Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.

WRITING PRACTICE

Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.

TEACHING WRITING

I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.

 

What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

Mark Rothko

What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

It was completely irresponsible to drive to Boston and spend the Monday of a packed week at the Museum of Fine Arts, but that’s just what I did yesterday.

 

My husband had the day off after a week of being on-call at the hospital, and at first I couched the sortie as something he needed before returning to the clinic today. But it turns out, the expedition was a good reset for me, too.

What I Saw

One of Takashi Murakami’s huge paintings.

Neither of us wanted to look at Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics. My resistance to viewing the busy, cartoonish paintings of this contemporary Japanese artist was all the red flag I needed to force myself to go. Reluctantly, Tim joined me in visual discomfort.

What I Saw

Japanese scroll hanging in the same gallery.

 

The best way I know to make sense of challenging art is to play a game of “I see,” naming the different elements in the painting. Both of us quickly fell into the first giant canvas, and our prejudices fell away as we looked and learned. It’s a spectacular exhibit that juxtaposes Murakami’s contemporary work with Japanese masterpieces from the MFA’s collection. I saw the connections, learned a bit about Japanese culture, and expanded my own store of metaphor. This was hard exercise for the visual processing part of my brain. My overworked linguistic muscles appreciated the rest.

Is rest the same as stillness? I think not, especially after viewing Seeking Stillness,  another exquisitely curated show of meditative pieces in different media. I was drawn to the abstract paintings of Agnes Martin: white canvases with lines, like a piece of paper waiting for words.

These paintings contrasted sharply with the dark, color block work of Mark Rothko, hung in an adjoining room.

All these canvases showed me how paint can have texture, pattern, rhythm, line and color. Some paintings told stories; some were intellectual challenges; others simply/complexly emotion.

Tim and I walked and talked, rested our feet at the museum café, and returned for more, more ,and more.

Art Changed How I See

This building looked like a work of art after a day at the MFA.

We finished with a stroll through an ongoing exhibit of modern paintings, before stepping outside in the late afternoon, where the sky looked like a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, and the fenestration of a building across the fen looked like a Mondrian.

I highly recommend an artist date, especially if you don’t have the time; and I encourage you to look at art, especially art you think you don’t like.

Have you been on an Artist’s Date lately? Where did you go? What did you see?

Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WALKshop participants at Chaos Junction.

Here’s a photo of Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom last Saturday,  where we learned tools to nurture and listen our wise, inner voice.

You can learn more about what I write and the professional services I offer at Deborah Lee Luskin.

Walking My Way Back to My Desk

Walking & Writing

Walking my way back to my thoughts.

I’d been working full-time revising a novel from August twentieth until September twenty-first. Those were four glorious weeks of concentrated work, during which I never had to wonder, What am I going to write today? I worked on the revision morning and afternoon, completing all other assignments as breaks.

I love working deeply in a book, where I have its alternative universe to keep me company during the activities of daily living, from weeding the garden to hanging the laundry and other necessary chores. I’m particularly pleased about how I juggled this delicious revision task with the interruptions for the kitchen renovation, which demanded my irregular attention.

Amtrak's Vermonter

Editing the typescript on the train.

I pushed myself to have a typescript finished and printed in time to read it on the train to New York City for a weekend visiting friends, and I managed to proofread this version on the train ride home.

But back home, I didn’t have the anchor of this project to keep me grounded, even though I need to update the document before sending it to my next set of readers. It’s finish work, just like the kitchen, where I needed to make frequent decisions. In fact, the finish work of both the kitchen and novel are similar, demanding decisions about smaller and smaller details – a chapter heading, paragraph break, comma usage for one, and a door stopper, cabinet pulls and knobs for the other. Not just which ones, but where. The details seem endless.

And then there’s family life: my youngest and her partner returned from nearly six months hiking the Appalachian Trail, which they finished on the heels of a hurricane. They returned home tired and hungry. It’s been fun to feed them and hear their stories while they’re still fresh.

