Weekend Edition – What Readers Really Want Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

A Case Study in the Power of Wonder


A photo I snapped on our way home

We were still four miles from the beach when the traffic slowed so much that cyclists and pedestrians easily outpaced us. Thankful we’d made a pit stop at Zumi’s coffee shop, we sipped contentedly on our caffeinated beverages – coffee for him, chai for me – and whiled away the wait with comfortable, Saturday morning conversation.

As my trusty, old Pathfinder crept down the winding country road, we marveled at the intensity of the traffic. I’ve lived nearly my entire life in this small town, and I’d never seen the road to the shore backed up so far or filled with so many walkers and bikers. Despite the nuisance of the traffic congestion, there was an air of excited anticipation as we all made our way – slowly, oh so slowly – toward our shared destination.

After taking nearly an hour to travel a mere mile, we finally passed the stable where my daughter and I ride and approached a critical juncture in our journey. Ahead, the blues of a police car flashed at the intersection with Northgate Road. This was the spot where, when perfect weather caused the beach lots to fill up early, local law enforcement would set up their roadblock and turn people back. But this Saturday morning wasn’t anything close to perfect. It was overcast, damp, and clammy. But, still, the line of cars pressed ahead, determined to run the gauntlet if they could.

We were almost to the cruiser when we saw cars being turned away, rerouted down Northgate and away from the beach. My heart sank. All this time waiting, the anticipation building, and now we’d have to give up? I had already texted a friend whose house was beyond the roadblock and not such a bad walking distance from the beach. I hoped that if I told the officer I had a parking destination other than the beach lot, he’d let me pass. Turned out I didn’t even have to plead my case. When we reached the intersection, the cop saw my beach sticker and waved me through. “It’ll be a long wait,” he said, “But you should get in.” It was a good day to be a resident.

For a few minutes, we had clear road ahead of us, but we soon caught up with the rest of the local contingent and had to wait patiently (again) in the still impressively long line of cars that snaked gently past beautiful marsh vistas toward the beach gatehouse. We noticed there were more pedestrians and cyclists passing our car. Many of those on foot were practically speed walking. Sweat ran down their backs, leaving dark streaks on t-shirts and dresses.

It took us nearly another hour to travel the three miles beyond the roadblock, but we finally pulled into the lot. Rummaging in the back of the truck, I found a stray long-sleeved shirt and pulled it gratefully over my tank top as we hurried towards the boardwalk against a chilly sea breeze. Just before we crested the dunes, I overheard a guy who was walking back from the beach say to his friend, “Wait until they get out there and realize how unimpressive it is.” My heart skipped a beat.

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What was it that I, my beau, and hundreds (if not thousands) of others were so anxious to see? What attraction could possibly compel so many busy people to put their usual Saturday morning plans and duties on hold to wait in interminable traffic or hoof it three miles through roadside brush and bracken? It was Strandbeests.

Strandbeests are the creation of Dutch artist Theo Jansen who blends art and engineering to create self-propelled “beasts” out of PCV tubing, simple gears, and sails. Jansen considers his creations a form of artificial life, and he hopes to one day “release” herds of them to “live their lives” on beaches around the world.

The local appearance of the Strandbeests was part of a traveling exhibit coordinated by the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem, MA. The event was well publicized via a campaign that blanketed local news outlets and online networks with images and videos of Jansen’s fantastic creatures. The public’s imagination was clearly ignited.

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The man on the boardwalk was right. When we finally navigated our way to the front of the large crowd that was milling about at the ocean’s edge, what we saw did not resemble the fascinating, bus-sized pieces featured in the promotional videos. Instead, there were a couple of squat, car-sized units that lacked the scale and grace of creatures like the Animaris Percipiere.

Despite the obvious disconnect between what people had expected to see and what they found there on the sand, the crowd still seemed fascinated. Children and adults maneuvered for a place up front from which to gain a clear view of the beasts. Film and sound crews from local news and radio criss-crossed the small, cordoned-off area trying to capture snippets of video and audio as the contraptions lumbered (with some help from the Strandbeest team) haltingly up and down the small stretch of sand. A drone hovered a few feet above the spectacle, beaming images to who knows where.

While I was not impressed by the beasts themselves, I was captivated by the fact that all these people were so enthralled by the idea of these creatures that they put the rest of their lives on hold just to catch a glimpse of them. Clearly, there was something at work here that bore further examination. What made the Strandbeests so appealing, and how might the phenomenon apply to a writer’s life and work?

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The question came down to this: What did people want? What were they hoping to find at the end of their long, arduous journey out to the beach?

My beau and I had plenty of time to ruminate on this question as we made our slow way back toward town. Amazingly, rather than tapering off, the traffic had actually increased and was now nearly at a stop in both directions. In particular, the number of pedestrians had grown so much that the scene looked like some kind of mass exodus or evacuation. A steady stream of people three or four deep lined both sides of the road. Even when it was clear that the people on foot would never reach the shore before the event was over, they still pressed doggedly forward. Clearly, these people were looking for something bigger and more profound than a grown-up Erector Set toy.

I have no hard evidence to support my hypotheses, but I think that what people hoped to find was something that would jolt them out of their everyday existence, something that would amaze them and make them feel something akin to wonder. I also think that, once people were in the experience, there was the added attraction of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Simply by participating in the mass migration toward the Strandbeests, they had become part of a collective who were, as the saying goes, “all in this together.”

But, how do these ideas apply to the relationship between writers and readers?

