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The Importance of Your Freedom to Write

Artist - Lucille Clerc

Artist – Lucille Clerc

On Tuesday evening I was sitting in a cold, dimly lit indoor riding arena, bundled against the biting cold that arrives just after sundown. As I watched my daughter trot and canter her lesson pony around the ring, I started putting together an outline for this week’s post. I was going to write about the difference between writing as marriage and writing as passionate affair. But then Wednesday arrived and with it news of the fatal terrorist attack on the Parisian offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

I rarely talk about politics or religion. They are not my area of expertise and I have learned that almost all such conversations (regardless of good intentions) lead to misunderstandings and strife. In the case of this atrocity, however, politics and religion are so closely interwoven with art that it is difficult for any artist – writer, cartoonist, painter – to hear about this tragedy without experiencing a shiver of fear.

Here, an ocean away from the site of the crime, my fear is not for my physical wellbeing. My creative work is many times removed from the material published by Charlie Hebdo. Still, though we are geographically, philosophically, and creatively worlds apart, I feel I must stand in solidarity with these writers and artists who were killed for no reason other than expressing their thoughts through their art.

Isn’t that what we all, as writers, do – express ourselves through our art?

Author Salman Rushdie, himself a target of Islamic fanaticism, made a statement (originally published on The English Pen), condemning the attack on Charlie Hebdo:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

In her Wall Street Journal piece, Salman Rushdie, Meet Charlie Hebdo, Peggy Noonan recounts the day in 1989 when Rushdie was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini because the writer’s novel The Satanic Verses criticized Islam. She goes on to write about other religiously offensive artworks that have been exhibited to the horror of, for instance, the Catholic church, but which never inspired anyone to pick up a gun and shoot the artist. There may have been disgust, but it did not lead to murder. PEN American posted a fitting Noam Chomsky quote on their Tumblr page, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

I have no plans to create political, religious, or otherwise controversial art. My creative aspirations are not confrontational. But, apart from their sheer brutality, these types of attacks scare me because of their potential to silence the voices of artists. Censorship in any form leads us towards the precipitous edge of a slippery slope that is slick with nuance. Violent censorship gives us an all too terrifying look over that precipice into the dark abyss below.

 

What I’m Writing:

morning pgs 2013Most mornings, I start my day by writing my morning pages. This practice is a habit I formed after reading part of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (I must admit that I never finished the book). It is one I hold dear. Sitting in the predawn or early morning light, pen in hand, scribbling down whatever comes into my still sleep-addled head has turned out to be a form of cathartic creativity that never fails to deliver insight.

Part of my ritual for welcoming in the New Year is to sit down with the previous year’s morning pages notebooks and look through them for patterns and themes, threads of meaning woven into my entries. As I write in these journals, I put a small star in the margin next to passages that I think I may want to return to. Most days, there are no stars, just random ramblings that help me clear my head at the start of the day. But, sometimes an idea or a phrase will seem worth marking.

A year ago when I looked back through my entries, I found that most of my stars referenced notes about my marketing business. I was working on plans to evolve it in a new direction. This past year – 2014 – my stars led me to passages that were much more focused on my creative work, on my writing. Like an inked constellation, spreading across the pages of these notebooks, my little stars formed a very different picture this year. Although my outer circumstances do not appear to have changed dramatically (business copywriting still generates the lion’s share of my income), an important shift is happening beneath the surface. This makes me happy … and hopeful.

 

What I’m Reading:

book FGPSometimes, after finishing an especially good novel (like The Little Country, which I finished just last week), I find myself unwilling to dive immediately into another long-form story.  I feel like I need to create some space between my literary experiences. It seems somehow irreverent to glide blithely from one world to the next without even taking a moment to savor the story that has gone before.

So, this week, instead of picking up another novel, I read an anthology of personal essays, the first published by Jennifer Niesslen, founder and editor of the blog Full Grown People. Here is the review I posted on Goodreads:

I am rarely inspired to write actual reviews, but my love for this anthology and the blog that inspired it moves me to pen a few quick words of praise and gratitude.

Jennifer Niesslein’s Full Grown People is an ever-growing collection of beautifully written essays about navigating, as she puts it, “that other awkward age.”

I enjoyed many of these essays when they were first published on the blog, but it was a delicious pleasure to experience them again, curled up on the sofa with a real book in my hands. The Internet is convenient and quick, but there will always be something more intimate about a real book. The collection careens wildly across a vast terrain of topics, lifestyles, tragedies, and discoveries. Each voice is unique, but somehow together they create a beautiful harmony that leaves me feeling both more vulnerable and stronger than before.