The upshot of this break in routine and concentration was first a sense of delirium – so happy to have completed the revision! How wonderful to meet an adult child for dinner in Manhattan before spending the weekend with friends! So relieved the hiking kids are safely off the trail!

But the delirium ended as it always does – with a crash.

Walking and writing.

Walking helps me find my writing voice after any hiatus. (photo courtesy of Leadership ‘n Motion)

I didn’t resume my routine. I didn’t check my planner. I didn’t reign in my mind, and my life wobbled out of control. I missed deadlines for two posts. (This one should have appeared last week.) I went to the grocery store without my list. I spent hours, it seemed, looking for my phone.

After four days, I’d had enough. I returned to my desk, I sifted my emails, and I went for a walk. It was on the walk that the word “Scattered” came to me, and I knew that wobbling from lack of routine and losing my focus would be the subject of a post. And that’s how I found my way back to work.

What’s different from the thousand other times this spinning off-center has happened, is that this time, instead of beating myself up for what I didn’t do, I’m congratulating myself on knowing how to pick up the fragments of my scattered concentration: Go for a walk, return to my desk, and start writing.

For me, the best way to regroup is to go for a walk and listen for my voice.

It works every time.

How to you regain concentration after it’s been disrupted?

writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, walker and educator. She’s hosting Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom WALKshop with walker and life coach Kate Lampel Link on Saturday, November 4, from 9 am – 4 pm in Newfane, Vermont. Early Bird registration ends October 7. For more information and to register, click here.

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.

Tempting the Muse – A Quick Bit of Advice

Sharon Stone in the Albert Brooks 1999 movie, The Muse

I’m going to bet that your muse doesn’t always show up when you want her to.

Muses are tricky, fickle creatures. They are like cats in that they prefer to do things only when they damn well please and never according to anyone else’s schedules or needs. Also, like cats, they have a tendency to show up when you least expect them. How often have you been struck by inspiration in a moment when you absolutely cannot act on that inspiration (like in the middle of a business meeting, for instance)?

But then, when you’re ready to make your move and itching for that lightning-bolt-out-of-the-blue whack upside the head, your muse is nowhere to be seen. You’ve set up the perfect conditions: steaming mug of tea, a quiet environment, your lucky sweatshirt, several hours of uninterrupted time, and a handful of Dove dark chocolates. You’re ready to rock and roll, but … no muse.

It can be infuriating.

The thing is, your muse is not a creature of habit or a 9-to-5 worker who is going to clock in at the same time every day. She’s more wild and spontaneous than that, which is why you need to learn to work without her – butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, muse or no muse.

Your muse likes to sneak up on you while you’re in the shower, driving down the highway, or cutting cauliflower florets for dinner. It amuses her to stop you in the middle of doing something else and surprise you with an epiphany that leaves you frozen in thought under the shower head, missing your exit, or knife paused mid slice.

While I’ve learned to work without my muse and to adapt to her capricious ways, I’ve also recently realized that I can be sneaky, too. I’ve discovered that I can lure my muse to me with the right bait. Lately, the bait that has been most effective is a morning power walk to the epic sounds of my Lindsey Stirling station on Pandora. I walk and listen, and the world of my book opens up before my inner eye. Scenes play inside my head as though I’m watching them on a movie screen. Flashes of character insights pop into my mind unbidden. I keep moving. I keep listening. If my logical brain tries to veer into the mundane territory of the days To Do list, I gently lead it back down the rabbit hole of my story daydreaming.

And every once in a while, I take out my phone as casually as I can (don’t want to frighten my muse away) and type in a few notes to help me remember the things that I’ve discovered.

If you’re having trouble managing your muse, maybe a different approach will help you reconnect with your inspiration. Sometimes, inspiration is something that you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Squinting at it head on will only give you a headache, but if you just pretend you’re not paying attention, your muse may just sidle up and make herself comfortable.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, 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. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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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

Dear Writer, You need more magic in your life.