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Stories have the power to transport and transform. They can whisk us away to another time and place, or an entirely different reality. They can turn our perspective on its head and give us a whole new way to see and experience the world and our place in it. The best stories reach into our hearts,  touching us not only intellectually, but also emotionally. They change not only what we think, but also how we feel.

Though they didn’t live up to expectations, Jensen’s Strandbeests seemed to offer the same kind of experience our stories should promise:

An Escape from the Usual:

We had never seen or heard of anything like the Strandbeests. The very idea of them was unique and intriguing. The creatures featured in the promotional videos appeared to be partly prehistoric and partly alien. We weren’t sure what they were, exactly, but we knew we wanted an up-close-and-personal look. Based on the turn out for this event, lots and lots of people are clearly hungering for the new and strange and exciting. Going to see the beasts represented adventure and exploration outside the bounds of our daily rounds. Seems that people are looking for a chance to experience something different.

How might your writing offer that kind of experience? Do your stories take readers on a journey to someplace they’ve never been? Do they help them slip into a life completely unlike their own? Does your writing offer readers an immersive experience that pulls them completely out of their real life and into a life of your imagining? Even if you’re writing realistic fiction or essays, how can you incorporate the element of “other” into your work? What new perspective can you offer?

A Taste of Wonder:

More than just experiencing something different, people are searching for experiences that inspire wonder and awe. They want to be amazed. They want to feel something – a tingling in the spine, a thrill, a deep emotional reaction. They want to catch a glimpse of and be persuaded to believe in magic and miracles and endless scientific possibilities. When readers pick up a story, they are hoping to be wowed.

Wonder is something that we associate mostly with children. It is the state of being pleasantly surprised by the unexpected in a way that makes you feel like the whole world has just opened up in a new way, revealing spaces and ideas that you didn’t know existed. Unfortunately, as we grow older, it’s more and more difficult to find experiences that inspire this feeling. We become numb to much of the world around us. We feel like we’ve been there and done that. We get cynical. Seeing something “different” is only part of the equation. We want to see something different that brings us back to that childhood state of believing that there is still so much out there that we don’t understand – so many possibilities.

How does your writing expand your readers’ ability to feel wonder, to believe that there is still plenty that they don’t know. How do your stories peel back the layers to reveal some previously undetected piece of reality or potential for magic? Your stories don’t have to be fantasy or science fiction, but I think that our human hunger for wonder is a big part of what makes those genres so popular on such a large scale.

A Chance to be Part of Something Bigger than Ourselves:

We often talk about how, as writers, one of the driving forces behind our work is our desire to connect – with the world, with other people, and with our own hearts. The stories we read, like the experiences we choose, help us define ourselves. Our reading choices express our values and beliefs as well as well as our artistic tastes and entertainment preferences. And when we are able to share our reading experience with a community of like-minded readers, we discover that we are not alone.

This phenomenon happens over and over again with books, movies, and TV shows. When a story captures our collective imagination, an entire community springs up around the experience of that story. People bond over this shared experience. The story provides an easy context for conversation, giving us a chance to connect with others. The Harry Potter books and movies are a perfect example of this kind of community, but there are many (many!) others. Think of any popular TV show or movie, and I guarantee there are a ton of people who experience those stories as part of a community of fans. Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, and (hearkening back to an earlier, simpler time) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, Cheers, and so on.

How do your stories help your readers identify as part of something bigger than themselves? What themes and beliefs are woven into your work that attract a certain kind of person? How are you creating an experience that is both shareable and worth sharing? Beyond the writing of your story, how are you creating a community for your readers?

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In my work as a marketer, it’s critical for me to have a deep understanding of audience needs. Whether I’m writing website copy to help a software company reach small businesses or putting together an eBook to help a venture capitalist firm educate their portfolio companies, I have to uncover and clearly identify not only the obvious, tactical audience needs, but also the unspoken and intangible emotional needs. In fact, it’s this second set of needs – the ones that I have to dig for, the ones the audience may not readily admit to – that are the most important.

It’s the same with readers. You may know, for instance, that your readers want an exciting adventure story that has an element of mystery and magic. But those are just “surface” needs. Go deeper. Ask yourself what your readers really want.

In marketing, we talk about features and benefits. Features are the “what” of a product; benefits are the “why.” Scrivener, a fabulous writing software, offers writers many excellent features including the ability to edit multiple documents simultaneously, a cork board view for organizing outlines, an in-depth file structure, broad exporting and printing capabilities, and much more. These features are not, however, why writers buy Scrivener. Writers buy Scrivener because of the benefits it delivers: the ability to create order from chaos, write faster, and be more efficient and productive.

Features are a means to an end. Benefits are that end. In the Scrivener example, all those feature-driven bells and whistles ultimately enable you to reach your writing goals. The benefits you experience include greater ease in your work, less stress, greater sense of control and accomplishment, and finally finishing that story/novel/screenplay/dissertation you’ve been working on.

It’s not so different with stories. Your readers may pick up your book thinking that they want adventure, mystery, and magic; but what they really want is the chance to experience something different, be wowed, and find a community of people with whom to share a little piece of themselves in the context of your story. The benefits of reading a story include things like a restoration of faith and hope in humanity, the ability to laugh at ourselves, or a feeling of being understood. Once you understand what your readers really want, you’ll know just what to do to win their hearts.


