Tag Archives: creation

Gardners, Architects, and... Excavators?

Gardeners, Architects, and… Excavators?

Last night, Kari-Lise attended a conversation with Erin Morgenstern focused around the launch of her new novel, The Starless Sea. I didn’t go—had too much on my plate—but after chatting with her about it, I wish I had made the time. (Isn’t that always the case?)

Based on Kari-Lise’s recounting, during the conversation, Morgenstern hit on something that I strongly feel more writers need to hear. We’ve heard of the term “Gardeners,” authors who plant their stories as seeds and follow those seeds as they grow, and we’ve heard of the term “Architect,” writers who extensively plan their work and follow a tight outline. Both get mentioned all the time. However, Morgenstern doesn’t see herself as either and chooses instead to call herself an “Excavator.”

What that means is, like an archaeologist, she exhumes the story from a mass of writing. She allows herself to fully explore a narrative and then whittle it down in edits. She finds the story by writing and writing and writing. For example, she mentioned that for her bestselling debut, The Night Circus, she wrote pages and pages describing specific locations in the setting, then forced herself in edits to pare things down to a single page. In her most recent book, The Starless Sea, Morgenstern talked about a character who barely gets mentioned in the final manuscript, but one she had written an entire journal for—it let her know the character to their fullest measure. But, in the end, it didn’t serve the story, so she cut it.

She’s mentioned this before but recently explained her approach in an interview with Rachel Barenbaum for Dead Darlings. (I’d encourage you to read the full article.)


“Sometimes it feels more like excavating than building because it’s all there, I just need to figure out how to translate the space into words. I had this sprawling underground library-esque space in my head and it took me a long time to figure out how to wind a narrative through it. I end up writing a lot more than I’ll ever use just to flesh out the world.”


This really resonated with me—what a refreshing approach to creation! So often, we’re reminded to be efficient. We are told throwing away work is a waste of time. Industry-wide we see everyone declare that your next book is what’s more important. It’s the Facebook mantra of “most fast and break things” but applied to storytelling. The Excavator ignores that dogma and serves only the story. It works against the tenets of hustle culture and allows one to fully realize a place, a person, or an event, and it gives permission to take time and to cut what is unnecessary. We say write for yourself, and this is taking that maxim to its furthest reaches. Working as an Excavator—while slower—allows an author to explore a story to its limits, and in the end (based on the quality of Morgenstern’s work), I can see how it makes for a better book.

Maybe we need more than two schools of approach? Perhaps it’s time to add the Excavators into the conversation as another equally valid strategy in writing.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: John Atherton, 1975


Ursula K. Le Guin's Writing Schedule is Very Relatable

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ideal Writing Schedule Was Very Relatable

“My life is very ordinary, common place, middle class, quiet and hard-working. I enjoy it immensely. I do not find it appropriate to talk about it very much.”

The schedule of famous writers and creators has always been a fascination of mine, and I know I’m not alone. Despite what social media tells you, there’s no right or wrong way to create. What works for one person won’t always work for someone else. Glean what you can. Reject what doesn’t work. Part of creating is learning what works for you. Be kind and humble enough to let others follow their own path.

All that said, I find Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing process relatable, delightful, and somewhat enviable—well, except for that 5:30 AM wake-up. (Who does that?) While Le Guin’s ideal schedule is nothing compared to the alleged Hunter S. Thompson routine, you never know what happens after 8:00 PM, for all we know “middle-aged Portland housewives” go hard.

5:30 a.m. - wake up and lie there and think. 6:15 a.m. - get up and eat breakfast (lots). 7:15 a.m. - get to work writing, writing, writing. Noon - lunch. 1-3 p.m. - reading, music. 3-5 p.m. - correspondence, maybe house cleaning. 5-8 p.m. - make dinner and eat it. After 8 p.m. - I tend to be very stupid and we won't talk about this. I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If I'm at the beach there would be one ore two long walks on the beach in that day. This is a perfect day for me.

It’s easy to see the appeal. I too am a fan of thinking in bed, breakfast foods, reading, and taking time to be stupid. (The graphic above omits her 10 PM bedtime, for some reason. So it’s only two hours of stupidity despite what we all hoped.)

Le Guin’s schedule originally appeared in a 1988 interview with Slawek Wojtowicz (you can read the full transcript and see a scanned image of her response at the link—it includes some wonderful handwritten notes as well) and more recently in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview. Want more? I’d encourage you to check out Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a phenomenal documentary from Arwen Curry.

Learning to Say "No"

Learning to Say ‘No’

Distraction is one of my biggest struggles; something I grapple with on a daily basis. A few days ago, I posted how we as creatives need to choose to make time for our craft. I referred to time as the “currency for creation.” But there’s another metaphor that works just as well: time is the medium from which we craft our creative work. Without time we cannot produce—everything else: charcoal, oil paint, clay, wood, words, everything, is secondary to time. Yet, in an ever-connected world finding those moments can often feel difficult and overwhelming. When we do find the time it’s often fleeting, and we’re bogged down by distraction.

Those called to creation understand this on a very personal level. Obligations already eat away at the narrow slivers of time from which we hone our craft. And the siren call of distraction is always there to lure us away. Occupying oneself into idleness is easy. At the end of the day, the week, the month, the year one looks back and find themselves unfulfilled and wonders: what happened?