Although I have been blogging for nigh on a decade now, and writing a biweekly column for the past two years, I have never considered myself either a master or an aficionado of the essay form. I can say, however, that these are quality pieces of work – honest, piercing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Through their words, these writers give us a glimpse into their world and in doing so reveal the infinite variations that make each life unique and the constant themes that weave all our lives together. At the end, I am reminded that no one is ever alone.

I am grateful to Niesslein for putting this group of writers and collection of stories together. I know I will return to it again and again for solace, inspiration, and perspective.

 

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 camus purpose

Here’s to courage and conviction in your creative endeavors. Here’s to saving your little piece of civilization with your stories. 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Resolutions Just Aren’t My Thing

Though my holiday decorations are all packed away, I've left a little sparkle out to brighten the winter dark.

Though my holiday decorations are all packed away, I’ve left a little sparkle out to brighten the winter dark.

Ahhh … ’tis the season of The Resolution. Can you smell the grit and determination in the air? Can you feel the electric current of commitment? I was talking with my mom yesterday, and she was lamenting how she and my dad were dreading going to their gym because it would be overrun with Resolutionists. Happily, she knows from experience that this influx of overly enthusiastic interlopers is only temporary. “In six to eight weeks, they will all be back on their couches with their potato chips,” she said.

I have never been one for resolutions. No matter how good my intentions are, they seem doomed to combust under the pressures of real life. Instead of inspiring me to be a better person, my resolutions become self-fulfilling prophesies of failure. After many years of false starts, I have finally learned to stop making promises that I know I won’t keep. It’s made my life a lot simpler.

Though I no longer subject myself to the rigors of resolutions, there is another New Year’s ritual that still holds a seductive appeal. As the old year winds down, I feel an irresistible urge to “set things to rights.” Like some manic Mary Poppins or overzealous Snow White, I am suddenly seized with a desire to find a place for everything and put everything in its place. I want to purge and organize. I want to file things and tie up loose ends. I want to rid my home of dust bunnies and cobwebs. In short, I want a clean slate for the New Year.

So, instead of swearing empty oaths to always or never do this or that in the year ahead, I roll up my sleeves and take immediate action to conquer the literal and figurative clutter that has built up over the course of the previous three-hundred-and-sixty odd days. After a month and a half of using the holidays as an excuse to let things slide even more than usual, there are plenty of battles to fight.

For instance, the once-manageable kitchen-counter pile of receipts and miscellaneous mail has mutated into an impressive (and unstable) tower that measures a daunting thirteen and a half inches from top to bottom and contains all manner of unidentified paper detritus. I have lived for months with this eyesore (not to mention the nagging feeling that there is some important paperwork buried in there), but it’s time to cut this beast down to size.

And that is only the beginning. There are closets to be cleaned and clothes to be donated. There are stashes of school papers and artwork to be sorted, archived, and recycled. Administrative household and business tasks are gathering like a flock of noisy seagulls coming inland ahead of a storm – bills to be paid, accounts to be updated, tax paperwork to prepare. My email inbox is overflowing (evidence that it’s time to unsubscribe from all the digital newsletters that seemed like a good idea at the time). The cat beds need to be laundered. The windows need to be washed. The car needs to be vacuumed. It’s like spring cleaning without the warm weather.

But this ritual is about more than just tidying up and putting a little spit and polish on things. It’s about reestablishing a sense of order and creating some physical and mental space. It’s about crawling out from under the weight of all the little things that have been left undone -  crossing those bothersome tasks off your list so you can clear your head for more important thoughts. It’s about pulling the emergency brake so that you can take a minute to catch your breath before diving back into your usual routine.

Resolutions are a good idea in theory, but in practice they tend to create unrealistic expectations that add stress and pressure to our already-busy lives. Setting things to rights, on the other hand, is a no nonsense way to lighten your load and give yourself a fresh start. Though it may at first seem a tedious chore, putting things in order – even if only temporarily – almost always brings a sense of comfort and contentment. And doesn’t that sound like a good way to start the New Year?

 

What I’m Reading:

When I awoke this morning (a tad later than I’d like to admit), I realized that for the first time in a year I had missed publishing this post in its usual Saturday slot. For a moment, I was dismayed and a bit guilt-ridden, but I immediately cut myself some slack. This past week has been gloriously agenda-free to the point that I have several times lost track of which day it is. It is a strange, but liberating feeling.

In addition to untangling myself from my usual routine – school drop-offs and pick-ups, my daughter dance classes and dog walks, writing deadlines, grocery shopping, etc. etc. etc. – I forced myself to take a Real Break. (“Forced” being the operative word.) In my Real Life, I am always hustling, usually late for something, and always multi-tasking. This week, however, during our holiday staycation, I did manage to spend substantial time parked on the couch with a book and a mug of tea. It was lovely.