What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

old mapBecause of my impending move (and the facts that a) we’re still only about halfway through pre-move mini renovations and b) I haven’t packed a darn thing), I have had precious little time to write anything except the things that absolutely must be written: client documents, my bi-weekly column, and my blog posts here at Live to Write – Write to Live.

As my time gets more and more crunched, I’m leaning more and more heavily on my pre-planning process to streamline my writing. I cannot stress enough how much time it saves me if I outline a piece before I sit down to write. I rarely come to the screen without a mind map to guide me, but when I do find myself in that uncomfortable predicament I know I’m in for a long haul.

The beauty of mind mapping is that it helps me figure out what I’m really trying to say. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have to stick to the plan 100%, or that I can’t make some unexpected discovery while I’m writing and pull a 180. Even if the piece I write ends up being wildly different from the mind map, it still helps me immensely to have that jumping off point.

If you don’t typically do any pre-planning and feel like you’re struggling more than you should have to when you sit down to write, you may want to experiment with outlining, mind mapping, or whatever process helps you organize your thoughts. Even if you wind up going in a completely different direction, I can guarantee you that the time you spend planning won’t be wasted.


 What I’m Reading Listening To:

magic lessons podcastI’m about a third of the way through a (so far) fabulous novel, but I won’t share that until I’ve finished it. In the meantime, I’ve been listening to the new Magic Lessons podcast from author/speaker Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Love, Pray fame.

I have not read Eat, Pray, Love. I had a copy once, and I tried to read it several times, but I just couldn’t get into it. Despite not being a fan of her most well known book, I have enjoyed several of Gilbert’s talks, including this interview about creativity, writing and saying no, and her conversation with Oprah about why curiosity trumps passion.

The Magic Lessons podcast is part of Gilbert’s promotion for her new book, Big Magic, due out on September 22nd. The book promises to deliver “potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration” and crack open “a world of wonder and joy.” The podcast is her continuation of the conversation around the book’s themes of creativity, inspiration, and how to balance live our most creative lives.

I have to admit that I’m curious about the book, but a little on the fence about the podcast. I am inspired by and agree with much of what Gilbert says, but the delivery involves a few too many “honeys” and “sweethearts” and an overriding flavor of art-as-therapy that kind of turns me off. Though she seems empathetic with the artists she speaks to on her podcast, there is something the way she addresses them that gives me a sense of condescending coddling.

That said, I think my reaction may be due to my baggage about my own creative life; but that’s another conversation for another day.

Despite my mixed feelings about Magic Lessons, I encourage you to give it a listen. I’d be very interested to hear what you think, and – if you’re so inclined – I welcome any amateur psychoanalysis of my knee-jerk aversion to the character of the conversations.


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:

From littlethingsstudio on Etsy

From littlethingsstudio on Etsy

Here’s to wonder and awe and figuring out what we (and our readers) REALLY want. Have a great rest of the weekend! 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Old Map Photo Credit: nefotografas via Compfight cc

Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Write Blind

These guys may have a creative advantage.

These guys may have a creative advantage.

So, for this post I’m trying something a little odd. I’m writing “blind.”

What I mean by that is that I’m not giving myself any way to look at the words as I type them. I picked up this trick from an essay by Vanessa Gebbie in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. In the essay, Gebbie suggests that you free up your muse and your creativity by simply writing without looking. (It’s kind of like the whole “Look, Ma! No hands!” thing.)  In the essay, she says,

On paper, this flash writing is easy. You just let your hand go, and don’t self-censor. On screen, it can be a little more difficult, as some people (myself included) tend to edit as they write as it is so easy to do on a computer. But this ruins the creative flow, and there are some tricks to help you write freely on screen. Try turning off the screen and typing blind. (And do try not to hit the Caps Lock key.) On a laptop, turn the font color to white. At first you may feel rather uncomfortable but you will get used to it, and what spills out will be fresh, clear writing. Just “let go” and allow the mind to produce its own fabulous connections.

For this post, I haven’t turned my screen off or changed my font color; I’ve simply angled the screen down so that I can’t see it. It feels odd to be writing while staring out the window, but it’s also kind of interesting how it feels so much more “direct” somehow. Sure, I’m making LOTS of typing mistakes, but those can be cleaned up later. There IS something very freeing about not seeing the words on the page – staring back at me in all their supposed “wrongness.” I can just type and it feels like it’s going no where. It feels “light.” It’s like they don’t really carry any weight (yet), and Im free to just mess around with different ideas and lines of thought.

Many writers have trouble editing while writing, but writing blind takes that possibility right off the table. After all, you can’t edit what you can’t see, right?

This would, I think, make a great brainstorming exercise as well. Instead of trying to work out an orderly outline for a piece, just start typing blind and then go back and pick out the good bits. It’s much more free form – more of an actual “brain dump,” as they say.

By writing blind, you get those little critic/editor monkeys off your back. This means you can write much (much!) faster. Without them chittering in your ear, you can fly through the first draft. Very cool.

So, I hope you’ll try this little trick, and – if you do – please drop a comment below to let me know how you make out.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Photo Credit: zhouxuan12345678 via Compfight cc

Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writer = Idea Machine

From "a little market" via Pinterest

From “a little market” via Pinterest

If someone asked you to name your stock in trade as a writer, what would you say?

Your knee-jerk response might be “words.” Words are the building blocks of our stories. They are like the painter’s pigments or the sculptor’s clay.

But, are they really your stock in trade? No.

As a writer, your stock in trade is your ideas.

