Do You Mind?

Today I’m writing the post I need to read, and more importantly, believe.

As we reach the end of year, and look back over the last twelve months, it’s natural to evaluate one’s progress. Or, perhaps, lack of progress.

I’ve worked on two novels this year. Despite my efforts, they both continue to be messy, untamed, flawed, frustrating, etc. etc. etc. It’s done a number on my confidence. It’s quite possible I don’t know how to fix them…

YET.

That word is fundamental to the psychology of growth. Carol Dweck, PhD, psychologist and professor at Standford explains the differences between a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset” in her book, MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS.

A FIXED MINDSET assumes I am who I am. There’s a defeatist attitude inherent to this kind of thinking. The surprising thing is the limits set once a certain level of success has been achieved. This kind of thinking leads to a desire to want to look smart. After all, if we did it (wrote and published a novel, for example) once, certainly we can do it again – more easily! 

In comparison, a GROWTH MINDSET assumes I can do better – this kind of thinking leads to a desire to learn.

A growth mindset embraces challenges, while a fixed one avoids them. When obstacles appear, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to give up while someone with a growth mindset will persist. This growth mindset sees effort and hard work as the path to mastery, while a fixed mindset may perceive it as pointless. Criticism prompts learning for a growth mindset while a fixed mindset is more likely to ignore feedback. People with a fixed mindset will see the success of peers as a threat, while a growth mindset sees these instances as inspiring and motivating.

Do you need a mindset-reset as much as I do? Let’s try these ideas… And please, share any tips you may have as well!

REVISING ONE’S MINDSET FOR REVISION

  1. Defeat doubt with YET.
    1. I can’t finish my novel…YET
    2. My novel isn’t working…YET
    3. I’m not smart enough to be a writer…YET
  2. Avoid trap of thinking never-always-every
    1. We can grow and change
    2. Each new work is an opportunity for surprise
    3. Writing is an organic process, never static
  3. Own the fear of failure
    1. Working is progress, regardless of output
    2. Struggle is a sign of growth
    3. Failure is proof of facing a challenge
  4. Visualize each step of growth
    1. Visualize big picture achievement – allow yourself to feel the success
    2. Break the process down into small, doable steps – visualize those, too
    3. (Remember to celebrate those steps)
  5. Journal for reflection 
    1. Keep track of process
    2. Expect ups and downs
    3. Revise goals and expectations
  6. Remember to play
    1. Find joy in the process, complete with struggle
    2. Explore along the way
    3. Even wrong paths can offer moments of beauty and inspiration

Here’s to a growth minded 2017 and onward!

Cheers!

Sarah Tomp

Let’s Get Physical

Maybe it’s my stage of life, or maybe it’s working in middle schools, or maybe it’s a matter of diversity, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but I’ve been thinking about bodies. (However, this particular post will stay G-rated, family friendly.)

pirate-7In my writing I’ve never been interested in descriptions of my characters’ physical being. For me what matters, and what I am most interested in, is their inner workings of emotions and thoughts. The outside shell simply is a vessel to hold the stuff that matters. And yet, that outer shell is what others react to. It’s our most reliable way read someone else’s emotions. Sometimes we get those reading wrong, but other times it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

We often make assumptions based on those physical forms – which is where things can get slippery. That’s where a lot of messages get mixed or misinterpreted.

pirate-6But we also make choices as to how we project our inner selves. Clothes, accessories, hair styles, all work together to create a visual signpost and introduction. Sometimes we have more control over these external clues than others. We can’t change our gender or race or body type, and sometimes we have to wear something we’d rather avoid (why hello, hospital gowns and fast-food uniforms!) – but other times we choose what people see first. (And yet… who is that masked man – or is it a woman? Superhero or bandit?)

The physical world of your character can tap into the physical experience of your reader. This is why sensory details add richness to our writing. Consider your character’s physical body and explore ways to make it more personal. Change is one way to explore and examine physicality.