Though there were plenty of other activities and some chores (yesterday, we took down all the Christmas decorations and cleaned my daughter’s room!), I did carve out enough down time to finish reading Charles deLint’s hefty novel, The Little Country. It was the perfect post-holiday read – full of magic and music and adventure. I have read several of deLint’s other novels and always admired his ability to make magic tangible in a contemporary, real world setting. The way he weaves myth and fairytale into otherwise ordinary settings is almost like a kind of magic in itself. He is also a master at avoiding fantasy tropes, telling stories that are full of unique characters and plot twists.

The Little Country is actually two stories woven into one – a pretty neat trick in itself. From the book jacket:

When folk musician Janey Little finds a mysterious manuscript in an old trunk in her grandfather’s cottage, she is swept into a dangerous realm both strange and familiar. But true magic lurks within the pages of The Little Country, drawing genuine danger from across the oceans into Janey’s life, impelling her—armed only with her music—toward a terrifying confrontation.Come walk the mist-draped hills of Cornwall, come walk among the ancient standing stones. Listen to the fiddles, the wind, and the sea.

If you like smart, well-written fantasy, I highly recommend The Little Country. Just be prepared to stay up late once the action begins to climb. You’ll have a hard time putting it down!

 

What I’m Writing:

make stuffDespite avoiding resolutions (even writing-related ones … maybe especially writing-related ones), I am still susceptible to the ubiquitous feeling of optimistic expectancy that permeates this time of year. Off with the old and in with the new. Fresh starts. Bright horizons. I may not be nailing myself down to specific writing goals or habits, but that doesn’t mean I’m not all a-buzz with anticipation of another 365 days of writing potential.

Despite my enforced slothfulness (in order to read and recharge during this rare break), I have been noodling around with a big, scary writing project that I would really like to bring to life this year. It involves a complex story, many moving parts, art, publishing, print production, and distribution challenges (opportunities!). One minute, I feel like it’s a genius idea that can’t fail, and the next I think I’m a complete crackpot for thinking anyone would want to read it. And then, a nanosecond later, I’m back to thinking it’s a brilliant concept, but scared that I’m not the person to see it through.

It’s all a bit confusing, but still – surprisingly – exciting.

Though I’m starting to tug my reluctant brain back to its usual routine and responsibilities, I am still finding time to percolate my ideas and make notes. I’m beginning to compile all my materials and thoughts in a Scrivener document and may try to pull together a rough plan of attack soon. (I’m all for spontaneous creation, but I also know myself well enough to admit that if anything is going to get done, I need a plan.)

I hope that I am able to sustain this tingly feeling and enough courage to keep going even when Real Life butts in and Fear and Doubt pay their inevitable visits. I’m ready to bring a little of my own story magic into the world, and this might just be the year that I make that happen.

 

Lastly, a quote for the week:

I have been delightfully unplugged for the past couple of weeks, so I don’t have any blog posts to share. (I’m sure I’ll be doing plenty of catching up this week!) I do, however, have a quote that seems appropriate:

pin your own magic

 

Here’s to discovering and unleashing your own magic – writing and otherwise – on the world. Happy New Year! 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Writers, Like Fine Wines, Get Better with Age

reading glassesAbout a week ago, I picked up my first pair of reading glasses. I like being able to see more clearly, but cautious overcompensation to avoid a collision between the lenses of my glasses and the rim of my tea mug has resulted in tea dribbling down my front on more than one occasion. There is also the fact that the bridge of my nose is a bit crooked (or, maybe it’s that one of my ears is lower than the other), so the glasses sit askew, giving me a slightly crazed and disarrayed look. Not exactly what I was going for.

Though a small part of me laments the fact that my eyes will now likely become dependent on glasses, a larger part of me accepts this development as the mostly benign rite of passage that it is, and also something of a privilege. Still, knowing that my faculty of sight is no longer what it once was is a gentle reminder that I am not, as I sometimes seem to presume, immortal. Time is always passing, and with it the minutes allocated to my life here on this earthly plane slip from present to past and are lost to all but memory.

But, somehow, even in the face of that stark reality, I still giggle at my reflection – crooked glasses and all – staring back at me from my computer screen.

Though sometimes I think I should spend more time lamenting all the things I have yet to accomplish (not to mention the constant discrepancy between my intentions and my actions), the truth is that the older I get, the more I seem able to let go of certain expectations. Even when it comes to writing.

