Weekend Edition – Place and Writing Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

How does where you live influence your writing?

Site of Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond, circa 1908 (Library of Congress)

Site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, circa 1908 (Library of Congress)

When I sat down to write this morning, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about. As I mentioned last week, life has suddenly gotten a bit crazier than usual. I’ve been jostled out of my usual groove and am flailing a bit in terms of time, energy, and attention. I read through my collection of post ideas hoping something would gel, but nothing came together. Instead, my mind just gnashed anxiously at unsolved problems.

So, in the spirit of letting difficult times inspire and fuel my writing, I decided to look one piece of my dilemma square in the face, and see how I could put it to a better use than simply keeping me up at night.

··• )o( •··

Many famous writers are associated with a specific place. Thoreau had Walden Pond. Hemingway had Keywest. Emily Dickinson lived the life of a near recluse in her Amherst home. Virgina Woolf’s concept of “a room of one’s own” has evolved over the decades into a kind of touchstone for writers. It has come to represent a safe haven for creative endeavors, a place where a writer can put down roots and nurture the writing habit.

I am a homebody – much more like the solitary Dickinson than the adventurous Hemingway. Though I enjoy traveling, I believe much of its charm lies in the part where you get to come home. I have lived almost my entire life in the same small town. I know the people and the shops, the neighborhoods and the natural landscapes. I enjoy the seasonal routines and the community traditions. This is my home. It is part of who I am, and therefore part of what I write.

Over the past seven years, my daughter and I have moved four times. Though the last three have been to different houses right here in our beloved town, the disruption of changing homes has been a physical and emotional challenge for both of us. Anyone who has moved knows that the process of purging, packing, and setting up housekeeping in a new place can be quite draining. Part of what has been keeping me up nights lately has to do with the fact that there’s a strong probability we’ll need to move again soon. And that got me thinking about how where we live and the kinds of places we inhabit can influence our writing.

··• )o( •··

Why should place have such an influence on what or how we write? Isn’t writing the ultimate portable practice? Have notebook, will travel, right? Shouldn’t the writer be adaptable, able to create anywhere? Shouldn’t the act of writing block out the physical world around us, leaving us to focus entirely on the words before us? Maybe. But it does seem that each writer finds certain places and spaces that inspire the muse more than others. And, certainly, a change of scenery can shift the topic or tone of what you’re writing dramatically.

Over the past seven years I have written in a variety of places: a drafting table in a room above the garage of my ex-marital home, a small office tucked into the corner of the second-story carriage house on an old money estate, a nondescript front office in a nondescript colonial that was about 1500 square feet bigger than my daughter and I needed, a sunroom addition at the back of a three hundred year-old antique, and finally at a magical desk (built by my beau) overlooking the town wharf from a second story apartment in a home originally owned by an mid-nineteenth century ship’s captain. I wonder, if I looked back at what I’ve written at each of these places, if I would see any trends or transitions that would show how my physical surroundings influenced my writing. I wonder.

Can a writer living on the upper east side write convincingly about the depth of the redwood forest? Can a writer residing in pastoral bliss accurately capture the grit of the inner city? Certainly, fantasy and science fiction writers craft stories about fantastic and alien different worlds all the time, but do their worlds bear any resemblance – if not physically, then in “feel” – to their own? Again, I wonder.

··• )o( •··

Of course, more influential than the physical nature of our surroundings, is how they make us feel. Do we feel safe or at risk? Do we feel comforted or trapped? Do we feel at home or like an outsider? Are we inspired to write out of gratitude and love, or compelled to write in order to work through questions or pain? Do we write in a place that makes us feel protected and courageous, or do we write in a place that makes us feel vulnerable and afraid?

As I write this, I realize that the act of moving has influenced my writing as much as where we have lived. Though we’ve stayed in one town, the constant change has made me think more about stability, constancy, and the idea of home. Having to relocate and reestablish ourselves time after time has prompted me to ask myself what makes a home a home. I’m also coming to face some personal truths about how closely I associate where I live with my identity, how I let my home define me.

All of these questions and quandaries emerge in my writing in unexpected ways. And my writing helps me navigate my way through the challenges and the changes. So, in the end, I guess it isn’t just place that influences writing, but also writing that influences how I feel about where I am.

.

What I’m Reading:

book some kind fairytaleI recently finished listening to Graham Joyce’s novel, Some Kind of Fairytale, on Audible. Though Stephen King named it one of his “best books of 2012,” I have mixed feelings about it.

Some Kind of Fairytale tells the story of Tara Martin, a young woman who disappears at the age of sixteen, leaving her family and friends to assume she’s been murdered. After twenty years, she returns, looking like she hasn’t aged a day and telling a story about having been abducted by the faeries. Only, these aren’t Tinkerbell faeries, these are human-sized beings who live in what appears to be another dimension and have a predilection for flagrant and public promiscuity.

The story is told from several viewpoints, a technique which can work quite well to give the reader multiple perspectives and insights into a situation. I found, however, that it created more distance than I would have liked between me and the characters. It made it hard for me to invest in any one character. I wasn’t sure who to believe or root for, so to speak.

