Posts Tagged ‘Doe Library’

Trust yourself as an artist

February 27, 2018

I’ve returned to the writing life!

After six years working for Golden Gate Audubon Society, I returned to full-time work on a novel on January 1st. After a three-week family trip in January and early February, I truly settled down to full-time writing about two weeks ago.

Now – without bird-related blog posts, newsletters, and social media to write for Audubon – I have the time and drive to resume my own blog posts. My apologies for the long absence, and I hope you are still with me!

Let’s start with a few thoughts on trusting oneself as an artist.

This is a more complex novel than I’ve tried before – speculative fiction set in a world that I am creating, inhabited by characters from varied regions and time periods on Earth. I already have a draft of one volume that needs some significant revisions, and am working on a second volume that will follow up some of the loose ends from volume one.

One challenge is that, sitting down to work, I feel pulled in multiple directions:

  • Go back to revise volume 1, or lay new track in volume 2?
  • Finish mapping out the “grand scheme” of the plot and the cosmology of this imagined universe, or take it chapter by chapter?
  • Flesh out my secondary characters or focus on my main character?
  • If I work on the secondary characters, should I start with the 1920s Chinese communist, the 11th century Damascus merchant, the 4th century Hun, or the 21st century Brooklyn grandmother?
  • Or should I work on sections about my fun, non-human “magical creatures?”
  • Research? Or write?

I need to do all these things eventually; the question is where to begin and what to do on any given day.

My first reaction to the incredible privilege of writing full-time was – of course – despair. “This is overwhelming.” “I can’t do this.” “I don’t have the skills or knowledge or abilities.” And so on.

I dealt with that by shifting into familiar, comfortable research mode. Off to the wonderful underground stacks of the Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, one of my “happy places.” I love the sleek spaciousness of this newish facility, and how the bookshelves move frictionlessly, magically, on tracks when you turn a giant handle. I love how as a UCB alumna I can check out up to 20 books at a time from one of the best research libraries in the world.

Gardner stacks

Rotunda in the underground Gardner stacks at Doe Library

But most of all I love how visiting the library transforms the quest for information from an intellectual journey into a physical journey.

Rather than a serious of Google clicks, I descend staircases and wander through aisles of bookshelves. It’s like a treasure hunt. I start with my list of target books. When I reach the book I’m seeking, there are often related books adjacent to it that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I reemerge into the sunlit outdoor world with arms full of books – more than I can comfortably carry – and feel triumph at my “haul.”

It’s so much more tangible than online research! And it provides the fulfilling sense of having accomplished something.

Even if that accomplishment is illusory – often the books don’t provide the information I need – it’s still a good way to generate momentum and confidence.

So I started with research. I now know a lot more about communists in 1920s Shanghai than I did two weeks ago. (For whatever that’s worth.) Then it was on to 11th century Damascus. Read books, take notes, think about my characters.

This morning I felt like it was time to write. Something had quietly shifted inside me – from “I don’t know enough about this character to write him,” to “I want to start writing him.” It wasn’t a deliberative decision, just a shift in what felt possible or even necessary.

So that’s where the trust comes in. I opted to follow that feeling and start writing one of the characters, even though I’m still waiting to get another book or two about his era. And in order to write him, I decided to start a chapter or two before he comes on stage. That meant focusing on a different character who is there when he arrives.

It wasn’t a rational process. But it felt right, and I got about 1,000 words down. It was a starting point, past the “I can’t do this” hurdle, and now I can just keep going.

So: Listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you, as a creator, what you need to do next!

Even if it is a little bit out of order and not part of a rational “battle plan.”