Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Here’s the thing about diet and writing books: they worked for the person who wrote the book. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, or rather, me. Don’t eat carbs. Don’t eat meat. No sugar. Raw foods only. Or. Write everyday. Write an  hour a day. Two hours Three. Ten. Write all you can. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Write at home. Write in coffee shops. Make an outline. Under no circumstances should you ever use an outline. Write first thing in the morning. Write at night. It’s crazy-making.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you have to discover what works for you. Sure, go ahead and read the books. Get some ideas but then you need to listen to your body, to your mind and adjust it to work for you. That’s what I am doing now, but in a gentle and kind way. I am experimenting with veganism. No huge proclamations that I will never ever eat another animal product again. I am not only taking it day by day but meal by meal. Leaning into it. I have read many articles lately that lead me to believe this kind of eating is better for my body, health and the planet so I am playing with it. Not black and white, all or nothing. Just eating in a clean and conscious way and then seeing how I feel. So far, after over three weeks without meat, minimal dairy and minimal sugar, I feel great. Lighter, physically and emotionally. More balanced.

Same with writing. I am experimenting with what works for me. Right now I am writing first thing in the morning after a ten minute meditation. I write morning pages then do a warm -up from “Naming the World” edited by Bret Anthony Johnston before revising existing stories. I spend about two hours then take a break to eat breakfast, workout. I’d like to write more in the afternoon and use a writing textbook as a structure. But again, I am treading lightly. Being kind to myself which those who know me know is a new and different path for me.

The point is, it’s all a process. A process of listening and trusting myself instead of looking out there for all the answers.


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“Why I’m Like This” true stories by Cynthia Kaplan
There was always one girl at camp whom everyone hated.

Kaplan has been described as a cross between David Sedaris and Anna Quindlen. Her true stories delve into a therapist from hell, bizarre grandmothers and the rest of her family and friends. The book is both hilarious and heart-breaking.

“If I Stay” a YA novel by Gayle Forman
Everything thinks it was because of the snow.

This is Mia’s story, recounted after a devastating accident. She is not dead, yet. She is able to observe what is going on around her, see her family and friends gathering at her bedside, at the hospital. Woven in are bits of her life, before the accident and the realization that she has the ultimate decision to make. A fast, engrossing read.

“Matrimony” a novel by Joshua Henkin
Out! Out! Out!” The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian’s mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long family of Pennsylvania Republicans.

I’ve always loved learning what goes on behind the scenes. This novel gives us access to a marriage as well as the writing life. We follow Julian from his days at Graymont College, where students could receive comments instead of grades from the professors, to a post-college life that involves his college love, Mia, and Carter with whom he has a strong but strained friendship. One of the things I really admired about this book is Henkin’s skill at creating scenes that move seamlessly in and out of the past and present. An absorbing portrait of a marriage and a creative life, both of which I found rich and textured.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food.

Shaffer spent twenty years writing this book. Once it was accepted for publication she was too ill to finish the revisions so she asked her niece, Barrows to do it for her.  The novel is told in letters from various characters and reveals the story of the German Occupation of the island of Guernsey. It’s a charming tale the shines a light on an obscure (to me anyway) piece of WWII history.

“Florida” a novel by Christine Schutt
She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding our from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, “Sit with me, Alice.”

A powerful novel of a mother and daughter told in sparse but precise and intense vignettes. It almost reads like a prose poem.

“The Next Thing on My List” a novel by Jill Smolinski
Next on the list: kiss a stranger.

So starts June Parker’s mission to complete the to-do list of Marissa, a passenger who is killed in a car accident while June was giving her a ride home. The tasks range from the mundane (eat ice cream in public) to the profound (change someone’s life). It’s a quick, delightful read that got me thinking about my own list of things I want to do in my life.

“The Wednesday Sisters” a novel by Meg Waite Clayton
The Wednesday Sisters look like the kind of women who might meet at those fancy coffee shops on University– we do look that way– but we’re not one bit  fancy, and we’re not sisters, either.

The open notebook filled with writing on the cover is what drew me in. I’m a sucker for any book that features writing or writers. This particular book features five women who meet as young mothers in the late sixties and form a writing group. We follow them through their personal creative struggles, relationships, medical issues as well as the changing world around them.

