Writing Realities

I don’t know about you, but I still have a lot of fear about putting my writing out in the world.

I’m working on it, and I do put some of my writing out there, but there’s a lot of writing that I haven’t done, or haven’t shown anyone, because of my fears.

In the fall, my son will be starting school and I’ll have more time to write. So I feel a pressure to “deal with” these fears before then.

Let’s just say it’s been on my mind.

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and I told her about the Student Showcase I performed in at ImprovBoston, in Cambridge, MA. I was talking about doing the show and all the public speaking I’d been doing and how it was scary, but putting my writing out in the world seemed scarier to me.

“Why is that?” I wondered as we sat outside at a cafe drinking coffee.

My friend, who is an artist and a scientist, said she thought it was because our writing seems so permanent—but no one reads our stuff over and over. She used the example of my life coaching blog.

“I read your posts and it’s always just enough and there’s always some ‘nugget’ I take away with me after reading it, but then I move on.”

Her words made me feel a lot better.

I realized I’d been thinking thoughts like, What if I make a mistake? What if someone doesn’t like it? What if it’s drivel?

(I could go on…and on—but I won’t!)

These thoughts are negative and not useful. And they aren’t even true.

The truth is I will make mistakes in my writing–and that’s okay. I’m a human being and we all make mistakes. If I make a mistake I can publish a correction if it’s that important, or just move on.

Someone who reads something I write may not like it, that’s their prerogative. The only way I can guarantee no one expresses dislike of my writing is to not write anything and publish it. And that does not work for me.

My writing may be drivel, but the more I write, the less likely it will be drivel.

Okay, that takes care of those thoughts! But really, the reminder from my friend that we’re here to make art and put it out there, and no one is examining it as minutely as we are (except hopefully our editors,) was very helpful.

What helps you get over your fears about your writing?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, and mother. I’m really looking forward to more writing time this fall (really!)

 

Weekend Edition – You Are Not Alone Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

You Are Not Alone

Image by Luis Barros. Follow him on Instagram (@luishb) for wonderful images, each one brimming with story possibilities.

Image by Luis Barros. Follow him on Instagram (@luishb) for wonderful images, each one brimming with story possibilities.

Being a grown up can be lonely.

Being a writer can be lonely.

Being a grown-up writer can be seriously lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

Last weekend I watched my daughter compete in a mountain bike race. It was my first time at this kind of event. Mountain biking is something she does on weekends with her dad. The wooded trails with their steep drops, tight turns, and obstacle course of mean rocks and wily roots are his territory.

There were more than four hundred riders, many with friends and family in tow, milling around the trampled corn field that served as a staging area for the organizers preparing to release the different classes of riders onto the course. We haven’t had any real rain here in weeks, so the movement of riders and spectators stirred up clouds of dust that dimmed the bright colors of the riders’ racing garb and gave the scene an air of festive chaos – like cowboys preparing to move an anxious herd across an arid plain, or young daredevils limbering up just before dashing out in front of Spanish bulls.

Though I finally spotted my daughter, and my beau was at my side, I felt like a stranger lost in some exotic land. The conversations that swirled around me with the dust and dirt may as well have been in a foreign language. Technical chatter about different kinds of bikes and gear sounded like gibberish, and then there were all the riding terms – endo, grinder, kick-out. Riders compared war stories and battle scars, referencing techniques and trails in a quick banter that left me curious but completely baffled.

And then, through all this noise and color and motion, I heard a voice ask, “Is that a Grub Street t-shirt?”

Grub Street is a writing center in Boston, and the shirt I was wearing was one I had picked up at their annual conference a couple of years ago. It’s hard to miss – a charcoal gray tee with a keyboard printed in white across the front.

The speaker, as it turned out, was not only a fellow writer and Grubbie, but also a Grub Street instructor and a friend of the woman who is teaching the flash fiction class I’m currently taking. Small world.

Our conversation was brief (we both had riders to cheer), but those few words exchanged made me feel at home. Even there, amidst all the unfamiliar sights and sounds, I was suddenly grounded in the fact that I am a writer in a community of writers. And, we are everywhere.

The trouble is, we’re not always easy to recognize. Mountain bikers, runners, boaters, even gardeners – these people are easy to identify by their garb, gear, and equipment. They congregate regularly for group events, display their badges of membership for all to see, and often practice their passion right out in the open.

We writers usually fly a bit farther under the radar. Though we do have our classes and conferences, these events rarely garner much attention from non-writers. A road race with hundreds of bicycles, driving club with dozens of antique cars, or garden club doing spring cleanup around town are likely to attract the attention of even the most unobservant. A group of writers meeting in a coffee shop or even attending a large conference in an urban center are likely to go completely unnoticed.

It’s almost like we’re members of a secret society. And, who knows? Maybe, unbeknownst to even ourselves, we’re actually a silent majority.

My point is this: keep your eyes open.

You never know when a fellow writer might be standing right next to you, or seated at the next table, or across the aisle on the subway. The barista at your local coffee shop might be a writer, or your bank teller, or your child’s teacher. Perhaps the woman who organized the school bake sale is working on a memoir, your mailman could be writing a cozy mystery, or the young lady who jogs by your house every morning might be working on collection of nature essays.

