Making Pasta | How I Find Flow #IWSG

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#IWSG May 6, 2020

The very first time I made fresh pasta, it took all day. I had the recipe. I had the ingredients. I had the pasta machine. I had everything I needed. But I just couldn’t make the pasta. Every step took forever. I was paralyzed, standing at the kitchen counter, unable to proceed, frozen in my inability to get my head around the process. I would read the recipe, go to do the next step and right before I started, go back and read the recipe again. But I added a bit more grit to the situation and I got through it. I, that’s right, little ol’ me, had made fresh pasta. It took 3 minutes to boil and probably less than that to eat. But I had done it! The second time I made fresh pasta, it went a bit faster. And then, with enough practice, I could crank out a bowl of pasta in no time with ease.

Years later, I laughed as I watched Chef Anne Burrell from the Food Network describe how she went through the very same process when she first learned to make pasta. I felt less alone in that experience of being intimidated by a bit of flour and an egg. I could forgive myself a bit if Anne Burrell had struggled so when she was making an initial attempt.

I share this story as it has helped me to work with this same sense of paralysis when it comes to my latest project, writing my first novel. Having made an initial attempt at both pasta making and novel writing and, so far, having only succeeded at one, I have concluded that writing a novel is a tad more difficult than making fresh pasta. In looking around for a way to add a bit more grit to the situation, I have stumbled upon a number of online resources for writers, including the CWC, IWSG and WEP to name a few (see sidebar). In getting involved with these groups, the question came up about how I approach writing. Well, that’s a very good question. I looked within for the answer about how I get into this mysterious state known as the zone and was met with a hollow silence that directly points to the problem I am having in writing the novel. I may have everything I need. I may have the cast of characters, the plot outlined, original source documents already researched. I have made some progress; I have some, let’ say, 20,000 words written. And, yet, I’m stuck. It became apparent that I needed to keep pushing through if I ever hoped to complete my first draft, I needed to come up a much more disciplined routine. Just as I now know how to make fresh pasta, I needed to develop flow; I needed a writing habit.

What follows is the story of my own little experience following the yellow brick road that leads to this mysterious somewhere-over-the-rainbow of flow. To be very clear, I’m the noob around here. What I do bring to the table is what is known in the East as “Beginner’s Mind.” Because I pretty much don’t know anything, I see everything with fresh eyes. With that disclosure, I will share what is a beginning of a writing habit for me.

One of the first resources I found when I began my journey was a YouTube video on flow by Einzelgänger. That beautiful video describes what is flow and how one can go about approaching it. On days when I am discouraged or uncertain, I watch that.

I then stumbled on the work of James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. I decided to build my writing habit from the moment I woke. As I looked around for a way to build a morning routine, I discovered a strategy called the Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. I adapted that strategy to make it work for me. I prioritize my quiet time in the morning, making a plan for the day, making a note in my journal about why I’m grateful and affirming what kind of day I want to have.

In addition to preparing mentally for the day, I looked around for a way to prepare physically. I needed something safe, cheap, not dependent on good weather, low-impact yet aerobic. To my surprise, I landed upon rebounding. For years I’ve been rolling my eyes every time I saw one of those little mini trampolines. As it turns out, that’s how astronauts exercise. Done safely and on proper equipment, research shows it to be a highly effective form of exercise. I have found it helpful to get the heart pumping early in the day or anytime I need a break. What I also like is that, as an activity, it doesn’t demand any of my attention. I can listen to videos about writing as a craft as I bounce up and down. One video or so later, I’m sweating and have done some good for myself.

I will also mention as an aside that I made some changes to my writing setup to address a few ergonomic issues. I moved my laptop on a stand so that it would be slightly above eye level and the keyboard rests on one of those lap desks in my lap. I realized I was being distracted from pain that results from sitting with the head bent forward. That has helped.

As you can tell by now, another resource I rely upon is YouTube. I am finding that it helps me very much to start my day with a video or two from published author or almost anything informative and intellectually engaging. As long as I time-box my viewing, watching a video or two provides useful information, encourages and challenges me. The insights of others who have more experience than I helps me gain some perspective on my current level of progress and often shed light on next steps. Here is a YouTube playlist I found that helps me: https://youtu.be/UJM7FpnPGYc.

Another useful strategy for me has been to find a schedule and stick with it. Having completed my morning routine, I sit down and commit to a specific number of hours to work uninterrupted. Two resources I found about how to schedule time for work were Cal Newport’s Deep Work and the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo.

Every day has its own grab bag of challenges, successes, setbacks, steps forward. I am imperfect in my execution of all of these strategies. As I sit down each day to work on my novel, I still feel like I’m making that first bowl of pasta . But more days than not, I’m doing it. I am pushing through the unfamiliarity and uncertainty and putting words on a page. As I put my attention and effort in to my work, the sense flow is gradually beginning to build, a bit like mist rises off water as it hits the rapids.