There was a time not so long ago when I could be quite easily discouraged about my writing “progress.” For years, my joke response to questions about my writing aspirations has been that I’d like to be the next J.K. Rowling, only me … and better. The trouble is, I’m not actively working on a novel. In fact, though I did make time to take an excellent class at Grub Street this fall, I haven’t done much fiction writing for a long while. It’s not that I don’t have ideas. (I do!) But, I haven’t yet reached a point where I feel compelled to make the small, personal leap that will liberate more writing time from my otherwise captive days.

This creative inertia left me feeling like a fraud, a failure, and a fool. I felt like I was falling way behind, losing the race. I worried that my best days were behind me and my chances at “success” (whatever that was) were long gone, taunting mirages retreating into the distance. I wondered if I should just give up the whole idea of being a creative writer and surrender to living a more “normal” life.

I still have those days, but more and more I find that I can bear witness to my own evolution with a mostly impartial eye. It is true, I guess, what they say about age bringing perspective. Even though I can still work myself into a minor tizzy about all the things I have yet to do, I feel less and less anxious about meeting specific expectations. I am more willing, I suppose, to accept that I am on an adventure and I cannot (nor should I want to) predict exactly how things will develop or turn out. Even when it comes to writing.

Not long from now, we will all be dangling our legs over the edge of this year, preparing to jump and dive and fall into the New Year. All around us, people will be talking about resolutions, goals, commitments, and visions. We will be tempted to measure ourselves and our passions against fabricated benchmarks and deadlines. The urge to compare ourselves to others and to the vision of “how we thought things would be” is strong. I hope you resist.

Writers do not have expiration dates. In fact, most writers improve with age. We can’t help it. The older we get, the more we understand. The more practice we have under our belts, and the more perspective we gain. As the years go by, we learn how to be more curious, courageous, and creative. We hone our craft. We discover that we are less afraid now to say things that terrified us only a few short years ago.

Time may ravage our bodies, chipping away at our senses and strength, but time also bestows many gifts on the writer’s mind and heart. I am not arrogant enough to think that I will not still suffer moments of regret and frustration about what I have and haven’t accomplished as a writer. I will. But, I am hopeful that I will continue to grow into the kind of writer – and person – who can gracefully acknowledge the true nature of the creative journey and embrace each moment and experience for the treasure it is.

 

What I’m Writing:

Embracing the messy magic of the holidays.

Embracing the messy magic of the holidays.

Not much. And that’s the plain truth.

I continued to work on client projects this week, and I’m delving into my Christmas projects; but overall my writing output has been fairly low this week. There are just too many holiday tasks nipping at my heels. And, you know what? THAT’S OKAY.

At this time of year, I’m reminded that though writing is an important, defining part of my life, it is not my whole life. And, in fact, if I were to focus exclusively on writing to the point of missing out on life, I think that’d make me one heck of a boring person (not to mention a poor writer).

So, while the holiday “magic” is whipping up all kinds of chaos and insanity, I am content to put my pen aside for a bit. I will write only the things that need to be written (my column and these weekend editions that I enjoy so much). Any other writing will be done exclusively in my head as I immerse myself, open-eyed, into the season – taking it all in and storing bits away for later writing.

It’s all good. Even when we’re not physically writing, we’re still writers.

What I’m Reading:

Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Though the busy season leaves little time for pleasure reading, I did carve out a few minutes this morning to enjoy a fairytale by Charles Vess called Father Christmas: A Wonder Tale of the North. Featured on Tor.com, this origin story weaves magic, talking animals, and trolls into a traditional-style fairytale that is full of dark charm and hopeful light. Like the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters, which I mentioned in Friday’s post about favorite holiday tales, this story eschews the contemporary leaning towards saccharine characters. Though a Santa story featuring trolls may not appeal to the masses, there is something undeniably true about great beauty and kindness springing from great sorrow and loss.

 

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 getting older

Wishing you a modicum of sanity and respite in these last few days leading to the end of the year. Here’s to working at your own pace and enjoying your own journey, wherever it may lead. See you on the other side!

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Managing the Writer Brain

director sculptureI’m coming (gods of keyboards and first drafts willing) to the end of some particularly intense copywriting projects. While I am infinitely grateful for the work (not to mention being able to do it from the comforts of my cat-run home office), my decidedly finite energy reserves are clearly reaching critical levels. If I am going to survive the holiday season without a major implosion, a bit of a respite is definitely in order.

It’s at times like these, when I’m all strung out on the pressures of “shipping,” that my split-personality surfaces.

On one hand, there’s the diligent, task master who has had me rising at 4:30 (yes, AM) to get a couple hours in before my daughter wakes up. This nose-to-grindstone gal suffers no fools and is savagely generous with the guilt she dishes out should my mind wander for even a moment. She keeps up a sharp and disapproving diatribe designed to keep me moving forward via an endless poke-poke-poke approach to motivation.

