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The Dichotomy of You – The Writer

cat two color eyesYou are a complex animal. You are not only human (already a perplexing tangle of physical, emotional, and spiritual knots), you are also a writer. You are human complexity to a factor of ten – a bundle of contradictions and rabbit holes. Your writer’s mind works in mysterious and sometimes seriously confusing ways. And yet, somehow, you manage to pull moments of truth and beauty from the chaos. Eventually.

Being a writer means keeping the push and pull of life at the surface. You do not sublimate the battle that perpetually rages around us. You not only see and acknowledge this conflict, you pull it apart so you can look deep inside. This exploration requires you to inhabit two worlds at once – the “real” world and the inner world. To the uninitiated, these two realms of existence appear mutually exclusive, but the writer knows that they intersect often and in unexpected ways.

To journey between worlds, you wear many different guises – taking on the minds and lives of your characters, experiencing the world through their eyes and sharing what you learn. Even if you write memoir or personal essays, your writing voice is often different from your “real world” voice. The voice that has emerged through my column writing is much more reflective and lyrical than the more pragmatic voice of my daily interactions. Though both aspects are equally authentic parts of my personality, each exists primarily in its own sphere, meeting where words land on the page. You live, I imagine, in similarly distinct yet inextricably linked worlds.

As a writer, you wear your insides on the outside. Even if your stories are fiction, they expose the private turmoil that writhes beneath the surface of your public persona. Neither is more “real” than the other. They are each valid halves of the dichotomy that is you.

What I’m Writing:

forest pathThough my writing plans were slightly derailed last weekend, I did manage (over the course of a couple early mornings and late nights) to pull together a few pages of new writing to submit in class last Tuesday. Though it was incomplete and (very) first-draft-y, I was just happy I managed to get some words on the page. It wasn’t easy, but it was satisfying.

Though it’s always a work in progress, I have gained some clarity about the writing process that works for me. This is something you can only learn through practice. The myth of best practices runs rampant in the writing world. We devour blogs and books full of advice on how to be creative, productive, efficient writers. We seek out the secrets of other writers’ success, hoping that the magic formula they have devised will work for us. But, the truth is each writer is unique and the number of variables in play allow for an almost infinite number of variations on the theme. Your quickest route to discovering your own secret sauce is to write, write, and then write some more. You’ll figure it out.

We discussed the danger of preconceptions about how to write during this past week’s writing class. I confessed that I sometimes feel like I’m not  a “real” writer because I am much more a planner than a “panster,” or – as our instructor described it – more an architect than a gardener. I worry that my need to spend a lot of time figuring out the mechanics, structure, and flow of a story before I sit down to write somehow makes my writing less authentic or creative than the writer who lets the story develop organically. I was thrilled when strangewriter brought this up in the comments of last week’s weekend edition. It reminded me, once again, that there is no right way to write. There are the rules of craft (which you should learn, if only to break them), but there is no universally correct way to go about bringing a story to life. You must find (or make) your own path through the wilderness. While another writer may need to write early in the morning with a clear head, your muse may be more compliant in the quiet hours just after midnight.

I’m both anxious and eager to hear the class’s feedback on my submission. Unearthing my best writing process may be a personal quest, but crafting my best story is a mission that is well served by collaboration with others in a safe, supportive space like our class. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

What I’m Reading:

book citizen canineOther than a few minutes stolen here and there, reading time has been in extremely short supply this week. Mostly, I’ve been listening to a nonfiction audio book called Citizen Canine by journalist David H. Grimm. Being an “animalish” person, I was immediately intrigued by the notion of exploring the origins, evolution, and changing status of dogs and cats.

Though it’s nonfiction, this fascinating book is full of inspirations for stories. As I listen, I am reminded of the old adage that life is stranger than fiction. Many fiction writers, both short story writers and novelists, mine history and current events for characters and story ideas. A simple and fun way to come up with new story ideas is to play the “what if/why” game with a piece of nonfiction. For instance, in Citizen Canine, I have so far learned about:

  • An ancient burial site that predates Egypt, the culture that we consider the cradle of the cat craze, but which contains a complete cat skeleton that was clearly buried with, as Grimm puts it, a lot of “pomp” – What is the story behind that culture, that tribe, that specific cat? Why was the cat positioning within the grave looking eye-to-eye with the human corpse?
  • A kitten who “donated” a kidney to save her brother – The kittens belonged to Grimm and he noted in his telling of the story that “donated” is a word he used loosely, since the “donor” kitten didn’t really have a say in the matter. What kinds of questions does this bring up for you? What if the patients were humans? What if the two cats belonged to different families?
  • The domesticated silver fox, the result of fifty years of experiments in selective breeding in the Soviet Union and Russia – What if the experiments yielded different results? What if that same contrived domestication was used on people? What if the domestication wasn’t lasting throughout generations and suddenly the docile silver foxes turned wild again?