Without ideas, there are no words. Ideas are where the process starts. They are the seeds that blossom into word-laden forests. My dad has always told me that the ideas -not perfect execution – are the thing. Anyone can learn to do a thing well, whether that thing is painting a picture, taking a photograph, or writing a story. These are technical skills you can practice and hone until you achieve a high level of mastery. But, without a good idea to drive your technical excellence, all you have is an empty exercise in rote execution. What you create will have no purpose, no meaning, no soul.

And, that’s no good.

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So, ideas. Where do they come from?

The Muse, you say? Really? I like to think the Muses are kind of like Sharon Stone’s character in Albert Brooks’ film, The Muse. (If you haven’t seen this, please watch it. It is fabulous from any angle, but from the writer’s perspective it’s especially funny.) Stone plays Sarah Little, a modern day Muse whose tactics are more than a tad unconventional. She is petulant, feisty, demanding, and – more to the point – she never actually gives anyone ideas. She doesn’t consider that to be part of her job.

So, if not the Muses, where do ideas come from?

They come from you, silly.

And, like any other skill, idea generation is something you can practice. It’s not magic or a creative gift or the whispers of those pesky Muses. Idea generation is about treating your brain like the muscle it is and working it out to improve flexibility, stamina, and strength.

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Though he is sometimes a little over the top for some people, I kind of adore James Altucher. He’s more of a business/finance/entrepreneurship blogger, but many of his ideas apply beautifully to writing. One of my favorite posts of his is The Magic of Idea Math, in which he outlines seven different ways to generate ideas:

  • IDEA ADDITION: Take a big, popular idea and add something to it.
  • IDEA SUBTRACTION: Think you’re stuck in a situation with no options? Consider your situation without the roadblocks. Just take all the “can’ts” out of the equation, and see where you go.
  • IDEA EXPONENTIALS & SUBSETS: Start with ten ideas and then add ten ideas for each of your original ten, and so on. (This, as Altucher points out, is a good recipe for writing a book.)
  • NEGATIVE IDEAS: Look at opposites and opposing forces to get a completely different perspective that opens your mind to new possibilities.
  • IDEA MULTIPLICATION: Take a good idea and figure out how to scale it through replication.
  • IDEA DIVISION: Take a good idea and divide it again and again in order to break it down into its component, “niche” parts. I picture cell division that breaks one big cell down into dozens of smaller, more specialized cells.
  • IDEA SEX: This is similar to idea addition, but more integrated. Altucher uses the example of “sampling” in the music industry. The popular term “mash-up” also applies here.

Go ahead and play around with these ideas in the context of your writing or your writing career. This is all about “thinking outside the box,” as the tired cliché says.  It’s about training your brain to think about problems (and possibilities!) in different ways.

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I use the word “training” intentionally. As I mentioned earlier, you need to treat your brain like a muscle. You need to exercise and stretch it constantly. It’s the old “use it, or lose it” idea.

My daughter and I recently discovered, courtesy of another mom, a great show from the National Geographic channel called Brain Games. The series is a fascinating exploration of how our brains work. Much of what we’ve learned by watching so far has surprised the hell out of me.

One thing that didn’t surprise me, however, is the fact that our brains are amazingly adaptive machines that learn at an incredibly fast rate, but will atrophy if not properly exercised. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that brain training falls into two categories: strength and flexibility.

Strength exercises help you hone your memory, analysis, observation, and problem solving skills. I subscribe to a great brain-training tool called Lumosity to help me with these kinds of exercises. Using my desktop computer or their handy mobile app, I play fun games that are scientifically designed by neuroscientists to help me improve these basic mental skills. It’s easy, fun, and kind of addictive.

Flexibility exercises are the ones that help you improve how creatively you think. This is where the “outside the box” stuff comes in. One of the best ways to increase your thinking agility is to “think like a kid” by removing any assumptions you have about how a certain problem “should” or can be solved. A Brain Games episode we watched recently demonstrates the power of thinking like a kid by asking adults and kids to describe what they see in an abstract drawing. Adults can usually only come up with one or maybe two ideas, while kids can go on and on (and on!) as their imaginations rev up.

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That’s kind of what ideas are all about, right? Imagination. And isn’t imagination the domain of a writer?

We writers ply our story trade by repeatedly asking the all-important question, “What if?” This deceivingly simple question is the key to opening a world of possibilities. Though the process may start slowly with a grinding of the wheels in your brain, once you get going all kinds of ideas jump out at you.

“Possibilities” – you may notice I’ve used that word a number of times in this post. That’s because ideas are about possibilities. Ideas aren’t intrinsically right or wrong, they are just potentialities to be explored and tested.

And they aren’t just for stories, either. There are countless possibilities to explore in your real life, too. We often get stuck thinking about our world and our lives from only one perspective and based on one set of assumptions. But, what if we looked at our situation with the eyes of a child?  What if we used Altucher’s negative ideas mind math to remove the obstacles that we assume are keeping us from achieving our goals? What if we let our imaginations uncover new solutions to our problems?

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Your stock in trade as a writer is your ideas. They are what set you apart from everyone else. They are what capture a reader’s attention, whether you are writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing copy. As much as you practice the craft of writing – style, voice, syntax, and all that good stuff – you must also practice the craft of idea generation. Give your brain the opportunity to stretch and play. Make coming up with new ideas part of your daily writing routine. Drop your assumptions and inhibitions and see how bizarre and silly you can get. You never know what bit of brilliance will emerge from the chaos.


