Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Words in the Woods

Often I do my best writing in the woods or in the pool. I start my workday either walking my dog or swimming laps. I’m not a morning person, and I can’t tolerate caffeinated coffee, sadly. A cup of tea and exercise gets my mind going.

On a sunny Saturday, Henry (above) and I explored the Josephine Newman Audubon Sanctuary in Georgetown for the first time. Our kids had opted out to do homework. This stage of parenting is liberating. We were alone in the woods and free to talk without interruption. My English husband and I first met in the USA, but we’ve lived in the UK for three years together, including my junior year abroad and his sabbatical at Oxford University. I’ve been mining these experiences for NOT CRICKET (now renamed A MATCH FOR EVE), but I had put that novel aside to write as u like it.

Returning to NOT CRICKET a year later, I could see why I had gotten stuck. It wasn’t writer’s block, I can always write something, but the narrative was spiraling in too many directions. I had three locations, three main characters, two time periods, clashing dark and humorous elements and enough plot for two books. I’ve had this problem before and labeled it plot sprawl.

As we arrived at the sanctuary, the solution was as clear as the blue sky. All I had to do was cut the superfluous plot string and a marvelous character and save her story for a later book. I was left with a love story between a plucky American and a charming cricket player. The woods became crowded with imaginary people, and I was transported to the opposite shore of the Atlantic.

On a hilltop (photo to right), Henry helped me to walk through the plot points. To his delight, we talked cricket. On Sunday I summarized the story in two pages and described the main characters. On Monday I drafted the first chapter and showed it to Henry.

“I don’t really like it,” Henry said. “I love it!”

I had written myself out of the woods. Now it’s time to shut my office door. Other than the first chapter, I don’t let anyone read my work in progress until the manuscript is complete. Instead of not seeing the forest for the trees, I’m now seeing the story for the pages.

Blog watch: I’ve always loved the name of this creative blog: Walk2Write. Maria Padian posted “Where Stories Begin.”  Marie Mutsuki Mockett blogged about writing her second novel while caring for her newborn in "The Stephen Jay Gould Theory of Writing." Dawn Maria blogged about revising a novel: Alphabet Soup.


David Cranmer said...

Isn't marvelous to have a partner who joins in with the creative process? And good for Henry that he could talk cricket.

Btw we went with a Coolpix P100. It seemed to suit our picture taking best and so far is working splendidly.

Anonymous said...

This is such a wonderful post, Sarah.
Glorious pictures as always.
Loved the 'out of the woods' image. Loved the idea of 'plot sprawl' too. Yes, sometimes setting work aside is an excellent idea --when you come back to it you see it with a much clearer eye.

Walking is definitely a great aid to clearing one's head.
I always feel sad for people who are 'plugged in' to i-pods etc.
How do they let ideas seep in?

See Wordsworth's idea for a fine March day (excerpt)

Edward will come with you;--and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We'll give to idleness.

Les said...

Congratulations on your woods found clarity. I know that for all artists it is a struggle sometimes to determine what should stay and what needs to go, and that sometimes simpler is best. I hope the rest of the process goes smoothly.

Maria Padian said...

You've reminded me that we need to revisit the Josephine Newman Sanctuary! It's been years since we've been there and these lovely pix are all the inspiration I need. Must get there before the black flies and mosquitos awake for the season!

tina said...

Awesome on figuring it out. Sounds like you are going the right direction and kudos to Henry for helping you out.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

What a superb collaboration between you, exercise, your beloved and nature.

Walks are amazing because they are providing bi-lateral stimulation for both hemispheres of the brain. Then a problem we are mulling over gets the perspective of the whole brain and not just that of the anxious, sometimes turning-in-circles left brain.

Bi-lateral stimulation is now used to help heal trauma (EMDR therapy) - but we can all use it (and do - as you so beautifully demonstrate) for creative thinking and problem-solving. Just go for a walk!

Joan Mora said...

Beautiful post. Three locations, check, three main characters, check (actually four), two time periods, check. I definitely need a walk in the woods.

Keri Mikulski said...

Gorgeous!! :)

Cid said...

I think you must have the most eloquent commenters (if I do say so myself) or maybe it is just that your writing inspires others to sit up straighter and enunciate. Either way, thank you for a lovely morning read.

A Cuban In London said...

You know that I am one of your followers but today your post was extra special because it carried a magical undercurrent. The beginning was exquisite. I can just picture the mental stimulation your surroundings provide and I am already inspired myself!

And it's so nice to see a photo of Mr Laurence! :-) Good to have a supporting partner. I know that my wife, too, appreciates my comments when on her work. Although I think that the minute my Scorpio personality goes a bit too far, her Leo character cuts my poisonous tail. :-)

Good luck with your novel and many thanks for this beautiful post.

Greetings from London.

PS: Just nipped by to read your blog because officially I am on holidays! :-) Read you again when I come back from Malaysia, although I might have some access to internet at my brother-in-law's.

Rosaria Williams said...

Those ah ah moments can come when you least anticipate them. How lovely to have a partner who enjoys your craft.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Isn't it an amazing feeling when the fog clears and you see the pathway before you?

Sarah Laurence said...

David, yes a supportive partner is so helpful to a writer. Good to hear you found the right camera for you. I’m looking forward to viewing the results.

Ewix, did you read about the jogger who was killed by a plane making an emergency landing on a beach because he didn’t hear it over his iPod? Thanks so much for brightening my day with poetry! This is my first poem comment –delightful!

Les, I was just thinking that revision is a bit like landscaping. The art is as much in what you leave as what you prune.

Maria, yes, go now before the bugs but leave Frisbee at home – no dogs. We had planned to hike up Morse Mt. that day, but the lot was full. I’m glad it was or we probably wouldn’t have hiked there. I always feel a bit guilty leaving Stella home.