“Real Life & Liars” a novel by Kristina Riggle
My tea tastes so fresh and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

Once I was able to get past the fact that this was written by somebody I actually know, I slipped right into the Zielinski’s family life. One thing I appreciated as a writer is how the novel is focused on one particular weekend, a 35th anniversary party. It made me consider the structure of some of my longer projects. Also, the chapters are told in alternating points of view: the mother is in first person while the three adult children are in third. I also enjoyed reading a story that takes place in a setting I am familiar with- northern Michigan. An engaging story of family and how we continue to bump up against each other throughout our lives.

“Do Not Deny Me” short stories by Jean Thompson
The heat in Penrose’s office had not worked properly all fall.

Jean Thompson is one of my favorite short story writers. Her collection “ Who Do You Love” is on my permanent writer’s bookshelf. This latest one will also occupy a space there. Some of the perfectly drawn characters we encounter are a young woman whose boyfriend unexpectedly dies, a couple in dire financial straits and a man trapped by his stroke. This is a book I will read again and again, this time with a pen in hand.

“The Angel’s Game” a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.

Yes, it is another story featuring a writer but so much more happens in this intricate world he has created in these 532 pages. We are drawn into the world of publishing, art versus commercial, mysterious benefactors whose motives are questionable to say the least, love triangles, murders, arson, theft, police corruption, magic. This book has it all. The plot is as ornate and intricate as the intriguing city of Barcelona where the novel is set. If you’re looking for a lush story to sink into and lose yourself, then this is it.

Plus you get little gems of writing advice: “Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration. Only forty-eight hours after the establishment of the new regime, I discovered that I was beginning to recover the discipline of my most productive years. The hours of being locked up in the study crystallized into pages and more pages in which, not without some anxiety, I began to see the work taking shape, reaching the point at which it stopped being an idea and became a reality.”

“Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” stories by Maile Meloy
Chet Morgan grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.

I strive to write stories as vast and precise as these.  Each one feels staggeringly unique even as they explore familiar themes of grief, yearning, fraternal rivalry. I could not put this book down. It was like eating potato chips– just one more. Okay, one more.  And I was so disappointed when I read the last one. I would love to take a writing workshop with her but in the meantime her stories have so much to teach me.

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Creative Lulls

Moods, creativity, energy, the tides. What do all of these have in common? Cycles. Up cycles. Down cycles. Ebbing and flowing. Becca wrote last week about resurrecting her writing. I’ve had that same feeling of panic as I grab my book mentors off the shelf hoping to infuse me with some inspiration. They usually include: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Heather Sellers, Ron Carlson. I’ll also take books filled with prompts to the bookstore and write, write, write. Along with this panic there is also a dose of guilt. A thin layer of shame at wasting my time, my talent. These days I try to take a more holistic view. Every part of my life is part of a cycle. I couldn’t possibly write eight hours a day every single day. First of all, my cut-off is usually five hours and that’s if I’m on a deadline. My usual attention span is two to three hours.

When I let my writing go it is usually under the guise of housework, errands, etc.. But that is a choice I am making. Those dishes could wait. Everything can wait. When I realize I am avoiding my work I try to figure out why. It is almost always because I am lost. I don’t know what comes next whether it’s the next sentence, scene, chapter, or project. Having that downtime lets things mull in the back in of my mind. The thing is, there is a fine line between percolating and procrastination.

When I hear resurrection I think that the thing has died and I have to bring it back to life. I never let my writing die. Even if I’m not actively writing, I am thinking about it. There is always some tenuous thread keeping me connected to my work. For me it’s more like resuscitation. My project or chapter or page or sentence needs some CPR. But bringing some thing back is always harder than just maintaining it in the first place. I read somewhere how it’s easier to keep a rocket orbiting in space rather than launching it out there over and over again. Same with writing. Writing a little bit on a regular basis is much easier than starting from square one again and again.

So creative lulls are a natural part of the process. But the trick is not to let the lulls lull you into thinking that thinking about writing is as effective as actually writing. I love this quote from Heather Seller’s blog:

“You must always keep changing your process!” Maria Irene Fornes says. “Because there are two of you, one who wants to write and one who doesn’t. The one who wants to write has to keep fooling the one who doesn’t!”

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Becca asked us to write about our revision process. For me, revision is the only thing that lets me write. If I knew it had to be perfect the moment I put pen to paper, I’d never write another word.

There are levels of revision. Big picture, small picture. Macro edits, micros edits. I’ve come across checklists for both kinds but never really use them. Revision is more intuitive than merely checking items off a list. It’s a process I’m learning to embrace. It’s a process that is constantly evolving. It’s a process that teaches me to trust myself.