There are so many ideas and stories to explore. And, story ideas aside, Grimm’s book really is so interesting and very well written. I’m hooked.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Before I get to this week’s blogs, I wanted to remind you about that very cool word count Google doc that I mentioned a while back. The spreadsheet lets you color codes your daily word count tally, giving you a beautiful and simple at-a-glance view of your productivity over the calendar year. To use, click the link to download and then go to File > Make A Copy and save to your own drive. This may come in especially handy for any of you doing NaNoWriMo, but I may put it to good use starting in January as a way to kickoff my writing goals for the year.

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin stranger than fiction

Here’s to embracing the dichotomy of your life as a writer and all the stranger-than-fiction realities that exist in the “real” world. Happy reading and writing. Have a great weekend & I’ll see you on the other side! 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Cat Photo Credit: Symic via Compfight cc
Forest Path Photo Credit: VinothChandar via Compfight cc

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NaNoWriMo – Maybe Next Year

I don't mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I'm going.

I don’t mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I’m going.

I think 2009 was my first NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. You know, the month of story-driven insanity where intrepid writers try to get 50,000 words out in thirty days. Today at the stroke of midnight, thousands of people sat down to keyboards, laptops, and notebooks and began to chip away at the word count. It’s an experience that is both exhilarating and exhausting. The camaraderie is contagious. Some might say it’s because misery loves company, but I think it’s more that insanity is better shared.

Whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo is a decision that plagues many writers this time of year. Despite being up to my eyeballs with copywriting deadlines and already overextended with a (fabulous) writing class at Grub Street, I was still tempted. There is something heroic about joining this crusade against the blank page. There is something comforting about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all those other literary legions, valiantly marching towards victory, one word at a time.

But, at the end of the day, I passed on NaNoWriMo this year for the same reason that I reluctantly turned my back on the writing frenzy in 2012: Larry Brooks. I explained my justification for bailing on this literary tradition in the post NaNoWriMo #fail – I Blame You, Larry Brooks. The short version is that I found myself unprepared (as in no outline) and unable to stomach the idea of writing 50,000 without a plan. Once upon a time, I might have just forged ahead anyway. I did, actually, in 2009, write 50,000 words with nary a storyline in sight. I embraced the No Plot, No Problem! spirit of the event 150%.

But, as I’ve learned more about story structure, characterization, context, etc., I find that – for better or worse – I only want to tackle a story if I’ve had the time to get a plan in place. Even for a short story, like the assignment I’m working on today for class, I need to have a roadmap. I don’t need to have every nitty-gritty detail lined up like so many tasks on a To Do list, but I do need a strong understanding of my characters, themes, and a general idea of how (I think) the story is going to develop. It’s okay if things evolve in new directions while I’m working, but I need that starting foundation before I can settle in to crafting actual sentences.

Am I just making excuses? I don’t think so, but I can understand why you might ask the question. At some point, the planning has to stop and the writing must commence. I get that. But, I’ve always found that the writing part goes much more smoothly if I’ve taken the time to do the prep work. Whether I’m writing a blog post, a column, a website, or a business ebook, the writing is much easier if I’ve put the effort into developing solid outlines that address everything from my topic to my theme, consider my audience, and even start to lay out creative elements like structure, presentation, etc.

But, maybe that’s just me.

What’s your take? Planner or Panster? NaNoWriMo Forever or NaNoWriNope?

 

What I’m Writing:

practical sandra

Smile, even when things may not go as you’d planned.

Last Tuesday, my fellow students and Grub Street instructor workshopped my “homework submission” for the Fiction I class I’m taking. I was a little nervous. After all, although I knew everyone would be kind, it’s never easy to be on the hot seat, or – as it’s called in class – “in the box.” On the other hand, there is something undeniably thrilling about having someone read your work. You feel naked, but you also feel heard. I knew that all the flaws and faux pas of my writing were there on the page, but it was worth it to have readers join me inside the world of my story.

I spent some more time last week and this working on further developing the idea and outline for the short story I’m hoping to submit for next Tuesday’s class. Once again, I had set a big, juicy block of writing time aside. That mini writing retreat was scheduled to begin a few minutes ago, but after a Norman Rockwell-worthy Halloween with my daughter, I got a bit of a late start on this post. And, I just learned moments ago that my daughter’s dad has decided to pick her up later than expected. A lot later.

So, once again, my writing window has shrunk down to the size of a porthole.

In the past, I would have railed against this development. I would have slid quickly from disappointed to angry to bitter. I would have written a slightly whiny post about how hard I was fighting for my writing life, and the whole world seemed hell bent on stopping me. In short, I would have pouted.