What I’m {Thinking About} Writing:

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

As I mentioned above, considering “what if?” possibilities isn’t an exercise that’s only good for writing stories. It can be a powerful and transformative tool for shaping your life and your writing career.

I have been working as a freelance marketing writer for almost the last decade because I asked myself, “What if I gave the copywriting thing a whirl?” I’m so grateful that the answer to that question turned out to be the successful business I’ve got now. But, even while I deeply appreciate each and every client and project that enables me to keep a roof over our heads and Boboli pizzas on the table, I can’t quite seem to stop asking, “What if?”

  • What if I tried my hand at nonfiction … maybe writing a book about writing?
  • What if I did a self-publishing experiment around a serialized story?
  • What if I offered custom stories about people’s pets?
  • What if I …

You get the idea. Sometimes we get too tied up in thinking about “writing” in only one way. We think that being a writer means being a novelist or a journalist or a screenwriter. We stop seeing other opportunities, we forget that there are all kinds of species of writers and all kinds of different ways that stories and information permeate our world and our lives. If we stop assuming that, as a “writer,” we can only exist within the confines of a very specific identity, all kinds of new possibilities open up to us.

It’s something worth thinking about.


What I’m {Remembering About} Reading:

Jessie Willcox Smith - Mother and Children Reading

Jessie Willcox Smith – Mother and Children Reading

Last week’s Friday Fun was all about early influences on our writing. My response took me on a walk down memory lane where I recalled the books I’d read as a child. It was interesting to look back on my long list of favorite children’s and young adult reads and see some patterns in the kinds of stories, characters, and themes that I’d been drawn to. It’s also interesting to see how my preferences have evolved over the years.

But, one influence I thought of after the Friday post was published was how my mom read aloud to my sister and I right through our teen years. Though the specific stories she shared with us did influence me, what was more important was simply being exposed to and enveloped in my mother’s love of books and reading. Experiencing that passion first hand made a lasting impression that has sustained my own reading and writing ever since.

Now that I’m someone’s mom, I have spent countless treasured hours reading aloud to her, starting with picture books and graduating over the years to easy readers and novels. Now that she’s almost too old for bedtime stories (at least, she thinks so), I’ve introduced her to the wonderful world of audio books. She has spent dozens of hours this summer, listening to fantasy novels while coloring or doing some other creative activity. I just love knowing that her head is filling up with stories and adventure.


A Personal Announcement:

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

So, in case you missed my post about the influence of “place” on writing, my daughter and I have been dealing with some upheaval in our housing situation.  I am excited to share with you today that as of this past Monday I am, once again, a homeowner. After nearly three years of house hunting, the demolition-driven crisis we were in turned out to be  just the thing to push me out of the nest, or … er … into the nest?

Either way, we found a charming cottage-style cape that is in the same neighborhood we’ve come to love over this past eighteen months. My daughter is over-the-moon thrilled, and – even though there’s some work to be done and money to be spent – I’m pretty much right there with her.

So, if my posts over the next month or so start to wander off into home-related tangents, you’ll know why. I promise to stay as focused as possible on writing-related topics, but I’m sure that some domestic themes might sneak in there. At the very least, I’m sure our mini renovation adventures will yield some worthwhile anecdotes.



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:

Image from Pinterest

Image from Pinterest

Here’s to lots and lots of new ideas, having fun playing with possibilities, and finding (and making) your own, sweet home. 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Cognitive Dissonance and Writing

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that refers (in my words) to what happens psychologically when a person holds two opposing thoughts (beliefs) in their mind. Holding two conflicting beliefs causes a psychological discomfort, or dissonance, that is difficult for us to live with. The way we resolve this discomfort is to ignore or discount one of the beliefs.

The problem usually comes because you have a new belief that contradicts an older, unconscious belief. Since you’re not aware you hold this older belief, you can’t question it or decide not to believe it. Therefore, in order to feel better, you ignore the newer belief.

If you are a writer and you become a mother, or a full-time corporate employee, or a caregiver to a sick relative, you will continue to write—unless you have unexamined, unconscious thoughts that cause cognitive dissonance.

Thoughts like these:

  • Mother’s don’t take time away from their families to write (or do anything for themselves),
  • Nobody can write when they work full-time,
  • Caregiving is more important than writing—every minute of every day.

If you hold one of these beliefs, you may find yourself getting to the end of every day with nothing written. You don’t do this intentionally, but the unconscious belief will cause you to behave in ways that sabotage your writing life.

I’ve been thinking about cognitive dissonance lately as I look forward to the fall, when my son starts kindergarten. This is yet another transition when I have to deal with my cognitive dissonance around my writing life and my life as a mother. The first time I bumped up against my unconscious belief that mothers couldn’t make room for their own passions was when I got married to a man with two children and became a stepmother. I’ve examined my beliefs about motherhood over and over in my life, and I imagine I will continue to work on them as my son grows up, and probably as my granddaughter grows up as well.

I came by my belief that mothers have no right to work on their own dreams and passions the way most of us do: I watched my mother and saw how she behaved in the world. My mom had 5 children in 3 ½ years while she also worked as a nurse anesthetist. She had many interests and passions, including her work, but it all took a backseat to raising her children. To extend that metaphor, her wants and needs weren’t in the backseat so much as stored in a shed on someone else’s property with no access to them without the property owner’s permission, which was rarely (if ever) given.