Spilling a first draft onto paper is the easy part. Going back in and finding the story is the hard part. Telling the story well is even harder. But revision is what allows me to do just that. I start each writing session by reading what I already have and I take note of places where I stumble. I’m learning to trust the little nudges I get as I read my own work. Questions that come up. New possibilities that present themselves. What-if scenarios that whisper at the edges of my consciousness.

Enjoying a sense of play is paramount during this meaty part of the revision process. What if it starts on page three? What if he tells it rather than her? Why does she say that? Do that? This is when I try to tell the story to the best of my ability. I make sure that the story arc is strong, that it all makes some kind of sense, that it feels contained, that the world I’ve written about is very particular, that all the threads are woven tautly throughout and that they are all necessary to the story. Once I have no lingering doubts that I’m trying to slip something past the reader, I start reading it out loud, line by line, making sure that it flows, that each word is essential. Only then it is ready for my writing group. Once it comes back, the process starts all over. And over. And over.

(Here is a link to some unique revision strategies.)

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Writing Meme

This is from Becca:

What’s your favourite genre of writing?
Literary fiction – novels and short stories.
How often do you get writer’s block?
I used to succumb to it quite often. Now I understand that it’s either A) a necessary break or B) I am at point where I don’t know what happens next
How do you fix it?
By writing anything: morning pages, in my process journal, from any prompt, on my blog, even a grocery list
Do you type or write by hand?
Both. Morning pages and prompts by hand. Many first drafts by hand. Small revisions can be typed right onto the screen. But often I print out a hard copy, make corrections and insert letters that correspond to handwritten paragraphs in my notebook.
Do you save everything you write?
Yes. Every story has its own “cut” file. Once a story is sent out I will finally get rid of all the old paper drafts but most of the files stay on the computer or a back-up disk.
Do you ever go back to an old idea long after you abandoned it?
Yes and the verdict is still out on how that works. Part of me thinks I can bring new knowledge and energy to it and another part of me thinks that I have outgrown it and need to cut it loose.
Do you have a constructive critic?
Yes. I always have either a writing group, writing friend or reading friend that I can run a story by.
Did you ever write a novel?
Yes, in thirty days.
What genre would you love to write but haven’t?
A screenplay as good as “You Can Count on Me”.
What’s one genre you have never written, and probably never will?
How many writing projects are you working on right now?
A collection of stories, a novel-in-stories, an essay  and a novel plus this new idea that is percolating and I am doing research on. I’m thinking it might be a trio of novellas.
Do you write for a living? Do you want to?
No and yes.
Have you ever written something for a magazine or newspaper?
Articles in “Welcome Home” and Raising Arizona Kids”.
Have you ever won an award for your writing?
First place in a flash fiction contest. I think it was a hundred dollars.

What are your five favourite words?
Opakapaka. Cerulean. Serendipity. Murky. Translucent.
Do you ever write based on your dreams?
Hmmm… not really. I wrote a dream of a character once and then I couldn’t remember if it was hers or mine.
Do you favour happy endings, sad endings, or cliff-hangers?
I hate cliff-hangers. It makes me feel ripped off, like the writer didn’t finish her work. In my own work the endings are subtle. No huge epiphanies. I try to give a glimmer of change but not tie it all up a neat tidy bow.
Have you ever written based on an artwork you’ve seen?
Yes, often. I am also a graphic designer and mixed media artist so images are inspiring to me. I can rarely get through an art gallery or museum without being inspired to jot down something. I make cards of images that I then string together to use as writing prompts, creating a narrative out of them. So much fun.

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This month so many magazine covers boast variations on the headline “A new year, A new you” and I am left asking myself what is wrong with the old me? For the first time in many, many years I did not approach this New Year’s eve with my usual frantic scrambling of resolutions designed to “fix” me but all they really do are make me feel less than. I realized that I finally feel good enough in most of the important areas of my life. I found this website called “Joe’s Goals” where you can track your goals with smiley faces or sad faces. When I looked at what other people are trying to achieve I found that I am way ahead of the game. I already do these things on a regular basis: floss, exercise, meditate, yoga, eat healthy foods, no credit card debt, read.

Last year I had this book about resolutions and I had so many that I couldn’t choose just one to focus on. This year it is just the opposite. There is only one thing I want to focus on and that is my writing. I stopped sending stories out over the last year or so. I still have several big projects that I need to finish. So I have written everyday since December 1. Many of those days were only morning pages especially throughout the holiday but it was still writing. I didn’t want to wake up on January 1 and feel behind. I wanted to gather some momentum to propel me writing into the new year and that’s just what I have done.