Not any more. It’s a cold, gray day-after-Halloween. I am just about to curl on on the sofa with my daughter and watch Practical Magic – one of my all-time favorite movies with her for the first time. And, you know what? I’m not just good with that. I’m delighted. Sure, it will curtail my writing for the day, but as important as writing is to me, life is more important. Life is, after all, what fuels the writing. Life is what makes the writing worthwhile.

 

What I’m Reading:

miniature booksAs you might imagine, I didn’t have a ton of time for reading this week, but what I did enjoy were a few short stories and essays. I’m beginning to develop quite an affinity for short form fiction. I’m even starting to get an itch to play around with flash fiction a bit.

In addition to reading the workshop submissions from two fellow students in class (submissions which were, by the way, excellent and so much fun!), I also read a wonderful essay by Jamie Passaro on Full Grown People, and a couple of appropriately spooky 19th century tales by Elia W. Peattie from Short Story Thursdays – The Room of Evil Thoughts and A Child of the Rain.

Though these pieces were short, they were fulfilling. They didn’t provide any sense of closure, something I usually like in a story. Instead, they raised questions and curiosity. They made me wonder what else might have happened. They reached into my writer’s mind and spun the wheels about a bit. That’s a good thing.

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin happy let go

Smile and enjoy your day, even if it doesn’t go as you’d planned. Write, read, live. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Hourglass Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc
Country Road Photo Credit: fatboyke (Luc) via Compfight cc
Miniature Books Photo Credit: lamont_cranston via Compfight cc

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Find Your Quiet Place

My quite time view

My quite time view

I love to be alone.

It’s not that I dislike spending time with other people, but I find that solitude grounds me. Quiet time by myself has always been the best way to reboot my system and recharge my batteries. It’s much too easy, in the rumble and buzz of our daily rounds, to let the external noise drown out our own thoughts. When that happens, we feel overwhelmed and unmoored. At least, I do.

And then, a funny thing happens. Instead of stepping out of the fray and back into our own head and heart, we plunge further into the noisy world around us, reaching and grasping for something to bring us home to ourselves. We seek guidance from experts and search out the advice of authorities. We tune into distractions of all kinds, hoping they will help us relax and find our balance again. We assume that the answers are out there somewhere.

But, of course, as Dorothy discovered, the answers are never “out there.” They’re right here.

Solitude helps us untangle ourselves from the rest of the world so we can rediscover our personal truth and reality. This is important for any human being, but nonnegotiable for writers.  Our work, our best work, comes from that place inside us. Though our writing is influenced by the outside world, the core of what we have to offer in our stories springs from our personal well of experience and being. That is where the magic comes from.

Spending time alone gives us the chance to gently or aggressively slough off the layers of otherness. It might hurt. It might be scary. But it will bring you home and it will give you direct access to the source of your stories. I invite you to make solitude part of your writing practice. It’s not easy to carve out even a small pocket of alone time in our over-scheduled world, but it’s worth it.

My private haven of choice is the early morning, before my daughter is awake and before I let the world in through my computer screen. I sit with my journal and a mug of tea. I watch the sun rise, and I do my best to bushwhack my way towards the place inside my mind and heart where the really good stuff is. Some days I can only dance around the perimeter of the forest, but other days I find a narrow track that leads me right to the core. It’s never the same journey twice and never an exercise I regret.

And, I find a lot of stories there, just waiting for me to come into the quiet so I can hear them.

 

What I’m Writing:

sidewalk sproutLast Saturday, I had planned a luxuriously long, uninterrupted block of  writing time during which I hoped to write a story. I was scheduled to submit this yet-to-be-written story to my writing class on Tuesday morning. I had the seed of an idea, and assumed that, with a few solid hours’ work, I would have something suitable for sharing with gentle beta readers.

Oh, a writer’s best-laid plans.

Life intervened, of course, in the form of several, unavoidable distractions that quickly and efficiently consumed several hours of my carefully hoarded time. I had the sensation of watching them evaporate in puffs of white smoke the same way apps disappear off the dock on my MacBook. Though the loss of time was painful, I could have gotten past it and written through the remaining time except for a much bigger problem: my story idea wasn’t fully baked.

I had that seed of an idea, but I hadn’t taken the time to plant it, water it, and help it grow. So, I sat there in front of my blank screen with an inert seed in my hand, and I wondered what to do. I started researching. I started playing with the idea – trying to figure out what I needed to germinate it. I had new ideas. Different ideas. I had questions. Lots and lots of questions.

In the end, I didn’t write a single word.

For class, I dredged up an old piece (the first chapter of a middle grade urban fantasy) and did some editing. At first, I was disappointed that I’d been unable to whip up something new. But then I thought about why I’d been so stumped, and I realized that my stuckness was actually the result of my growth as a writer. I’d learned enough that I couldn’t be satisfied with my half-baked idea. I knew there was something better. Something more worthy of my effort. It wasn’t a matter of worrying about perfection. I was ready to write a shitty first draft. It was about sensing that there was more to my idea than met the eye.

