Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.

 

Learning to Use Scrivener

Scrivener

I first learned about Scrivener, a program to help writers organize long-form projects, from a post by J.A. Hennrikus, right here on Live to Write, Write to Live. A few months later, she posted again about Scrivener, this time about taking a course about how to use it.

Scrivener

I typed on a Smith Corona before I bought my first computer for word processing.

That’s pretty much when I grayed out. I was happy with Microsoft Word, which I’d been using since I bought my first computer in 1984. It was a big advance over the Smith-Corona portable typewriter, which I’d had since high school. That first edition of Microsoft Word was pretty much just like typing, only better. I was good with that.

Then Wendy E. N. Thomas posted about Scrivener, inviting readers to watch her write a book using this tool. Good to her word, she posted a step-by-step guide, a blog post using Scrivener, A.T.T.P, a guide to nailing an outline, and Scrivener Simplified.

I still wasn’t convinced. I was working on other projects with paper, hole-punch, scissors, paperclips and tape. This system was working for me.

Then my writing-buddy brother started using Scrivener, telling me how useful it was for writing plays. He’d share his screen with me, trying to make me believe that this would make my writing life easier.

It was starting to feel like a conspiracy.

Meanwhile, I was sputtering on and off on two long-form projects. Every time I returned to them, I had to reorganize.

I finally got fed up.

It was time, I decided, to try Scrivener.

I’ve downloaded the free, thirty-day trial – which gives you thirty days of actual use, regardless of how many days or weeks it takes you to use them. And when I get stuck, I turn to the many videos and lessons on the Literature and Latte website.

It’s slow-going, and I’m not yet in love with the program, but I am determined to learn it so I can get on with my writing life.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who blogs weekly at Living in Place. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery
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My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.

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Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

 

Personal Becomes Universal Through Research

Guest Post by Novelist Donna D. Vitucci

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Donna Vitucci’s new novel, Salt of Patriots, published on Earth Day 2017.

The answer to my question, How long does it take to write a book? is fifteen for the novelist Donna Vitucci, who has just published Salt of Patriots after fifteen years of research, writing and revision. In this guest post, Vitucci describes what motivated her – and kept her going.

Origin of Salt

At my mother’s wake in the summer of 1999, the reminiscences we’d heard through the years got dragged out and enlivened by re-telling. The time all Uncle Bobby’s hair fell out when he was working at Fernald. The spills and inherent danger of any other kind of factory, but Fernald was processing uranium. A different kind of plant, in the early atomic days, in the 1950s.

Fernald closed after dust collectors failed in the 1980s and leaks into the Miami Aquifer hit the press. A class action lawsuit helped shutter the plant and place it on the Superfund Cleanup List. A Public Information Center was established as an aspect of remediation activities—eureka! I’d write my family Fernald stories infused with true and accessible information.

Research

To write it, I needed to understand it, and I’m no scientist. I dashed daily to the Information Center, reading and trying to understand what Fernald workers did. What were their jobs? What might Uncle Bob have done once he clocked in for 2nd shift? What made his hair fall out?

I read The Atomizers, the Fernald company newsletter. I studied processes the Fernald scientists developed, and the chemistry and metallurgy that had men in various buildings turn out uranium ingots or rods. I sought the secrets and security, the rumors in the community, how everybody had a relative or friend who worked there, or lost their acreage, or got sick or died. Newspaper articles on microfiche announced the building of the “new plant” and how it was going to bring hundreds of jobs—which it did. The nuclear industry was in its infancy. They were playing with dice and hoping for the best in beating the Russians.

Interviews

Uncle Bobby was my eyewitness, my conduit to the past, to the plant, to the human aspect. At the time, I’d envisioned the book completed and published to celebrate Fernald’s 50th anniversary—2001. I really had no idea.

I questioned Uncle Bob: “What about losing your hair?”

“That was nothing.” Same closed-mouth attitude from interviewees and others beholden to their government, their employer, and their own promises.

“Loose lips sink ships”—caution right there in The Atomizer. I don’t believe the workers were afraid. I believe they were patriotic. I believe they believed the government wouldn’t ask them to enter a dangerous work situation. And as long as a man was working he was doing the right best thing–echoing Uncle Bob and dozens of Fernald employees in their interview transcripts.

Striving for Authenticity

What did Uncle Bob do at Fernald, what it was like, what were his buddies like, did they understand the danger, and did they care? I took notes; I had a binder of industry and government papers I’d copied. I studied these like I’d be tested. Above all, I wanted to write with authenticity, and I knew it would be so hard. Till then, I’d only written stories that emerged from inside me. This story would have to be, on many counts, outside of me. I would immerse myself in research until I was busting with the Fernaldia I ingested.

Writing, Revisitng, Revising

A year and half later, nowhere near finished mourning my mother, and now her brother, Uncle Bob, was dying. Feed Materials, as I called the book, was where I poured this loss, revisiting my loved ones, revising them, and being among them, seeing them so clearly in memory and then freshly relevant in the stories where I cast them. No wonder it took me 15 years to complete. Writing this book kept them alive, and I didn’t want to lose them twice.

