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artistsway-t           Several years ago I followed the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Well, I followed some of them; I wrote my morning pages without fail. But I confess: I didn’t do the collages, and even though I went so far as to schedule regular Artist Dates, I didn’t always follow through.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes taking oneself on a regularly scheduled “artist date.” An artist date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”

Even though I’m good at blocking out time for writing and other word-related activities, I’ve never followed through on Cameron’s advice, even though I carried a shadow of shame that I should – if only I had the time.

Then last weekend, while I was in the Hudson River Valley for a family wedding, I visited The Storm King Art Center, a world-class sculpture park.

Waves, by Maya Lin

Waves, by Maya Lin

It was as I was strolling across the rolling terrain studded with sculpture of all sizes that I finally got it – what the artist date was all about.

Most of all, I became more observant, especially as my point-of-view of each sculpture kept shifting first as I saw it from a distance, then as I walked closer to it, around it, and then again from a distance. What I was seeing changed from each vantage point, just as our stories are shaped by the point of view from which we tell them.

I was also struck by the way the relationship of objects and angles bent space and changed one another, just the way details in narrative shift in importance and meaning depending on how they are presented.

I was especially struck by the power of negative space – the blank area created by sculptural lines that nearly vibrated with tension. Great prose can do this too – outline what’s not there, what’s not being said, but what may in fact be forcing all the characters in a story rushing toward mayhem.

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Many of the sculptures were abstract. Nevertheless, I nearly always tried to make up a story about them, to ground them in narrative, because that’s how humans (or this human, anyway) makes sense of the world: through story. And once I noticed myself trying to tell a story about each orange girder, I challenged myself to see it simply qua orange girder, the way in yoga class I’m learning to acknowledge intrusive thoughts and then let them go. This technique allowed me the freedom of seeing without storytelling, sharpening my observational capability and focusing my concentration, two key tools for writers.

Some of the artwork literally stopped me in my tracks, they were so breathtaking, others barely registered as I strolled by. I simply noted this, without trying to evaluate it. Isn’t it interesting, I said to myself, that some of this art is so moving and some leaves me cold? And I walked on.

By the end of the day, I was seeing ordinary objects in new ways, which is one of the wonderful things that any IMG_1302art can do – sculpture, painting, music, prose. Suddenly, the way two trees leaned toward each other was pregnant with meaning, as was the relationship of two trashcans standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels guarding the parking lot.IMG_1312

And that was it: looking at art changed how I look at the world.

It also taught me the importance of the artist’s date, which I’ll now ink into my calendar and heed.

 

 

 

IMG_1298Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist living in southern Vermont.

Your story isn't just a meandering journey through the wilderness. Where have you promised to take your readers?

Your story isn’t just a meandering journey through the wilderness. Where have you promised to take your readers?

I own many books on the craft of writing, and I think the “Best Title” award goes to A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson. And, guess what? The book lives up to its promise.

Stories have been with us since the beginning. Even before we had language we told stories, using pantomime and pictures. Stories are not just a nice-to-have form of entertainment. They are how we perceive, explain, and process our world. Stories teach, inspire, and help us find meaning to our lives. They provide emotional and spiritual sustenance in the same way that food and water provide physical sustenance. Stories help us define who we are to others, and – more importantly – to ourselves.

book story promiseIn A Story is a Promise, Johnson explains (in a very step-by-step process that’s filled with super helpful examples) how to craft engaging stories by understanding the principle of the promise. I essence, each story promises to deliver a specific moment of fulfillment.

From the book:

A story sets out its promise by offering details of life-like characters, issues, events, and circumstances, then editing and arranging those details to move an audience toward a desirable experience of resolution. For example, when a story created around the issue of courage fulfills its promise, the story’s audience experiences a fulfilling moment of courage. The story’s audience experiences the truth of the story’s promise.

I think this idea sometimes gets lost in the literary world where authors can take so long to fulfill the promise that we almost forget what it is. An easier way to wrap your head around this concept is to think about your favorite television shows and movies. Think about why you choose to watch certain shows and films. You have an expectation, and that expectation emerges from the story’s promise.

Take a couple of my latest viewing choices:

  • Leverage - This show is basically a reimagining of The A-Team. I watch it because I know it will fulfill its promise of Robin Hood-esque good guys outsmarting corporate bad guys with a healthy dose of campy style and one-liners. These are David and Goliath stories where David wins in style and Goliath crashes to the earth in a spectacular swan dive. Justice is served with a relish. I love justice.
  • Practical Magic (a perennial Halloween season favorite) – I come back to this movie each year because it fulfills a promise to show me not only good overcoming evil, but self-belief overcoming self-doubt and a group of previously estranged individuals coming together around a common cause.