The good news is that I have a second chance to submit a piece in class. And, even better than that, I’ve been nurturing my idea over the past week and I think I’m on to something. I think I’ve started to unravel a new twist that will give me a stronger, more interesting story. I’m so excited and can’t wait for next weekend’s writing time.

 

What I’m Reading:

impossible wolvesThis week hasn’t left much time for reading, but I did gift myself with a story by the writer who is teaching the Grub Street class I’m taking. On her site, Darkness Loves Company, KL Pereira invites readers to “Get Dark” …

Darkness is so much more than the things that lurk–darkness drives our deepest selves, our desires, passions, deviances. It’s the true surrender to the shadow self that lives just inside, in the oldest corners of our bones.

How could I resist such an invitation, especially around the Halloween holiday?

So, I picked out a story called Impossible Wolves. I was able, at the time, to purchase it as a very cool, little chapbook, but it seems to have disappeared off her etsy website now. Still, if you are interested, she has a number of other stories available for perusing on her site.

Pereira’s Fiction I class has done much to not only improve my understanding of the writing craft in general, but also to increase my appreciation for the short story form. The pieces we’ve read in class are fascinating examples of how something that appears simple can, in fact, be dizzyingly and gorgeously complex. There is an undeniable elegance in the shorter forms. The paring down seems to reveal a story that is, in some ways, more pure. I’m rambling, but the point is that sort stories are worth reading.

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin solitude

Here’s to finding your quiet place and having time to spend there communing with the stories inside you. Happy reading. Good writing. See you on the other side.

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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What if “happy” comes first?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness.

What about just “life, liberty, and happiness?”

There is a cultural misconception that happiness is a conditional state that depends on external factors.

  • I’ll be happy when I get the right job.
  • I’ll be happy when I meet my true love.
  • I’ll be happy when I can fit into a size six.
  • I’ll be happy when I’m published.

We mistakenly assume that we must jump through all kinds of hoops in order to “earn” happiness, and we routinely trade in-the-moment happiness for a maybe-sometime-in-the-future happiness that may or may not ever materialize.

We turn “being happy” into an If-Then statement to which there is no resolution, because each time we meet the conditions we’ve set, we immediately set new conditions. We move the goal line another ten yards out (to use an uncharacteristic sports metaphor).

I invite you to watch this excellent (and brief – only twelve minutes long) TedX talk by Shawn Achor, author of several books including The Happiness Factor. He shares some really intriguing revelations about how happiness affects our productivity and success … rather than productivity and success affecting (or creating) our happiness. I invite you to give him a listen, let it sink in, and think about how your assumptions about happiness might actually be handicapping your ability to be happy.

I’m also curious: how do you define happiness in relation to your writing?

 

What I’m Writing:

As this post goes live on Saturday morning, I will be prepping for an all-day writing session to work on a the piece I’ll be submitting for class critique next Tuesday. I’m unreasonably anxious about this.

I’ve had pieces “workshopped” before. I’m not really nervous about being on the proverbial hot seat. I welcome the opportunity to hear some honest feedback about my writing. I think what I’m finding most unsettling is that I haven’t (yet) got a strong story idea. As I mentioned in last week’s weekend edition, I have a number of story ideas milling around in my head, but none of them have stepped up to demand my full attention. The countdown is nearing zero, and I’m still waffling about which story I want to tell.

To help me get over this paralyzing indecision, I am going to treat this exercise as an experiment. I’m going to try to “play.” We did just such an exercise at the end of last week’s class and it was great fun. After spending some time analyzing all the ways that dialogue can “go awry,” we were tasked with writing a scene that included as many dialogue faux pas as possible. The results were not only hysterical, they were very informative. By forcing ourselves to do it wrong, we saw more clearly how to do it right. Pretty neat trick.

While I’m off figuring out what the hell I’m going to write, I thought I’d share a few pictures of the beautiful and oh-so-bookish Salem Athenaeum. I hope they put you in a writing kind of mood.

IMG_1734IMG_1735IMG_1736IMG_1737IMG_1738

 

 

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What I’m Reading:

book halloween treeThis week, perhaps inspired by our in-class focus on the short story form, I set aside my novels in favor of more bite-sized reading indulgences.

First, I listened to Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree evocatively read by Bronson Pinchot. Other than the books required by my high school language arts curriculum, I have not read much of Bradbury’s work. This story, however, will certainly be one that I listen to again. It also has me curious to read more of Bradbury’s short works.

The Halloween Tree is a sort of tour through the ages with a focus on the origins of and different incarnations of our modern-day Halloween celebrations. Traveling through time and across continents, Bradbury weaves together the folklore of many different cultures. The language is beautiful. My favorite line described headstones in a graveyard as being “frosted by old moonlight.” Bradbury is also a master of creating tension and I often found myself almost holding my breath at different points in the story (and especially at the end).