One of my favorite threads in the story was actually a sideline tale about Tara’s nephew and his elderly neighbor. There was something about this poignant piece that felt so tangible to me. And, truth be told, I felt more satisfied with the way that sub-story wrapped up than with the way the book wrapped up.

.

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 reading place to go

Here’s to finding your special place and learning to make space for your writing no matter where you are. 
.
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.
.

Weekend Edition – An Infinity of Stories

Our Bodies May Be Made of Stardust, But Our Souls Are Made of Stories

made of starsWhen you look into the space between the stars it may at first appear empty, just a void of darkness between bright points of light. But you keep staring, and you realize that the space is actually filled with a subtle, cosmic light that vibrates and shivers at the edge of perception. And then, staring down the barrel of infinity, you catch a moment of clarity that allows you to see – if only for a fraction of a second – that this pale luminescence is actually made up of innumerable, individual pin pricks of light.

Life is kind of like that.

It’s easy to see the stars. Whether they are twinkling joyously, or flaring across the sky in the death spiral of a meteor or comet, they are clear markers in the vast possibility of the universe – bold as day, in plain sight. They form the constellations of our lives – the shapes that tell our stories. These are the parts of our personal universe that are easy to identify and name. There is Virgo and Ursa Major and Artemis/Diana. You are a woman and a mother and a writer.

But what about the spaces between these visible aspects of your life? What about the countless moments, experiences, and thoughts that span the gaps between the stars? Perhaps it is here, in these gently glowing shadows, that you will find the stories only you can tell.

··• )o( •··

Writing helps us feel our way into the undefined place where there are no recognizable signposts to illuminate our way. At first, we may leap from star to star, as if they were stepping stones across the sky. “Safe” above the depths, our words and stories only skim the surface of the sparkling darkness that lies beneath us. And then, one day – either intentionally, or because we lose our balance – we dip our toes into the unknown, and it changes us.

··• )o( •··

Although, on close examination, the celestial landscape appears to be a continuous expanse of wall-to-wall stars, there are actually vast expanses of space between even the most intimate of cosmic neighbors. Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to us, is 4.22 light years (39,900,000,000,000 km) away. Distances can be deceiving.

As it is with the stars, so it is with us. Though we exist side-by-side physically, emotional and intellectual distances lie between us that are as real and immense as the interstellar spaces between stars. But, in the same way that light travels across the darkness to connect one star to another, so stories travel through emotional space and across time to connect one human being to another.

··• )o( •··

Darkness is scary. The uncertain and unfamiliar are scary. But we have the steadfast stars to guide us, friendly points of light that shine out, an invitation to connect with someone else’s world. Stars and stories both serve to remind us that we are not alone in the Universe. We see the light, and we make contact. Eventually, we might find the courage to hold hands and jump together into the seemingly blank spaces, only to discover that we emerge covered in stardust, glittering in the night.

That is the magic of stories. They are beacons in space and time, in hearts and minds, reaching out across indefinable distances to create unique worlds that bring us together in moments of connection and recognition. I am here. I see you. We are alike. We are different. This is my light. This is my darkness. This is my experience. Tell me yours.

··• )o( •··

Look up into the heavens. Marvel at the beauty and majesty of the ancient lights that dwell there, some only memories – long gone, still burning in the night sky. Look harder. Look closer. Look between and beyond and see how much more there is to witness. Sense the infinity of stars and the infinity of stories. Be humbled before the vastness of the distance between the cosmic once upon a time and this moment. Feel small and vulnerable and insignificant. And then remember that you are made of stars and stories. You are made of magic.

universe stories

∞ ♥ ∞

.

To my regular weekend edition readers, I apologize that I’m posting so late and that I’m not sharing anything about what I’m reading, writing, or discovering on the web this week. This past month has been particularly busy for me (for which I’m grateful), and then last night I was confronted with an unfortunate bit of drama in my personal life. We are all fine, but I find that today this is all I have in me.  Real writers. Real life. That’s what this blog is about. Sending hugs out to each of you – from my star to yours. Thank you for always being such caring, creative, and fun people. You make all that we do here so worthwhile.
.
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.
.

Weekend Edition – A World of Inspiration plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

On Getting Out in the World and Finding Inspiration

castle craneIn our small town, here beside the sea, there is a castle on a hill. It’s not exactly a castle in the fairytale sense of the word. It doesn’t have turrets or towers or a drawbridge; but it does have a grand staircase, a ballroom, and gryphons guarding the back terrace. And, we have called it a castle for so long that it’s hard for us to think of it as anything else.

The Crane Estate was the summer home of a wealthy family who made their fortune in, of all things, plumbing fixtures. I have seen the Crane name stamped on porcelain commodes all the way across the country. It is, admittedly, a rather ignoble legacy, but a legacy nonetheless. And, here in Ipswich, we think less about how the family acquired their wealth and more about how they gifted so much of it to the town. Crane’s castle is now a property of the Trustees of Reservations, a conservation group that has restored the grand home and is continuously working on additional restoration projects throughout the surrounding 165 acres of gardens, bridle paths, and out buildings. Best of all, the castle and its impressive grounds are open to the public and host to all kinds of events including live music, historical tours, and art classes. For a writer, the place is a wellspring of inspiration.