Look for clues. Listen carefully. Maybe you’ll notice someone writing in a notebook or reading a a book on story structure. Maybe you’ll hear someone mention a writing podcast or a reading. Sometimes, all it takes is a t-shirt.

We’re out there. Everywhere. You are never alone.

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: Flash Isn’t Just About Brevity

underwater icebergSo, I’m a week-and-a-half into the flash fiction course I’m taking via Grub Street, and the more I learn about this form, the more fascinated I become.

The first way people define flash fiction (aka short short stories, micro fiction, and a handful of other miniature monikers) is by word count. The jury is out on exactly how few words warrant the label “flash” – 300, 500, 1,000 – but the general gist is, of course, that flash is short.

Brevity, however is not the whole story by a long stretch.

Though the number of words appearing on the page is few, the world of a really great piece of flash fiction is as expansive as real life.

To write flash, you must know much more than what you reveal in your prose. A piece of flash fiction is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the brilliant bit that shows above the surface and reflects the light of the sun and moon, while the full bulk and weight of the story exists below the surface. That shining tip cannot exist without the rest of the iceberg to buoy it up.

Writing flash is, I’m learning, much like creating a poem or a work of visual art. Each word has a part to play. There is no excess, no dead weight. In order for a writer to craft the tip of the iceberg so that the reader feels the heft and gravity of the rest of the icy behemoth lurking in the depths, she must understand the whole. Only by understanding the whole can she find the right words to craft her flash story so that it reflects the entire reality that exists behind that handful of words.

Can you blame me for being fascinated?

What I’m Reading: 100wordstory.com

100 word storyI’m still in the middle of reading a couple of novels, but not yet through either one, so I’m not ready to share.

Meanwhile, one of my fellow students in the flash class turned me on to the site 100wordstory.org.

Talk about seriously short pieces.

It’s hard not to rip through this collection the way a child might rip through a bag of m&m’s, but if you were to do that, you’d be missing out. As short as they are, each of these stories deserves its own space. Part of the beauty of this super short form is that you can read a piece several times over, and each time have a slightly different experience.

If you’re curious about flash fiction, or just need a quick story fix in the middle of a busy day, I recommend 100wordstory.org. Just try not to get too addicted.

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:

In lieu of a quote, I’d like to share this reality check/pep talk from one of the writers behind my favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses. Hat-tip to the lovely Sharon Abra Hanen (aka @wellfedpoet) for this find. Loved it.

Here’s to recognizing each other out in the wilds of the real world. Happy writing. Happy reading.
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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.
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Weekend Edition – The Secret of Creative Space Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Your writing needs more than time. It needs space.

space nebulaThere is never enough time to practice your art. You are forever battling against the many demands life puts on the precious hours in your day, fighting for your creative life. You eventually learn that you’re never going to simply find the time, you have to make the time, stealing a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Making choices in order to make art.

So you work hard to carve out pockets of time for yourself. Maybe you get up a little early, or stay up a little late. Maybe you forgo an hour of television, or learn to work amidst the chaos of children who haven’t yet gone to bed. Lunch breaks, waiting in line, your public transport commute – you commandeer these moments for your creative crusade. Each day you wrest another small bit of time from the clutches of life’s obligations and responsibilities.

You are doing a good job. A great job.

You are making progress, taking all-important baby steps towards building your creative life. But, at some point, you start to feel like something isn’t quite “clicking.” The initial elation of (at last!) acquiring time for your art has lost a bit of its shine. Your cache of minutes and hours is growing, but you aren’t feeling any more creatively fulfilled. Something is missing.

•••)o(•••

As intangible as time is, it’s still only an instrument, not an inspiration. Time alone will not release your creativity. Minutes and hours are only an inert ingredient in the creative process. Without the right catalyst, they will just lie there, staring at you reproachfully as they slip, unused, through your anxious fingers.

More than mere time, you need space.

I’m not talking about physical space. I’m talking about headspace.

It’s not enough to simply make the time, you have to give yourself the gift of that time – wholly and without strings.

You have to step into your stolen moments as open, light, and unencumbered as you can be. You want to be happily distracted by the things that pique your curiosity, not tangled up in your day-to-day worries. You want to be able to surrender all your attention to the creative task at hand, setting everything else aside, if only for a brief moment.

You want to lose yourself in the creative process.

This blissful state is often called “flow,” and you find it when you slip into that state of being where you are not so much working on your art as becoming your art. This is the space where your creativity thrives. This is the space that you need to create within the minutes and hours that you’ve fought for.

•••)o(•••

It’s tough to create instantaneous headspace when you’re cramming your writing into the nooks and crannies of a busy day. Though I don’t believe in waiting for the muse, I also don’t believe in on-demand creativity. Imagine inviting your muse to a creative session, and then – the minute she she sits down with a cup of tea – commanding her to inspire you. That probably wouldn’t go down very well, right?

While there’s a case to be made for simply going through the motions in order to jumpstart your creative process, writing is not like laying bricks. Laying bricks is very straightforward. You place one brick atop another with mortar in between, and – over time – you build a wall. It doesn’t much matter what you’re thinking about while you’re stacking the bricks. It’s a purely mechanical process, and the outcome is dictated simply by how much time you put into the effort. More time means more bricks means a bigger wall. Simple math.

