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At the Intersection of Words and Life

A winter landscape that provided the perfect backdrop for my writerly reflection.

A winter landscape that provided the perfect backdrop for my writerly reflection.

I’ve noticed a theme emerging in my last few weekend edition posts. For whatever reason – where I am in my own writing journey, the usual end-of-year reflections, the muted desperation that seems to pervade the news these days – I find myself wanting to better understand how this writing thing fits into my life. I want to explore the “why” as much as the “how” and the “what.”

I am not questioning whether or not I should write. No matter what happens, I will always write. It is too much a part of who I am and too deeply embedded in how I experience the world. I may as well lose my sense of sight or hearing as lose my ability to write. Putting words down is how I give shape to not only the physical world around me, but also to the emotional world within.

I loved Sara’s tongue-in-cheek comment on The Dichotomy of You a couple weeks ago:

Are you saying that other people don’t analyse and dissect their lives to find meaning that they can then share? What’s the point of it all then?

Exactly, Sara. Exactly.

And yet, I acknowledge that we writers are an odd lot. To most people, it is not at all normal to spend as much time as we do pursuing this often mind-cracking craft … especially when our efforts yield no (substantial or immediate) commercial or financial benefits. Though some of us manage to hack out a living at the keyboard, it is the rare writer who is able to support herself exclusively through writing only what she wants to write. I, for instance, am able to pay the rent because of my corporate copywriting clients. And the more I learn, the more I realize that most professional writers, even the ones who appear to have “made it,” supplement their income through other means, like teaching.

And yet, we persevere.

Though we know deep down that there is little chance of substantial financial gain, we continue to dedicate hours and hours of our lives (not to mention millions of brain cells) to the task of observing with a writer’s mind, and then attempting to capture, illuminate, and – ultimately – share our own experience in a way that can help others see and feel differently. Writers hold a mirror to the world, a mirror that reflects not only the surface of “reality,” but also what lives in our hearts and minds.

The stories we tell, no matter which genre we choose, help readers see the world more clearly, more fully, and more empathetically. Stories help us step inside someone else’s life, see events from someone else’s perspective. We need stories and heroes to show us that right can overcome might, that doing the right thing matters, that we still have reason to hope. Stories often give us the best illustrations of concepts like justice, truth, honor, and trust. Sometimes, it’s too hard to find these qualities in the real world. Writers create role models for us and for our children.

And sometimes, a story can help us to feel a tragedy so deeply that we want to do whatever we can to stop it from happening again. A writer can transform an impersonal headline into a story that gets past the defenses we’ve built to protect our hearts and minds from the endless, battering barrage of hype and headlines. A story can get under our skin and make us feel again, make us care.

Earlier this week, I received a mailer from the AWP – the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. The mailing included a quote that seemed hand-picked for me as I wrestled with questions about the purpose of writing, the importance of writing, and the role of writing in my life:

“To live ‘the writing life’ is to pit yourself against what is unsayable, and to say, finally, what must be said.” – Bernard Cooper

And, maybe it is as simple as that. Maybe there don’t need to be so many questions about “why” we write. Maybe we just need to focus on saying what must be said.

 

What I’m Writing:

app werdsmithBetween client deadlines, Thanksgiving gatherings, and (gasp!) the need to start shopping my holiday shopping, I haven’t been doing much writing other than staying on top of my content marketing projects and doing my morning pages. I have, however, been making a conscious effort to keep my creative writing mind limber by coming up with (and capturing!) story ideas.

KL Pereira, the Grub Street instructor who led the recent Fiction I class I took, recommended a little app called Werdsmith. Though I haven’t (yet) used it for actual writing, I’m finding it to be an excellent place to capture story ideas. I’ve tried using physical notebooks in the past, but I never seem able to consistently make notes when I’m on-the-go. The Werdsmith app somehow makes it easier for me to quickly jot down my ideas before they flit out of my head.

And, eventually, I may use the app to do a little actual drafting. We’ll see. Tough to type on the iPhone keyboard, but not impossible. And if the muse strikes, any tool will do!

 

What I’m Reading:

book finley raven riddleLast week, I received a review copy of George Hagen’s kids’ novel, Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle. I don’t usually accept review copies anymore (I used to do a lot of book reviews for BabyCenter and other mom blogs), but this one caught my attention.