··• )o( •··

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a company that designed and manufactured promotional products – t-shirts, gym bags, keychains, etc. – for brands like M&M Mars, Coca-Cola, Co., and McDonald’s. Our design department included more than twenty full-time designers who cranked out hundreds of graphics and product designs each quarter. The artists worked in corporate cubicles – six-foot square “studios” – lined up in orderly rows under fluorescent lights. Day after day, these caged creatives managed to produce a steady stream of on-demand commercial art.

I always wondered how they were able to continuously come up with new ideas. I mean, here they were, stuck in these tiny, gray boxes – hemmed in by four walls with nothing but a blank screen, a stylus, and an assignment to deliver something that would wow the client. I always thought how taxing it must have been for them to have to create something from nothing, and always on a tight deadline. I always wondered why their process didn’t include more time out in the world, collecting inspiration.

··• )o( •··

This past Thursday, my family attended an orchestra performance at Crane’s castle. The program was a series of concertos featuring various solos on oboe, violin, piccolo trumpet, harpsichord, and a somewhat fantastical instrument called a euphonium. Though I know little about Baroque music, I was swept up by the tempo of these lively pieces. Inspired by the location and the music, my storyteller’s mind whirred to life. Here, away from my desk, I felt my imagination leap free from the invisible shackles of my usual writing routine. Characters and story ideas emerged like spirits to dance across my mind’s eye. It was all I could do to keep myself from pulling out a notebook and scribbling.

··• )o( •··

I remember a business trip I made out to San Francisco while I was working for the promotional products company. I can’t recall the reason for the trip, but I have a very clear memory of what it felt like to write in that unfamiliar place. I had brought a journal with me, and during a free hour in the evening, I sat by the window in my hotel room and wrote. Though I was still me, and the notebook I was writing in was the same notebook I’d been writing in for weeks, the words that tumbled onto the page seemed to come from the mind of a stranger. Where I’d previously felt like I was writing in tighter and tighter circles, getting nowhere, my thoughts suddenly unwound themselves and shot in several directions at once, illuminating a whole new range of perspectives and possibilities like a burst of internal fireworks.

··• )o( •··

castle gryphonsListening to classical music in a setting like Crane’s castle, I wonder if places can hold the energy of their stories. I know I am not the only person (and, certainly not the only writer) who has felt a narrative presence stirring in the rooms of a house or moving like a wave across a landscape. I do not think of this presence as ghostly, but more as a kind of alchemical reaction between the essence of a place and the essence of the visitor, combining history, memory, dreams, and perceptions. It’s like each unique meeting of place and person acts as a catalyst in the creation of an equally unique series of thoughts and ideas.

And, perhaps we can temporarily drain the story energy of our usual haunts – our own homes and work spaces. Maybe familiarity can rob us of our inspiration. But, even if that’s the case, perhaps we can reinvigorate our creativity by going out into the world and capturing the ideas that come to us in unfamiliar places. The excursion doesn’t have to take you far and the destination doesn’t have to be grand. A quiet room in a library can serve as well as the ballroom in a castle. A subway car, coffee shop, or public park can serve up stories as rich and intriguing as those found in a seaside cave, museum, or faerie wood. It’s all about how we open up to a place, how we listen and let the energy of the space mingle with our own experience and memory.

Where will you go to find the spark of your next story? 

.

What I’m Writing – A Gratitude Journal

Mixed media art by HandyScraps via etsy

Mixed media art by HandyScraps via etsy

I’ve been working at a rather hectic pace for the past month or so. Though I appreciate the work, the weight of the workload has been a bit much to bear. There has been an almost unbroken string of working mornings, nights, and weekends. Though I have enjoyed a few respites here and there, The Grind has been particularly grind-y lately.

Sometimes, when I find myself in this kind of cycle, it’s easy to forget how much I have to be thankful for. It’s easy to get cranky and even bitter, grousing about having no time off and feeling sorry for myself. It seems especially unfair to be so tied so tightly to my desk at this time of year when the end-of-school energy is tugging at my sleeve along with my daughter. And I’m all out of sorts because work demands have taken over my life so completely, that I have been unable to keep up with my grounding routines: morning pages, yoga, solitary walks, and healthy smoothies.

At times like these, gratitude journaling provides a life raft.

It doesn’t matter how you do it. I’ve used pen and notebook as well as a bevy of digital apps. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed sharing what I’m grateful for with writer friends via a Facebook group. Sharing the things that have made me happy helps me cultivate a thankful mindset, and helping celebrate the things that have made my friends happy extends my sense of gratitude beyond my own life. Like a pebble dropped into a lake, each moment of gratitude creates ripples that spread good feelings.