I have recommended this story to my ten year-old daughter and hope that she will give it a listen before the 31st. Much more than a history lesson, The Halloween Tree is a story about embracing the darkness even as we flee towards the light. It’s just perfect for this time of year as the seasons draw us into the long, shadowed rest of winter.

kelly linkThe second piece I read was Flying Lessons by Kelly Link.  I searched this one out because our class instructor, KL Pereira, said in an online interview that it is one of her favorites . I was delighted to discover that the full story is available for free on Link’s website.

I haven’t read any other of Link’s work (yet), but I enjoyed this piece and will definitely give it a few re-reads in order to study it’s craft and structure. The story plays out in a series of short scenes, each with its own title. I would guess that the genre would be magical realism/fantasy (my favorite). Though the story takes place in a seemingly ordinary, fairly contemporary setting, there are strange things afoot and fantastical characters lurking just behind carefully constructed masks.

The opening is wonderful and was one of the “great beginnings” examples Pereira used in class:

1. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.

Listen, because I’m only going to do this once. You’ll have to get there by way of London. Take the overnight train from Waverly. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.

When you arrive at Kings Cross, go down into the Underground. Get on the Northern line. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.

The Northern line stops at Angel, at London Bridge, at Elephant and Castle, Tooting Broadway. The last marked station is Morden: stay in your seat. Other passengers will remain with you in the car. Speak to no one.

These are some of the unlisted stations you will pass: Howling Green. Duke’s Pit. Sparrowkill. Stay in your seat. Don’t fall asleep.

How can you resist reading on?

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin happy monster

Wishing you happiness today – in your writing, your reading, and your living. Enjoy! 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Money: Taboo Topic or Merely Impolite Conversation

elephantThere’s an elephant in our midst.

I didn’t notice it right away, but a recent conversation with friends brought its hulking, gray-green presence to my attention: the beast known as Money.

Money and art do not typically make good bedfellows. For the vast majority of creative types, there is a fairly substantial (some might even say, “monumental”) gap between The Work and Worldly Compensation. Hence the stereotype of the “starving artist.” The world, it seems, does not appreciate art as much as it appreciates, say, hedge fund investments or large manufacturing operations.

And yet … there are artists (and writers) who have clearly found a way to make a (very nice) living with their craft.

One of the friends with whom I was discussing the whole money issue shared a bit of link bait that was actually quite interesting: 21 Ways Rich People Think Differently. The article is a compilation of excerpts the book How Rich People Think by Steve Siebold. Scanning through the list of observations, I was appropriately horrified to discover that I hold certain unfounded prejudices against money and the wealthy. For instance, the first two sub-heads from the post are:

  • Average people believe money is the root of all evil. Rich people believe poverty is the root of all evil. – “”The average person has been brainwashed to believe rich people are lucky or dishonest.”
  • Average people think selfishness is a vice. Rich people think selfishness is a virtue. – “If you’re not taking care of you, you’re not in a position to help anyone else. You can’t give what you don’t have.”

My not-so-original point is this: If you’re holding a secret grudge against money, maybe you’ve got the wrong mindset for making money. There’s a bit of a guilt factor (something we talked about last week in the context of the writer’s fear of self-indulgence) in play, but there’s also a kind of reverse snobbery that can sabotage your earning ability without you even realizing it. Think about it. If you believe, deep down, that money is the root of all evil and rich people are, therefore – by association – also evil, how on earth could you possibly develop a positive mindset about money?

I am by NO means a money whisperer, guru, or expert. Like most people, I’ve got plenty of baggage when it comes to money. I do, however, make my living with words; and I’m working my way towards making my living with artistic words. I still have plenty of emotional and logistical hurdles to clear, but I’m pretty sure that just acknowledging my knee-jerk prejudice against money is a good first step. And I also think that talking more about money – more frequently, more openly, more truthfully – is also a step in the right direction. You up for that?

What I’m Writing:

typewriter royal conwaySo this past Tuesday I finally made it to the Fiction I Grub Street class that I had to miss last week due to my daughter being home sick. Though Grub Street is based in Boston, this particular course (taught by the lovely and very helpful KL Pereira) is being held in the writing center’s “satellite” location at The Salem Athenaeum. And what a satellite it is. The place absolutely reeks of literature. (Next time I will take pictures to share.)

Although I haven’t begun the actual writing yet, I learned on Tuesday that I will be submitting two pieces (complete or partial, up to 25 pages each) to be workshopped by the class. Although this discovery made me wince a little (mostly on the inside), I know that this fabricated deadline combined with forced participation is just what I need to motivate me. There’s nothing like the risk of embarrassment to inspire me to spring into action.

Complicating matters slightly is the fact that our submissions are meant to be short stories, a genre I’m not all that familiar with. As a matter of fact, until this class, I could likely count the number of short story collections I’ve read using only my ten fingers. But, I’m learning – through reading and follow-up class discussions – just what makes a strong short story, and I’m ready to start experimenting with my own.