  • Give your character a physical injury – temporary or permanent.
  • Have his/her weight change dramatically.
  • Put her/him in different kinds of weather.
  • Force him/her to wear something uncomfortable.

The physical body and circumstance can be a way to start a story, too. Get your own body involved and create an image to represent a character. One rough and simple physical brainstorming exercise utilizes doodling or sketching. Start with a simple circle – the head as a vessel to hold all the inner workings, then accessorize. Here I’ve gone with two basic articles – an eye patch, which conjures the idea of a pirate, and a crown, which usually means royalty – and then mixed them a bit.

pirate-1

pirate-2

pirate-5

 

 

 

 

 

If you create your own physical images and cues of the external world – you might be surprised where your mind takes you. I think some of the most satisfying stories are the ones that start with the expected, then change it up! Surprise and curiosity goes a long way in engaging a reader. This can create more poignancy, humor, or intensity.

Let’s get physical!

~Sarah Tomp

SUMMERING

As someone whose life has always been governed by school schedules – first as a student and then an employee – summer is a big deal. It has its own sense of time and space. Life is a different in the summer months. When I was a child, my father spent each summer doing research. So, on the first day of our vacation from school, we packed up our car and headed to a remote lake in Maine. He’d work, and we’d spend three months swimming, exploring the woods, making things, alternating between getting bored and being thrilled and amazed.

This past school year has been particularly hectic and busy – I’ve been looking forward to summer vacation since about October. And wrapped up in that eager expectation, is my desire to have more time to write.

Now that I am in the final countdown for summer break (5 more days!); I’m starting to worry about the exact thing I’ve been anticipating: More time to write.

amazinghappyMy two projects are A) finish a novel and/or B) revise a novel

More and more, I’ve been feeling like I don’t know how to do either one.

But then, last weekend, at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony (yay!), the commencement speaker gave some brilliant bits of advice to the celebratory crowd.

I’m hanging tight to one particular pearl of wisdom: STAY IGNORANT: Expertise and creativity make poor roommates. 

When you have your MFA, and have a book published, and spend a lot of time teaching writing; it’s easy to feel like you know how to write. Or, that you should know how to write.

Fact is, I don’t know how to write and/or revise these novels. Not yet. But… apparently, we’re more creative when we’re lost and confused. Reassuring, right?

junkmanSo, instead of the big grandiose plans of strict daily word counts and milestone achievements to get me through the summer, I’m planning my summer playtime and explorations. I’m going back to my days of running wild outside combined with lazing about on the floor, reading and doodling. Going exploring. Trying to find more creativity and less expertise.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

A FEW IDEAS FOR CREATIVE PLAY

  • Walk somewhere new and/or at a different time. Evenings walks on the beach are completely different from those at noon.
  • eyeballSit. Force yourself to stay in one spot for longer than you want, longer than you are comfortable. Somewhere picturesque and quiet: in the woods, by a water, on a bench in an art museum. Or not: by a dumpster, on a busy street corner, in a barren lot. Be aware of all your senses. But stay still. You might even squirm.
  • Visit a museum.
  • Wander through a fabric store. Soak up the different colors, patterns, textures.
  • Collect. Rocks, seashells, pine cones, toys, anything.
  • Make something. Try using craft supplies from your childhood: paste and tape and scissors and paint.
  • youareniceKeep a doodle journal. I’m looking forward to exploring some of the exercises outlined in SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry.
  • Eat alone at a restaurant. You can even talk to yourself if you like.
  • Challenge yourself physically. Climb a mountain, swim laps, dig a hole. Get tired.
  • Listen. To music, is one possibility. Or try something new: listen to a favorite movie without seeing the pictures. Blindfold yourself and listen to your neighborhood. It’s okay if you fall asleep. Sleep is part of creativity as well!

What your favorite ways to boost creativity?