On the other hand, there’s my inner rebel. For a rebel, she’s actually quite placid, but she stages small, frequent protests in the form of daydreams and other cerebral interruptions. While my knuckle-rapping teacher persona paces back and forth behind my chair, my inner rebel slips me surreptitious notes about story ideas and characters.

It is challenging to maintain a high level of productivity during times like these. My brain crackles with the constant firing of adversarial synapses and my focus is caught in the crossfire.

It seems a bit unfair that my inner rebel seems happiest to release her creativity when I am least able to take advantage of the inspiration. She always seems to wait until the most inappropriate moment to start filling my head with visions of scenes and bits of story lines. Though it’s clear that I am up against a deadline and haven’t a moment to spare, she sashays up with a new (and very intriguing) character in her wake. Ignoring my protestations completely, she makes the introductions and leaves me to deal with the awkward silence that ensues.

It’s all rather intimidating. I mean, I’m only a mere mortal. Who am I to stand up to either of these divas?

I’m the writer, that’s who.

Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I let these two fool me into thinking that they are the ones in charge. It’s easy to get swept up in their drama, especially when they are almost always flanked by supporting cast members like Doubt and Fear. It’s amazing what a few stage whispers from Doubt does to heighten my stress levels.

But, I’m learning to take charge. Instead of letting these prima donnas boss me around, I am figuring out that  – like a director handling Hollywood-sized egos – I just need to manage them. I need to convince them that I’m not only listening, but letting their rants drive my actions. Even though, in truth, I am just humoring them and staying focused on my own priorities.

My technique is far from perfect. There are still days when the muse, in either of these forms, gains the upper hand. Sometimes I have to throw my hands up in surrender or resort to bribery. Sometimes I just have to get up, get out, and clear my head so I can start fresh.

Though we may hate to admit it, the writer brain is not a place where balance and harmony can reign long. Our gray matter is a seething hotbed of conflict and tension. It has to be. That’s where the creative energy comes from. That’s what takes us to the place where great stories live. Though we may find brief moments of peace in the chaos – days when both the task master and the rebel are satisfied – for the most part, we exist (more or less happily) in the bubbling cauldron of creativity. It may be messy and hard to manage, but – let’s be honest – we wouldn’t have it any other way.

What I’m Writing:

sunrise computerThis week has been spent (almost) 100% working on the copywriting projects that pay my bills. Though my inner creative rebel rails against these corporate assignments, I’m trying to show her that even though they seem to be all business and no fun, they can still provide the opportunity to practice our creative craft. And, more pragmatically, they keep a roof over our heads so that we’re not left to sit outside in the cold with no WiFi.

In addition to working on website content and ebook copy, I am preparing to record a marketing podcast with my colleague Jon Buscall. I’ve had the pleasure of appearing on his show a couple of times, including a fun episode called Bringing Branding Back. I’m very much looking forward to our next on-air chat and am excited about writing up my thoughts on the creative topic we’ve decided to discuss.

Finally, I’m also incorporating a bit of writing into some of my holiday gifts, but I can’t say more than that in case any of my family members are reading this. My last weekend edition talked about the gift of your writing in a much more metaphorical way, but this week I’m being very literal about it. And, I’m having fun.

What I’m Reading:

book cascadeJust last night, I finished a book by Maryanne O’Hara called Cascade. Once again, my book club coerced me into reading a book that I wouldn’t have picked up on my own. Set around the time of the Great Depression, the novel is loosely based on the true story of a small town that was destroyed and flooded in the process of building a reservoir that would provide water to the city of Boston. Even the woman who selected the book for our club admitted that the beginning was a bit slow, but I was hooked by the artistic dilemma of the protagonist – Dez – a young woman painter who is struggling to pursue her art even during times of economic disaster, war, and personal crisis.

Though the book tackles many larger issues, the intimate passages that describe Dez’s relationship with and pursuit of her art are the ones that stay with me. For instance, in one such passage, she thinks about the dangers of succumbing to domestic urges as a way to avoid a creative challenge,

“She knew better: when artistry seems most elusive is when you must focus, dig deep, and force yourself to think about how to give form to an idea that seems almost too vague to express. The worst thing is to give in to distraction, to chores that need doing, to anything that deludes you into pretending you are so busy you can’t focus on your work.”

Ain’t that the truth.

The story is something of a Shakespearean tragedy, beautifully written, and very evocative of that difficult time in American history. O’Hara blends the details of Dez’s life almost seamlessly with the larger maelstrom of changes happening in the world around her. I recommend this book as a good story, a lovely piece of writing, a bit of a history lesson, and an inspiration for anyone pursuing art despite challenging circumstances.