Tina, I am so lucky to have a husband who didn’t mind working while we walked. I never know when inspiration will hit.

Bonnie, that’s fascinating about bilateral brain stimulation. I love the idea of exercise giving my brain a full workout. Now I’m thinking that the photography I often do on walks is also helping that dormant right side of the brain. It might also explain why I need writing, art and exercise to feel happy and fulfilled. I’d love to hear more about EMDR applied to creativity and problem solving on your blog.

JM, oh dear! I’d definitely recommend a walk. Maybe your material would work better as a series of books.

Keri, thanks!

Cid, you are so right about my eloquent commenters, including you. Your observation made me smile.

ACIL,wow, Malaysia! Lucky you and thanks so much for dropping by on your vacation. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your trip when you return. Henry and I are both Pisces – I wonder if that’s why we work so well together. I edit his academic work too.

Lakeviewer, yes, and I’m lucky that my husband didn’t object to sharing my aha moment on a weekend. He’s my biggest fan. It makes all the difference.

Pamela, yes, indeed.

Angie Muresan said...

Sarah, best wishes on getting that book written. It sounds like you have it all figured out. I admire that you can shut yourself in your office and focus on your writing.

troutbirder said...

I love the first picture of the Sanctuary. It so reminds of many similar vistas in the lake and canoe country of northern Minnesota. Audubons Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida last week saw me excitedly taking hundreds of pictures for my other "nature" blog. Each one seeming to suggest something to write about. Talk about plot sprawl...:)

beatrice De said...

Belle ballade !
Nice walking ! Beautifull couintry.

hello from Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sarah Laurence said...

Angie, thanks!

Troutbirder, I’d love to visit the northern lakes of Minnesota some day and hear the wolves. I’ll visit your nature blog next time.

Beatrice, merci! Welcome to my blog; I’ll come visit yours later today.

Delwyn said...

Hi Sarah

first of all I am in awe of your ability to be so diligent and write the way you do.
Then I love that you share your book beginnings with your husband and allow him constructive criticism.
And thirdly I love it that you do this out walking together...

Happy walking, creating, sharing days

Rose said...

How wonderful that you have returned to "Cricket"; it must be exciting to know now just where you are going with this novel. You are very fortunate, too, to have such a supportive husband. The sanctuary looks like the perfect place to clear the mind and become inspired once again.

Charlotte said...

Well put! Without a walk, bike ride, or some kind of solitude, I'd never be able to face the blank page. I wonder if the plucky American and the English cricket player have subtle undertones of Sarah and Henry? Oh, how personal of me....

septembermom said...

That is a wonderfully creative partnership! I'm glad that you're "stepping away" brought such riches to your work.

☆sapphire said...


Interstingly, every writer has his/her own favorite place to write!! One of my acquaintances who is a freelance, says that she can't write at home. She writes at a cafe sipping "caffeinated" coffee. I don't think her way is healthy.. How lucky you are to have the woods where you can do your best writing!! Lovely photos! The lake (pond?) looks so beautiful!

Sarah Laurence said...

Delwyn, some days are more productive than others. I try to avoid working on weekends, but it’s hard to control when inspiration with hit. I’m lucky to have such a supportive and understanding husband.

Rose, I missed NOT CRICKET while I was working on “as u like it.” It’s a joy to return to it. Sometimes a story needs time to marinate.

Charlotte, reading between the characters? I don’t share any ball playing abilities with my MC, sadly.

Septembermom, a creative partnership indeed.

Sapphire, my old writing partner, Jane Green, also wrote best in coffee shops or libraries. There is no one right way to write, other than what works for you. The water is a tidal estuary, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Georgetown is stunning, with lots of islands.

cynthia newberry martin said...

This is one of my favorite posts. I love the way you intertwine the woods and writing.

I'm not a morning person either and I have also switched from coffee to tea.

BTW, the way I make my way out of the morning is by writing!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, it was fun being able to share a special moment. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only bleary-eyed writer at sunrise.

walk2write said...

What a fascinating post and peek into your creative secrets, Sarah. I haven't had the pleasure of writing a novel yet, but I've discovered that the walking definitely helps with problem solving, writing-related or not. Thanks for the link, and I'm sorry it took me so long to visit. I hope that you and your husband get to enjoy many more walks in the woods this year.

Barrie said...

How wonderful that you've got the novel figured out!!

Sarah Laurence said...

w2w, happy walking to you too!

Barrie, now ALL I need to do is write it!

Meri said...

Found you through your comments on Bonnie's Original Art Studio blog. This post is fascinating on several levels, one because of your ability to discuss this stuff with Henry and second, because of the salutory effect that being in nature has on your thinking.

Kathryn/ said...

This is a lovely writer's story, Sarah! I adore the term plot sprawl! And how lucky to have your husband to bounce ideas and give you honest feedback. And I think it's particularly prudent to now just dig in and write it and then come up for air and feedback. You are on your way. Bravo and blessings!

Sarah Laurence said...

Meri, welcome to my blog and thank you! I enjoyed your blog too. It’s so nice to connect with you through Bonnie.

Kathryn, I’m happy to say that the plot sprawl has been contained. I’m now working on the new chapter two of NOT CRICKET with a good sense of where I’m headed. Thanks!

TBM said...

We're at that stage of parenting too. It's strange, at the same time it is nice to have uninterrupted time with my husband without feeling like we're ignoring Roxi.

Glad you're finding your writing groove. I agree with you about taking a good walk in the woods. Though with me, it's more of a stroll ;-)

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, the kids enjoy their freedom too. The words were moving faster than our feet that day. I just drafted chapter three today after a swimming start. I’m definitely back in the groove.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

What an energizing post, thanks Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

MS, I hope your writing is going well too.