When I find my writing productivity going down hill, the first thing I do is examine my thoughts. I do this by doing a “thought download,” a technique first taught to me by Brooke Castillo. I write down all my thoughts, stream-of-consciousness style. Once I’ve run dry, I go back and examine my thoughts carefully.

Clues to unexamined thoughts and unquestioned beliefs are words like “everybody,” “all,” “none,” no one,” and “nobody.” Examples:

  • No one likes a mother who puts herself before her children.
  • Everybody who had kids puts them first.
  • None of my family do the things I do.

Once I’m aware of my thoughts, I can recognize the connection between the thoughts, my feelings, my actions, and my results. One example is if I’m thinking a mother always cooks for her family (while at the same time I’m consciously thinking I need to cook less in order to get CampNaNo done,) I can then notice how I feel—pressured, frazzled, my actions—make a meat sauce from scratch in the two hours I have while my son is busy elsewhere—and my results: great dinner, no writing done.

In order to change that result, I need to change that thought.

Do I really believe I can’t be a writer and a mother? No, I don’t. I believe I’m the best mother I can be when I’m the best person I can be, and I can’t be my best if I ignore my passions and dreams. Would I want my son to ignore his passions and dreams? Never.

But if I ignore mine, he will grow up to ignore his. I cannot give him the ability to chase his own dreams, to know that his wants and needs matter, if I don’t believe it for myself.

I am a writer and a mother. For today, I believe both of these statements and I have no cognitive dissonance. I know that old, unwanted thought will creep in again sometime, as it has before, but I know how to recognize it and resolve it.

Cognitive dissonance is a sign. When you experience it, examine your thoughts and question them. Are your thoughts serving you?

Do you experience cognitive dissonance in relation to your writing life?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. You can more blog posts by her at www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.


In Praise of Coloring

I read the articles after I bought the coloring books. You know the articles, the ones that praise coloring books for adults, like this one. Of course, I like that there is science behind what I already knew. Coloring rocks. It also helps reduce stress, and has benefits not unlike meditation.

I’d relearned how much I loved coloring when I had nieces and nephews, and would color with them. Simplistic books for small kids, but I’d add a pattern to Strawberry Shortcake’s dress, or make one of the Muppets multi-hued. It was a great way to spend time with them, and to share an activity we all liked. When two of the nieces (now teens) were coming over to spend a few days, I went to Barnes and Noble and found a table full of “adult” coloring books. I bought them each one, and threw one in for me at the last minute.

The patterns are complicated, and the options are endless. All you need is a box of colored pencils and your imagination. And time. These patterns (my book has a lot of paisleys) take time to work on. They force you to slow down, think, sharpen pencils, live with mistakes, move forward. They also require no artistic ability, and yet you can create lovely pictures.

Coloring helps me write better. It requires focus, but allows me to think about plots, rework scenes, develop characters. So much of writing is a mental game, and coloring gives me space to create.

Here is a link to some coloring pages you can look at and download. Give coloring a try. Justify it by pointing to the articles. But do it because it is fun.


Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Just Killing Time debuts October 6. J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. They both look a lot like Julie Hennrikus.


Thinking About Being a Self-Employed Writer?

I get asked quite often how I make a living as a professional writer and editor. Maybe something here will strike a chord with you if you are on the fence about being self-employed.

My home office

My home office

To know up front: I only have myself to rely on. There isn’t any alimony or child support or income from anyone coming to me — other than what I earn myself. I also do not have any children to feed or any crazy-ridiculous expenses to worry about such as sports teams, music lessons, camp getaways, college tuition, or anything else.

I usually hear one of these two replies: “Hey, that’s fabulous that you have no one but yourself to worry about! No money worries at all!” or “Oh, wow, if something happens to you, you might be up the proverbial river without the proverbial paddle. Does’t that stress you out?”

I don’t have a formula, but here’s what there is to know about how I am now 10 years into being my own boss:

  • When I decided to leave the corporate world, I gave myself 1 year to get my finances in order and find affordable health insurance. It was/is important to me to have at least 4 months of savings to cover bills.
  • At the time I quit, I downsized (sold my house) and have been renting ever since, which is less responsibility and has more predictable expenses (to me), so I can save money as well as pay myself.
  • I am frugal – this means I minimize my bills. I have Internet, a cell phone, use AC, and buy too much food when I go to the grocery store. It does not mean I’m working by candlelight to save on my electric bill or that I live in a library for free WiFi. :) I always pay my credit card in full each month to avoid finance charges and I pay my bills monthly, not weekly.
  • I maintain my older vehicle instead of having car payments.
  • I network to meet other solopreneurs and learn how they thrive in their business and try tips I learn.
  • I use LinkedIn to find contract opportunities.
  • I only take on jobs that interest me, which keeps me happy and lets me give my best to the client (I always meet or beat deadlines).
  • I absolutely love what I do and (literally) say “Thank you” out loud every day to the cosmos.

I don’t know of a magic bullet for self-employment success, but I know (1)  it’s important to love what you do and do what you love and that you have to work at it (very much like a personal relationship). If you want it to work and approach it honestly, I believe you’re more than 75% to your goal.

And (2) having money readily available if monthly income checks don’t arrive when planned is quite helpful at keeping stress about money at under control.

What is your tip to someone thinking about becoming self-employed?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Weekend Edition – Dear Writer, You are weird. Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writers are not normal people.

