If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice

If you want to write: write!

We’ve all heard some form of this advice, and its more crass counterpart, “put your ass in the chair.”

What I hate most about this advice is its simplicity. I know that the only way to write is to sit down and do it.

Easier said than done.

When I sit down to write, I often sit down surrounded by my ambition, my hopes, and a running to-do list of other tasks I should be doing. I developed my Spell Against Self Doubt – the actions I take to prepare for writing – to build my confidence as a writer. I needed something other than a page number to measure success, and so it was surprising that one of the most useful tools is completing three pages of automatic writing before opening my computer. It made me wonder:

Is the secret to unlocking better writing as simple as writing more?

Time @ Desk (Time + Wordcount) / Hours Procrastinating = Quality

Is there an equation to better writing?

According to Julie Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Understanding, writing more is the way not only to get better at writing, but also better any creative pursuit. The task is simple: write for three pages without a plan. Just keep writing.

For the first few weeks, I remained dubious. My morning pages were painfully mundane. I scribbled to-do lists, petty anxieties, and physical descriptions of my surroundings. While I had succeeded in getting my ass in the chair, it seemed to only confirm the fear that I had nothing interesting to write.

And then something shifted. One morning some of the smog lifted. I started writing about a dream I’d had. The daily practice of unplanned writing led me to unplanned ideas. Unexpected details crawled through my still-foggy brain. I accessed the joy I’ve observed in a marker-wielding three year old: fierce commitment to coloring page after page, followed by total abandonment when snack time rolls around.

So is the secret to writing better, writing more?

My morning pages have not manifested into a manuscript. They have become a beloved junk drawer of detail, observation, and memory. Though I write my morning pages when I am still half asleep, they have woken up my delight in writing. I no longer sit at my desk wondering if I have a story to tell, but which story I will share with this audience.

Writing more has improved my writing, because I now approach my writing like a three year old — content to be completely absorbed in the act of creating! I write from a place of trust and delight. Of course, I’m not saying that quantity equals quantity. Word count is not a panacea for a poorly formed argument, but it may be a cure for doubt.

Art by my favorite three year old - one of 13 pieces made that day!

Art by my favorite three year old – one of 13 pieces made that day!

If you want to write – write! Write when you are half asleep, write when you are annoyed that your friend is late to meet you (again), write when you see something that delights you.

So what do you think? Is writing more a path towards better writing?


Small_headshotNaomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

A Review of Clauses and Conjunctions

two semi-colons

It’s clear from the many comments I received after my last post about semi-colons, that a review of clauses and conjunctions would be helpful.

CLAUSES

Clauses are a group of words that do a writer’s bidding. It’s important to be able to differentiate between the two main types of clauses: independent and subordinate.

An independent clause:

Contains a complete subject + complete predicate;

Stands alone;

Can be joined to other independent clauses by one of the seven COORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS:

AND – in addition, also, moreover, besides

BUT – nevertheless, however, still

YET – nevertheless, however, still

FOR – because, seeing that, since

OR – as an alternative, otherwise

NOR – and not, or not, not either [used after a negative]

SO – therefore, as a result

A Subordinate (or dependent) clause:

Is not a sentence;

Functions as a part of speech (noun, adjective, adverb);

Is introduced by subordinators:

Relative pronouns: that, what, which, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose;

Subordinating conjunctions: after, although, as, because, before, if, once, since, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, while;

Subordinating phrases: as if, as soon as, as though, even though, in order that, in that, no matter how, so that.

Types of Sentences:

Simple – independent clause.

All three of the following examples are built around the same independent clause; everything else is commentary.

I write.

I write essays.

I write essays for print, blogs and radio.

Compound – 2 or more independent clauses.

These can be joined by coordinating conjunctions or separated by semi-colons; “I write” is again the independent clause at the heart of these examples:

I write for readers and I write for listeners. (coordinating conjunction joining two independent clauses)

I write for readers; I write for listeners; I write for clients who hire me. (semi-colon separating three independent clauses)

Complex – a dependent clause and an independent clause.

These different clauses are connected by subordinating adverbs or phrases. The independent clause is highlighted in bold, indicating the main point.

While I think in print, I’ve learned to write for audio. (adverbial phrase)

After scribbling all morning, the writer suffered cramps. (dependent adverbial phrase)

The writer who considers her audience succeeds. (noun phrase)

Compound-Complex – one or more dependent clauses supporting two or more independent clauses

Uncertain about how best to continue building on the simple sentence “I write,” and unwilling to inadvertently bore my readers, I find that I must write my own example of a compound-complex sentence, using as many dependent clauses, joined with as many independent clauses to make my point with clarity, economy and grace; whether I have succeeded is moot.