First of all, it has ravens. I happen to love ravens. They are mystical and mischievous characters with a long history in myth and legend. Second, the book earned a recommendation from Norton Juster, the author of The Phantom Tollbooth. Impressive. Finally, my daughter has developed an obsession with riddles. She is constantly asking me to come up with them on-the-spot (something I’m terrible at). When I heard that the book was “riddled with riddles” (pun intended), I thought it would be something she’d enjoy.

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a kids’ fantasy adventure novel like this one, but I’m so glad I gave myself the gift of reading Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle. The story is a charming and spooky page-turner. I finished the entire book in only two days, despite having plenty of other obligations. Sometimes, a story demands to be read Right Now. Who am I to argue?

From Amazon:

How can twelve-year-old Gabriel find his missing father, who seems to have vanished without a trace? With the help of Paladin—a young raven with whom he has a magical bond that enables them to become one creature—he flies to the foreboding land of Aviopolis, where he must face a series of difficult challenges and unanswerable riddles that could lead to his father… or to his death.

If you have a  young reader in your life who enjoys a good fantasy story, Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle might make the perfect holiday gift. I also believe this book will be the first in a series, so there will be more to look forward to in the not-too-distant future. I, personally, cannot wait.

PS – Watch for an upcoming guest post from author George Hagen. He has promised to enlighten us on the art of crafting riddles. 

 

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 alice walker beauty

Wishing you time to reflect and explore who you are as a writer and the role of writing in your life. Here’s to enjoying all the stories – the ones you read, and the ones you write.

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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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

My son and I were talking about Thanksgiving the other day and I was trying to explain the holiday to him. I mentioned that it’s a day when we all think about what we’re grateful for. I gave him the 5-year –old version of my definition, but I thought I’d share the most useful definition of gratitude I’ve come across with you, the writing community here at Live to Write-Write to Live, a community I am so grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Definition of Gratitude*

First, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life.

Second, gratitude is the recognition that the source(s) of the goodness lies at least partially outside the self.

Using this definition, gratitude is more than an attitude, more than a feeling. It requires a willingness to recognize that:

  • One has been the beneficiary of someone’s kindness,
  • The benefactor has intentionally provided a benefit, and
  • The benefit has value in the eyes of the beneficiary.

______________

*adapted from Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert Emmons.

 

Some Gratitude Resources

Books

Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert A. Emmons, PhD

The Psychology of Gratitude, by Robert A Emmons

Gratitude: A Way of Life, by Louise L. Hay

Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude, by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Gratitude: A Journal, by Catherine Price

Forgive For Good, by Dr. Frederic Luskin

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown

Guided Meditation CD

Becoming The New Human: Creating Change Through The Power of Our Emotions, Audio CD of Guided Meditations by Evelyn Rysdyk and Allie Knowlton

 

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, mother, and stepmother. I am so grateful to this community for it’s support and encouragement. Thank you!

cultured book cover

Today’s guest post is by cookbook writer Leda Scheintaub, whose new book, Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen is at the top of my holiday gift list – both to give and (hopefully!) receive. Leda’s journey to published author is an inspiring one, and I’m as delighted to bring it to you here as I am to welcome Leda to my neck of the woods. With best wishes for Thanksgiving, Deborah Lee Luskin

Growing up I had a mission: to share with the world the dangers of refined sugar and the horrors of factory farming. In high school printmaking class I created a notepad stamped with “Leda’s Natural Sweets” for penning my favorite recipes, and my most memorable piece of writing was a paper titled “One Man’s Meat Is Another Man’s Poison.”

I experimented with gluten-free baking before there was such a thing called gluten-free baking, and by the time I worked my way to managing editor at Penguin Books, I counted many and varied diets.

Though I loved the publishing world, I wasn’t a nine-to-fiver, and my early dream of a life in food remained a constant.

The day I was assigned the new edition of Rebecca Wood’s The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia the seed was planted for a career shift. Rebecca became wholefoodsmy mentor, and her invitation into the world of traditional foods inspired me to take my love for food to a new level. What sealed the deal was a blowout with my boss at The New Press just a few years later, coincidentally on the day of an open house at the Natural Gourmet Institute. The evening’s winning raffle ticket was my ticket to a new chapter in my life; with it I promised myself I’d enroll.