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:

want to read

Here’s to learning how to manage your own unruly muse, and to good books, and all the writing that you do -even the things that are just for money. It all counts. 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Director Sculpture Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond via Compfight cc

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In the season of giving, remember that your writing is a gift.

hand book giftEarlier this week, my mom entreated me to keep my Christmas shopping in check. She says I go overboard each year. She says none of us needs anything, and she’s right. I don’t think I go that crazy, but I do love giving gifts. Truth is, I’m much better at giving gifts than I am at receiving them. I always feel self-conscious when I’m opening a gift.

Watching someone else open a gift I’ve chosen for them is a completely different story. Like a child on Christmas Eve, I am filled with an almost giddy sense of anticipation. I just cannot wait for them to see. And then I can’t wait to tell the story behind the gift – why I chose it, where I found it, and maybe a funny anecdote about the process of acquiring it.

I especially love searching for and curating unique collections of small treasures. When I was a kid, my favorite part of Christmas was pulling a seemingly endless succession of tiny toys, trinkets, and treats out of my stocking. Santa wrapped almost every item, making the process a long, slow, delicious extravaganza of miniature delights.

A gift, big or small, is an expression of our feelings. It helps us to say the things that might be difficult, awkward, or scary to say out loud. Like a small boy scuffing his shoes in the dirt and thrusting a flower at a girl without looking her in the eye, we use gifts to bridge the gap between what we want to say and what we’re able to say. A gift can say I love you or I’m sorry or I’m so proud of you.

Our writing often serves a similar purpose. In a very literal sense, I used to turn to writing when I felt I could not speak openly with someone. Whether I was facing a conflict or simply having trouble articulating deep emotions, writing gave me the means to share thoughts that would otherwise have remained hidden. Though I almost never need to lean on writing this way any more, I still write to express my feelings. Whether it’s a journal entry, blog post, essay, or story, each piece of writing is an attempt to say something, a bid to give the reader a glimpse into my heart and a chance to see the world through my eyes.

When you write, it’s like wrapping a little piece of yourself in words and saying, “Here, I made this for you.”

Sometimes giving the gift of your writing can be scary. What if the person doesn’t like it? What if it makes them uncomfortable? But, what if it says exactly what you couldn’t say out loud? Or, what if – though you never know it – your words provide someone with a moment of clarity, hope, or relief?

And, remember, sometimes less is more. Your gift of words doesn’t have to be extravagant. Sometimes a poem touches the heart more deeply than a novel. Sometimes a heartfelt essay will better suit than a short story. Though you may be working on your “Big Gift” – your opus, so to speak – don’t undervalue your shorter pieces of writing. Like the toys and treasures in a Christmas stocking, their capacity for bringing joy cannot be measured by their size.

 

What I’m Writing:

It's the holidays - give yourself a gold star for all the writing you've done this year.

It’s the holidays – give yourself a gold star for all the writing you’ve done this year.

Ahhh, the holidays – a magical season of sparkling and shining and an horde of extra items on your To Do list. With all the added hustle and bustle that comes with December, I’m already looking forward to the comparative quiet of January. Still, despite all the added holiday responsibilities – shopping, shipping, decorating, socializing, etc. – I’m still finding ways to sneak a little writing in here and there.

There are, of course, my morning pages. Though I’m unable to maintain a daily practice, I curl up with that notebook and pen as often as I can. I don’t beat myself up if a miss a day (or two, or ten). I’m just grateful each time I find a pocket of time that allows me to indulge in my journaling habit.

I’m also taking time, during this overwhelming time of year, to acknowledge just how much work I’ve done over the course of the year. It’s easy to get down on yourself when you hit a patch of low productivity due to life’s many interruptions. Instead, take a moment to consider everything you have accomplished. For instance, last week’s weekend edition was my 200th post here on Live to Write – Write to Live. That made me smile. It also reminded me how many small efforts eventually add up to big results.

Are you overlooking any seemingly small accomplishments in your writing life? I bet you are.

What I’m Reading:

book picture thisThis week, I wanted to share a non-traditional read with you. It’s a book called Picture This and it’s a collaboration between writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry and watercolorist Kevin Kawula. It features a baffling but charming array of characters including The Near-Sighted Monkey, The Magic Cephalopod, The Heavenly Supernatural Animal, and two girls names Marlys and Arna. It is part memoir, part comic, and part distillation of Barry’s very popular drawing workshops.

I discovered Barry via a Brainpicker blog post about her newest book, Syllabus. Picture This is one of two books I requested from my local library consortium. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait for the second book to arrive.