Now think about the books and stories you read. What is your expectation? Why do you choose this one over that one? What unspoken promise do you hope the author will fulfill? What experience do you trust the story to deliver?

And then, flip that around and think about what experience you’re trying to deliver with your story. What promise are you making to your reader? How can you edit and arrange the details of your story to deliver the desired experience of resolution? Always keep your promise in mind. Craft your entire story around that promise. That is what your reader came for. You aren’t just describing a sequence of events, you are trying to create an emotional experience for the reader. Weigh each decision against that purpose. Make sure each element of your story serves the promise.

Keep your promises and your readers will keep coming back for more.

 

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 trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: Drew Geraets via Unsplash

Last Friday I had the wonderful experience of posting to a company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for a day.

The company, actually an airport, had their 5th Customer Appreciation Day. This was my second year assisting with their social media activities. And, honestly, it was so much fun I can’t wait until next year.

Social media mavens early in the day

Social media mavens early in the day

These are my 3 big business-related takeaways:

  • Even if your company is equally active on Facebook and Twitter, a one-day event may not result in equal activity on each platform.

For the most part, we posted to Facebook and Twitter at similar times and with similar calls-to-action. We quickly realized Facebook users interacted with us the most. (Last year it was a 50/50 split). So, even if you have a Plan Of Action for the day based on past experience, one platform may leap ahead of the other. (this can apply to any social media platforms, of course).

  • The more you interact with those who reply to you, the more interaction you will get.

It was easy early on to post a question and reply to each person who gave feedback (on both platforms), but as the day progressed and more people became involved, well, you can imagine, it was difficult to keep up. But replying to customers who take time to talk to you is critical to running your business. They need to know you’re there and that you’re listening. And in social media, your public reply to one person is magnified when seen by that person’s connections.

  • If you ask the right question at the right time, feedback can explode!

As the day came to an end, we posed the question “How can we serve you better?” On Facebook, most of our posts during the day averaged 250 ‘people reached’. This one question is still receiving comments and has exceeded 11,100 ‘people reached’. Even without knowing the intricacies of Facebook’s algorithms, this is significant. Ask your customers what they want, and they will tell you.

And I have to add a personal takeaway:

  • Sit properly and get up from the chair now and then.

I literally sat on the edge of my seat all day instead of firmly planted in it and using the back rest. At the end of the day, had a stiffness from the left side of my neck down to my lower back. I did get up on occasion for bathroom and food breaks, but apparently sat twisted on the edge of the chair looking down to the left (at my notes) for too long. Note to self: You need to step away from the keyboard, stretch, breath, and hydrate — even during social media binges. It’s so easy to get caught up in the speed of live interactions on social media!

>>>What social media platform gives you (and your company) the best results?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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. 

.
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.

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: What would you title your autobiography? Feel free to share some insight as to the title, too!

wendy-shotWendy Thomas: I’m actually working on two memoir manuscripts. The first is called Lessons Learned from the Flock – it’s based on the stories from my blog and describes the life lessons I’ve learned from living with kids and chickens in New Hampshire. The second memoir (which is really autobiography) has the working title of A Tick and a Chick – it tells the stories of Lyme disease in our family and weaves in the story of our crippled chick; Charlie who taught me a few life lessons about dealing with disability, chronic illness and pushing chicks out of the nest.

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: My autobiography would be called Blessed. I have a wonderful, packed, zany, busy, blessed life. Opportunities that I never could have imagined have presented themselves. Even the obstacles have had their long term benefits. So I live in a place of incredible gratitude, in recognition that I am truly blessed.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: I’ve named the biography I’m writing about my parents, My Parents Drink Mushroom Juice from a Pickle Jar and Other True Stories. It’s a true (and funny) compilation of stories from over the years of things they’ve done that have stressed me out and been hilarious after-the-fact. There’s never a shortage of fodder for this book.

As for my autobiography, it’d be something fun like Living an Orgasmic Life: How Following My Bliss Led to Awesome Adventures with Positive People. Because I’m am darn satisfied with this life I’ve created for myself.

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: Oh, good gods. I’ve never even contemplated writing an autobiography.  I’m not sure if I’ve even read an autobiography, or a biography for that matter. I’ve read collections of non-fiction essays by Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Patchett, and Anna Quindlen, but that’s not really the same thing, is it? As you can imagine, it’s tough to pick a title for a never-conceived (never mind nonexistent) autobiography, but how about this: Learning to Drive.

