Elizabeth: What I Learned About Writing from Holiday Decorating

Smiling Christmas snowflake ornament on the tree

Smiling Christmas snowflake ornament on the tree

Honesty compels me to admit that I almost forgot it was my day to post again. My muddled sense of time is due, in part, to the fact that I was off work last week and have been home sick with my traditional holiday cold this week (pretty sure that was not on my holiday wish list).

Fortunately I did remember and, since I was staring at the Christmas tree at the time, talking about what holiday decorating taught me about writing seemed like a fine idea. That may have been the cold medicine talking though.

Anyway, without further ado, here goes:

Good things come to those who persevere: We did our holiday decorating this past Sunday, once the Thanksgiving leftovers were packed away. I thought we were just getting the tree on Sunday and then decorating later, but one thing led to another and pretty soon the tree was boasting a multitude of lights, lengths of garland, and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Shortly thereafter, the holiday pillows and throws were festooning the living room, the fireplace candles were switched to red and green, and a Santa mat was at the door to welcome visitors. It’s possible that I may have complained a bit, just a bit, while putting the lights on the tree. Just like in writing (for me at least), once the initial excitement wears off, it can be a bit of a struggle to keep an eye on the end goal and keep going (especially when you hands are covered in tree sap). Persevering and winding up with a festively decorated house may not be quite as satisfying as typing “The End” but it comes close.

Your voice is your voice, even when you try to change it: Every year when we go out to get our tree I think we’re going to get something different. I’m often sure the tree we’ve selected is different. Once it’s up and decorated and I look at photos from years past, I see that it’s exactly the same.  Every. Single. Time. The only thing that varies is how far off I am in my estimation of how high the ceiling is. Last year I was right on target but this year the poor angel on the top has her head wedged tightly against the ceiling.  She’s definitely going to need an aspirin by New Years. In decorating, just like in writing, I appear to have a specific voice.   No matter what decorations I use each year, the general feeling is the same, just like no matter what kind of hero I start out writing, he winds up a little sarcastic and dark by the end.

You may miss something wonderful if you stick with the usual: We have two plastic containers of ornaments. That may not sound like a lot, but in reality, we haven’t used any ornaments from the second container for years.  I went through all of the ornaments several years ago, weeding out anything that wasn’t a definite keeper, but we still never get past the first box. When we were all done decorating this time I looked at what was in the second box and there were some great ornaments there that I had completely forgotten about. Sticking with the same ornaments year after year gives the tree that familiar feeling, but it also means missing out on some great alternatives. The same can be said about going for the familiar or favourite choices in writing. You may miss a really good solution if you chose the first thing that comes to mind.

Leftovers don’t have to be wasted: Once the tree was decorated, there were leftover branches that had been cut off the bottom. I could have thrown them away, but some of them were just right for creating a holiday centrepiece and others, along with some red carnations, were perfect for the vase in the corner. Even my favourite carved Santa ornament from my brother, that didn’t make it onto the tree, found a perfect spot in the china cabinet, keeping a watchful eye over the dining room. Even though there were things that didn’t make it onto the tree, there was a way to repurpose them. The same can be true in writing when you have to cut your darlings or you find a scene that just doesn’t work in the current story. The words don’t have to be wasted; they can often be repurposed for another book or a short story or as a building block for something totally different.

It doesn’t have to be perfect:   The tree we started out with was not perfect. In fact, the man at the tree lot said something like “a lot of people would have just passed that one by.” In reality though, once it was covered in lights and garland and ornaments, it looked great with no obvious deficiencies. I feel like that’s true in writing as well. What you start out with may not be perfect, but once you add great characters, strong conflict, and interesting action, it will be great.

So, is your holiday decorating teaching you a thing or two as well or is it just me?

17 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What I Learned About Writing from Holiday Decorating

  1. I love what you’ve learned! I haven’t started decorating yet; I procrastinate with my decorating, and I procrastinate with my writing (although, I could learn something from my writing this year to apply to my decorating!). I think this weekend will be the weekend when it all goes up.