~Sarah Tomp

starrycelebration

A LIST OF LISTS

I tried a new exercise with my writing class recently. They each wrote a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, showing character change – using only 3 lists. The lists could be seemingly mundane – shopping lists before, during and after a vacation – or more profound – lists of things I wish I could say or do. Any kind of list has the potential to connect with a reader, and make a story more interactive as it requires the reader to fill in the blanks.

I was delighted with the results! It loosened them up, and gave them the freedom to dig a little deeper, to reveal the underlying emotions. And, they were almost completely across the board, both poignant and funny. 

It makes me want to try it, too!

Lists within a story can be extremely powerful and effective. Because they are short, and non-narrative, they demand the reader’s attention in a different way. The white space around the list leaves room for the reader to add his/her own conclusions. When incorporated throughout a story, the evolution of these lists shows character shifts and change. 

LISTS ADD (IN LIST FORM, OF COURSE):

  1. Focus
  2. Intensity
  3. Emotional impact
  4. Humor
  5. Voice

A LIST OF A FEW BOOKS THAT USE LISTS EFFECTIVELY:

survival strategies of the almost brave1. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE by (Fellow-Tollboother) Jen White

Billie, the main character of this middle grade novel – an emotionally powerful adventure story – keeps a notebook close by, at all times. She logs her observations about various living creatures, and the world in general. These lists and notes give us a peek into her inner turmoil – and even teach readers about the world. They’re a lovely mix of fact and heart. 

mayday by karen harrington2. MAYDAY by Karen Harrington

This middle grade novel, to be released in May, is the story of Wayne Kovoc, a survivor of a plane crash. He has always loved facts, and shares them with others as a kind of emotional shield. Having lost his voice in the accident, he is unable to share these facts – which leaves him on emotionally unsteady ground. Throughout the novel, he is determined to find his uncle’s memorial flag that disappeared in the crash. He creates Data Reports to track the plane crash investigation and recovery progress – which also, for the reader, tracks Wayne’s own recovery in a subtle and effective way. 

kissingtedcallahan_RGB3. KISSING TED CALLAHAN (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding

This hilarious YA novel is told in alternating viewpoints by Riley, and her best friend, Reid, as they document their victories and mishaps, in pursuit of romance and all that involves. The dual views – female and male – of the same topics are especially humorous and shows their differences, as well as their similarities. We also see their priorities and understandings shift and change as they gain experience – and real feelings – with their various kissing partners. 

weight of a human heart coverTHE WEIGHT OF A HUMAN HEART by Ryan O’Neill

Written for adults, this collection of short stories includes incredibly inventive storytelling. One story uses only lists, charts, and diagrams to reveal the progression of a relationship and marriage. Highly recommended to explore unusual writing conventions. And, with an powerful emotional punch. 

Even if your lists don’t make it into a final draft, I think the process of honing in what exactly you want to say, or what your character is feeling and doing at different parts of your story could add refreshing insights. Humor and voice, too! 

What other books use lists? Are you tempted to give it a try?

~Sarah Tomp

A Treat of a Retreat: How to Plan Your Own

I’m feeling that December frenzy. Holiday prep stuff. Work is hectic. Company is coming. All the to-dos and who-tos and yoo-hoos are piling up. There’s lots of jolly good and fa-la-la joy… BUT:

All I really want to do is finish my problem child novel. The one that’s been tormenting me for a good part of this year. 

Which has me dreaming of going on a writing retreat. I’ve been lucky enough to go on three this year. I’m greedy that way. These were all personal retreats, planned by us, not an organization. Each one had at least one other VCFA grad there. I guess we know what we want. And each one included friends from all over the country–and even the wider world. 

The wonderful thing about planning your own retreat is, you get to plan it. The harder thing is, you get to plan it. 

