Words of Encouragement for Writers

encouragement for writers

Sand in your bathing suit is good for your writing.

Words of encouragement can help writers stick with penning words to the page. Here are some that have helped me.

“The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”  ~ A.B. Yehoshua

Starting a project is like shifting into first gear on manual transmission. A writer often hesitates, stalls, and jackrabbits before gaining momentum. It’s all about starting over – and over and over, until you’re at highway speed.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” ~ Virginia Woolf

Call it dreaming, calling it procrastination, call it an excuse to complete a crossword puzzle: there is something to be said for allowing the brain to freewheel for a bit – without engaging the gears.

So today, I encourage all writers to forgive themselves the time they are not writing, and soak up the irritations of living, whether it be sand in your bathing suit while you’re on vacation, or sawdust in your nose from working on an overdue home repair; or garden soil in your eye. These things will pass from immediate discomfort. You will return to your desk or your cafe or the refuge of your car – wherever it is you spin words into stories. You will get past the starting line, and you will be thick in media res once again.

“Beware of advice—even this.” ~ Carl Sandburg

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is an award-winning novelist, commentator and educator. Learn about joining her Private Tutorials, Writing Circles and Editorial Services, and read an essay every Wednesday on her blog.

Baby Brother & Writing Buddy, Holding Each Other Accountable

Writing Buddy

Baby Brother & Writing Buddy

When my baby brother was born not quite sixty years ago this week, I never would have pegged him as my future writing buddy. He wasn’t the sister I’d hoped for, and at first, all he did was sleep. I was three-and-a-half at the time, and I thought he was dumb.

I’ve long since revised my opinion of my younger brother who, it’s turned out, is a kind, creative, smart man who also happens to be a writer and a good friend.

This brother is a playwright. Like me, he’s working on several writing projects at the moment, some with external deadlines and some dependent entirely on self-motivation.

During a recent visit, we both confessed that we were better at meeting externally imposed deadlines. We regularly keep our word when we commit to writing for others, and postpone the projects that mean the most to ourselves. As a result, the projects that are nearest and dearest often languish as we perpetually put them off.

During a recent visit, we came up with a plan to help each other out – simply by holding one another accountable.

We’ve done this before.

The last time, money changed hands. I sent him a considerable sum to hold in escrow, with a deadline attached. If I met my deadline, I got my money back. If I didn’t, he’d spend it on swag advertising organizations or politicians promoting antediluvian policies I loathe, and which as part of the deal, I’d have to wear.

This was a powerful disincentive, and it worked. I met my deadline and he returned the cash.

I returned the favor – and was relieved when he met his deadline. I wasn’t entirely sure I could actually follow through buying him a membership to an organization I despised.

This time, we’ve changed up the plan.

No money.

No threats.

Just accountability.

We talk each Friday afternoon: 5pm my time, 2pm his. We each report on how we did meeting the goals we set the previous week, then set goals for the next.

We’re both pretty good at setting measurable and achievable goals. And when our aspirations get the better of us, we’re quick to question one another: Really? You’re going to finish an entire draft by Friday while working your day job and hosting how many out-of-town guests?

Knowing that I have to report on my progress at the end of the week helps keep me on task.

Writing Buddy

Brother & Father, celebrating summer birthdays and beards.

Knowing that my brother will question unreasonable goals helps me set achievable ones.

And knowing that I’m helping him do the same levels out the hierarchy of birth order. Jonathan’s not just my baby brother; he’s a valued writing colleague – and a really good friend.

 

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living In Place.

A New Strategy for Writing in Summer

Writing in Summer

I used to think that playing outdoors in summer interfered with writing. Now I know better.

Summers used to interfere with my writing. There was so much to do – both farm work and fun – that I used to despair about advancing narrative projects and meeting deadlines.

But I do.
I changed my attitude about writing.

Instead of heading straight for my desk after morning coffee, I’ve developed a completely different strategy about these lovely long days, where I’m busy from dawn till well past dusk.

I’m writing all the time – just not at my desk.

I’m writing as I drive to the river where I scull on the flat water at sunrise, when the air is sweet and cool. I slide through the water, the rhythm of my oars lulling me into the effort. I see, hear and smell the wild world while I’m out, notice changes from one day to the next.

Close observation of the world – natural, urban, indoors or out – is a key skill for a writer, one I practice in my boat, in the garden, and on the porch.

Living In Place. Deborah Lee Luskin

A detour through the garden on my way to work can delay me for hours.

After breakfast, I detour through the garden on the way to my studio. Some days, that’s as far as I get. I allow myself to become distracted by weeds or feel obligated to harvest the berries that have ripened behind my back.