Although words may be our primary tool for creative expression, it can be inspiring and enlightening to step outside the world of letters and into the world of images. Sometimes, exchanging the alphabet for some scribbles and smears can jump start our creativity and coax our reluctant muse out to play. Barry’s words and pictures invite you to toss away your inhibitions, exile your inner critic, and just have fun. We need to do the same with our writing, but if you’re stuck there, learning to let go while drawing may be the perfect way to catapult yourself out of that ditch without the pressure of working with words.

 

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 artists tension

I hope you are enjoying the happy chaos of the season and I hope you take time out here and there to indulge your muse and acknowledge all the small creative works you do. Each one matters. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Gold Star Photo Credit: Vicky Brock via Compfight cc

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At the Intersection of Words and Life

A winter landscape that provided the perfect backdrop for my writerly reflection.

A winter landscape that provided the perfect backdrop for my writerly reflection.

I’ve noticed a theme emerging in my last few weekend edition posts. For whatever reason – where I am in my own writing journey, the usual end-of-year reflections, the muted desperation that seems to pervade the news these days – I find myself wanting to better understand how this writing thing fits into my life. I want to explore the “why” as much as the “how” and the “what.”

I am not questioning whether or not I should write. No matter what happens, I will always write. It is too much a part of who I am and too deeply embedded in how I experience the world. I may as well lose my sense of sight or hearing as lose my ability to write. Putting words down is how I give shape to not only the physical world around me, but also to the emotional world within.

I loved Sara’s tongue-in-cheek comment on The Dichotomy of You a couple weeks ago:

Are you saying that other people don’t analyse and dissect their lives to find meaning that they can then share? What’s the point of it all then?

Exactly, Sara. Exactly.

And yet, I acknowledge that we writers are an odd lot. To most people, it is not at all normal to spend as much time as we do pursuing this often mind-cracking craft … especially when our efforts yield no (substantial or immediate) commercial or financial benefits. Though some of us manage to hack out a living at the keyboard, it is the rare writer who is able to support herself exclusively through writing only what she wants to write. I, for instance, am able to pay the rent because of my corporate copywriting clients. And the more I learn, the more I realize that most professional writers, even the ones who appear to have “made it,” supplement their income through other means, like teaching.

And yet, we persevere.

Though we know deep down that there is little chance of substantial financial gain, we continue to dedicate hours and hours of our lives (not to mention millions of brain cells) to the task of observing with a writer’s mind, and then attempting to capture, illuminate, and – ultimately – share our own experience in a way that can help others see and feel differently. Writers hold a mirror to the world, a mirror that reflects not only the surface of “reality,” but also what lives in our hearts and minds.

The stories we tell, no matter which genre we choose, help readers see the world more clearly, more fully, and more empathetically. Stories help us step inside someone else’s life, see events from someone else’s perspective. We need stories and heroes to show us that right can overcome might, that doing the right thing matters, that we still have reason to hope. Stories often give us the best illustrations of concepts like justice, truth, honor, and trust. Sometimes, it’s too hard to find these qualities in the real world. Writers create role models for us and for our children.

And sometimes, a story can help us to feel a tragedy so deeply that we want to do whatever we can to stop it from happening again. A writer can transform an impersonal headline into a story that gets past the defenses we’ve built to protect our hearts and minds from the endless, battering barrage of hype and headlines. A story can get under our skin and make us feel again, make us care.

Earlier this week, I received a mailer from the AWP – the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. The mailing included a quote that seemed hand-picked for me as I wrestled with questions about the purpose of writing, the importance of writing, and the role of writing in my life:

“To live ‘the writing life’ is to pit yourself against what is unsayable, and to say, finally, what must be said.” – Bernard Cooper

And, maybe it is as simple as that. Maybe there don’t need to be so many questions about “why” we write. Maybe we just need to focus on saying what must be said.

 

What I’m Writing:

app werdsmithBetween client deadlines, Thanksgiving gatherings, and (gasp!) the need to start shopping my holiday shopping, I haven’t been doing much writing other than staying on top of my content marketing projects and doing my morning pages. I have, however, been making a conscious effort to keep my creative writing mind limber by coming up with (and capturing!) story ideas.

KL Pereira, the Grub Street instructor who led the recent Fiction I class I took, recommended a little app called Werdsmith. Though I haven’t (yet) used it for actual writing, I’m finding it to be an excellent place to capture story ideas. I’ve tried using physical notebooks in the past, but I never seem able to consistently make notes when I’m on-the-go. The Werdsmith app somehow makes it easier for me to quickly jot down my ideas before they flit out of my head.

And, eventually, I may use the app to do a little actual drafting. We’ll see. Tough to type on the iPhone keyboard, but not impossible. And if the muse strikes, any tool will do!