My biggest challenge at the moment is trying to choose which story to work on. I have a couple story ideas from years ago, and a few more from recent musings. I’m just not sure which one to pick. I’ll be mulling that over this weekend.

Meantime, while KL is full of all kinds of great information, explanations, and examples, I think I’ll save the bulk of those for other posts. I would, however, like to share a great resource she mentioned: The Fiction Writer’s Character Chart by Rebecca Sinclair (via Eclectics.com). This is similar to  (but a bit more categorized than) the 90 Things to Know About Your Characters Before You Start Writing post I shared from Kathy Temean last week. In either case, I challenge you to complete either (or both!) of these questionnaires for your main character and see if you don’t get tripped up. My lesson of the week: I need to know a LOT more about my characters before I really KNOW them.

What I’m Reading:

book diving bellesThis week’s short story reading assignment from class was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. While I realize it’s a classic piece of American literature, if I’m being honest, I didn’t enjoy it. I hear O’Connor is an acquired taste, but I don’t expect to be clamoring for more of her stories any time soon. Or ever. The whole experience made me feel like I was back in some college lit course.

Still – I can see the value in reading and studying well-written stories, even ones you don’t particularly like. Class discussion about last week’s read (“Moving On” by Diane Cook) included analysis of character, conflict, and context – the basic building blocks of any story, short or long. I was particularly intrigued by “context,” which is an element I have not read about as much as I’ve read about character and conflict. (More on that later.)

In addition to my “homework” reading, I’m also enjoying (though slightly baffled by) a collection of short stories by Lucy Wood. The tales in Diving Belles are eclectic to say the least. Loosely based on Cornish folklore, Wood has played with the traditional characters, themes, and elements of these ancient stories to create new, sometimes twisted, always interesting versions.

As someone interested in magical realism, this collection appeals to my desire to blend the fantastic with the everyday. I’m only a few stories in, but I can already sense that this will be a book I will return to for inspiration.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin get the money

Here’s to developing a healthy mindset about wealth, writing even when you’re scared, trying new things, and getting the money. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Navel gazing and other writerly fears

"Quick Splash" by Jay Melnick via Albumarium. The picture of canine shame. ;)

“Quick Splash” by Jay Melnick via Albumarium. The picture of canine shame. ;)

You self-indulgent, spoiled brat.

If someone hurled these words at you, it would feel like a physical slap in the face. You would flush with reflexive shame and regret before shifting to feeling indignant or even angry. Thankfully, these words are only ever spoken out loud in rare moments of extreme conflict. To hear them, or anything like them, ringing in your ears is – I hope – something you never have to experience.

However, while the circumstances that would incite another person to deliver such a sharp insult seldom occur in the real world, the possibility of suffering such an attack from our own inner critics is, sadly, a much more likely event. After all, our inner critics are not bound by any sense of propriety. They are severely lacking in social graces and have abysmal impulse control. Whether they are shouting their cruel accusations or, more insidiously, whispering them, they always appear frighteningly confident and justified in their judgment.

As writers, we spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in what might understandably be perceived as navel-gazing. We create and inhabit internal worlds that ultimately serve as vehicles of self-expression. We have the audacity to believe that our dreams and ideas have the right to a life outside the confines of our own minds. Cheeky, aren’t we?

Most of the time, your focus on the craft provides protection against would-be assailants intent on character defamation. But a moment’s doubt is like a blade slipping through your defenses to deliver a small but decisive wound. You falter. A moment ago you were blissfully immersed in the creative flow, but now there is a covert poison working its way through your system. There is a small voice asking, “Who are you to tell this story?” And, suddenly, you don’t know who you are or what possessed you to believe you could do this thing.

You have succumbed to the fear of self-indulgence.

You have given in to believing that your writing is a selfish, conceited, and frivolous act. You have accepted your inner critic’s ruling that you are unworthy. Only Real Writers have the right to write, and you are most certainly not among that high and lofty set. After all, no one is reading what you write. No one is paying you to write. No one needs to hear your stupid story.

But, they do. They do. Who are you to tell this story? You are the only person who can tell this story. And do you know what is selfish and self-indulgent? Keeping the story to yourself. Staying scared and silent. Giving up. Using your fear to protect you from the possibility of rejection.

Writing is not self-indulgent. Writing is brave and generous. It is the act of digging deep down inside your heart, mind, and soul; extracting the truth you find there; polishing it to the best of your ability; and sharing it with others. Writing is the opposite of self-indulgent. Yes, it requires that you look within, but ultimately that internal searching is an effort to connect. Stories are not meant to be kept inside. Stories are, by nature, shared. They are the best gift you can give.