I used to resent the need to stop everything to pick and process and pickle when I thought I needed to be writing. But now I know that I am writing while I engage in these summer activities. I’m expanding both my experiences and my store of metaphors. Both on the water and in the garden, my mind is freewheeling, and when I do finally get to my desk, my fingers are itching to press the keyboard.

In summer, I’m efficient at my desk.

How do you negotiate the challenges of writing and play in summer?

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin is a recreational sculler, amateur farmer, and professional writer. Read an Essay Every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

A Demonstration of Point of View

Two Points of View

Despite the events of Labor Day Weekend 2004, Tim and I are not only still married, we’re still hiking together.

Point of View is the perspective from which a story is told.

One of the best ways to understand Point of View is by example, so here are two versions of the same story told from two different points of view.

A Touching Reunion is a story about a time when my husband and I became separated while hiking. I told it to a live audience at a Vermont Public Radio event. It was subsequently broadcast. If you read it or listen to it, you’ll understand why my husband wanted to tell his side of the story.

He’s too busy to write it down, so I’ve taken the liberty of doing it for him. It follows below.

Searching for My Wife

I don’t know that I’ll ever live down forgetting the color of Deb’s eye ever since she broadcast what happened on the radio the time we became separated on the Long Trail.

We didn’t get on the trail until after 3, but Deb was right behind me – right on my heels – even though she was carrying a heavy pack. So I walked faster and pulled ahead.

The next time I stopped, she wasn’t behind me. I doubled back and couldn’t find her, so I hurried ahead.

Desperate, I called the police from a woman’s trailer just before dark. Then I headed back to the trailhead and slept in the car. Or tried to, but a carload of guys from out-of-state pulled in about midnight and started to barbeque. They offered me a burger and beer, said they were heading out first thing to climb Killington. I told them I’d be searching for my wife.

“Sorry man,” they said. If any of these frat boys were married, they didn’t act like it.

I liked being married. I liked being married to Deborah. And I was worried: where was she? What happened? Was she okay? I wouldn’t allow my mind to go further than that.

At first light, the frat boys were snoring in tents pitched in the parking lot. They didn’t even stir when the rescuers started to pull in.

A woman named Josh was in charge. She asked me Deb’s height, weight, hair color, eye color, and her birthday. Deb’s always riding me about getting her birth year wrong, always making her younger than she is. It isn’t intentional, but it’s become one of those tics that’s hard to correct once you’re unsure. So I was afraid they wouldn’t believe I was really her husband if I didn’t get it right, not after being unsure about her eyes. So I guessed a year earlier than I usually do. I think that was right, but what would they do if her ID didn’t match what I said? I couldn’t even prove we were married. Sure, both our names were on the car registration – our different names. Was that going to be another barrier to my credibility? If they didn’t believe I was her husband, how would I ever get her back?

Just then, Josh stepped away to the radio. When she came back, she said, “Your wife’s just called in. A trooper’s gone to pick her up. She’s okay.”

I was so glad to see her, and I did look deeply into her eyes. I wasn’t ever again going to be in doubt to their spectacular, loving, hue. So I did shout, “They’re blue!”

But really, how important was it to the search – if there had been one. As far as I was concerned, the Search and Rescue people could just round up every medium sized, brown haired forty-eight year old white female lost in the woods and we could sort them by eye color later.

 

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells a story every Wednesday at Living in Place.

When Words Fail to Come

When words fail to come

Leo’s his usual, joyful, self – and very helpful when words fail to come.

What to do when words fail to come?

It happens sometimes. Yesterday morning, in fact.

I had a post due on Living In Place, and I didn’t have anything to say.

Worse, my brain was foggy, possibly due to the antihistamine I succumbed to the night before. Or maybe it’s my broken sleep cycle. I’ve been waking at 3:30 am and reading until daybreak, then getting on with my regular day. But I’m dragging.

I  lubricate my brain with coffee and head out with the dog for a walk, though I hardly have any forward momentum. Leo’s his usual, joyful self. I’m dull and cold, huddled in a hoodie and worried about how I’ll meet my deadline if I have nothing to say.

That this deadline is self-imposed makes no difference. When I started my blog, I tasked myself with an essay every Wednesday. In 135 weeks, I’ve never missed a week, though twice I’ve posted a day late.

I think of all the non-writing tasks I could console myself with: paying bills, filing papers, cleaning my winter clothes for storage.  Then I remember I have a blog due for Live to Write – Write to Live, too. I think maybe I’ll write  about how sorting and cleaning tasks often help me on days when I’m stuck on the page.  But I think maybe I’ve written something like that already, and I don’t want to repeat myself.