I turned forty-five last month and while I haven’t yet succumbed to a full-blown mid-life crisis, the somewhat momentous number did get me thinking about how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go. Much of my life’s journey has been the result of following the path of least resistance. It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve actually begun to “take the wheel,” as they say, and learn how to become the driving force in my own life. I would hazard a guess that I’m not the only one to wake up one morning wondering, “How the hell did I get here?!?” As David Byrne said, “This is not my beautiful life.” So Learning to Drive would be an apt title to chronicle my journey towards a more intentional and self-aware life. I’m still working on it.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin: It would be a memoir, not an autobiography, and would be about living in place, since where I am (literally and figuratively) seems most important to who I am. But would it interest anyone else? Ah, there’s the rub!

I had a conversation at a party a few years ago with a woman who wanted to be a writer.

Working on that pose.  Photo credit: Beverly Goodwin

Working on that pose.
Photo credit: Beverly Goodwin

“I’m really good,” she told me. “My adviser said that my thesis was one of the best she had ever read.”

“Well that’s a good start,” I replied. “Do you have a blog or a website?”

“Nope.”

“Do you belong to any writers’ groups?”

“No, I don’t have to, I’m already a writer.”

“Have you had anything published?”

“No, but I know I would be a really good writer if I was given an article to write.”

At this point my eyes started to glaze over. I tried one more time.

“Well, if you’ve written something and you’d like me to take a look at it I will.”

She huffed a tiny and polite breath, gave me an off look, and then excused herself to go find her husband. Later I found out that she told a mutual friend she couldn’t believe I didn’t recognize what a good writer she was and immediately offer her a writing assignment.

If you are a reader of this blog, you are probably rolling your eyes along with me (it never gets old) at this story. It’s one thing to have supreme confidence in your skill, it’s quite another to have that skill in the first place. I call myself a writer. I *am* a writer, but one of the reasons I love this craft is that I recognize it is ever changing.

I have never shoved my stick in the sand and declared that that’s it – I’m done with learning and this is where I stand. Instead, it’s more like, the tide sneaks up on me and swallows my stick. My stick is taken out to the rough surf where gasping and sputtering, I dive to retrieve it. When I go to plant my stick again, I learn to place it a little further up the beach than before, but you know what, I still don’t know if the tides will reach it again or not. It’s an active dance of moving progress and regression.

How do I keep retrieving my stick? I read, I write, I listen to feedback and I try new techniques – in short, I treat my writing as the job that it is.

Too many people think that writing is easy. “Oh, I should write a book someday.”

Writing is a craft – it’s an art. That’s one of the reasons I love being a writer. And just like any type of art it evolves. Techniques change (if you doubt me, compare blog writing to newspaper article writing), new insights are gathered and your internal sense of direction always gets refined.

Writing is definitely not easy (and question anyone who says it is.) It takes work, real work to get your story into words that will move others. It’s a discovery of you as much as it is a discovery of the intricacy of language. As in yoga, a writer needs to stay on her toes while holding a difficult pose. You need that balance, but you also need strength and the only way to get that strength is to practice, practice, get comments on your work, and then practice again.

I meet so many people who want to write, far fewer are the ones I meet who have what it actually takes to be a writer.

 

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

 

I loved Lee’s post about accountability partners. Having my own team has made all the difference. They are a support group, task masters when needed, cheerleaders, editors, and friends. Writing is hard. Having people who understand that, and want you to succeed is critical.

But my post today is about goals. And making them achievable.

It all started with my FitBit.

I set a 10,000 step a day goal. I walk a lot, and was frequently hitting 8,000 steps a day. But I was rarely making the 10,000 steps. So I was failing at my goal, and beating myself up for it. I decided to lower the goal to 8,000 steps a day, and see how that worked for me overall. In the two weeks since I lowered the goal, I walked more steps each week then when I was aiming for 10,000. Since I can meet the goal, I do.

We all hear about the write 1000 words a day goal. Or edit for one hour. Or write a scene. And I think they are all great ways to make writing a habit, and it does work. But what happens if you can’t make the daily goal? Do you give up? No, you adjust. Maybe 250 words is the daily goal during crazy busy weeks. You can make that, and more.

Writing is a long, hard slog to get the words out of your brain, and arranged in a way that tells the story you wanted to tell. There are a lot of ways to do that, but no shortcuts. It is hard work. Wanting to put yourself through that process is both a blessing and a curse. So make it as easy on yourself as you can. Set achievable goals. Then develop the discipline to meet them.

And enjoy the journey. Unattainable goals make the work about the goal, and not the work itself.

Do you set goals for yourself? Are they achievable, or do they make you stretch?

************

Julie Hennrikus writes short stories as J.A. Hennrikus, and mystery novels as Julianne Holmes. She also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.

 

 

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