Image from Screencraft

Image from Screencraft

It started when I was a kid. I would often carry a notebook with me, scribbling everything and nothing on its welcoming pages as I sat alone in a quiet corner of the playground, or – later, when I was older – at the end of a long table in study hall. When I entered the working world, my notebook accompanied me on the commuter train and was my lunch date on the Boston Common. Now, in my life as mom and freelance writer, my notebook is an even more constant companion. Tossed in the back seat or tucked into my bag, it is always at the ready. Whether I’m idling in the pick-up line at school, sitting at the edge of the arena watching my daughter ride, or waiting in the doctor’s office, my notebook is never far away.

Just yesterday, I joined a few friends for a late afternoon beach run. While the kids swam, the adults engaged in the kind of ebb and flow conversation that often develops at the edge of the sea. It wasn’t long, however, before I felt an urge to take out my notebook. Even after a lifetime of doing my “writer thing,” I felt a little awkward, but I needed to work out an idea for this week’s newspaper column. Happily, my friends are totally nonjudgemental and, after initial curious inquiries, left me to my own, writerly devices.

··• )o( •··

Writers are weird. And, the sooner we acknowledge and embrace that fact, the better off we’ll be and the better our work will be.

I don’t often think about the ways being a writer makes me different from other people; but, when I do stop to think about it, the differences can be pretty striking. For instance, as a writer, I take on a lot of voluntary work that eats up hours and hours of my “free” time. While other people are heading out for a day on the boat or the beach, I’m often sitting (happily, I might add) at my computer, writing. I routinely dedicate substantial chunks of time each week to doing work that is not only unpaid, but often unseen by anyone but me.

Then there’s the fact that, despite being fortunate enough to have wonderful friends, I often choose solitude over time spent with others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with other people; it’s just that sometimes I prefer the company of my own thoughts. Without time to myself, I begin to feel restless and edgy and “not me.”

As a writer, I tend to question pretty much everything. I may not always do it out loud, but my writer’s mind is always asking “why” and “how” and “what if” while digging around for new ideas and truths. My mind runs off on all kinds of wild tangents that can leave other people a bit baffled. Like a slightly mad daydreamer, my thoughts can leap from one concept to another, connecting the dots in strange ways. I am sure that sometimes people wonder if I’m seeing the same world they see.

··• )o( •··

Writing in my notebook has always been a way of exploring the world while hiding from it. Like the Elven cloaks worn by the Hobbits on their way to Mordor, my notebook has the magical ability to render me almost invisible. In the same way that reading a good story transports me to another time and place, slipping between the pages of my notebook is like stepping into a shadow dimension. Though I remain physically in this world, my mind is traveling elsewhere, and people tend not to notice me. The movement of my pen across the paper is like a spell that allows me to peer unseen into the inner workings of our world. From this vantage point, I can observe life from a slight distance.

This is the strangest dichotomy of being a writer. Though I feel a frequent need to step back and away in order to observe and think in solitude, I also have an equally strong and seemingly opposite desire to connect deeply with the world and people around me. Though on the surface I may be perceived as something of a loner, my solitude is actually a means to creating stronger connections to others.

··• )o( •··

Writers, like all other artists, are people with something to say. We may share that something via stories, essays, or comics. We may write letters to the editor, screenplays, or poetry. Our words might be quirky or bold, gentle or inflammatory, academic or fantastic. Our stories may be frightening, inspiring, or heartbreaking. We might hope to make people laugh, or cry, or just see the world from a slightly different perspective. Though motivations, intentions, and styles vary wildly from one writer to the next, each of us goes out into the world wanting to share a piece of ourselves and our experience through our writing.

We are willing to invest an inordinate amount of time figuring out what we want to say and then crafting the piece of writing to say it. While most non-writers are content to either keep their opinions to themselves or share them on a much more modest scale, writers are compelled to “share big.” We are odd in our need to splay our inner thoughts across the page for others to read. With each word we write we say, “This is me. I am here. This is what I have seen. This is what I imagine.” Because we possess some crazy mixture of unintentional hubris and quiet courage, we are able to offer ourselves to the world – transparent and vulnerable.

This makes us weird.

But, as E.B. White once said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” And love, as cliché as it is, may be the answer. Though it may seem weird to others, we writers profess our love for the world with every word we write. We try, as best we can, to capture the essence of this life and our hearts, of dreams and the vast landscape of human imagination. Everyone lives his or her own internal life. Writers wear that internal life on the outside for all to see.

Whether we love nature or history, romance or vampires, talking cats, magic rings, or simply the diversity of human nature, we  let that love sweep us off our feet. Even when we write about tragedy or war or cruelty, if you read between the lines you will find love for the underdog, the valiant, and the kind. As writers, we are willing to make fools of ourselves for the things we love. We babble a lot. We do the unexpected and the absurd. Sometimes we fail, but our love is strong enough that we are willing to get up again and again, to keep trying.

If love is what makes us weird, I’m willing to wear that label with pride. They may look at us askew and think us odd or quirky, but that’s ok. The geek shall inherit the Earth, and I’m happy to be a love-crazed wordsmith who wears her heart on her sleeve. I’m good with that.


What I’m Reading:

book buried giantThe Buried Giant is the first Kazuo Ishiguro novel I’ve read, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last. Though the story and genre are a marked departure from his other works (you may have heard of a little title called Remains of the Day), it is more than my love for fantasy that made me fall for this novel.

