Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lena Coakley: Carve Out Space for Your Creative Work

Creating Through the Clamour: Instalment 8

Feel like there's not enough time in your busy life to be creative? How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I'll ask a writer or illustrator how they do it. Because I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

The Creator
name: Lena Coakley
resides: Near the distillery district in Toronto
website: www.lenacoakley.com
creates: Right now I’m writing young adult fantasy novels, but I’ve also published two children’s picture books and short stories for both teens and adults.

The Creations
Witchlanders (YA novel), Atheneum/Simon & Schuster
Mrs. Goodhearth and the Gargoyle (picture book), Orca Book Publishers
On the Night of the Comet (picture book), Orca Book Publishers

The Clamour
Doubt: I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time right now, but sometimes I can be my own worst enemy when it comes to procrastination and self doubt.

Volunteer Work: Although I’m no longer the administrative director at CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), I still keep my hand in by designing the newsletter and organizing the Pitch Perfect critique sessions at their Packaging Your Imagination Conference.

Research: I’m writing my first historical novel right now. I love the research, but I’m not sure I’ve learned when to stop!

Crazy Interruptions: I’ve had a strange start to 2012 with everything from bedbugs to minor surgery to family crises to unexpected houseguests all taking me away from my writing. It’s been a great lesson, though: Life intervenes as it always will, but we still have to carve out that space for our creative work.

Wow, those are some crazy interruptions! How did you get started in this field?
I think I got started in this field the day my mother read me my first picture book. I have loved books ever since I can remember, and I think I started making up stories of my own at a very early age. When I first came to Toronto, the best thing I did was to enroll in Peter Carver’s course in writing for children, a class he taught for over 20 years at Mabel’s Fables bookstore in Toronto. I had always liked the idea of being a writer, but Peter started me on that long (never-ending!) path of honing my skills. It took me over 10 years from the time I enrolled in that course to the time I published my first picture book, but those workshops were where I first began to develop my own distinctive voice.

What are you working on these days?
I’m working on a historical fantasy novel that takes place in 1834 and features the four Brontë siblings, Anne, Charlotte, Branwell and Emily as characters. It’s quite a daunting task! Last weekend I went to tea with the Toronto members of the Brontë Society and I can tell you, there are some huge Brontë fans out there! I feel an enormous sense of pressure to do justice to these extraordinary siblings and to get the details right.

How do you minimize your distractions while you're working? Any tips for others? 
Decide in advance how you are going to deal with social media and stick to your plan. Some people can have a quick look at Twitter and Facebook before they start to write, but I find that I can get sucked into social media and that it can drain my creative energy. I try not to look at either until lunchtime and then just for a set amount of time. Because I need to do so much research for this book, I’ve also decided to only watch television on the weekends for the next little while.

The important thing is not to let one distraction ruin your whole day. The writing flow sometimes gets interrupted—it happens—but it’s important to learn how to get back into it.

How do you cope with times when you just can't focus on your writing?
Being a procrastinator of Olympic caliber, I have developed a few tricks:
  • Try an egg timer. Sometimes if I’m really feeling squirmy at my desk, I set an egg timer and tell myself I only have to write for that amount of time before taking a break. Usually I set the timer for an hour, but if I’m really unfocused, I can set it for as little as 15 minutes.
  • Make a date with a writing partner. I’m convinced I never would have finished my first novel, Witchlanders, if I hadn’t been meeting regularly to write with my friend, Aino Anto. Somehow writing regularly helps get over that bottleneck of dread that keeps us away from our desk. At this point in my career, I don’t think I need a writing partner as much as I once did, but I will still make a date to bring my mini to a friend’s house to write if I’m feeling stuck.
  • Write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ve probably heard this one before, but I’m a big believer in it. It keeps your work in the forefront of your mind, even when you don’t have much time for it.
  • Try a change of scene. I love to pretend I’m JK Rowling and write in my local café.
What book, song, painting, or maybe movie has touched you or has had great meaning for you recently?
I’m reading David Copperfield right now, a book my grandmother read to me when I was growing up. I hear the intonation of her voice very clearly when I read it, and that’s something that makes it doubly wonderful to read, now that she’s gone. It’s such a funny, sweet, clever, charming, sentimental book—probably one of my all-time favourites. I recommend it to absolutely everyone. 

As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents? a hobby or interest?
I love to swim and I think my swimming and my writing go hand in hand. If I have a swim in the morning I find I come to my desk with half my plot problems already worked out.

Why do you keep creating in the face of all this trouble/effort?
That’s a good question, Lizann! Sometimes I do think my life would have been much easier if I’d become a computer programmer or a paleontologist, but I seem to be committed now!

Thanks, Lena. Having read Witchlanders, I'm very glad you're committed. No escaping now, is there? Thanks so much for spending some of your time here. I'm going to try that timer trick.

Which tip will you try?


Karleen Bradford said...

Great interview. I sympathize with the interruptions, but writers somehow or other manage to overcome them, don't they? I wrote my first four books with toddlers and a baby clamouring around me.

Lizann Flatt said...

Sounds like you had your share of clamour, Karleen. Glad you and Lena are both able to write past it--but I have to say I was glad to hear Lena admit she's a procrastinator. Me, too!

Sylvia McNicoll said...

I both love and find it bizarre that you make a date with a friend to write together. It's just that I'm alone so much that I would find it hard to stop chatting. Besides solitude is so blissful to write in. I make dates to workshop with other writers to keep on track and get feedback.

Lizann Flatt said...

Setting dates to workshop with other writers is a great idea too. Thank for sharing that, Sylvia.