Writing, or any other creative endeavor, requires a different kind of approach and an entirely different kind of equation. Creativity is not simply a matter of time + effort = art. Though this approach might eventually produce work you’re proud of simply through persistence and a kind of brute force, you will find the process more pleasant and the results more pleasing if you can add headspace into the mix: time + space + effort = art.

 •••)o(•••

How do you create headspace?

Think of it like giving yourself breathing room.

Like letting go.

Allow your canvas to be blank. Clear your mind. Daydream. Stare out the window into space. Take away the pressure to produce. Eliminate expectations. Schedule creative time to do nothing.

Give yourself permission to step outside your life for a little bit. Forget about your worries. Be someone else. Think someone else’s thoughts.

Setting aside time to work on a particular creative goal is an admirable practice. But letting your inner task master own and manage all your creative time will eventually lead to burn out. You can’t always be pushing. Art is not a race. Consistent work and productivity are good things, but there’s a balance to be struck. All work and no play makes Jane a little sad and crazy. And it definitely robs her of her creative fire, leaving her frustrated and uninspired.

There is a natural ebb and flow to your creativity. And while you cannot ever run out of creativity, you can drain its energy. You can push too hard for too long and get stuck, like a wind-up toy that just keeps trying to walk forward even though it’s hit a wall.

Before you get to that point, give yourself a break. Step back. Explore. Play. Go ahead and fall down the rabbit hole. On purpose. Forget about word counts and just rest your creative muscles. Remember that usually epiphanies come from unexpected quarters. Sometimes the best way to get your synapses firing is to stop trying so damn hard, and instead just relax.

Creating headspace is a matter of removing things in order to make room for other things. Prioritizing things differently, just for a little while.

 •••)o(•••

You will not always be able to add the catalyst of headspace to your writing time. Sometimes, you will only have time, and that’s okay. When that happens, focus your efforts on the more automatic parts of the writing process – editing, research, etc. If it’s all you can manage in that moment, just go through the motions of putting one word after another. Don’t worry about a lack of inspiration. Remember that the ebb and flow is natural. Feel free to make mistakes. Do the work, but don’t let the critical voices in your head make you judge the work before you’re ready.

But when you have the opportunity, give yourself the gift of space to create. Give yourself permission to work without a specific goal, without a safety net, without a predetermined path. Let go of preconceived notions, weighty expectations, and creative assumptions. Claim your creative freedom and rediscover your creative joy.

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: “Just Right” Story/Book Lengths

Painting by Katharine Pyle

Painting by Katharine Pyle

Do you ever wonder about the typical lengths for different kinds of stories and novels? I do.

This week was the first of six classes in the flash fiction course I’m taking via Grub Street’s online venue. While I’ve been learning a lot about the flash fiction form by reading Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Flash Fiction, I loved the very simple definition that Sue Williams provided. In a brief video introducing the concept of flash fiction, Williams states that a flash fiction story differs from other similar forms (such as vignettes and prose poems) because it has three elements: character, conflict, and resolution.

As I began noodling on story ideas for my first homework assignment, I repeated this trio of criteria in my head like a mantra, “Character, conflict, resolution … character, conflict, resolution …” I bounced each idea that came to me off these three concepts, and found that it was pretty simple to tell when I had an actual story vs. when I just had a vignette or a prose poem. I still haven’t finished my homework, but I’ve got some good starter ideas.

While I was wrestling with how to tell my stories in the extremely condensed flash fiction form, I came across a Writer’s Digest post that provides “rule of thumb” word count ranges for a variety of written forms. In Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post, Chuck Sambuchino provides an overview of not only standard target word counts for various genres, but also a little insight into why these word counts land where they do, and when it’s okay to break the rules.

Here’s a quick rundown of the standard, “safe” word counts according to Sambuchino:

  • Adult Commercial and Literary Novels: 80,000 – 90,000
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
  • Middle Grade: 20,000 – 55,000
  • Young Adult: 55,000 – 69,999
  • Picture Books: 500 – 600
  • Westerns: 50,000 – 65,000
  • Memoirs: 80,000 – 89,999

 

What I’m Reading: Lots and Lots!

salem athaneum stacksDo you read more than one book at a time?

I used to be a monogamous reader, sticking to just one novel at a time. In recent years, however, I’ve become an overtly polygamous reader. At the moment, I’m reading one novel on my Kindle, listening to another on Audible, and chipping away at several paperback anthologies of short stories. I’m also wrapping up the Field Guide to Flash Fiction and just picked up another book of essays on the craft (which I may or may not get to before it’s due back at the library).

I wonder if my increased reading pace has something to do with getting a little older and feeling the pressure of so-many-books-so-little-time. I feel a certain defiance that makes me want to ignore the rest of the world so that I can read more. I swear that when I’m sitting at my desk, diligently hammering away on client deadlines, the books in my reading pile across the room sometimes whisper to me.

Does that ever happen to you?

 

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:

pin creative surrender

Here’s to giving yourself creative space as well as time. Happy reading. Happy writing. See you on the other side! 
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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.
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A Lesson Learned from Improv

This past winter, I took an Improv 101 class at ImprovBoston in Cambridge, MA. I had a great time and I learned a lot. I expected to apply a lot of what I learned to my role as a public speaker, but I also took home a lot of tips to help my writing—specifically to boost my creativity. I wrote about it here.