I may have to work again this weekend, but I’m grateful for the work, for time to spend with my family, and for the beautiful day. I’m grateful for two cats who keep me company as I work, for a boyfriend who cooks delicious dinners (and patiently listens to all my war stories), and for the privilege of spending with my daughter.

What are you grateful for this week? 

.

What I’m Reading – The Girl in the Road

bk girl roadHave you ever come away from reading a book and found it difficult to articulate the experience? That’s how I feel about The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. Described by many as science fiction and/or dystopian fiction, this debut novel seems to me to be so much more.  Byrne weaves science and myth, religion and sexuality, politics and personal histories into a complex and multi-layered tale that is disorienting, but mesmerizing.

I picked this book up after reading Neil Gaiman’s blurb,

“It’s transfixing to watch Monica Byrne become a major player in sci-fi with her debut novel: so sharp, so focused and so human. Beautifully drawn people in a future that feels so close you can touch it, blended with the lush language and concerns of myth. It builds a bridge from past to future, from East to West. Glorious stuff.”

I began reading without really knowing what the story was about (my favorite way to read a book), and was immediately drawn in by Byrne’s deeply poetic use of language. If I had not borrowed my copy from the library, I would have underlined passages on almost every page of this book. Byrne has the ability to create an entire world in a single sentence. There is a musical quality to her writing that is almost hypnotic.

The beauty of her prose is a sharp counterpoint to the often difficult and sometimes violent subjects this story tackles. There are many discomfiting elements to the story including sexual abuse and deviance, abandonment, slavery, natural disasters, and madness. Different passages made me cringe for different reasons, but it is a testament to Byrne’s vision that despite all the pain and ugliness in the story, I came away from the story with a sense of hope.

This is not an easy read. It is a story that challenges the reader on multiple levels. It is a story that plunges the reader into a tumultuous and multicultural world full of unfamiliar sights, sounds, tastes, customs, ideas, and possibilities. And yet, as Gaiman mentioned in his blurb, it is all so well rendered that it seems as real as the world outside your own window.

I am still working out how I feel about this book. I have a feeling it may take me a while. In the meantime, I do recommend it with the caveat that it explores some of the darker parts of human nature.

 

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:

And, now, for a slightly different take on gratitude …

pin jack sparrow problem

Here’s to discovering the stories in all the places you visit, and to remembering the power of gratitude to transform your world and give you a sense of hope. 
.
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.
.

Weekend Edition – When the Going Gets Tough, Keep Writing Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writing Through Life

DragonflySMEarlier this week, as I was setting out to walk a friend’s dogs, something small and dark fluttered past me at eye level. Though it didn’t move like one, closer inspection proved it to be some kind of dragonfly. Instead of narrow, translucent wings that move almost too fast for sight, this insect had broad, smoky wings that swept through the air like the oars of a rowboat, dip and pull and rest.

The dark wings contrasted sharply with the sun-bleached pavement as the delicate creature flew in poetic circles into the space above the road. Entranced, I watched as the looping flightpath reached the yellow line, and then held my breath as the wind resistance of a passing car buffeted the tiny aeronaut, sending it spinning for several terrifying heartbeats. It had only just righted itself when a second vehicle pushed past, and another wall of air pummeled the dragonfly with such force that it was driven suddenly to the ground. The tires of the third car just missed crushing the insect, and the vortex of air beneath the under carriage sent the now limp body tumbling awkwardly across the unkind asphalt.

The dogs strained on their leashes to be off, but I couldn’t bear to leave the once airborne soul stranded, just waiting for the impact of the next car. I hauled my canine charges towards the opposite side of the street, pausing to pluck the fallen traveler from the road. As I laid the iridescent body reverently in the leaves at the base of a tree, I realized that I’d been touched by its unintentionally intrepid persistence in part because I saw something of my writing life reflected in its valiant efforts.

··• )o( •··

Life is busy for each of us. We have jobs and families, friends and social obligations, housekeeping, meal making, and laundry folding. Making time to pursue creative work is a challenge. Sometimes it seems like life is intentionally trying to run us down. We’re like that tiny dragonfly trying to cross the road, but being blocked again and again by overwhelming circumstances beyond our control. It can feel as if the Universe is conspiring against you.

I promise that it isn’t.

Like the cars that forced the dragonfly out of the air, life is completely unaware. Your life isn’t out to get you, or your writing, any more than those cars were out to get that dragonfly. What happened was simply a matter of two opposing forces colliding. There was no malice, no intent at all.

··• )o( •··

The difference between the unfortunate dragonfly and a writer is that, as a writer, you can weave difficult times into your work; as part of your journey, they become part of your story. Our darkest hours can be the catalyst that enables us to capture our deepest truths. Grief, despair, and exhaustion can serve us by peeling away the layers, leaving us raw and capable of ferocity in our writing. Like the heroes and heroines of our stories, we reach the all-is-lost moment, and find that we still have something more to give.