These are approaches that seem to be helping me. I would be interested in what others have found as they have developed their craft. Thanks for having a read and, as always, comments are most welcome.


Below the fold…

The post above was first published on April 19, 2020. I find that I continue to stumble upon bits of video, resources, or other insights that I find are helping me establish my writing habit. In the hope that compiling such a list would prove useful not only to myself but perhaps also for others who wander by, I will use this post as convenient location to make such a list.

A vase—in four parts #WEP #IWSG

WEPFF Antique Vase Badge
Word count 992
FCA (Full Critique Acceptable)

Below please find my entry for the WEP April 2020 Challenge. Write…Edit…Publish is a writing challenge sponsored six times a year by the good folks over at #WEP / #IWSG, an online community meant to support and inspire writers at all stages of their career. The rules are simple. From the WEP site, submissions can be “any genre except erotica, max word count 1000. Present your interpretation of the prompt in flash fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction.” Please visit the link above for more information about how the challenge works and how to get involved.

The little piece below is my first entry which I humbly submit for consideration. I found participating this round to be tremendous fun and hope to do so many more times. I want to thank all those who work to make #WEP and #IWSG such a useful resource for writers.

I’m just getting started as a writer and welcome all your comments and feedback. Thanks for having a read!


A vase—in four parts

Jane stood at the kitchen counter waiting for the glue to dry on the fragile base. Unconsciously she wanted to touch her fingers, chilled from the drafty window, to the swelling that had developed around her eye. She had to keep reminding herself not to touch her face. She needed to concentrate if she hoped to save the vase.  

David had given it to her on the day they met. The grand opening of his business, Danbury Dry Goods, was a much anticipated event. Jane and her mother had come to participate in the festivities. As Jane walked through the door, David seemed smitten. From the window display of imported Asian pottery, he selected a vase and, with an impish grin, presented it to her. Hand-painted and traditionally glazed, the piece featured a base adorned with verdant leaves emerging above a pond and a lone, white lotus that climbed, reached up the fragile neck. 

That had been a decade ago. Before their marriage and the arrival of their son and two daughters. Before he found the taste for strong drink. Before. 

Jane felt the sick rise in her stomach as she picked up the pieces in the morning and rummaged through the utility drawer for the glue. She was so sorry to see it broken.


Ramon smiled as he looked down at the vase. He was ready to pack it for the last stage of its journey—a trip across the continent to its forever home. It had served him well. He sold way more work in New York than he could have dreamed. It had been a fantastic tour, and he was so satisfied with himself—a genius idea, masterfully executed, and then well-received. 

He turned the vase over in his hands remembering the day he found it. He and his then girlfriend had decided to make a summer tour of the Appalachians. Only a few hours into their drive they had landed in a small town called Danbury, stumbling upon an estate sale for the great-granddaughter of a local businessman, the sole proprietor of the town’s general store, first opened in the early 1800s. Ramon and Gina had spent an hour digging through the unusual variety of wares:  newspapers with headlines from Lincoln’s assassination, boxes of old election buttons, and a wide assortment of period clothing. On the shelf between a face jug and a Lodge bacon press was this vase from Asia. He immediately knew the dynasty and region in China but found unfortunate hairline cracks from where the vase had been repaired.  As an investment it might be worthless, but the juxtaposition of this ancient vase from the Far East with the now antique pieces of the early American South was striking. He snapped a picture, then rearranged the pieces on the shelf before snapping another.  He ended up buying the item, and the project was launched. He and Gina began traveling all over the world finding new and interesting ways to photograph the vase—on a cafe table in Paris—on the slopes of Everest—in war-torn Baghdad—and always, its lotus reaching, straining for the sun. 

Ramon was now sending the vase on to San Francisco. For publicity, he had donated the piece to a local Asian Art museum where it would live in their collection.  He smiled once more before adding his letter of provenance and taping up the box.


Amy held up the next package from their haul. She was so pleased. She had found a little bug in the mobile app for a local courier service. Tony could now drive around following the blinking dots on the map to find where the packages were being dropped, one by one. He would pull up and then she would go grab the package. It was a fantastic haul today, and they could now pay the rent.

It was Amy’s turn to open a package. “It’s like Christmas!” she laughed. So far they had scored a 3D printer, two phones, a robotic vacuum and even fine jewelry.

When Amy saw that the box was addressed to a local museum, her hopes soared. She ripped open the box with flair but the only thing inside, wrapped in tissue, was an old vase and a letter. She discarded the letter, unread, into the pile of paper recycling and held up the piece to the light. 

“It’s ugly,” Tony sighed. “Worth anything?”