This spring I’ve been taking the 201 level Improv class and it’s been, once again, a lot of fun. I’ve also learned something every week that I have been able to apply directly to my writing life.

For example, one week we talked a lot about “status.” High status vs. low status; and we created characters who were either high status or low status. Since it’s improv, we didn’t make a list on a blackboard, we just started scenes and had our characters show characteristics of either high status or low status. It was amazing how quickly we (as the audience) could tell who was higher status and who was lower status, no matter what the scene was.

We played one game where we had Post-It notes with a number or letter (aces low) from a deck of cards on our foreheads. The scene was a wedding reception and we all walked around talking to the other guests. We had to figure out, by the way the others treated us, what our status was. After we finished the scene, we lined up according to how high or low status we thought we were.

Those of us who were very high status or very low status were pretty accurate in our assessment. When one party guest asked me to find the caterers and see if they had any more bacon-wrapped scallops to pass around, I figured I was pretty low status—and I was right. Those who were in the middle were not as accurate, although they knew they were in the middle.

On my drive home from class, I started thinking about the character in the short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been having a hard time showing him to be the person I see in my head. My critique group commented that he seemed immature and naïve. After that improv class, I could see I’d given this character some low status characteristics that took away from his authority and his believability as a physician.

More importantly, I could see how to fix that.

Just as I don’t want to confuse my audience when I’m doing improv, I don’t want to confuse my reader in my writing. I went through my short story and made my character’s words, gestures, and thoughts more consistent with who he really is—and I made sure that his “status” in relation to the other characters in my story was equally clear.

What’s the status of your latest story and characters?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I also do some public speaking and am so glad I tried improv as a way to improve my public speaking skills. I’ve never had so much in a class before–and I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years!

Weekend Edition – Time to Write Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

On Making Time to Write in a Real Life

paris clockI’d been having trouble with my computer. The machine, a beautiful MacBook Pro, is only a few years old; but something seemed to have snapped in its shiny, silver brain. No matter what task I set it – opening a program, popping a new tab on my browser, saving a document, loading a web page, etc. – it froze. Whether its paralysis was born of fear or confusion or obstinance, I’ll never know. All I know is that each move I made resulted in the same outcome: the spinning, rainbow pinwheel of death.

At first, I was frustrated. Then, I became furious. I had so much to do and no time to waste. Precious minutes were sucked down that candy-colored vortex as I sat, blood pressure rising, tapping finger tips trying to pierce my wooden desktop.

Until I realized that those minutes were still mine.

True, I wasn’t able to use them as I’d planned, but they were still mine. I did not have to spend them staring in dumb rage at an immobilized computer screen. I moved a small pile of random reading material from its perch on the bookcase behind the couch and placed it next to my ailing computer. After that, each time that psychedelic harbinger of  technological doom appeared on my screen, I simply smiled and reached for something to read.

•••)o(•••

Time is our most finite and precious resource. We cannot create more of it, or slow it down. We cannot bend it to our will. We can only hope to use it wisely.

People often ask me how I find the time to fit consistent reading and writing into my life. My answer is that I do not find the time, I make it. Sometimes, I steal it.

The hard truth is that we rarely, if ever, stumble upon spare time. Most of our time is spoken for by our daily responsibilities and obligations – work, parenting, caring for family members, keeping house, shuttling kids hither and yon, shopping, cooking, taking out the trash. The rigors of our daily lives devour time in huge, hurriedly consumed bites. We get out of bed in the morning, and it seems moments later we are crawling back under the covers, barely aware of what transpired in the intervening hours.

Sometimes, it’s challenge enough to get from Point A to Point B without misplacing any kids, losing any clients, or forgetting (for the fiftieth time) where you put the car keys. How then, do you make the time for seemingly nonessential activities like reading and writing?

Well, first of all, you stop thinking of them as nonessential. From there, you can start to explore some of the tricks I’ve developed to make sure that each day of my life includes some reading and some writing.

•••)o(•••

Trick #1: Forget Optional

The first step is simple: Acknowledge and accept that your writing matters. You can’t prioritize something if you’re constantly pushing it to the bottom of your To Do list because it’s “only a nice-to-have” and not a necessity. Too often (and, I’m speaking especially to the women now) we marginalize the things we want out of shame or guilt or some misplaced sense of duty. Stop that. Pursuing your creative journey is not a “bonus” that you get to enjoy if, and only if, you get everything else done first. “Everything Else” will never be done. Ever. There’s always more of everything to add to your list. That’s the way life is. If you’re going to make time to read and write, you need to make it now, not “someday.”

 

Trick #2: Make Intentional Choices

Though we may ache for time to read and write, we routinely sacrifice that time voluntarily to other people’s small gods. We let ourselves be talked into participating on yet another committee, taking on another project, or attending another social event. We talk ourselves into saying “yes” by telling ourselves that it’s “only” one meeting a month or three hours on a Saturday or four weeks of overtime. Sometimes, the “yes” springs from guilt. Sometimes it comes from fear of missing out (aka – FOMO). We worry that we’ll never be invited again or get work again or whatever. Sometimes it comes from fear of failing, because if we’re too busy doing Everything Else, we’ll never have to try writing and we’ll never have to fail.