Hidden Magic (Instagram: @suddenlyjamie)

Do you ever plunk yourself down, pen in hand, and feel like there’s nothing left? Do you ever come to the keyboard and only to find that your inspiration has been thoroughly depleted? You don’t have to answer. I’m betting you’ve had similar experiences. Some people call it writer’s block. Other’s call it life fatigue. Whatever name you give it, there’s a can’t-miss solution to get you back on track: get more magic in your life.

You see, magic begets magic. When you make more room in your life for magic, you’ll find that it fuels your creativity like nothing else. Even better, finding magic is easy. You can do it in the spare moments of your day. All you need to do is keep your eyes open. It’s there, all around you.

I wrote the following column for my local paper, but I’m hoping it may also be suitable to share here among fellow writers. Artists and writers should take special care to seek out magic in their daily lives. I consider it part of my self-care routine, and I can tell when I’ve been neglecting it.

So, here’s to finding magic in unexpected places. Enjoy!

 

 


One of the best things about hanging out with little kids is getting the chance to see the world through their eyes. A child’s view of reality isn’t clouded by doubt or cynicism. It isn’t limited by things like logic or so-called “common sense.” When a kid looks at the world, it is with an open mind that is ready and willing to embrace things an adult would overlook simply because of our grown-up prejudice against the impossible.

But, as Alice’s White Queen would tell you, you can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast if you simply draw a long breath, shut your eyes, and try.

The truth is, there is magic all around us, each and every day. To see it, we just need to take the queen’s advice. There’s a lot to be said for deep breaths and other things that help us pause for a moment and become fully aware of the wonders right in front of our noses.

It’s much too easy to surrender to the tugging and nagging of the Everyday World. As grown-ups, we’re supposed to be responsible and realistic. We’re supposed to know about things like taxes and flu prevention and the latest dreadful headlines (of which there seem to be so many these days). Our lives are busy-busy-busy and packed full to bursting with all kinds of Serious Matters and Important Tasks.

But we all need magic in our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Thankfully, magic comes in an infinite number of flavors. In addition to the magic of a child’s imagination, there is the magic of sunrises and sunsets — brilliant and subtle sky paintings in every hue and shade, all lit from within and turning the world pink and blue and purple. There is the magic of spring’s first buds emerging into the bright air despite the cold and lingering pockets of ice and snow. There is the magic of last year’s seedpods, looking for all the world like perfect, faerie architecture with arches and catacombs.

One of my favorite kinds of magic is dog magic. I have yet to meet a canine who lacked the ability to work a spell on me. I see a dog, and I smile. I can’t help it. Dogs lighten my heart and remind me of all the goodness in the world. I can be walking down the street, dragging my cloud of worries behind me, and then I see a dog and those worries just evaporate into nothing. All it takes is one furry-faced smile.

And, of course, there is magic in stories and poems and music and all manner of art. During especially stressful times, I make sure to pepper my day with creative magic. My morning usually includes the enchantment of classical music, each movement and piece offering up a wordless story that is clearly magical. Throughout the day, I take a moment here and a moment there to visit the Facebook posts of certain friends who have a knack for curating the most whimsical and inspiring collections of art. Each visit lasts only a minute, but the effects linger for much longer.

I have reached an age at which I believe I have earned the right to be taken seriously when I say, “Life is short.” The more years I live, the more quickly each year seems to fly by until one blends into the last, blurring experiences and memories into one another. But the moments of magic that I weave into my life always stand out. Whether they are solitary moments standing in awe of Nature’s creative brilliance or shared moments experiencing a work of art, an adventure, or an unexpected encounter with a magical person or creature in the wild, those small moments are the ones that sparkle in my memory like stars in the night sky — constellations that guide me to remember what matters most in this short life.

 

 

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, 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. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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