Some books rely on an early burst of attention-grabbing action to hook a reader. Though I like an exciting read as much as the next girl, I sometimes feel like these kinds of stories are trying too hard. They are like the clichéd pick-up artist leaning on the bar who has to weave his salary, the make and model of his car, and some name-dropping into the conversation because he’s afraid that just talking to a girl won’t be enough to keep her interested. He may be a perfectly nice guy, but the approach feels slightly desperate.

Not so with The Buried Giant. This book felt more like a quietly refined guy sitting at the next table over in a little coffee shop, reading. This guy isn’t pushy or flashy. In fact, he’s probably more interested in his book than he is in you, but – happily – he’s still willing to engage in a real conversation. He has a slightly antiquarian air about him, something a bit out of sync with the modern world, but his presence is that of a person who has been places and seen things. As you begin to talk, the coffee shop starts to fade and you find yourself transported to another place and time that feels both completely foreign to you, and also like home.

This is the spell Ishiguro casts so well.

Though this story’s cast of characters includes ogres, a warrior, a dragon, and Sir Gawain, it is never about these things. Like Ishiguro’s other works, this is, as described on the publisher’s web page, a story about “the act of forgetting and the power of memory, a resonant tale of love, vengeance, and war.”

Also from the publisher’s web page:

The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But, at least, the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time, finally, for them to set off across this troubled land of mist and rain to find the son they have not seen for years, the son they can scarcely remember. They know they will face many hazards—some strange and otherworldly—but they cannot foresee how their journey will reveal to them the dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Nor can they foresee that they will be joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight—each of them, like Axl and Beatrice, lost in some way to his own past, but drawn inexorably toward the comfort, and the burden, of the fullness of a life’s memories.

Though I have already said that I enjoyed this book for many reasons other than my love of well-written fantasy, it does seem that Ishiguro’s novel may have far-reaching influence on an often-maligned genre. An article for the New York Times quotes David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, as saying, “Fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t.” Mitchell apparently went on to say that he hoped The Buried Giant would help “de-stigmatize” fantasy. Three cheers for that.

Ishiguro is very aware of the fact that his latest novel treads in new territory. The NYT article provides some back story about how be worried about whether or not his readers would follow him into these strange new lands (a topic I touched on in last week’s post, Just Be Yourself. Yeah, Right.) I am no expert on Ishiguro’s audience, but I cannot believe that many will abandon his beautiful prose based simply on a setting. More to the point, I’d be willing to bet that Ishiguro will gain a new audience with this book – people like me who might not have picked up Remains of the Day or Never Leave Me without having read The Buried Giant.

The fact that he was recently featured in an interview with fantasy rock star Neil Gaiman certainly won’t hurt Ishiguro’s reputation with this new audience. In Let’s Talk About Genre for the NewStatesman, these two heavyweights explore the idea of genre and make some pretty interesting observations that make a strong case for genre being nothing more than an industry-manufactured filing system.

But, I digress.

I highly recommend The Buried Giant for readers of all types. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or a disciple of the literary form, Ishiguro’s novel holds something for everyone.  It is a beautifully crafted story that manages to successfully balance the magical and mythical with the very essence of our mundane world. I have a feeling I’ll be returning to its pages before too long.


What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

imitation bunniesI have been meaning, for a while, to write a post about the art of imitation in writing. I have read many times about writers who “grease the wheels,” so to speak, by writing in a way that channels a favorite author. Some writers will even copy passages verbatim from some favorite text as part of their writing warm-up.

Though novice writers may fear imitation (assuming that everything they write must be entirely unique), seasoned writers seem to accept imitation as part of the creative process. In a piece for The Write Practice, Joe Bunting cites several examples of “copier” writers including Steven Pressfield, Cormac McCarthy, and even Shakespeare.

While you ultimately want to discover your own voice, allowing your writing to be influenced by writers you admire is a good way to get a feel for patterns, cadence, and overall style. Often, you’ll find you’re influenced whether you want to be or not. For instance, looking back over a few recent entries in my morning pages journal, I noticed that even my “brain dump” writing took on a very different tone while I was reading The Buried Giant. To get myself rolling on these entries, I usually start with a very basic listing of where I am, what I’ve done so far that morning, the weather, etc. It’s painfully mundane, but it gets my hand moving across the page, and then I can go on from there.

Written before I’d read The Buried Giant:

Meghan is just up. Bella is sleeping in the bay window and Cinder is running amok, all jazzed up from a play session with her fleece-y whip toy. Funny girl. The crows haven’t been by yet, and even the sparrows are scarce. It’s just too hot and humid. And I’ll be riding in about an hour. Yikes!

Written while I was reading The Buried Giant:

All the animals are fed and the composting is out at the curb. A scourge of sparrows feasts greedily at the feeder, which is more than half pillaged even this early in the morning. The crows have been, but many peanuts still lie on the deck. A strange cry from distant trees sent them wheeling away across the road, and they have not yet returned. It is a cry I have not heard before, but – though it made me catch my breath – I would hear it again to try and name its source.

Is the second entry any less “my” writing because my choice of words was influenced by the book I was reading? I tend to think not, but this is a topic I’ll need to explore further in another post.


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:

Melissa Frances - Blackboard Canvas Print - Blessed are the Weird

Melissa Frances – Blackboard Canvas Print – Blessed are the Weird

Here’s to embracing your own brand of weirdness, not being afraid to be influenced by other people’s weirdness, and finding a little magic in even the most mundane of days. 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Imitation Bunnies Photo Credit: adametrnal via Compfight cc