Sometimes, we don’t even need someone else to ask us to sacrifice our time. Sometimes, we sabotage ourselves by voluntarily giving up time for less important (though still enjoyable) pastimes. Watching television is a common one. But, even “good” personal choices (working out, for instance) can mean giving up writing time.

It all comes down to making intentional choices – learning to weigh out your options in the moment, and make your decision from a Big Picture perspective. The next time you’re tempted to say “yes” to someone else’s request or make a personal choice that will infringe on your writing time, picture your writing as a small, helpless creature being led to the sacrificial altar. Look at the poor creature’s big, frightened eyes. Know that you are the one who is going to have to do the deed. How are you feeling about your choice now?

Or, for those too squeamish for an actual sacrifice, imagine that you are the Old Woman in the Shoe and each of your “children” represents a part of your life – Work, Relationship, PTA, Clean House, Goal Weight, etc. You “feed” your children by giving them time. Each time you say “yes,” each time you choose one thing over another, you are feeding one of your children, but the others go hungry. (Remember, time is a finite resource; there just isn’t enough to go around. You’re the Old Woman in the Shoe, not Strega Nona with her magic stew pot.)

Who are you going to feed today?

 

Trick #3: Don’t Overlook Small Opportunities

There’s a common misconception that more is better, but less can sometimes serve just as well.

As writers, we often pine after long stretches of time free from other duties and obligations. We crave whole mornings and afternoons in which to immerse ourselves in the world of our stories. But, sadly, life doesn’t often offer up such opportunities. More often than not, we have to make do with small “pockets” of time, pieced together like a patchwork quilt made of scraps snipped out of other pieces of the day.

This is okay.

A minute stolen is still a minute, even if it has to stand on its own.

Like my story about using my computer’s temper tantrum time to read a few lines, you likely have countless chances throughout your day to take baby steps towards a more consistent writing and reading practice. What can you do in a minute? In three minutes? In ten?

I usually try to read one book every week or week-and-a-half. I am able to do this not by curling up for hours at a time with my book and a mug of tea (though, that sounds lovely). I am able to keep up with my reading by using the caches of minutes and moments that I’ve hidden throughout my day. I read while I eat my breakfast and lunch, while I’m waiting in the pick-up line at my daughter’s school,  while I watch my daughter at her riding lesson, while I’m stirring the pasta for dinner. I always carry reading material, either physical books or digital ones stored in my iPhone’s Kindle app.

I also always carry something to record my ideas. I may not be able to fit a long writing session into each day, but I can capture ideas in a notebook or an app. It may be challenging to work on a long-form piece like a novel a minute at a time, but you can do a lot of writing in fifteen minutes, or even three! Sketch out a character, map out an essay, craft a first draft of a piece of flash fiction, pen a poem. Bigger isn’t always better.

 

Trick #4: Find Your Joy

The power of enthusiasm can take you far. Where there is a will, there is a way. And there is always a will if we are passionate about something. We fight for the things we love. We choose the things we care about most. If you can rediscover and nurture your love of writing and your joy in the process, you will have tapped into an almost magical source of energy and drive.

Let yourself be swept up in the fire of your creative urges. Embrace your curiosity and your hunger to learn and explore and play. Remind yourself of the excitement that comes from trying new things. Make it FUN.

 

Trick #5: Build a Habit

Habits. Hard to break and hard to make.

Find one thing – reading while you eat breakfast, writing on your lunch break, penning a few lines before bed – and stick with it for thirty days. Establish a pattern. Train yourself to do this thing almost by rote … by habit.

I write morning pages – three handwritten pages of whatever tumbles out of my head. I write these weekend editions. Come hell or high water, I make the time, and I get them done. I write a bi-weekly column. It’s a small deadline, but one I refuse to miss. I read blog posts (to learn, explore, and keep up with what’s happening in publishing) each night on my iPhone while I wait for my daughter to drift off to sleep.

Each of these habits is a small thing, but together they create a broader writing life. I didn’t begin doing them all at once. I started one and then added another and another. It’s an organic process, but you have to start somewhere. Pick one thing. Go. Do it.

 

Trick #6: Be Flexible and Adaptable

Circumstances won’t always be perfect. Sometimes, even your plans to steal a few minutes will go awry. Sometimes, your time will be compromised by noisy neighbors or a bad cold. If you want to do this thing, you have to work with the circumstances at hand.

My daughter listens to audio books as she’s falling asleep. We read stories, and then turn on Audible so she can listen to an old favorite while she drifts off. She usually prefers that I stay with her for a little while, so I stay there in the dark and I catch up on reading blog posts. In order to do this, I had to learn to read one thing, while another thing was playing in my ear. It took me a while, but now I can focus completely on the words I’m reading, and I don’t even hear the story that’s playing on my daughter’s iPod.

I can also write just about anywhere. Noise and discomfort are only small annoyances, not roadblocks. I often work in a local coffee shop amidst the hustle and bustle of conversations, music, and other “ambiance.” People ask me how the heck I can get anything done in all that racket. Easy – I have adapted.

