Just Read!

Just Read!

  • Carry a magazine with you at all times.
  • Keep a book in your car.
  • Tuck a paperback into your messenger bag.
  • Load a library onto your Kindle – and fire it up instead of checking your phone!

Too much screen time!

Just Read!

I’m not the only one checking my cell phone like a nervous tic.

I’m trying this technique myself, because I find myself checking my phone like a nervous tic, and if I see a new email or a new headline, I fall into the black hole of cyberspace. Poof! My time to read evaporates, and it’s time for bed.

Instead of reading print on a page in a chair by the fire before retiring, I pollute myself with screen time. Even if there’s no new message from a friend or no new headline to upset me, the light itself is known to disrupt sleep. In my case, I’m also cranky for having squandered the time I’d planned to read, and for not reading.

Advice to writers: “Just read!”

As writers, we’re told, “Just read!” as a way to learn craft, study style, examine structure, and gather facts. Reading other people’s stories helps us tell our own, whether our stories are invented, factual, remembered, retold, or some combination thereof.

Technology changes, but our human need for stories does not.

Humans are a narrative species. We used to tell stories around a fire; then we heard them in the marketplace and in the cathedrals. Eventually, we learned to write and read. Drama, film and TV tell stories through acting. These days, stories are lost in email and stunted in social media. Our time to read at length grows short.

I love to read; I have to plan time to do it.

As a writer, I’m a glutton for words, most of which I get from print on a page. So I’m starting a new campaign to increase my reading time. I’m going to keep prose on hand wherever I go, so when I have a moment of “downtime,” I can “Just Read!” instead of reflexively checking my phone.

How do you make time to read?

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin reads and writes in southern Vermont, where Into the Wilderness, her critically acclaimed story of love in middle age, is set.

Write Now!

Write Now!

Due to complications of my husband’s broken jaw, I have to Write Now!

This afternoon’s writing time was unexpectedly pushed aside to pick up liquid Ibuprofen, a pill crusher, a WaterPik, and energy drinks for my husband, who’s had his broken jaw wired together this morning and will be on a liquid diet for weeks. I rushed home to cook dinner for friends arriving from Great Britain momentarily, and I haven’t written Tuesday’s post yet.

Write now!

I remember days when writing time would be supplanted by a childcare-giver’s day off, a sick child, a grandmother’s broken ankle, chicken pox, strep throat and a child’s broken ankle. Emergencies happen, yet one can still write in the waiting room, in the car, in the sick room, while the kids are playing dress up or make believe or watching a movie.

Write now!

Write now!

You can write anywhere, write now!

Then there are the planned trips to the shop for car maintenance. I’ve come to love those waiting rooms. With earplugs to drown out the TV, I use the hour to write.

I’m driving on the Interstate, headed to or from a gig at a library and the words for a commentary start bubbling up. I pull over, pick up my pen and notebook.

Write now!

The dishes are piled in the sink, the clean laundry needs to be folded, the trash needs to go out. Take care of the trash. Everything else can wait.

Write now!

I’m told my mother-in-law sold her washer and dryer, subscribed to The New Yorker, and read it in the laundromat every week. Have to do laundry? Write now!

The emails are incoming thick and fast. Turn off email – write now!

If social media is no longer a tool but a distraction, turn off your internet connection – write now!

Whatever you’re doing, write now!

www.deborahleeluskin.comEven though I prefer to write in my studio, life happens. I write here, there, and everywhere, at all hours of the day or night. I always have paper and pen with me. I’m always ready – write now!

 

 

Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.

I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.

You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.

All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.

As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.

“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

I got it.

And I got more.

Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.

This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.

THE TAKE AWAY

A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

Jane Kenyon’s Advice

I just came across this gem from the late poet, Jane Kenyon, and I thought it might give others guidance for planning their weekend.

Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.

~Jane Kenyon

All best wishes for enough quiet to hear your voice rise within,

~Deborah

Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.

 

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.

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.