Some things to think about:

LOCATION

  • Convenient travel location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be close to everyone or even anyone; but it should be easily accessible. Pick a place within an easy distance to drive or near a major travel hub. Getting there shouldn’t feel close to impossible.
  • Out in the wild SoCalPlaces to walk (or sit) outside. For me, it’s important to have some kind of access to fresh air and outside explorations. A nice walk is an important balance to sitting and writing whether it’s for a solitary stroll or a group walk-n-talk.
  • Not too interesting. It’s good to stay somewhere interesting–but not so interesting it serves as a distraction from writing.

THE SPACE

  • Beds. Depending on the closeness of your group, as well personal idiosyncrasies, be sure to have enough beds and space to work around different sleep schedules. 
  • Work space. Personally, I think having separate work spots is more important than separate sleeping arrangements. I think it’s hard to work with someone else’s creative energy too close to mine. 

TIME

  • I’ve found four to five days, depending on the impact of travel, to be the perfect amount of time. A weekend is too short to settle in and feel comfortable, but fatigue and the disruption of ordinary routines can start wear you down. I usually get homesick on day three, then reinvigorated on day four and then end up in a good spot of feeling both accomplished and ready to go home.

FOOD

  • AhhhhIt can be a hassle to plan, but it is worth the pain to think ahead. Everyone needs to eat, but the food preparation can’t take precedence over the reason everyone is there.
  • Generally it seems to work if breakfast and lunch are DIY and dinners are shared. One group decided to go out to eat for dinners–although we ended up with enough leftovers that we stayed in, also. 
  • It’s possible to assign different meals to different people, but I’ve found it to be that some people like to cook and others don’t. The non-cookers can prep and clean-up. Talk about realistic expectations before you are all starving and suffering from creative brain overload.
  • Eating together builds community and camaraderie.
  • Have a balance of healthy and naughty snacks!

THE WORK

  • I think it’s nice to be somewhat familiar with each other’s work.
  • If at all possible, share pages and/or a summary ahead of time. Not to critique, or even formally discuss, simply knowing what the others are working on adds a deeper dimension to the experience–and allows for more focused conversations.
  • Picture Books!Book club! It can also be nice to read a book or two in common in preparation, simply to have a starting place for discussion. Or, for my picture book focused retreat, we brought an enormous stack of books to read and study.
  • Goal setting. It’s good to start the retreat with setting goals. Think measurable and realistic.

SCHEDULE

  • Early morning Palm SpringsSome groups only want time to write.
  • Having a set schedule–with room for flexibility and adjusting–allows for greater productivity. If you only have a certain number of alone hours, you’ll be more likely to use them for writing, as opposed to if you feel as though you have an endless amount of hours to fill. Brains need breaks and variety.
  • Take advantage of having access to other people’s brains. The shared collective think tank is a powerful thing!
  • It can be really interesting and helpful if each person leads a conversation or activity–again, planning ahead is key. It doesn’t have to be formal or complex, it’s just so enlightening to learn how someone else thinks and works.
  • Readings. Make time to listen to each other’s work. No critiques, just reading. 
  • Downtime is crucial too. 

GOODBYE…FOLLOW UP

  • It can be an emotional experience to do good hard work with others. I think it’s good to have some kind of cumulative send-off in which everyone shares what they’ve accomplished and what they plan to do next.
  • After every retreat, I always end up thinking about my friends’ stories along with my own. I love to hear updates and progress reports.
  • Schedule check-ins, with one person serving as organizer.

What did I forget? What do you think is key to a successful retreat?

Dreamingly yours,

Sarah Tomp

Quotables

Happy New (School) Year!

My Best Everything-HorizonMy internal calendar thinks in terms of school years. As a student, as a classroom teacher, and as a mom, each separate school year adds structure and reference in a more specific and concrete way than traditional months or years. So, this time, right now, is the new year.

This is the time for resolutions and new beginnings. Even though it’s hard to come off summer when I have much more time to write and to explore, it’s a good time to set goals and be aware of the world beyond my words.

I still work in schools, although now I’m tending school health offices. This job allows me to make a positive difference, in the moment, but when I walk out, my head is mine. There’s room for my stories in a way that teaching doesn’t allow. But best of all, my job keeps me connected to young readers. It helps me remember the truths – the aches and joys – of growing up.