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Annie Dillard said that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It makes perfect sense, and yet it’s so easy to lose sight of that simple truth. I would take the idea one step further and say that how we spend our moments is how we spend our days. We do not need to measure activity in days or even hours. If we can only carve out minutes to practice the thing we love – to read and to write and to live like writers – that can be enough. It can give us a toehold on the writing life we crave. So, make that time – one minute at a time – and use it to create the life you want. After all, it’s your time, no one else’s.

 

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

"Catsquatch" by Shyama Golden

“Catsquatch” by Shyama Golden

This is a lesson I have to learn over and over (and over) again.

New projects are scary. They are big and unknown and complicated. They are full of stuff I don’t understand. They make me feel stupid.

Earlier this week, I almost passed on a new client project because it seemed too darn scary. I looked at the material in front of me, and I thought, “There’s no way.”

I was disappointed because it was a good project with a client I enjoy very much. But, I felt overwhelmed and out of my element. Because I didn’t want to let them down, I almost walked away.

And then I took a step back. I started to pull the thing apart. Instead of looking at it as a whole, I broke it down into smaller pieces. Suddenly, I began to see more clearly what it was. Suddenly, it wasn’t a huge and frightening beast, it was just a collection of small, mostly tame beasts.

Imagine that.

 

 

What I’m Reading:

book dog star never glowsI’m just about finished with the excellent craft book, The Field Guide to Flash Fiction, but I’ve also spent some of my precious reading time this week in the world of Tara Masih’s short (and short short) stories.

I came across Masih’s stories because she is the editor of the field guide, and when I posted about that book a few weeks ago, she was kind enough to reach out with a thank you. Because of our conversation, I ended up purchasing her short story anthology, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and I’m so glad I did.

There is such a bounty of variety in this collection – of places and characters, voice and subject matter, style and length. Though they take us around the globe and invite us to inhabit, for a moment, the lives of a wildly diverse group of narrators, these stories each contain a pulsing thread that brings a sense of cohesion and balance.

Each story seems to live in a place in between. Characters hang, spectacularly or quietly, in the gap between what was and what might be. There is, to use a cliche, a quiet desperation that creates tension, but also gives a sense of familiarity. They are adapting and evolving. They are growing and learning. And we are growing and learning along with them.

I love the touches of the natural world that weave themselves in and through Masih’s stories. She subtly touches each of the five senses, bringing us fully into the moments her stories inhabit, so that we feel more of what the characters feel. And, her narratives are sprinkled with bits of poetry, images that persist in the mind long after the book has been closed.

I’m looking forward to experiencing the rest of the stories in Masih’s collection, and I’m looking forward to the next collection, which I believe is in the works.

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:

Art print by Thyme is Honey on Society6

Art print by Thyme is Honey on Society6

Here’s to carving out little nooks and crannies of time for your reading and your writing, making moments in your days and days in your life to do the things you love most. 
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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.
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Weekend Edition: Love Your Mistakes Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

 

It’s All Part of the Process

Wise Owl says, "There are no mistakes (only happy accidents)!" (Lovely altar to mistakes compliments of my sweet and creative friend Kristin Cutaia)

Wise Owl says, “There are no mistakes (just happy accidents)!” (Image of a lovely “altar to mistakes” compliments of my sweet and creative neighbor, Kristin Cutaia)

Earlier this week, my friend Emma (fellow writer, mama, and – unlike me – a woman with a very chic style) shared an excerpt from an interview with Mike Patton of the band Faith No More. I am not cool enough to be an aficionado about Faith No More, but I loved the theme of the sound byte Emma shared: the value of making mistakes. Here’s a snippet:

But all the mistakes are little tiny little technical things, anyway, like, I shouldn’t have sung that that way, or, Oh, I was flat there. It’s not like, Oh, I shouldn’t have made this record. Because I feel like even if maybe I don’t like a particular record, it was a step in the process and I must have learned something from it. I think that’s more of a mature viewpoint. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, I’d have gone, “Oh, this record sucks and that’s bullshit,” but it all had to happen.

It all had to happen.

We forget that sometimes. We read – humbled, awed, and perhaps a little bit green – the inspiring (and somewhat intimidating) work of a writer we admire, and we forget what went into making it what it is. She wasn’t born with the ability to make that kind of art. She had to make a lot of mistakes to hone her craft. She had to try and fail and learn, and try and fail and learn again.

It’s all part of the process.

Whether you’re striving for brilliance or mere competence, you have to go through being clueless, inept, and moderately capable to get there. There are no shortcuts.

You have to learn you way to the top, one screw up at a time.

In my post about how to tell if you’re a real writer, I commented on the ludicrous demands our culture places on people who want to call themselves “Writer.” In most cases, simply practicing a thing – running, yoga, gardening – is enough to earn you the right to call yourself by that title: runner, yogi, gardener. Not so with writing (or, any other art for that matter). Likewise, there is something in our collective consciousness that tries to convince us of the infallibility of the “real” artist. Some primal part of our id wants us to believe that the road to literary greatness bypasses inadequacy via some kind of magical detour. Steven Pressfield would probably name this horrific misconception Resistance.