By the time I finished my culinary education (supplemented with cookbook copyediting classes at NYU), I had lined up a few private chef clients and I began to take on freelance cookbook work. It was enough to leave my day job.

My first jobs were proofreading cookbooks, then copyediting and editing. Testing recipes came next, then writing headnotes, developing content for recipes, talking with authors, bringing out their voice; I found few people had the unique match of editorial and culinary skills that I offered.

I found a niche: celebrity ghostwriter. I recommend this career path for those with both an eye for the minutia of the English language and an obsession for precision recipe writing. It’s not glamorous, but it’s rewarding and it keeps me away from the daily grind. And it enabled me to land my first solo book deal, and with it a platform to share that early mission of health, healing, and making the world a better place with the food we put on our plates.

LScheintaubLeda Scheintaub trained as a chef at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and has been a recipe tester, editor, and writer for the past thirteen years. Her most recent cookbook is Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen: 100 Recipes Featuring the Bold Flavors of Fermentation. Her next book, The Whole Bowl: Gluten-Free Dairy Free Soups and Stews, with Rebecca Wood, will be published in January 2015. Visit her at www.ledaskitchen.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

VW bug cutawayWhen we read a finished story, whether a thousand-word piece of flash fiction of a thousand-page novel, we perceive it as whole. It’s similar to the way we see each other. You don’t think of your friend as a collection of distinct elements. You don’t perceive her as a particular combination of skin and hair and eyes, scarf and jeans and shoes. You don’t see the individual bones, muscles, or cells that make up her body. You don’t consciously perceive all the discrete events and experiences that make up her personality and character. You just see Jane.

Stories are like that. We experience a story as the sum total of its parts. And, as with a person, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, those parts are there. Without them the person or the story would not exist, at least not in the form you perceive.

As a writer, you need to define each part of your story in order to create the whole. You need to break your story down in order to build it up. This will not only help you build a better story, it will make the process of writing even a long-form piece (like a novel) much less overwhelming. In her comment on last Saturday’s weekend edition, Jean Brown shared how studying the structure (the parts) of a particular piece had helped reduce the overwhelm she felt about writing a “A Whole Book:”

One of the major benefits of this exercise for me was imaging how the author had laid out the whole structure ahead of the writing, and how this structure basically chunked the book into 10 page sections. This made the idea of writing “A Whole Book” seem incredibly achievable, whereas before it loomed as nearly impossible in my mind.

I felt a similar sense of relief when I realized that writers I admire put a lot of thought and intention into creating and arranging all the separate elements that make up their stories. When you can think of a novel not as “A Whole Book,” as Jean put it, but as a series of much smaller pieces that all fit together (perfectly) to create that whole, it suddenly feels much more manageable.

Plus, I love a good puzzle and the idea of identifying and arranging all these pieces to create a particular experience is pretty intriguing to me.

I sketched this visual to help illustrate how I think about a story breakdown. I intentionally left off labels so that you can interpret it in the context of your own story. If, for instance, you are working on a novel, the top level would represent the finished book, the next level down might represent “beginning, middle, and end,” the circles might be chapters, the triangles might be scenes within chapters, and the dots might be individual elements within a scene – things like lines of dialog, setting details, reveals of character traits, etc.

story breakdown

As we drill deeper into the elements, breaking things down further and further, the gaps between the individual pieces close, creating that sense of wholeness and story continuity.

There are many different tools for doing story break downs, but so far I’m finding that Scrivener offers some helpful features. I love the cork board view which allows me to look at my whole collection of story elements along with more detailed notes about specific actions, etc. The “binder” in Scrivener allows me to organize different pieces of my story by section, chapter, scene, etc. There are also ways (which I haven’t yet fully explored) to filter my notes and draft so that I can isolate a particular thread (such as a character or a setting or a sub-story). This will allow me to focus on a single story element within the context of the whole.

Whatever tools and process you prefer, I encourage you to think about breaking your story down so that you can get “inside” it – really see how it’s put together. I promise that you will gain greater clarity and even, perhaps, some new inspiration.

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: roger4336 via Compfight cc

We’re nearing the end of National Novel Writing Month and entering the season of giving thanks, so I thought I’d share a few presentations by writers to inspire you.

These are TED Talks – short (~20 minutes) inspirational talks you can find on YouTube for just about any topic you’d like.