Turning it over, Amy found the cracks that went around the neck and base. “Don’t think so. It’s broken in like…dunno… four pieces.”

“Goodwill?” 

“Goodwill,” she echoed.


Tara walked through the door of the thrift store with a budget in mind. She would spend less than $5, no more, for a few things to set up her little altar. She was starting her life over. Again.

After years of life in a monastery, she had finally decided it was best for her to make her move back to lay life. (#MeToo—who knew that could happen in a place that was supposed to be safe.)  She would now pick herself up, preserve what worked, and let go of what did not. The takeaways from her experience had been her meditation practice and her newfound focus on compassion.  She would try to keep those alive as best she could. Thus, the need to set up a small altar.

She had found a cheap Buddha at a drug store. Now, here, she found a votive on one shelf and on another a little vase that would work. Repaired from some past damage, it was on clearance. Its depiction of a lotus was perfect for her purpose. Life for the lotus begins with its roots in the muddy bottom—only later does it manage to lift its flower to the sky. 

Tara got the vase for a dollar and placed it next to her Buddha. Then she lit the candle and took her seat.


Word count 992
FCA (Full Critique Acceptable)

Thank you for having a read and feel free to leave comments. Here are the other WEP entries for April, 2020. Enjoy!

April’s Fool #IWSG

After last month’s IWSG support day, I eagerly hit the refresh button to get the prompt for April 1 and found the following on the signup page:

April 1 question – Do you have any rituals that you use when you need help getting into the ZONE? Care to share?

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As I have made it my goal is to answer the monthly prompt as it is given, I began to consider how I was approaching my writing and realized I was very much at a disadvantage in answering such a question. At the time, I didn’t actually have a ritual or any writing habit at all. Ahem. I decided it was a topic worthy of some thought. I decided that in March, 2020, I would develop a ritual that would help put me in this wonderful place known as “the zone.” I would commit to building a writing habit. 

I made a note of it, closed the IWSG tab, and went back to my daily life with the prompt rolling around in the back of my head. 

Well, except, that’s not exactly the way it went down. The daily life I knew at the beginning of March is very different from the one I know now. At the beginning of March, my husband would leave bright and early for work in the morning. At the beginning of the month, we enjoyed the occasional dinner out or making an outing of a trip to a local market. At the beginning of March, we had the habit of spending our weekends with friends playing board games. At the beginning of the month, I had confidence that I could plan the coming months with a reasonable amount of confidence.

 That was at the beginning of this month. In just these few weeks, as I began to consider how to be a better writer, I saw the world drastically change around me.  My husband no longer leaves for work. We no longer run to the market for an outing (we are, however, finding some creative ways to use the sardines, French lentils, and other long forgotten supplies in the hinterlands of the pantry). We no longer meet friends for board games but, rather, wrestle with the mute button on Zoom. Here, at the end of the month, we no longer make any specific plans for the future. 

As the weeks unfolded, the question of how I might develop a writing habit became a bit of a buoy to hang onto during the rising tide of uncertainty and fear around me. When the sum total of how one can best help in a national crisis is to stay home and keep healthy, it nudges one to look within.

I have now reached the end of the month. (Others, tragically, have not.)   Besides timeboxing YouTub sessions, shifting through frightening news broadcasts looking for the latest, factual information, I have spent my days working on answering the question of what it means to have a ritual for getting into the zone. I have, in a matter of weeks, developed my own unique way to begin my day and get myself into the writing chair. In doing so, I have become much more consistent in my writing. I have submitted one of my pieces to a journal. I have written a post for the upcoming WEP challenge. I have continued working on my first novel. And, of course, I have worked on my IWSG post summarizing all I had learned about writing and getting into the flow.

Facing this month’s deadline and having dutifully written my post, I opened the laptop and brought up the IWSG tab. I then smiled seeing that, in the meantime, the hosts of the site had changed the prompt to the following:

…in this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world?

IWSG

So, you see, for the April 1st prompt, there has been a bit of a switcheroo sometime during the month and now I had a second, unanswered prompt. Changing the prompt, of course, was a thoughtful, compassionate action on the part of IWSG hosts, and I wholeheartedly commend them for doing so. I smiled because not only did my world change since I started answering the prompt, but the prompt changed! Lots of moving targets these days.

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No worries.  Once I stopped shaking my head, I realized that my answer didn’t really change. The answer to the question of how things are in my world is that my world is a very scary place, but I am grateful to report that, thanks to the original IWSG prompt, my focus on writing has been a source of comfort.

For now I will take my original post about the resources I used and my very own method for getting in the zone, I will take that post and tuck it away for a later time when such matters might not seem a bit tone deaf. The main message I want to send is that I am grateful to all those who make up this community. I send everyone my wishes for your continued health and safety. Thank you, IWSG and all those who wander here. Best to you all….