And this journey into and out of darkness happens over and over again. This is life. The tragedies can be minor, annoyances even, and still provide us with grist for the writing mill. The untimely death of a dragonfly is a small thing, yet in the hands of a writer, it can become so much more.

··• )o( •··

The point is not to let difficult times keep you from writing. Let them fuel you. Let them push you to the edges where things get really interesting. And let the writing that comes ground and comfort you.

When I stop writing I feel hollow. I feel unmoored and aimless. I lose my perspective, and my interest in the world fades. It is as if I am a ghost, wandering aimlessly through the world, unable to speak. Words are my lifeline, connecting me to the world, nourishing me. They are a safe haven and a reality check. They bring the world and my life into focus, helping me untangle thoughts and dreams and ideas.

In her touching piece On the Page as Your Mirror, author Dani Shapiro wrote, “Everything I know about life, I know from the page. Everything I know about myself — about love, maturity, grief, joy, loss, redemption — I have learned by sitting alone in a room (or on a plane) sorting it out.”

And in her piece, Just. Keep. Writing, author Victoria (V.E.) Schwab wrote, “So when everything is going well, and when everything is falling apart, you have to keep writing. It is your tether in the storm, and your grounding when you might otherwise float away. It’s easy to lose focus, to get caught up in the successes and failures, but you must. keep. writing.”

··• )o( •··

I did not return to the place where I left the dragonfly at the base of the tree. I like to think that perhaps it was only stunned, and eventually came to and continued in its scalloped dance across the greener landscape, leaving the cruel motorway behind.

What I’m Writing: Itsy-Bitsy Stories

Miniature book art from Denver-based animator, illustrator, and graphic designer artandsuchevan.com

Miniature book art from Denver-based animator, illustrator, and graphic designer artandsuchevan.com

The weeks are flying by, and so are the assignments in the flash fiction course I’m taking via Grub Street’s online classroom. The prompt I chose to tackle last week was writing 25-word “hint” stories. I’ve always loved miniatures, and you can’t get much smaller than that with a story.

Probably the most widely known “tiny” story is Hemingway’s 6-word masterpiece, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Here are a few other examples that were shared in class:

The Widow’s First Year
“I kept myself alive.”
-by Joyce Carol Oates

Trust
At the party, he tells her he’s a painter, meaning of houses.  She misunderstands, assumes he’s an artist.  Harmless, he thinks.
-by Don Lee

The Return
They buried him deep.  Again.
-by Joe R. Lansdale

And here are my first draft attempts at this teeny-tiny story type:

’Til Death Do Us Part

Entering my marriage took only blind faith and the idealism of the young. Leaving it took a steady hand and a .22 gauge shotgun.

Home on the Range

She chose the mustangs. Life was hard, but they loved her more honestly than Frank ever had. He gave her predictability. They gave her purpose.

Tiger, Tiger In the Night

The cub was fit for a princess, she said. I’ll feed him Gongura mutton and curried chicken. But, grown, the tiger had more royal tastes.

How about you? Care to share a 25-word story in the comments? Come on. I know you want to! 

What I’m [Not] Reading & Where I’m Stashing It

pocket app iconThese past couple of weeks have been so full of life and deadlines, that my only reading time has been during stolen moments over hurriedly eaten meals and while waiting in the pick-up line at my daughter’s school. (I almost rear-ended the mom in front of me last Thursday because I had my book propped up on the steering wheel and wasn’t paying close enough attention to the stop and go of the line.)

Even my work-related online reading (which I usually do after bedtime stories while my daughter is drifting off to sleep) has taken a hit because end-of-school activities have been keeping my girl up past her usual bedtime, causing us to forego the stories in favor of a little extra sleep. Because I haven’t had time to read all the various posts and articles in my Feedly queue, I’ve had to save some for later using a great little app called Pocket:

Sorry the video is a little hokey, but the app is really quite helpful and user-friendly. I love that you can categorize and tag things so it’s easier to find them later. I also use Evernote, but I tend to use that for longer term storage, while Pocket is the place where I keep things that I want to reference in the near future.

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

Hmmm … seems I read plenty this week after all. Perhaps an intervention is in order.

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin new beginnings

Here’s to putting your whole life into your writing – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful – so that your writing is as full and fully realized as your life.
.
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.
.

Writing Rituals

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott again. Her book, Bird by Bird, is my favorite writing book of all time. If you haven’t read it, go to your local library and check it out today.

But right now, I’m reading Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair. In it, Ms. Lamott talks a lot about rituals and routines:

“Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”

When I think of difficult times, such as after the loss of a loved one, I agree that daily rituals have been “knots” that have allowed me to hang on. I think of doing the work of caring for my son after the death of my beloved uncle. The daily rituals with my son—morning, noon, and night–helped me pull myself through those first days without my uncle.

And what about my writing life? I don’t have that many rituals around my writing. I’m an opportunistic writer at the moment—if I find myself with a few spare minutes, I whip out my computer, my iPad, or I grab a receipt and write on the back of it. While I believe this method has many advantages, I can see that a little ritual might be a good thing.