    • Michaeline – normally I procrastinate as long as possible (see unfinished manuscript), but I was swayed by family member who was eager for the Christmas season to start. If it was completely up to me, there would probably still be a bare tree standing in my living room.

      • (-: It’s nice to have enthusiastic collaborators! My eldest is coming home this weekend, so I hope she’ll give us the push to get it done. Otherwise, it might not go up until the 20th.

        Which reminds me of another important parallel — clearing the boards before starting the work. I’ve got to clean out the foyer today and tomorrow. (When writing, it’s important to set up a clear space to work — even if it’s the library — and a time to do the work.)

        It’s been a great “worrying about the details” week, but not a very good writing week so far . . . . I need to exit the internet, and fix that.

        • Michaeline – nothing like having kids around to keep up the holiday excitement. I like your idea about clearing before starting work too. I have been doing a big of that lately in my office writing space. Trying to get rid of everything that is unnecessary or hasn’t been looked at in years, so I have a clear (inspiring) spot to work in.

  2. That was fun, Elizabeth, and some great food for thought.

    My own personal take-away on Christmas decorating – if your heart’s not in something, don’t do it, even if the rest of the world is doing it and other people think you should. I enjoy seeing other people’s Christmassy efforts, but I haven’t the inclination or talent to go there myself. The results are mediocre at best and I resent the time spent. When I had a desk job, my staff used to think I was hilarious. They’d decorate the office around me and I swear they over-cooked it on purpose just to wind me up.

    • That’s a great point Jilly. If your heart is not in something then doing it is just likely to leave you frustrated. Better to save your time to do the thing you really love.

    • Rachel, since thanksgiving and Christmas are so close this year I figured I bette not wait too long or it would be too late.

      Hope the writing inspiration was helpful. This can be a hard time of year to be inspired – especially if there are a lot of other things going on.

  3. Okay, we put up a fake tree. I wonder what that says? Fake it ’til you make it? It’s funny how so many things in life can be related to writing, or any task that takes work. I like it and I am inspired by your thoughts (and we didn’t make it past the 2nd layer of ornaments either).

    • Nothing wrong with a fake tree Michille. Hard to tell the difference when it’s all decorated and it’s environmentally friendly too. Glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t make it through all of the ornaments 🙂

  4. My sole contribution to the holiday decorating spirit is my “tree”—which is an orange plastic traffic cone wound around with colored LED tree lights. It looks pretty weird in the daytime, but great at night when it’s turned on. I’m naturally a procrastinator, plus my favorite thing about the holidays is the lights, so I just leave the traffic cone up all year round. Now that I’m put to the test of thinking how decorating reflects writing, I’m going to say that being able to see my “tree” year round helps put me in the happy frame of mind of the holidays. Yeah, that, or I just like bright and shiny stuff!

    • Kay, your traffic cone with lights sounds delightful. Just like in writing, everyone’s method is different. It’s great that you’ve found what works for you – plus you have something to make you happy year round. Sounds like a winner to me.

  5. We’re usually a “do it all at once” type family, but this year, we’re breaking everything out slowly. Same goes for writing, I guess. Chipping away at it gets the book done just as sitting down and plowing through it does. It all looks the same in the end.

  6. Relating decorating to writing, my MO is starting later than I’d planned and having way too many things going on at once. This year, we probably won’t get out the decorations until my daughter comes home around December 16.

    But once we start decorating, oh boy. The centerpiece(s) of our decorations has become two sets of three white trees each (one set goes in the front windows, and the other set goes in our floor-to-ceiling back windows) that have a light show set to the music of the Trans Siberian Orchestra. It’s become a bit of a happening. I even have friends coming at the end of January that have asked that I please leave up the white trees so they can see them, much to my husband’s delight. If he had his way, we would leave up the Christmas decorations until his birthday at the end of Feb.

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