Let’s break down the above sentence clause by clause:

  • It begins with two dependent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction “and”:
  • Uncertain about how best to continue building on the simple sentence “I write,” and unwilling to inadvertently bore my readers,
  • The independent clause that is the kernel of meaning on this side of the semi-colon “I find”;
  • “that I must write my own example of a compound-complex sentence” is a restrictive clause following the relative pronoun “that”;
  • it’s a clause because it contains both a subject “I” and a predicate “must write”
  • “my own example” is an adverbial phrase describing what the subject (I) must write
  • “of a compound-complex sentence” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adjective describing “example”;
  • “joined with as many independent clauses to make my point with clarity, economy and grace” is another dependent clause hanging off that same relative pronoun “that” and further describing “example”
  • whether I have succeeded is moot” is another independent clause, which is why it’s separated from the previous independent clause by a semi-colon.

Why learn the grammar of clauses?

  1. If you know your clauses, you can punctuate with clarity – which makes it easier for your reader to follow your train of thought;
  2. If you state your important ideas in independent clauses and your supporting evidence in subordinating clauses, you’re effectively emphasizing the importance of the point you are trying to make.
  3. If you know the so-called standard usage, you can still decide not to use it, in which case you’re exhibiting authorial control rather than ignorance.

I know, this is dense stuff, which is why I urge anyone who wants more instruction to study it further in a class, from a book, on-line, or with a tutor. But remember: you don’t need to know all the technical language around usage; what’s important is learning how to use language to express yourself with concision and clarity.

Write on!

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who punctuates her writing life with winter sport whenever snow conditions allow. She posts an essay every Wednesday on her blog, Living In Place.

The World Needs More Fairy Tales

Artist: Seb Mckinnon — http://www.sebmckinnon.com/

The world needs fairytales more than ever. Besieged daily with news headlines that are by turns terrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking, and straight up unbelievable, we are desperate for solid footing in our new and wildly uncertain reality. Ironically, fairytales may be just the thing to ground us in this upside-down world.

While fairytales and myths may at first appear to live squarely in the land of make believe, their roots run deep in our collective psyche, easily reaching across barriers of time, geography, and culture. Masquerading as entertainment and escapism, they are in fact ancient threads in the tapestry of civilization. And they serve a critical role, especially in the lives of children.

The author Neil Gaiman sums up the special magic of fairytales thus, “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The sentiment is a paraphrasing of a longer quote attributed to another British writer, G.K. Chesterton. In the original, Chesterton adds, “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

In short, fairytales teach us how to deal with monsters. They prove to us that monsters can be vanquished, and by so proving give us hope and courage and the audacity to take up arms against the darkness.

Fairytales also help us to recognize the monsters that we face in real life. Those well versed in fantasy and myth can spot a bad guy a mile off. We know their traits and their tells. They cannot fool us. We’ve read this story before.

Fairytales, myths, and their contemporary counterparts (urban fantasy, science fiction, superhero stories, and so forth) also help us recognize the heroes and heroines within ourselves. The stories we read become part of our internal identity. We become the protagonist on a journey or quest, and we learn through  vicarious experience what it feels like to do battle with evil and emerge victorious. Fairytales, in particular, seem to possess an especially potent magic that causes their DNA to merge with ours, changing us forever.

The real world is full of monsters. They may not look like the beasts and demons of mythical lore, but their hearts are as dark and their intentions as evil. There are people marching under Nazi flags, serial killers, and corporations savaging the natural resources that sustain us all. There are Machiavellian demagogues, morally bereft political operatives, and narcissists who are dangerously out of touch with reality.  There are schoolyard bullies, backstabbing co-workers, and online trolls. We have no shortage of villains.

But I like to think that we also have uncounted numbers of fairytale-reading heroes and heroines, just waiting for their chance to put the monsters in their place. You cannot tell me that a generation raised on Harry Potter doesn’t have the advantage against the forces of darkness. We may not have magic wands, but we carry within us the magic of those stories and hundreds more like them — stories in which the powers of kindness, friendship, and justice prevail against any adversary.

And I would add a gentle reminder that fairytales are not just for children. As C.S. Lewis, the author of the beloved Narnia tales, said, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Perhaps it’s time for more adults to recognize the gifts of clarity and inspiration that are folded in the pages of magical stories. There is wisdom to be had, and great insight, if only we can be brave enough to look.

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery
FLATspellagainstselfdoubt

My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.

ToolsFlat

Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

 

When To Use A Semi-Colon

USE THE SEMI-COLON TO ACHIEVE CLARITY

General Rule

two semi-colons

The semi-colon joins and separates equal parts.

The semi-colon is stronger than a comma and not as final as a period. When used to join separate items, it indicates there’s a relationship between the parts; when used to separate items, it indicates where each item begins and ends.

The general rule for semi-colons is to link equal parts. Use semi-colons to join two or more independent clauses, or to separate two or more dependent clauses.

Clarity

A semi-colon joins two independent clauses; this punctuation links the two ideas. [This example shows a semi-colon joining two independent clauses.] You can use a semi-colon to join two closely related independent clauses with a semi-colon instead of using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet). This is an economic method of showing relationship without words.

A semi-colon separates items in a series where the items themselves contain commas:

Three of my favorite writers are: Jane Austen, an early nineteenth-century British novelist; John McPhee, a twentieth-century American credited with inventing creative non-fiction; and J.M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003.