I looked up writing rituals online and read about Ernest Hemingway and his habit of writing at dawn, while standing at a typewriter. I read about Maya Angelou’s habit of checking into a hotel for the day to write, then going home in the evening. While these writers’ habits were familiar to me, I had never before read that Demosthenes routinely shaved half his head so he couldn’t go out in public. He’d stay home and write until his hair grew back. That seems a little drastic (plus I’d still have to go do the grocery shopping!)

I polled my fellow writers here at Live to Write-Write to Live about their writing rituals:

  • Wendy, like me, tends to write when she can, doesn’t currently have a lot of writing rituals (but she looks forward to the day when her ritual is heading out to her tiny writer’s cabin with her faithful dog, Pippin.)
  • Lee, too, isn’t much for writing rituals.
  • Deborah has written about her writing rituals before for this blog (click here to read.) Her ritual starts with NAMS, which I think I might try after reading her piece on it.

For me, right now, just showing up is enough of a ritual. Opening my computer , creating a new, blank document, and writing Sh***y First Draft across the top is enough. Opening my iPad and going back to a blog post idea I jotted down the week before while sitting in a waiting room is enough. Grabbing a notebook by my bed and writing down a story idea in the middle of the night is enough.

One of these days, I’ll have a more robust writing ritual and I’ll be a better writer for it. In the meantime, I’ll keep checking out other writers’ rituals and see what might work for me when the time is right.

What is your writing ritual these days?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, mother, stepmother, and (brand-new) grandmother. I’m enjoying the moments when I write and I look forward to having a little more time for writing in the fall when my son starts school. Then I might need a ritual to get me keep my butt in the chair!

 

Weekend Edition – Truth in Blogging Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Truth in Blogging

writing mask smSometimes, I feel like a fraud, like one of the shiny, happy people who populate the Internet with grievously sparkly accounts of their perfect lives. (Those people make me crazy.) I hope I do not actually do that, but sometimes I feel like certain omissions in what I share make me less authentic, even slightly dishonest.

This is mostly ridiculous, of course.

The world of digital publishing – blogging and social media in particular – puts writers in a strange new land. I sometimes feel like we’ve been pulled out of our cozy writing caves and plunked down on a stage in front of an audience we cannot see beyond the bright footlights. Dazed and blinded, we take out our notebooks and laptops and start, tentatively, to scribble and tap; but the experience is different in front of a live audience. Before, there was only the work – the words. Now, we are up on the stage with our stories, expected to share not only our work, but ourselves.

But, the reality is: no one is obligated to share anything. As the sole curator of our online persona, each of us has the right to pick and choose what we show and and tell, and what we leave unsaid.

Though I shared a little about my situation, history, and fears in A Writer’s Circle (and, was delighted that so many of you reciprocated by sharing details about your writing lives), these days I usually steer clear of putting too much personal stuff into the ether. I save that for my private journals. But, sometimes I wonder if I’m either missing out myself, or shortchanging readers by holding back.

There’s a scene from the first season of Desperate Housewives that still makes me tear up after more than a decade. In the scene, Lynette, played by the fabulous Felicity Huffman, is an overworked, stressed out mom of four who has become addicted to her kids’ A.D.D. medication. She feels like a complete failure because she can’t do it all herself. She doesn’t understand why everyone else makes it look so easy. When she finally crumples – literally – to the ground, her friends come to her side, and admit to their own messy lives full of failures and fears. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” Lynette asks, choking back sobs.

Why don’t we tell each other this stuff?

Well, as one of Huffman’s co-stars says, “No one likes to admit they can’t handle the pressure.” Nope. We sure don’t. We want people to think we’ve got it all together and know what the hell we’re doing. We don’t want to appear weak or stupid or needy. And with the digital window the Internet gives the world into our lives (if we choose to open the blinds), the pressure to project perfection (or something close to it) is exponentially greater than ever before.

If you blog, you’ve opened the blinds. The question then becomes, what are you going to share? How transparent and vulnerable are you willing to be? And, why?

I haven’t yet figured out where I sit on the spectrum of transparency and vulnerability. Most of what I publish online is, I think, more professional than personal. Even though my first foray into blogging came when I unintentionally became a mommy blogger writing about her divorce, I would still call myself a “careful” blogger. Though I readily share my thoughts, musings, and opinions, I rarely “let it all hang out,” as they say.

But, I wonder if maybe I should.

I write to connect with my own thoughts and emotions, with the world around me, and with other people. How deep can those connections be if I keep everyone at arm’s length? How integral are these connections to my identity as a writer? And, conversely, how important is privacy to my writing? Exactly where does my personal identity meet my writer identity, and how do I successfully blend the two? Is that even the goal?

I am always so touched and flattered when someone compliments my writing or tells me how impressed they are by my ability to make a living writing. I am gratified when someone acknowledges my hard work and perseverance. Making time and space to write is not an easy task for any of us. But even as I glow, for a brief moment, in the kindness of someone else’s words, I want to reach across the digital divide and confess that I’m just winging it. I want to admit that there is no grand plan. I don’t have the answers. I do so many things wrong. I miss so many opportunities. I run in the same damn circles year after year, fleeing from the demons of fear and procrastination.