Whatever it’s name may be, you need to get rid of it.

We acquire skills through learning. Learning, by its nature, requires failure. Think about any skill you’ve learned – walking, talking, reading, baking a cake, tying your shoes, driving a car, dancing the waltz. Were you perfect the first time you tried? Of course not. You stumbled and tripped over your own feet and your partner’s toes. You mispronounced words, ground the gears, and watched – heart broken – as the perfect, golden arc of your faerie cake caved in on itself.

You made mistakes.

And, more importantly, you learned from them.

There is nothing like learning by doing. Being in the trenches trumps theory. Every. Single. Time. We study to gain knowledge, but we must practice in order to gain experience. And, only through experience can we ever hope to achieve mastery. Who would you want by your side if you were heading out for a week in the jungle – the guy who has read a thousand books on the jungle ecosystem and learned enough to earn himself a PhD in environmental science, or the gal who has bushwhacked her way through the heart of the tropical forest a dozen times and has already experienced torrential downpours, snake bites, and the hospitality of the indigenous people?

That’s right. You want the person who has “been there and done that,” the person with hard-won experience that I can guarantee you was riddled with mistakes and failures.

Don’t apologize for your mistakes. Welcome them. They are proof that you are making progress, that you have stepped outside the confines of your comfort zone. That you are growing. You practice and you fail and you learn from that failure, so that you can do better next time. You learn to see what works, and what doesn’t. You learn to understand not only where you went wrong, but why. You start to get your head around what makes a story tick because you’ve taken so many apart in order to figure out what was missing.

Making mistakes is also a great way to lighten up a little already. Never take yourself too seriously. Don’t just sulkily accept that you’re going to make a mess of things. Revel in it. Go into the process with your eyes wide open and your heart filled with a sense of adventure. Think of all the amazing things you’re going to learn along the way! Last fall I took a Fiction I class at the Grub Street Writers Center. To help us learn about how to write strong dialog, our super smart and warmly encouraging teacher (the fabulous KL Pereira) had us write a scene that included all the worst dialog gaffes in the book. We had to try and cram every dialog-related transgression we knew into that one scene: stilted language, filler, exposition, naming characters, overuse and variation of modifiers, too much faithfulness to speech (um, y’know, like), dialect exaggeration, excessive direct address, etc. The exercise was fun, and it drove home the lesson she was trying to teach in a way that simply reading about the mistake could never do.

In addition to helping us learn, mistakes provide fertile ground for new discoveries. Many of our best-known scientific advancements are attributed to happy accidents – things that happened while a scientist was “playing around” with an idea. When we practice writing in a way that embraces the possibility of making mistakes, we open ourselves up to a world of previously inaccessible opportunities. Instead of letting fear of failure keep our creative feet glued to the straight and narrow path, we can step off into the wilderness of creativity and imagination. When we set our muse free to explore and experiment, there’s no limit to what can happen.

But, no matter what happens, regret nothing.

Remember, mistakes are part of the process.

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What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

One of the images from my nature-centric Instagram account

One of the images from my nature-centric Instagram account

I am repeatedly amazed by how much I don’t know about all the different writing markets out there. Though I have mentioned the power of niche markets before, sometimes life gets so busy that I forget to apply what I’ve learned to my own career development. Thankfully, I have friends who remind me.

This past week, I had the pleasure of a phone chat with my friend, YiShun Lai. In addition to being a talented writer, mindful philanthropist/volunteer, and sharp wit, YiShin is also a generous human being who gave me a valuable gift simply by pointing out what was right in front of my nose. She noticed that some of my social media profiles include the descriptor “nature lover,” and asked me if, in addition to loving nature, I also write about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it turns out that I write about nature a lot. I laughed and said that I guess I’m kind of an “accidental” nature writer.

And then we talked at length about what a nature essayist does and where. She shared some reading resources and generally opened my eyes to a new potential outlet for some of my writing. How cool is that? More importantly, she gave me a lens through which to view some of my work in a way that will help me focus my efforts. Again – so cool.

Are there themes or topics that you return to again and again in your writing? Pay attention to them. Explore them. Think about how they fit together and where they might fit out in the world. You might be, like me, missing an invitation to walk a particular path just because you didn’t notice it was there.

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What I’m Reading:

bok darker shade magicI heard about A Darker Shade of Magic, the new book from Victoria (V.E.) Schwab, via Jen Campbell’s vlog, This is Not the Six Word Novel. Thank you, Jen!

I have had several recent disappointments with fantasy novels lately. I grew up reading fantasy and SciFi almost exclusively, and I’ve been itching lately to recapture that feeling of being swept off my feet and into another world. The trouble is, my tastes seem to have evolved, and it’s been a challenge to find stories that feature the kind of world-building prowess that makes me suspend disbelief, even at my – ahem – mature age.

Enter Schwab’s world of four parallel Londons.

From the book jacket:

STEP INTO A UNIVERSE OF DARING ADVENTURE, THRILLING POWER, AND MULTIPLE LONDONS.Kell is one of the last Travelers-magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes, connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king-George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered-and where Kell was raised alongside Rhys Maresh, the rougish heir to a flourishing empire. White London-a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Sounds fabulous, right? It is. 