Of course, these are just three of my favorite authors. Others include Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare, and whomever I’m reading at the moment. Recently, that would include Hope Jahren, Lab Girl; Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply; and Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk.

Further Reading About Punctuation

Here are links to previous posts about punctuation you may find helpful toward writing with clarity and grace:

A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

A Sentence is a Complete Thought

Punctuation Changes Meaning

My Writing Bible

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place

Know your audience (Who are you?)

I’m new here.

My first post was supposed to be at the end of December. It was titled, “What did you write in 2017.” But then my snarky inner voice chimed in, “did you even write anything in 2017?”

Of course I wrote.

whatiwrote_1

What I wrote in 2017

I wrote shopping lists and to-do lists.

I wrote cover letters, thank you letters, and condolence letters.

I wrote job announcements and bid announcements.

I wrote newsletters and love letters.

 

I wrote finance reports, grant reports, and project reports. I wrote e-mails (so many e-mails).

Most of my writing is anonymous or functional. The majority is both. It is technical writing, which means it is a step in a process, but not the final product. The benefit s of this type of writing is that it is published, it is read, and it is paid. The downside is that my writing is functional. It is more likely to alter someone’s to-do list than their sense of wonder.

My favorite part of being a pen-for-hire is knowing my purpose. My audience varies from officers at the Environmental Protection Agency, to parents at an after-school program, to clowns. When I sit down to write, the first question I ask myself is “who will read this”? Followed closely by “why am I writing this.” How I write, and what details I include, vary based on the reader.

This clarity can be a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to creative writing. One of the biggest challenges I face when I sit down to my creative projects is a sense of purpose. There is no deadline. There is no guaranteed paycheck. And, most troubling, there is no audience. 2017 wasn’t exclusively a year of functional writing. I also I wrote two plays, two performances pieces, and six (and a half) short stories. Some of these pieces have been performed or shared in a workshop, but most have only had an audience of one (me).

One of my goals for 2018, is to get more work in front of an audience.

That’s where you come in.

whoareyou?

Who are you?

The trouble is, I don’t know you.

Who are you? What do you want to read? What brings you to Live To Write, Write To Live?

I’m excited to write about: making time for a writing practice, combatting self-doubt, sharing unfinished work, and blogging ethics. What do you want to read?

I look forward to reading your responses in the comments and getting to know you!

Small_headshotNaomi Shafer is a writer, performer, and project manager. She works for Clowns Without Borders. Her written work has been performed at an array of theaters, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, Middlebury College, the New England Youth Theatre, and Peppercorn Theatre. She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

Setting Goals for 2018

setting goals for 2018Last year, I made affirmations, not resolutions; this year, I’m setting goals for 2018.

I’m using a technique I learned last February, when I felt overwhelmed by projects and obligations.

It worked, so I’m trying it again.

THE TECHNIQUE

setting goals for 2018Take a pad of paper, sticky notes, or a stack of index cards and write one goal per slip of paper. It doesn’t matter how large or small the goal is, and the number of cards you can fill out is limited only by the number of cards you have on hand.

On one slip, I wrote down “Time Passes” the middle section of a novel-in-progress. On another, I wrote down, “Weekly posts for Living in Place”.

I also wrote down the perennial homestead activities, like plant the vegetable garden and order meat birds.

I wrote down the dates of the board meetings I chair for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center and the date I’ll be moderating Town Meeting this year (always the first Tuesday in March).

SORT

Once I’d written down all the things I could think of, I sorted them by kind, and came up with seven categories: Writing Projects; Writing Business; Teaching & Public Speaking; Family; Household; Self-Care and Civic Engagement.

These categories mimic those I use in my Planner Pad, part of my Month, Week, Day system of keeping track and accounting for my time.

PRIORITIZE & SCHEDULE

setting goals 2018Since many of my goals are to work on long-term projects, I’ve learned to prioritize and schedule the steps that will help me meet them.

One of my writing goals for this year is to “Draft Hunting Book” This is a large, on-going project to which I assign a block of time most workdays. How I’ll use that time will become apparent as the work progresses. Some days I’ll write; some days I’ll read or research; some edit. And some days, I’ll set the project aside to meet a deadline for a teaching gig or a public lecture.

BALANCE

In addition to meeting work goals, I’ve also set goals for self-care, which include outdoor exercise, yoga, and piano. On another page, I wrote down “vacation.” We’re planning a trip to Alaska.

ACCOUNTABILITY

I meet deadlines, including ones I set for myself, and I track my progress in my work diary. Of course, I also keep track of my earnings, although I’ve learned that income is only one measure of success.

FLEXIBILITY

flexibilityWhen I get stuck (and I will), I can always refer back to my stack of goals and shuffle them as I meet a goal, or as my priorities or circumstances change.

How do you set your goals?

 

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, teacher, radio commentator and blogger who spends so much time alone, she thinks yoga is a social activity.