I travel between schools which means I get to see kids of all ages, from preschool to high school. And, I get to see a little bit of everything. I take care of ongoing medications and treatments for asthma, allergies, diabetes, and more. There are the expected skinned knees and bumped heads. Nosebleeds. The fevers and the tummy aches. One school has bright red, enthusiastically proclaimed, “vomit pails.” Yes, sometimes they are put to use.

There are also the emotional stresses and anxieties. Conflicts of every intensity often pass through. Physical fights and emotional bullying both leave scars in need of care. Some kids are hungry. Others need new shoes. Or a new home. From temporary trouble to serious mental health issues, the health office is a safe place to claim a time out.

But it’s also a place to see kindness and caring. Kids help their injured friends make it to the health office. They check on each other and advocate for someone that they think needs care and attention. They offer sympathy and empathy. Yesterday a group of over-achievers came in to make ice packs and it was delightful to watch them independently develop a cooperative assembly line.

I love being able to make a difference in someone’s day. I try to make a tough experience a little bit better – or, at the very least, not worse. But, selfishly, I also get to do current and ongoing research for my writing. I see new trends and hear opinions on everything. Most importantly, I get to imagine myself in unfamiliar shoes. I am reminded, over and over again, what it truly feels like to be in the midst of growing and changing.

Happy New Year!

It’s time to set goals, look ahead, and anticipate. What will you do this year?

~Sarah Tomp

When Writing Doesn’t Look Like It

There always comes a time in drafting a story when I need to see it better. I need it to be something more than just the words on the screen or page. I need it to become a little more 3-D.

And since I love making messes art, I get out my scissors and glue and whatever other miscellaneous doodads seem appropriate. Making something tangible and visual helps make my story feel more concrete and real. The added bonus is that by tapping into a different part of my brain, I always learn something new about my characters and their world.

It’s all about the writing, even if it doesn’t look like it!

collage.treePOSTER COLLAGE:

Simple or complex, paper collages are an excellent way to combine visual images and words to represent a story.

I suppose Pinterest is a sort of online version of the same idea, but I really like the kinesthetic experience of finding the right image, and then cutting it out, finding the right place for it, and finally gluing it down. It takes more time, and there’s the element of surprise. More often than not I find something perfect that I hadn’t even thought about. But when I see that just right object, face, word, or color, I know it.

My Best Everything Theme boxBOX COLLAGE:

For my YA novel, MY BEST EVERYTHING, I wanted to include some three-dimensional objects. I took a field trip with a friend to various thrift stores, on the hunt for… whatever happened to catch my eye. Mixed with pictures from magazines, I ended up with a memento box for Lulu’s summer of making moonshine.

I’ve got the bottles and the moon, obviously, but I also have references to the junkyard where Lulu works, a tiny gold cowgirl hat for her best friend Roni, and a boy riding his bike through the woods. There’s a rosary–Lulu is a “good” Catholic girl, after all–and scripture verses. There’s also key chain since she’s learning to drive, as well as a few other assorted items.  And of course I had to include the recipe for a science experiment involving yeast and a flying grape. That’s kind of like making moonshine, right?

Scrapbook Collage

SCRAP BOOK:

Same basic idea, different layout.

This particular one is still a work in progress, but it’s for a story where the past heavily influences the present. It made sense for me to have separate pages for different time periods. Here’s a compilation photo of some of the pages.

Map

MAPS:

Maps are not just for epic fantasy novels. They’re a wonderful way to world-build, regardless of your genre and/or setting. You can map an area as big (the world) or as small (a bedroom), as you like. I’m including a very simple one here, but you should definitely check out the amazing book, MAP ART LAB by Jill K Berry and fellow VCFA alum, Linden McNeilly. They’ve compiled a multitude of gorgeous projects to inspire you!

 

 

Happy Mess-Making!

Sarah Tomp