manuscript was about. I think I thought agents had x-ray vision.
Don’t despair! Dan says: If you didn’t have a purpose before you started drafting, you need to find a purpose afterwards and impose it. This is when you get to cherry pick what makes a great story.

Cycling is the same idea on a smaller scale.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader? Read through the chapter and make a list of every hint you dropped. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised how many you find. Cut the hints that don’t line up with your story purpose.
  2. Deliver it. Find a place in the manuscript to give the thing you promised. The disaster that was hidden in the sidekick’s throwaway comment.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up? Check the big scenes where the hero overcomes the evil villain, the girl gets the boy, or the child saves the day. Make a list of the feelings you want to give the reader.
  4. Set it up. Find places in the manuscript to hint at what’s coming. Seed some doubt. Give another reason why it matters. Get the reader just where you want them.

Happy revising!

Did you find this helpful? I’m always collecting new ways to solve my story problems. What easy ways do you build more into your stories?

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Tame Your Revision Step-by-Step: 4 Steps to SORT-BY-SIZE

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery icons

This post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

As always, feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love. It costs 99 cents and is one of the most useful things I’ve read about how to work smarter. Here’s her post on editing.

Note: Rachel’s a writer–not a marketer–and creativity researchers have followed up on her work because it’s smart. I have no connection to her. I just like her work.

Don’t have 99 cents this month? Read her excellent blog post about drafting more efficiently here. The graphic below is from Vicky Teinaki and is based on Rachel’s book.Triangle of Time, Knowledge, and Enthusiasm, the keys to getting more and better writing done.

2. Make a list ranked by size of mess. The list is your friend. You can cross things off and the illusion of progress will be yours. 😉 Set yourself free from endless revision cycles. Figure out what you want to do and check it off as you do it.

3. Do the big stuff first. You know: start with the story structure problems, like the thrilling final conflict that isn’t. Or the main character whose motivations need work. Then go on to the ticking clock correction, season adjusting, and setting consistency stuff. Save the lyrical language and typos for last.

Scrivener’s status menus can help you stay on track. The FEEDBACK FOLDER post has screenshots.

4. Please excuse the mess. Revision is much more efficient this way, but you may have to practice overlooking the fallen plaster until the heavy lifting is done. Tracking your progress helps your inner child see that you WILL arrive.

Happy Revising!

Got some tips to make revision go more smoothly? Feel free to share!

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Tame Your Revision Step-by-Step: 4 Ways to INVENTORY

Infographic of 7 revision management tips battery icons

This post is part of a TAME YOUR REVISION series that started over at The Winged Pen. You can read the overview, find the links to all the posts, and download the infographic here.

Feel free to share your best revision strategies in the comments! I’d love to know how you manage.

  1. Scene List.
    Scrivener’s Freeform option lets you move “Index Cards” around without changing the order of your story.

    See what you’ve got already. Or what has to happen to get to the story’s next big scene. Scrivener has a Freeform option that lets you move virtual Index Cards around until you find the order you like.  If you choose the Or you can write it out long-hand to get away from the screen.

Infographic timeline by Act of story for Too Late for Parsnips divided into two columns red for "on-stage" and purple for "off-stage"
Overview of my middle grade fantasy, TOO LATE FOR PARSNIPS. Small forces me to keep it simple.

 

 

 

2. Timeline.

This timeline is for my work-in-progress. Note: Contains both spoilers and things that aren’t true any more. And no, I’m not telling you which is which. 😉

Canva is a free online graphics program.
Depending on your personality type, it can be either a defense against the overcomplication gene or a rabbit hole. Make wise choices. 😉

To make something like this, sign up for a free Canva account, click on the green “Create a design” button and choose “Blog Graphic.” Name it something meaningful (you can click on the name to change it later.) Scroll down through the layouts to see what works for your story. I picked a free layout titled “Fiction versus Non-Fiction.” (You’ll recognize the Tame Your Revision layout too.) Use the simple editing tools to modify the layout.

 

3. Map the Major Scenes. Sometimes you can’t write the scene because you can’t visualize the setting. Try this exercise from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Check out these writing maps or make one of your own for first drafts. If you’re further into your story, you might be inspired by these beautiful fictional maps.

4. Colored Markers. The non-computer methods work when nothing else will. Print it out, cut it up, and label each chunk with a sticky. Try the color-coding thing for each character to keep track of who’s where or what the dialogue’s doing.

The goal: Keep your inner critic busy. Let the story escape.

Happy Revising!

Got any good revision tips? Share them in the comments–save a writer’s sanity.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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