This is the first book I’ve read by Schwab, but I have already added other titles of hers to my Want to Read list.

A Darker Shade of Magic is a perfect example of thorough and engaging world building. Once I opened the cover and stepped into the story, I was immediately drawn into Schwab’s alternate reality of four, parallel Londons and the magic that binds them together. Her characters are well drawn and her magic system is full of unexpected possibilities without being at all implausible (as magic systems go).

Once she had me hooked, Schwab led me through her story at a perfect pace. Though my overall impression of the book is that it’s something of a swashbuckler, the action is balanced with pockets of “smaller” action. It never feels like a Hollywood car chase, but I still couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Perhaps most importantly, I cared about what happened to these characters. Having recently abandoned a book because I just didn’t care what happened to the story’s protagonist, I was delighted to feel actual anxiety about what was happening to Kell and Lila. I reacted physically to some scenes, cringing and tensing as I read.

Perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about this book is that it was good enough that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to read “just one more chapter.” I even carted it with me when I went to wait in line to pick up my daughter at school. (And, yes, I may have left a little earlier than usual to extend my waiting/reading time.)

Bottom line: I recommend this one highly, and I already can’t wait for the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, which is due out next February.

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

This week we have so much more than a mere quote. Big thanks to the lovely Sara Foley (aka The Practical Mystic) for finding and sharing this gem in her Twitter feed this week.

Here’s to embracing your mistakes, learning from them, and creating a writing world that sweeps you off your feet and into a new life. Happy reading! Happy Writing! See you on the other side. 

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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.
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Friday Fun – Where do you get your story ideas?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently invited you to submit your questions about writing, and Bethie asked about where we get ideas for our writing. 

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: Everywhere. That’s probably not very helpful. But, it’s true. I love asking “Why?” and “What if?” I like to daydream. I guess you could say that I’m incurably curious, and my curiosity creates an endless stream of ideas for essays and stories. I mean, from where I’m sitting at my desk, I quickly looked up and the first thing I saw was a Hawaiian scarf with a batik-style fish print on it. Looking at that, the following thoughts ran through my head:

  • I wonder what goes into making one of those. Is it even made in Hawaii, or just labeled there? What are the industrial and financial stories behind that simple scarf?
  • I wonder who sold it – maybe the owner of a family-run shop struggling to survive against the competition of the big-label stores in the newer, fancier malls. What kind of conflict is there between the different store owners or family members?
  • Is that a traditional Hawaiian motif? What kinds of Hawaiian myths might have inspired that design? What if Hawaiian gods met the old Greek or Norse gods? How would they get along?
  • The fish are grouped in schools of five. Why would there be only five fish per school?
    • What if that was an actual natural phenomenon – how would the fish determine which of them went into which school, and what would happen to the odd fish out? Would there be in-fighting, manipulation, or even fish murder for spots in a school?
    • How might this thing play out with humans – like cliques in school? What if in the future people were only allowed to interact in groups of five – how would that affect relationships, privacy, emotions?

You get the idea. Be curious. Ask questions. Let your mind free associate. Don’t judge your ideas. (The above list proves I’m clearly following an “anything goes” approach.) Just have fun.

And, here are a couple other posts that you might find helpful:

Your Writer's Mind

Your Writer’s Mind

or maybe …

4 Steps to Capture the Muse

4 Steps to Capture the Muse

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Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin: While I was waiting my turn to drive through a construction site where the state was rerouting a highway, I wondered what Vermont was like before the Interstate, how it was built, and how the state changed as a result. And so began the research that turned into Elegy for a Girl, Into the Wilderness, and the untitled novel I’m working on now. Ideas for my VPR commentaries, editorials, and blog posts arise in similarly mundane and mysterious ways: I see something, I hear something, I read something – often something quirky or ordinary – and it sparks thoughts that make their way onto the page. It’s a good job.

wendy-shotWendy Thomas: Some of my story ideas seem to come out of the blue. I’ll be driving and a thought will become a sentence which then becomes the idea for a story. Because I write a lot of non-fiction, many of my ideas also come from asking questions. If I want to know an answer, chances are someone else will want to know it as well. The toddler’s “what if” and “why” questions that are constantly asked (to the point of exhaustion) never seemed to have left me. Lastly, my ideas can come from a quiet place of observation. I’ll sit and look at what is around me. I’ve seen this with my blog, where I’ve been writing about my flock of children and chickens for the last 6 years. You’d think I’d have run out of things to say at this point – nope, there are days when I feel like I’m just getting started.

Susan Nye: I bump into ideas everywhere. In the news. In random conversations with friends, family and strangers. In the supermarket and farmers’ market. (I do a lot of food writing so ingredients inspire me.) In books, magazines and in the nooks and crannies of my wandering mind. I walk almost every day and find it really helps. No music, no phone and no distractions, I let my mind ramble and amble in search of inspiration.

Coming up with something new week after week for my newspaper column/blog is probably the biggest challenge. Next week makes 448 stories and recipes plus another couple hundred menus and party ideas. When in doubt I check the calendar. Holidays are always good for a post. Who doesn’t have something to say about Mom on Mother’s Day, family cookouts on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving dinners? That said, after nine years it can be tough to find a new approach to Memorial Day.