 

What I’m Writing:

writing classA few weeks ago, I signed up for a Fiction I class offered by the Grub Street writing center and taught by KL Pereira. The first class took place this past Tuesday, but I was unable to attend because my daughter came down with a nasty cold on Saturday and was convalescing on the couch through Thursday. Happily, she is feeling much better now and was able to return to school on Friday. Sadly, missing that first class felt, for a moment, like a particularly unking karmic injustice. But, I’m over that now.

Pereira was wonderfully gracious and accommodating. She provided me with handouts and assignments and even shared my classmates’ “intro questionnaires” via email. Though I was sorry to have missed that first getting-to-know-you session, I felt welcomed and was already excited about being engaged in the learning process … even if from a distance.

This coming Tuesday (knock on wood), I will have the pleasure of meeting these people in person and giving myself the not insubstantial gift of five hours dedicated to my non-business writing. Despite my heavy freelance workload, I will prioritize what’s important over what’s urgent. I will put my money where my mouth is. I will choose desire over obligation.

I know that it won’t be easy, and I know that taking this one class will not dramatically change my writing life. But, it is a small step in my right direction. It is tangible evidence of my intention and commitment. And that matters. A lot.

 

What I’m Reading:

book tin houseThough my temporary role as Florence Nightingale left little time (or energy) for reading, I did manage to do my “homework reading” from the Grub Street class that I missed. This week’s assignment was a short story called “Moving On” by Diane Cook. Since I was not in attendance to receive the hard copy, I ended up downloading the back issue of Tin House (Memory) which features Cook’s story alongside others by writers whose names were mostly unfamiliar except for a few whom I recognized right away (Stephen King and Cheryl Strayed).

After wrangling the MOBI file onto my Kindle, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate (with, perhaps, a splash of Bailey’s) and settled onto the couch to read.

The very first sentence drew me in, “They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs.” It’s a simple enough sentence, benign at first sight except for those first three words: They let me. With three words, Cook raised all kinds of questions – conscious and subconscious in my mind. Let me? I read on.

I like short stories because I can usually enjoy them in one sitting. Unlike a novel, which has the potential to steal me from the real world for hours at a time, a short story invites me to indulge in a more controllable and defined time out that I can safely shoehorn into almost any day. Despite this advantage, I have always struggled a little to understand the short story form, particularly those of the literary kind. I usually come away feeling like I’ve read the beginning of something but had to walk away without gaining any closure. I also sometimes feel like I’m not smart enough to “get it.” Short stories often feel like intellectual riddles that I’m too dull to solve. I’m left puzzling over the last sentence – something cryptic but obviously full of meaning that goes right over my head.

I enjoy the language and the imagery. I am interested in the characters and their actions and thoughts, but I’m left wondering, “What was the point?”

I have a feeling I’ve a lot to learn about the short story form. At least the literary kind.

Still, I did enjoy the Cook’s piece and am now working my way through the rest of the Tin House issue. I haven’t read stories like these in a long (long) while, so it feels like an adventure in a foreign land. I’m not quite sure what to expect or how to behave, but I’m doing my best to be respectful of local customs and learn what I can from my visit.

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin magic new beginnings

Eckhart Tolle

 

I hope this week brings you the pleasure of indulging – guilt-free – in your writing passions, the satisfaction of learning something, and the joy of new beginnings. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Conflicted. A writer torn between duty and dreams.

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

- E.B. White

three geese flyingI love the fall. It is, by far, my favorite season of the year. I love the cooler weather, the blazing foliage, and the return to routine. I love the sense of industry that comes in September, even though I am well past my school years. And, I love the prospect of curling up in cozy environs with a good book and a steaming mug of hazelnut truffle tea. (Fall and winter reading has always held more appeal for me than sticky, sandy summer reading.)

But, most of all, I love this season because, falling as it does at the three-quarter mark on the calendar, it is the perfect time to reflect on the year’s progress and, perhaps, find a new beginning. Autumn’s bittersweet quality brings me a sense of quiet peace and acceptance with a sharp edge of urgency and angst. The column I wrote for my local paper this week reflected on how this season’s inclination towards gentle assessment and intentional redirecting differs from the champagne-sipping pressures and sequin-clad expectations of the January New Year:

September is a much more appropriate time for a progress report. You are almost a year older (and presumably wiser), so you have greater perspective than you did nine months ago. The end of the year is in sight, providing a sense of urgency; but there are still a few months left in case you discover that your best intentions have, inexplicably, come off the rails. There is still a chance for the little GPS-inspired voice in your head to whisper reassuringly, “Recalculating.”

With the happy chaos of summer behind us and the joyful insanity of the holidays still far enough away to be safely ignored, we steal a moment to catch our collective breath. The turning foliage, a subtle reminder of our own mortality, prompts us to consider all the things we have put off for another day.