Then I remember that sometimes I do repeat myself – on purpose. Last summer, when I was hiking The Long Trail, I scheduled work from my archives for the weeks I was away. Could I do that again?

I pushed back my hood and looked up. The morning mist was lifting. I picked up my pace and flipped through my mental file, searching for something I could reuse. I remembered an essay I wrote about the summer solstice back in the pre-internet days. Maybe that would work.

The sun burned through the fog as I reached the apogee of my circuit. I unzipped my sweatshirt and strode back to my desk, where I drafted this essay with ease. Then I went to my files and found Hum Time, which I edited and formatted for the web. I polished this essay and queued it for today. I’ve done all the work that seemed unlikely just a few hours before.

It was a long journey, but all it required was a short walk. When words fail to come, I go for a walk. What do you do?

Deb wearing purpleDeborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator, contributing regularly to this blog since 2011.

Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Book Review of Word by Word

Word By Word by Kory Stamper

“Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has.”

So begins the Preface to Kory Stamper’s wonderful memoir, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Hanging on Stamper’s personal narrative about how she came to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and what that work is like is the entertaining history of the English words with which humans have recorded their knowledge, experience, beliefs and discoveries. This discussion of words also includes a discussion of linguistic prejudice, that attitude that self-appointed grammar police cop when someone doesn’t follow their[1]* prescribed rules.

You’d be correct if you imagined that dictionary editors spend eight hours a day in silent study, but you’d be dead wrong if for a moment you thought that reading about it would be boring.

Stamper writes with attitude.

That attitude arises from the little thought any normal person gives to the writing of dictionaries – including most lexicographers before they take the job. Before the internet, high school graduates received a dictionary before going off to college. I still have my red, clothbound Merriam-Webster Collegiate, which Stamper claims “is one of the best-selling books in American history and may be second in sales only to the Bible.” (In a footnote following this claim, she admits that this is more likely for having been “one of the oldest continuously published desk dictionaries around,” not because there’s any hard data.)

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate

I still have the 9th edition I took to college.

The Collegiate is a desk dictionary, not the big fat one that people use as booster seats for visiting grandkids. That one – The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged – is, as Stamper notes, obsolete the moment it rolls off the press. Because even though most of us who use a dictionary do so to check meaning, spelling and usage, a dictionary is, ultimately, an historical document. It’s a snapshot of the language as it was during the ten or more years during which the lexicographers in a dingy building in Springfield, Massachusetts worked to update it.

As Stamper makes clear with humor and great stories, English is not static. Words can’t be caged on a page. How people use language changes all the time. And the history of those changes offer a glimpse into the history of those who use those words.

Word By Word is not just a terrific book about words, but also an excellently written personal memoir that tells the story about The Secret Life of Dictionaries, proving that any subject can spawn a compelling narrative when well told.

[1] Stamper explains that the singular “their” actually dates back to the fourteenth century.

alternate headshot

Deborah Lee Luskin is not ashamed to say that she owns about half a dozen English dictionaries – and regularly reads them.

Thanking My Students

Thanking my students

Thanking my students for their willingness to be vulnerable and learn.

Tonight, I’ll be giving an informal commencement address thanking the students who’ve participated in the memoir-writing class I’ve been teaching at the Moore Free Library for the past twelve weeks. This is what I’ll say:

  • Thank you for your courage to show up and bleed onto the page.
  • Thank you for trusting each other and me with your stories.
  • Thank you for your eagerness to learn about language and how to control it.
  • Thank you for your remarkable stories about the human condition, told in engaging language that awakens your readers’ interest and compassion.
  • It is this storytelling that equalizes us, and I’m humbled and honored by your generosity in sharing yours.

The class has been remarkable from start to finish: from when the librarian applied for and received a generous grant to support my teaching, to  tonight, when students will hold a reading for family and friends. We’ll also eat cake.

As with any good “commencement,” this is not the end. The class will continue as a Rosefire Writers Circle, where I will lead the group in automatic writing practice. In the RWC, we practice timed writing exercises designed to prime the creative pump. This process liberates writers to focus and fly, letting loose the unknown in the wonder of words. We immediately read this new work, bearing witness to the strange and wonderful stories that emerge. And we do so by practicing deep listening in a positive response method that engenders a synergy. Participants in these groups invariably write more, write better, and write with greater confidence.

We’ve blocked out Five Fridays, and opened enrollment to include newcomers to the group. If you live nearby and are interested, please be in touch.

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont and is housed on the web at her newly renovated site, www.deborahleeluskin.com