Writing books: Elizabeth Gilbert – your elusive creative genius (author of Eat, Pray, Love)

We’re all creative.

ElizabethGilbert

Storytelling: Andrew Stanton – clues to a great story (Filmmaker – Toy Story, WALL-E)

Greatest story commandment is “make me care.”

AndrewStanton

 Poetry: Billy Collins – Everyday moments, caught in time (former U.S. Poet Laureate)

Bugs Bunny is his muse. <smile>

From poem "Budapest"

From poem “Budapest”

Storytelling (~4 minutes): Joe Sabia – the technology of storytelling

You’ll remember the name Lothar Meggendorfer after this video.

JoeSabia

Enjoy the videos! I hope they inspire.

Have a great week!

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 Lisa on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

The Truth About My Creative Life “Balance”

monkey tightropeI was driving home from my riding lesson with the slavering hounds of duty nipping at my back tires. Fly, fly they bayed at me, back to your desk and your deadlines. I knew that was the responsible thing to do. There were clients waiting on deliverables that were in various stages of almost done. But, despite the dogged insistence of my Type-A conscience, I took a left instead of a right and parked outside my favorite local coffee shop.

One chai, I thought, it won’t take long. The work will still be there – waiting – after I’ve taken a few minutes to clear my head and stretch my imagination. I found that the book I’d been reading was sitting on the passenger seat beside me. Some part of me must have premeditated this brief escape. Some quietly rebellious instinct was looking out for my creative self, creating an opportunity to step outside the day’s To Do list and indulge in a few minutes of play inside my head.

The only available seats were two table-less chairs tucked in a corner by the always-closed emergency exit. I sat and sighed into the luxury of a little time alone with my thoughts, but (as is often the case with these impromptu getaways) the Universe had something more in store for me – a serendipitous meeting with a friend. She was on her way somewhere and I only had a few minutes, but we stood at the end of the counter next to the homeless chairs and talked. And talked. She is a deeply empathetic and artistically talented photographer, and – like me – a single mom. We are both self-employed. We don’t see each other often enough. Perhaps that’s why we always skip the small talk.

Our conversation seemed less something that developed in that moment than something that had been hovering in that spot waiting for us to arrive. Hardly pausing after a quick embrace, we were soon finishing each other’s sentences as we grappled with the challenges of pursuing our art and taking risks while still upholding our very real responsibilities. Our exchange was peppered with words like shackled and fear and frustration, words that gnaw at you, taking bites so small you almost don’t notice. We circled around the tired truths that live large in our daily rounds: life is short, kids grow up fast, you only live once.

My friend and I have each faced tough times. We’ve each had moments when giving up the creative life seemed to be the most sensible, selfless thing to do. We talked, standing there in the overcrowded cafe, about the constant balancing act – what I envision as a small, defenseless animal walking a tightrope strung over a pit of hungry crocodiles. The crocodiles are always there. Sometimes – when things are good – they are almost invisible, gliding darkly beneath the surface of the water, and sometimes – when things are bad – they reach their long snouts up out of the water to leer with dripping, toothy smiles. And sometimes you wonder if maybe you’re supposed to step off the tightrope and plunge willingly into their writhing midst. Because, that’s the story you always hear – the story of the artist who had to hit rock bottom before she emerged, like a phoenix, to soar to new heights of success.

In the pause between spoken thoughts, we wondered silently about the possibility of crisis-as-catalyst.

But then, one of us noticed the time, and the other said she really had to get going. We embraced again and agreed that we really needed to do this more often. We promised.

What I’m Writing:

pen notebookIn the last meeting of our Fiction I class, we covered a smorgasbord of topics including the magic of modifiers, the importance of sentence rhythm, the wide range of productivity solutions, and the amorphous nature of endings. We also talked a bit about what comes next, how do we continue this journey? I’m already considering another class and am eager to continue work on my short story. I intend to start being more proactive about researching publications that might be a good fit for my work so that, once I have something ready, I’ll know where to submit it.

But, as glad as I am that this class has reminded be about these important, “big” steps, I’m even more grateful for my new sense of “micro capability.” Though I realize that, because of time constraints, this eight-week class only grazed the surface of the writing craft, I feel like I have been given some small superpowers. Through a series of mini epiphanies, I find that I’m suddenly able to “see” my writing more clearly. The bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve gained make me a more critical reader, of my own work and of others’ work. It’s kind of like I’ve been given X-ray vision. I am better able to perceive the inner workings of a piece of writing. This helps me appreciate the work of others more deeply; and it certainly helps me to improve my own writing.