While no one would blame you for sighing with resignation at the enormity of everything left undone, September’s New Year is not without hope. After all, remember, there is still time before the end-of-year reckoning. You still have a chance to resurrect your resolutions from the rubble. Go ahead – pick up your lucky writing pen, lace up your running shoes, call about that cooking class. Whatever you had hoped to achieve, it’s not too late.

And herein lies my conflict.

Looking back at the year, I am mostly pleased with what I see. My business is doing well. I had a wonderful summer with my daughter and beau. I have done a better job at prioritizing time with friends and making space in my daily rounds for self-care. I have, most recently, taken baby steps towards increasing my commitment to “my” writing (as opposed to the writing I do for my content marketing clients). But, I still feel like I am, as Tolkien describes, standing on the edge of a knife.

Another year has gone by – flown by, in fact. 2014 is winding down and while I have lived a good year, I am really no closer to the Big Goals I set for myself. Though September invites quiet reflection, I also feel an urge to take fierce action – to make an abrupt correction that will send me careening back to the path I envisioned in January. But the risks associated with that kind of move are great. While the impulsive child in me would like to grab the wheel and burn rubber back toward her intended destination, the responsible adult in me knows that a more gradual realignment is a safer, saner course.

I don’t know which one to listen to.

Life is short and time runs fast. How are you feeling at this point in the year? Do you have any desire to do something a little crazy in order to get closer to realizing your temporarily neglected dreams? Or, are you feeling bound to duty and considering a more subtle approach to getting yourself back on track?

 

What I’m Writing:

nanowrimo shieldMy writing output these days is the usual bill-paying content marketing (websites, and ebooks, and case studies, oh my!), bi-weekly columns (thank the gods for a small, creative outlet), and morning pages. Nothing super exciting, but not too shabby either.

As September draws to a close, however, November and NaNoWriMo loom large on the horizon. A writer friend invited me to indulge in this international month of insanity with her. In the past, I have completed my 50,000 words to cross the NaNoWriMo finish line a “winner.” I have also give up halfway through and refused to even try. Talk about feeling conflicted.

IF I decide to do NaNoWriMo this year, I want to have something specific to work on. In other words, if I’m going to make this work, I need to make some time in October for planning and outlining.

Yeah, I know that kind of goes against the “no plot, no problem” spirit of NaNoWriMo, but if I’m going to invest 40 – 60 hours, I’d at least like to come out on the other side with a sh!##y first draft that’s worth editing.

So – what about you? Have you ever done NaNoWriMo? Are you thinking about it this year?

What I’m Reading:

book toujours provenceAfter recently re-read (via Audible) Peter Mayle’s wonderful A Year in Provence, I found I was reluctant to leave the south of France. I returned, again via Audible, to indulge in more culinarily inclined essays in Mayle’s follow-up collection, Toujours Provence. The duplicity of the season may cause my heart and head to dance back and forth between the shoulds and wants in my life, but plugging back into Mayle’s world of pastoral scenery, five-course lunches, and gastronomically experienced neighbors reminds me that what really matters is living in and savoring the moment.

book lord lady bunnyMy daughter and I also finished reading another follow-up book, this one from Polly Horvath. In Lord and Lady Bunny Almost Royalty, we once again get to ride along as the intrepid Mr. Bunny and ever-stylish Mrs. Bunny journey from their home in Canada to the realm of Queen Elizabeth. As with the first book, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire, this tale is a fun read aloud with characters who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. I especially enjoy the good-natured ribbing between Mr. and Mrs. Bunny (or, perhaps, I should say, “Lord and Lady Bunny”).

book empowerFinally, I also read a few short stories from a couple of anthologies on my Kindle. The first, Empower: Fight Like a Girl is a collection of short stories by women TV writers. As its title suggests, the book’s theme is about empowering girls and women. I discovered the collection via Kam Miller’s (one of the contributing writers) and am enjoying doling out the stories over time. Though the genres (supernatural, crime, horror) are not my usual fare, it’s been fun to see how each of these writers chose to embody empowerment.

book irregular creaturesNext, I read the first story in Chuck Wendig’s Kindle Single, Irregular Creatures. I’ve been reading Wendig’s blog, terribleminds, for a while. I am by turns fascinated, impressed, and offended. Wendig is not the type to pull punches. His style is in-your-face and completely unapologetic. I bought Irregular Creatures after reading his blog rant titled, A PSA About Nude Photos. Though it is rife with, shall we say, colorful language, I thought it was spot on and passionate and worth the read. It made me want to support him as a writer, to learn more about the kinds of characters and stories that might come from such a mind … so I started small with the $0.99 collection of short stories. So far, I’m enjoying it and already considering additional purchases from his impressively prolific pen.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin reading quiet

Here’s to hoping you find your own quiet time to accept the season’s invitation to stop and muse a while, to get all introspective, and to look ahead at the next adventure. Happy writing and happy reading. See you on the other side! 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

 

Quote sourced from The New York Times on the Web

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