In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’


In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’ At first, it’s terrifying. In our culture of ‘yes’ a word like ‘no’ sounds final. (It’s not, but that doesn’t matter.) Your friends won’t get it. The family won’t understand. Entertainment and Social Media hate hearing ‘no,’ they feed off distraction. Our phones are abuzz with alerts demanding attention. The 24-hour news cycle wants you to believe everything is a crisis. Click ‘yes’ to receive alerts for this random website. It’s endless. Empathy for the creator—when it exists at all—is ephemeral. Dreams and drives get brushed aside as frivolous whims. Oh, that. That’s just a hobby. Nothing will come of that. Do that instead. Watch this. Come here. Go there. Play this. Guilt and shame are wielded with selfish abandon. But it’s for you! They say when really it’s for them.


It was so dumb I had to do it.

Facing those pressures is difficult. We’ve all crumbled and given in, and those slivers of time are lost forever. You don’t get them back. Hence, the lesson of ‘no.’ Learning to say ‘no’ allows us to set boundaries. It establishes what is important and it set priorities. It’s the first step in building a routine, making the work habitual, and living in the moment.

To be effective ‘no’ is something every creator has to master. Shut out the distractions. No, Twitter isn’t important. No, you don’t need to watch that latest reboot on Netflix. No, you don’t need to make that phone call. No, brunch isn’t necessary this weekend. Face the pressure head on, stand your ground, and make the choices for what matters to you. It’s important for our mental health. It’s important for the work. It’s important for creation. ‘No’ lets us carve out moments in time, and after all, time is the true medium.


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Choosing Time

Choosing Time

Most “rules” for writing are hyper-personal. What works for one writer will not work for another writer. We each discover our own path in the journey of creation and each path is as different as the person who walks it. But there is one bit of advice that remains true regardless of our course: to become a writer, you have to write.

That is a choice in itself. It doesn’t matter what we desire to do, if you’re driven to create then you have to participate in that act of creation. What you’re doing at that moment isn’t choosing to write but choosing the time to write. Time is the currency for creation. That applies to every creator working in any medium and is not restricted to writers.


Time is the currency for creation.


During the nineteenth-century labor movement, Robert Owen began the push for the eight-hour workday. It was he who coined the slogan “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Since then, it’s been co-opted by labor movements and labor organizations across the world. Most artists I know have to work full-time jobs (sometimes many)—art is often secondary to that work. That leaves sixteen hours (if we’re lucky[1]) to divide between rest and creation. From the onset, many of us are already limited in the amount of time we can spend walking our path.

A group of Australian ‘red raggers’ (railway drivers and firemen) pose in front of an 888 banner symbolizing the divisions of the day, 1912. More info on Wikipedia

Time is finite. Once spent it cannot be reclaimed. If a creator is driven to create, then we need to learn to spend our time wisely. If we work full-time jobs, we’re already limited. We need to set priorities that permit us the time to create. That requires sacrifice. Choosing time means making sacrifices and cutting out other things that serve only as a distraction.

For me, that meant I quit playing video games. I stopped watching movies. Television went by the wayside. This year, I’ve significantly cut back on live sports as well—I no longer choose to sacrifice four hours to a football or baseball game, not when my time is limited.[2]

As with the individual’s path of creation, the path of sacrifice will be different for each creator. The choices you make will be personal. But you’re going to have to make them. In the end, it’s up to you. It’s your choice.[3]


1 This is a topic for another time, but I know many artists who have to work several jobs. For some it’s so they can afford health insurance, for others, it’s so they can afford food or rent. This only further limits their time, and further restricts their choices.

2 This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy these things. You can! I haven’t become a Luddite. But I treat each of these as rewards instead of as a lifestyle. That makes my time with each more special.

3 “Choose wisely.” —Grail Knight


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. Alexander

Want to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

“But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” —Prince, 1999

Parties Weren’t Meant to Last

“But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.”

Prince, 1999

Prince passed away yesterday; he was fifty-seven. Between the fan tributes, listening to the nonstop playlists on KEXP, and watching buildings lit in purple as tribute around the world, I’ve found myself musing over his loss and how I handle the death of someone like Prince.

2016 has been a rough year for music already; we have lost some incredible titans: Maurice White, Merle Haggard, Phife Dogg, the indomitable David Bowie, and more. The internet as a whole allows all of us to share in moments together, and following each loss comes an outpouring of love, respect, and sadness. It’s beautiful to see how many people are touched by the creations of a single individual.

I was talking with a friend of mine this morning about how I handle moments like this differently. I didn’t know Prince personally, so I don’t cry, and I don’t generally get emotional. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care. My emotions just go in a different direction. As I reflect on Prince’s life, I find myself inspired.

The quote I pulled from the lyrics of 1999, really resonated with me this morning—like a party, life doesn’t last. We are here on this earth for a finite time, and we’re lucky enough to live in an age where we can pursue whatever we wish. Often people squander this. I know I have. I can’t begin to calculate how many hours in the past I’ve wasted.

For me, the death of a titan like Prince doesn’t depress me. Sure, I will miss seeing performances like the halftime show from Super Bowl XLI, but looking back on his life and seeing what he was able to do in only fifty-seven years leaves me in awe. Prince’s life shows us what can happen when you are willing to put aside distractions and pour 100% of yourself into your creations. Look at his impact on music. Look at his influence in songwriting. Look at how he inspired so many generations of performers. A skinny kid from Minneapolis, Minnesota profoundly changed music forever. We won’t forget that, and that’s incredible. That energizes me, motivates me, and it makes me want to put aside all distractions and do the same.

The party of life may not last, but if you throw a good one, the memory will never fade. Rest in peace, Prince. Thanks.