But, instead, I just smile and say Thank You.

For now.

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: When you feel you have to write a certain way to be taken seriously

cemetaryI’m really enjoying the flash fiction course I’m taking via Grub Street Writer’s online classroom. Despite being up to my eyeballs in client deadlines, I’m managing to keep up (mostly) with the reading, assignments, and peer reviews. One thing I’m struggling with, however, is my own perception that Literature (with a capital “L”) has to be dark, tragic, or otherwise show the ugly underbelly of human existence.

My life is neither dark nor tragic  (touch wood). I’m all for stories that put the protagonist in a sticky spot, even in mortal danger, but I am not typically drawn to stories that focus thematically on the evils of human nature. It’s just not my thing.

But, I have this perception (and, it may be a misperception) that only “dark” stories are taken seriously by Important People in Literary circles. (We won’t even get into why I care one whit about what Important People think – that’s another whole post.) It’s kind of like the Oscars (ahem, Academy Awards). Very rarely does a comedy, musical, romance, or other “light” genre film win top honors. Culturally, we seem to consider stories with humor and happy endings as less important, somehow. Perhaps we (mistakenly) think that they are easier to write. Perhaps we think that enjoying them makes us “light.” Whatever our reasons, we definitely do not (in my humble opinion) give the non-tragic stories their proper due.

So, as I’m working on my flash pieces for class, I feel like I ought to be writing in a certain way about a certain type of sad or dark story. (It’s important to note that this is my baggage. The instructor and students have done nothing to make me feel self-conscious about this issue. That’s all me.)

But then I read a piece by Stephanie Vanderslice called The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life: Having Something to Say and Saying It. It was exactly what I needed to hear:

But most importantly, giving yourself permission to write what you need to write will, eventually, lead you to the next thing you need to write. Maybe not right away — sometimes after you finish a big project you need to let the well fill up — but soon enough.

That’s how it works.

Each of us has a voice that deserves to be heard. Tragic or elated, serious or irreverent, cynical or mystical, all our stories deserve to be told. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

What I’m {Learning By} Reading: Two Things You Must Do to Engage Your Reader

book changerAlas. I have abandoned another book.

Though I know, intellectually, that my time is precious, and should not be squandered on books that fail to move me, I still feel guilty when I leave a book unfinished. As a writer, it’s hard to give up on a story that you know a fellow writer slaved over.

Setting my guilt aside, I am making an effort to pay closer attention to exactly why I abandon a book. In the case of the latest casualty, Changer by Jane Lindskold, it came down to two faults: un-relatable characters and a lack of tension.

Before I go any further, I just need to say that I feel like an absolute heel for criticizing this book or Lindskold’s writing. I do not usually post negative reviews. If I don’t like something, I just don’t write about it. Making this even trickier is the fact Lindskold’s stories are very appealing to me in terms of subject matter, themes, and concepts. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t find an emotional foothold.

Changer is about a group of immortals called the “athanor” who live among us. Each athanor has a sort of “core identity” as a character from one of many world mythologies – Anansi the spider, King Arthur, Neptune, Merlin, Lilith, etc. But today, each takes on a contemporary identity that changes every few decades in order to avoid detection by humans. The novel is described by the author as, “a story of revenge, of political intrigue, and of adventure,” and I think the concept does have that potential.

Unfortunately, though I read nearly half the book, I didn’t identify deeply with any of the characters. Wendy wrote about the importance of creating this reader/character connection in her post, Frank Underwood Saves the Human Society. I think that part of the challenge may have been the multiple POVs. There was no one voice to draw me into the story, and something about moving in and out of different characters’ heads created a narrative distance that made me feel one step too far removed from the story.

The second problem – the lack of tension – also took me by surprise. After all, we have a story that starts with a heinous murder, involves a colorful cast of gods and demi-gods, and – when I left off reading – was building towards a political coup. All the pieces are there. It seems that we should be on the edge of our seats, turning pages frantically. But, something was missing. The progression of events moved too slowly (pacing), and the energy of the conflicts seemed to lose something in the telling. The language did not stir me; again, it seemed a bit too removed. It reminded me a little of journalistic coverage – kind of detached and impartial. Just the facts, ma’am.

I did not hate this book, and I may return to it one of these days. But, even if I never finish it, I’m grateful for the lessons it’s helping me learn about how to capture a reader and keep her engaged.

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:

dangerous masks

Here’s to writing, connecting, and always being true to who you are.
.
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.
.
Cemetary Photo Credit: Roger Smith via Compfight cc

Weekend Edition – Writer in a Fish Bowl Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads

Of Fish and Stories and Living Life:

cinder benny

The younger of our two cats, Cinder, having a little chat with Benny the betta

Last year, my daughter gave me a fish as a birthday present. It’s a blue betta that is astonishingly like the one she’d asked for several hundred times. She acquired the fish with the help of her father (my ex-husband) who knew I did not want a fish, and I’m sure found the whole situation quite amusing. Part of me wanted to send the two of them packing to exchange the fish for a case of cat food; but then I thought about the depressing tower of small, plastic containers holding sad, wilted bettas, and my resolve wavered.