The key, I think, to keeping and building upon this new ability, is practice. I must keep what I’ve learned fresh in my mind and continue to exercise these new muscles each day – through writing and through reading. I’m already thinking about using “story breakdowns” to study how other writers have built their characters, settings, plots, and themes. Like an engineer who must take something apart before she understands how it works, I want to take other people’s stories apart so that I understand better how to put my own together.

I hope to share some of these explorations and studies with you in future posts, and I’d love to hear if any of you have come across or performed similar “dissections.”

What I’m Reading:

book watermelon kingI mentioned last week that I’d been to the library looking for Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish. It wasn’t in, but I did find another of his books – The Watermelon King.  This novel, set in the small, southern town of Ashland, creates an atmosphere of fable and tall-tale that’s very similar to the one that imbues Big Fish with a sense of magic.

Though the beginning was something of a slow burner, I enjoyed the second half of the book very much and found myself shirking other duties in order to read the last few chapters. The cast of characters is both charming and unnerving. The ideas that Wallace plays with are ones that run deep – identify, family, tradition, sexuality. Despite the thematic gravity and sometimes very dark turns in the story, he handles the narrative with a light hand that keeps you, the reader, from feeling weighted down by the pain and grief that runs through the story.

Despite the many fanciful turns in the events of the novel, the characters seemed very real. Wallace’s characterization is subtle and stretched out over a series of brief encounters that make up the first half of the book as the protagonist, Thomas Rider, interviews citizens of Ashland, the place of his birth, about his mother. Though certainly not “normal” by most standards, you can almost believe that a place like Ashland might exist … and the Watermelon King, too.

Hal Jacobs of the Atlanta Journal, Constitution said it well.

“In The Watermelon King, Wallace hits all the right notes of magical realism, creating a world where the supernatural fits alongside the ordinary, where storytellers stretch the plausible, and terror, fear and violence lurk below the surface.”

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:

Instead of a quote, this week I’d like to share this video of Ursula K Le Guin giving her acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards. Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her speech is wonderful for so many reasons, but mostly – I think – for its fighting spirit and unabashed respect for story and writers and the power of the worlds that spring from our imaginations.

Thanks, as always, for being here – balancing alongside me on the tightrope and grinning down at the crocodiles. Happy reading, happy writing, and 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.

Monkey on a Tightrope Photo Credit: The hills are alive* via Compfight cc
Pen & Notebook Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

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: This week we could no longer deny it. Winter is on its way. Today, let us know what your favorite hot drink is. Let’s crowd source ways to keep warm!

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: I have three hot drinks that get me through this season. First, coffee. But that’s seasonless for me. But during the holidays, I have three words to add to coffee: Egg. Nog. Latte. The second is hot apple cider. I mull it for special ocassions. And throw it in the microwave for every day. And third, Chai Tea Latte. That is an indulgence that I save for special days. I may add a fourth, a decaf London Fog. Earl Grey, steamed milk, vanilla syrup.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Uh oh. I’m actually not much for hot drinks; I drink iced coffee year round. But now that I’m thinking about it, I really do enjoy hot apple cider, and I have a soft spot for hot chocolate with marshmallows, oh, and I actually enjoy hot herbal teas – always with honey.

I’ve never had egg nog, but I think I might give it a whirl this year.

 

 

 

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: Coffee in the morning; black tea in the afternoon; and a hot rum toddy whenever I need to chase the cold from my bones.

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headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: For quantity consumed, hot tea (both herbal and not-so-caffeine-free) is definitely at the top of my list, always served with a healthy dollop of local honey. I never acquired a taste for coffee (though I love its aroma), but after a year or so of watching me – a grown woman – order hot chocolate, the baristas at my favorite local coffee shop upgraded me to a cinnamon chai latte. Keeping up my habit may eventually send me to the poorhouse, but – damn! – chai lattes are a tasty treat! I’ll also second Deborah’s thumbs up for the hot toddy, though I usually make mine with whiskey. And, last but not least, a hot whiskey & cider with a cinnamon stick ain’t so bad either … even when you’re not sick. ;)

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