 

What I’m Reading:

book finley raven riddleLast week, I received a review copy of George Hagen’s kids’ novel, Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle. I don’t usually accept review copies anymore (I used to do a lot of book reviews for BabyCenter and other mom blogs), but this one caught my attention.

First of all, it has ravens. I happen to love ravens. They are mystical and mischievous characters with a long history in myth and legend. Second, the book earned a recommendation from Norton Juster, the author of The Phantom Tollbooth. Impressive. Finally, my daughter has developed an obsession with riddles. She is constantly asking me to come up with them on-the-spot (something I’m terrible at). When I heard that the book was “riddled with riddles” (pun intended), I thought it would be something she’d enjoy.

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a kids’ fantasy adventure novel like this one, but I’m so glad I gave myself the gift of reading Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle. The story is a charming and spooky page-turner. I finished the entire book in only two days, despite having plenty of other obligations. Sometimes, a story demands to be read Right Now. Who am I to argue?

From Amazon:

How can twelve-year-old Gabriel find his missing father, who seems to have vanished without a trace? With the help of Paladin—a young raven with whom he has a magical bond that enables them to become one creature—he flies to the foreboding land of Aviopolis, where he must face a series of difficult challenges and unanswerable riddles that could lead to his father… or to his death.

If you have a  young reader in your life who enjoys a good fantasy story, Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle might make the perfect holiday gift. I also believe this book will be the first in a series, so there will be more to look forward to in the not-too-distant future. I, personally, cannot wait.

PS – Watch for an upcoming guest post from author George Hagen. He has promised to enlighten us on the art of crafting riddles. 

 

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 alice walker beauty

Wishing you time to reflect and explore who you are as a writer and the role of writing in your life. Here’s to enjoying all the stories – the ones you read, and the ones you write.

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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VW bug cutawayWhen we read a finished story, whether a thousand-word piece of flash fiction of a thousand-page novel, we perceive it as whole. It’s similar to the way we see each other. You don’t think of your friend as a collection of distinct elements. You don’t perceive her as a particular combination of skin and hair and eyes, scarf and jeans and shoes. You don’t see the individual bones, muscles, or cells that make up her body. You don’t consciously perceive all the discrete events and experiences that make up her personality and character. You just see Jane.

Stories are like that. We experience a story as the sum total of its parts. And, as with a person, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, those parts are there. Without them the person or the story would not exist, at least not in the form you perceive.

As a writer, you need to define each part of your story in order to create the whole. You need to break your story down in order to build it up. This will not only help you build a better story, it will make the process of writing even a long-form piece (like a novel) much less overwhelming. In her comment on last Saturday’s weekend edition, Jean Brown shared how studying the structure (the parts) of a particular piece had helped reduce the overwhelm she felt about writing a “A Whole Book:”

One of the major benefits of this exercise for me was imaging how the author had laid out the whole structure ahead of the writing, and how this structure basically chunked the book into 10 page sections. This made the idea of writing “A Whole Book” seem incredibly achievable, whereas before it loomed as nearly impossible in my mind.

I felt a similar sense of relief when I realized that writers I admire put a lot of thought and intention into creating and arranging all the separate elements that make up their stories. When you can think of a novel not as “A Whole Book,” as Jean put it, but as a series of much smaller pieces that all fit together (perfectly) to create that whole, it suddenly feels much more manageable.

Plus, I love a good puzzle and the idea of identifying and arranging all these pieces to create a particular experience is pretty intriguing to me.

I sketched this visual to help illustrate how I think about a story breakdown. I intentionally left off labels so that you can interpret it in the context of your own story. If, for instance, you are working on a novel, the top level would represent the finished book, the next level down might represent “beginning, middle, and end,” the circles might be chapters, the triangles might be scenes within chapters, and the dots might be individual elements within a scene – things like lines of dialog, setting details, reveals of character traits, etc.

story breakdown

As we drill deeper into the elements, breaking things down further and further, the gaps between the individual pieces close, creating that sense of wholeness and story continuity.

There are many different tools for doing story break downs, but so far I’m finding that Scrivener offers some helpful features. I love the cork board view which allows me to look at my whole collection of story elements along with more detailed notes about specific actions, etc. The “binder” in Scrivener allows me to organize different pieces of my story by section, chapter, scene, etc. There are also ways (which I haven’t yet fully explored) to filter my notes and draft so that I can isolate a particular thread (such as a character or a setting or a sub-story). This will allow me to focus on a single story element within the context of the whole.

Whatever tools and process you prefer, I encourage you to think about breaking your story down so that you can get “inside” it – really see how it’s put together. I promise that you will gain greater clarity and even, perhaps, some new inspiration.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: roger4336 via Compfight cc

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