I named the fish Benedict, Benny for short. Though his arrival solicited from me only the most begrudging welcome, this little fish has managed to become a member of our family. Even the cats seem to enjoy communing with him through the Plexiglas walls of his house. (Though the pattern of feline teeth marks on the corner of the tank may indicate interest of a more gastronomical kind.)

Other than occasionally cleaning the tank, bettas require very little care. There are no daily litter box chores or demands for walks. There are no clawed chair backs or chewed shoes. A domestic betta’s life is contained, solitary, and painfully predictable.

I find this quite sad.

I watch Benny swimming around in his one-gallon world, and it makes me think about the ways our lives as writers can sometimes feel like life in a fish bowl.

On the one hand, each time we publish a story or idea, we put a little piece of ourselves on display. Anyone can stare through the transparent walls into our watery world, and – via reviews and blog comments – tap on the glass. We are naked and exposed, a curiosity. On the other hand, the nature of our work requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, leaving us feeling isolated. Like Benny, we must each spend time alone in our private universe, apart from the camaraderie of “normal” life. Observers.

The routine of a writer’s life can feel as monotonous (and pointless) as life in a fish bowl. Each day, we swim in the same circles, repeating the same routines and practices. We work on the stories, send out the queries, and try to keep up with all the “platform building” tasks. Around and around and around we go, and most of the time it looks pretty much the same. Though such an existence might be okay for the fish with no short-term memory, for a writer, it can become wearisome.

Luckily, unlike our finned friends, we do not have to stay in the fish bowl, swimming in those same circles. We can get out. Leap the barriers. Dive into the real world. Seek out new experiences. Sometimes, we forget this. We start to believe that there is no way out of the tank. Not true. Not true at all.

I hope that Benny is happy – as much as a fish can be happy – in his small, predictable world. And, I hope that you and I always remember that the walls of our fish bowls worlds are only an illusion. There is a whole, big, wide world out there. We don’t have to swim in the same circles day in and day out. With a little effort, we can break free from the same old-same old, and try something new. Write a different kind of story. Submit to a different kind of publication. Share a different side of yourself. Meet different people in different places and talk about different things. There is more than one plastic castle in the world. Go. Explore. Experience. Then, come back and tell us all about it.

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

Part of the classwork for the flash fiction course I’m taking is responding to craft questions about the sample stories we read. Each week, the lesson materials include questions about how each writer did this or conveyed that, about how a certain theme was expressed, or about how a particular technique worked.

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little intimidated by this part of my homework. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, and I don’t have any relevant degrees in literature or writing or anything else that might help me properly analyze a story’s meaning or structure or style. I feel slightly out of  my depth. To make it even more challenging, the online format of this class means that I have to put my thoughts into coherent sentences and post them for everyone else to read. This is, in my opinion, way more stressful than engaging in a live conversation.

Despite my reservations, I have made it a point to participate in almost all of the craft conversations, and to read all the comments from the other students. While this isn’t my favorite part of class, I have come to realize that it’s an important part of learning how a story works. It’s not enough to simply read a story. You will learn more if you take the time to pull it apart and consider each choice the author made in putting it together. In a beautifully crafted story, there are no random choices. Especially with short fiction and flash, each word is selected with care, each sentence constructed with intent, each twist and turn placed for a very specific reason.

VW bug cutawayI’ve written about this idea before in a post called Break Your Story Down to Build It Up, but I think it’s an idea and a practice that’s worth mentioning again. We learn best by doing, but we can also learn a lot by watching how other people do a thing. Find great stories and ask good questions. See if you can get inside the writer’s head to better understand why the story is the way it is. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.

What I’m Reading:

wattpadWhile I continue wading through a couple of novels, I took a little reading side trip to check out Wattpad, an “online community of readers and writers.”

I visited the site because of a comment Jane Friedman made in her post, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing:

I’ve had more than one conversation with adult writers who just don’t understand why anyone would take Wattpad seriously.

But it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. (If you’ve never heard of Wattpad, I encourage you to watch this video to begin to understand it.) It’s where young people are learning to write, in front of a “live” audience if you will, and going on to publish with traditional houses.

I was intrigued by the video, and decided to create an account. I’ve picked out a few stories to try, but haven’t yet read anything. I must admit that I’m already a little turned off by finding grammatical errors in the story descriptions. On the other hand, some well-known authors publish on Wattpad, Paulo Coelho, for instance.

I’m curious to know if any of you have experience reading or writing on the Wattpad platform. Anyone experimented as a reader or writer? What is the community like? Have you found quality stories and writing? Have you had any response to stories you’ve posted? 

 

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:

vonnegut wings

Here’s to swimming outside your comfort zone, experiencing new things, and learning how things work so that you can make your own magic. 
.
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.
.