Resolution is such a harsh word and has so much baggage attached to it so I am not even calling it that. No. This year is all about my focus, my intention. Where do I intend to focus my energy this year? On my writing career. That little word “career” is new to me. I’ve always downplayed writing as just something I do but now I want it to be what I Do with a capital “D”. Each day I am asking myself “What did I do to nurture my writing career today?” So far it’s been things like revising a story, organizing my office so it is an inviting space to work in, looking through “Poets & Writers” for upcoming contests or submissions, buying index cards and a box to track my submissions. I am borrowing the concept of “micro-movements” from Sark so that some days the thing I do is print address labels to journals or draft a cover letter or find one new journal to submit to and write down the contact info on an index card. My intention is that all of these big and tiny creative movements will add up to a major leap in my writing life by the end of the year.

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Becca asks: So, how about you? Do you find that physical activity inspires your creativity? What’s works best for you – walking, running, dancing, kickboxing? How do you get in touch with your body, and use that awareness to inform your writing? How do you keep your body and mind in balance?

The mind body connection has always fascinated me. For those who don’t believe that such a thing exists, I ask if you have ever been afraid? That rush of adrenaline that floods your body comes from a thought that you are in danger. Or perhaps you’ve been turned on by an erotic story or movie. Mind, body- it’s all connected. So as a writer who uses her mind, I’m always looking for ways to tune into my body and use it to help my creative process.

First, I need to exercise. Moving my hand across a piece of paper or the keyboard does not qualify as aerobic activity. I work out about five days a week. Sometimes four, maybe six. It’s part of what I consider my triad of health. Exercise connects me with my body, writing with my mind, yoga and mediation with my spirit. If I let go of one, I lose focus. Lose my emotional balance. If I don’t move my body it starts to feel sluggish which leads to my mind feeling sluggish which leads to very few words getting onto paper. In the winter, exercise is especially important. It keeps the winter blues at bay.

Most mornings I do a twenty minute yoga routine that ends with a five minute meditation. I don’t belong to a gym. I have lots of tapes that I rotate that incorporate aerobics and weight training for about fifty minutes each. I always end up feeling clear headed and energized, two valuable assets to the creative process. I also walk, jog, ride my bike in the summer, shovel snow in the winter. It’s no longer a chore to make myself do it. I’ve been doing this for two years now. Even when I go on vacation I find a way to workout.

I also get a massage every other week. It’s a luxury that I made room for in the new budget that I set up once the economy tanked. It’s relaxing, balancing and often ideas for characters and stories drift to me as I lay there.

Walking is another activity that untangles the knots in my mind. If I feel stuck in a story I often go for a walk, not to exercise my body but to stimulate my brain. The even rhythm allows things to settle and ideas rise to the surface. At the very least I come back energized and re-focused.

Dance is something that I am feeling drawn to lately. I once had a childhood friend who told me I sounded like an elephant as we all did the locomotion in her basement. And one charming boyfriend in college took it upon himself to “teach” me how to dance. Up until that point I had pretty much enjoyed myself out there but in his eyes I apparently lacked a certain rhythm, not that I was Elaine or anything from Seinfeld but he sure made me feel like it. Anyway, I have this urge now to take ballet in order to feel graceful in my body. Or perhaps ballroom dancing with my husband.

Exploring other art forms is nourishment for the art form you practice. I took singing lessons once. I always told myself I couldn’t sing and I thought that getting in touch with my physical voice might help with my writing voice. It did. To me dance is all about being totally in the moment and unselfconscious. How could that not help my writing? This dancing seed was planted back when I read Twyla Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit”. She is a dancer and choreographer but the book can be applied to any art form or creative process.

Sleep is critical to my overall well-being. I naturally sleep eight to nine hours a night. Seven is pushing it. Six and it’s nap time.

The last way I stay in touch with my body and use it in my writing is by becoming aware of bodily sensations that come up with strong emotions. Writing about being afraid or nervous keeps it pretty abstract. It grounds a scene for me to focus on what the character feels in her body and to do that I need to be aware of what I feel in my own body. Do I twist my ring when I am nervous? Rub the back of my neck when uncomfortable? Being on the lookout for these sensations also helps me ride out the wave of emotion. It takes me out of my head and all the stories I tell myself and into the moment, into my body.

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