Donna VitucciDonna D. Vitucci is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, shines light on the nuclear industry’s early days at the Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) by focusing on ground level workers in this rural Ohio uranium processing plant. Characters and events are inspired by her uncles, who worked at the FMPC, and imagined from hundreds of true interviews conducted as part of lawsuit remediation activities in the 1990’s. Donna lives, works, and shares the best of urban living with her partner in the Historic Licking Riverside District of Covington, Kentucky.

Deborah Lee Luskin has been a regular contributor to Live to Write – Write to Live since 2011. She blogs weekly about Living in Place, Lessons from the Long Trail, Middle Age, and Vermonters By Choice at www.deborahleeluskin.com. Hope to see you there!

You Need a Deadline – New Reedsy Contest Directory

The first quarter of 2017 is behind us. How’s your writing going? In January, we checked in with you about your writing goals, but that seems like it’s SO long ago now. (How did we get to April so quickly?!?)

Have you, like me, you’ve been moving the goal line on your writing projects? You know – pushing things out a little bit at a time because, life? I completely understand. Things come up. Each of us has obligations and unplanned crises, and many of us are also suffering from resistance fatigue. Hitting your writing targets can start to feel like an impossible dream.

Well … sometimes, what you need is a deadline.

I write a LOT, but most of what I get done is writing that is tied to a client or other deadline. “My” writing projects (stories, novel ideas, flash fiction, etc.) tend to slip down the slippery slope of falling priorities. I want to work on them, but other things are always butting in ahead of them – cutting the line, so to speak.

Solution: Give myself a deadline for one of My Writing Projects

There are always a variety of writing contests going on. Why not pick one and go for it? Even if you don’t win, you will have completed something, and that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

Ricardo Fayet, founder at Reedsy, reached out to me to share his company’s new resource: Writing Contests 2017, Curated with love by Reedsy. In a follow-up email conversation, he shared the inspiration for this new, searchable database:

We speak to a lot of upcoming authors, and one thing we discovered is that writing contests are a pretty contentious topic of discussion. While most writers love the idea of being published, read, and rewarded for their work, some authors had been burned in the past. The truth is that, while there are hundreds of contests each years, very few of them are worth the time; some of them are even outright scams, designed to squeeze money out of their entrants.

With that in mind, we wanted to give authors a way find their ideal contests. Updated weekly, this page lets you search for competitions by genre, entry fee, deadline and prize amount. And because we’ve vetted each and every one, there’s no need to worry about being ripped off.

So, how about it? Think you might try to find a deadline that will help you prioritize your writing? If you decide to go for it, let us know in the comments so we can cheer you on. Also, if you know of any reputable contests not in the Reedsy list, please feel free to share those as well!

Good luck!

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writers’ Freedoms and Freedom.to for Writers

Today, I’d like to share a couple of things that are, in a way, at opposite ends of the “engagement” spectrum:

On the #writersresist front, PEN America’s Daily Alert on Rights and Expression (aka: DARE):

pen-americaPen America is the largest of more than 100 centers of PEN International, a group that has been supporting the freedom of writers for more than 90 years. On their website, they state their mission as, “PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.  Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”

While most of their freedom-fighting work has been needed abroad, recent shifts in the U.S. government – perhaps, in particular, the new administration’s contentious relationship with the media – have shone the spotlight on instances of concern here in America. In response to this, PEN America has refocused its newsletter and begun publishing a daily (yes, daily) update on rights and expression at home and globally.  You can find all the editions of this on the PEN America blog. You can also subscribe to the PEN America newsletters and then manage your preferences to focus on just the DARE one if you like.

On the #savemysanity front, the Freedom app that allows you to cut off your access to specific websites:

app-freedomI missed the window to share my two cents in last week’s Friday Fun post. We were asked to provide tips for writing during times of turmoil.  As I mentioned in my recent weekend edition post, I’m definitely feeling some tension between my writing and my life.  As someone who hasn’t been previously engaged in politics or legislative activism, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by everything I have to learn and all the news I feel I need to consume. I’m working on finding a saner, healthier balance, but – in the meantime – I’ve also armed myself with a handy little tool for shutting myself out of, say, Facebook for an hour or so at a time.

The Freedom app offers a multi-session trial so you can try it out. A couple of tips:

  • If you’re running a social media app on your smartphone, Freedom will not be able to block access to the app. (It works only on web browser protocols and cannot override app permissions.) If you find yourself reaching for your phone too often, may I suggest putting it in another room, or maybe locking it in your car.
  • I also found that on my MacBook Pro, if I have an instance of Facebook open in a browser tab, I can still interact with it a little once my Freedom session starts. Solution: I click to refresh the Facebook tab, and then I get a little message telling me that the website is unavailable. (At which point, I breathe a deep sigh of relief.)

I hope you find both of these resources helpful. While it’s important to keep our eyes open and stay aware of what’s happening in the broader writing community (including novelists, journalists, poets, nonfiction writers, etc.), it’s also important to carve out time for our own work free from distractions and all the “noise” that’s jamming the Internet.

Good luck in your battles on both fronts, and – no matter what happens – keep writing!

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Writer’s Weekend Resources – Calm in the Chaos

I'm dreaming of a quiet day-after-Christmas ...

I’m dreaming of a quiet day-after-Christmas …

At this time of the year, I always feel as if the days are passing in a kaleidoscope-like frenzy that leaves me wondering which way is  up. No matter how prepared I intend to be, I am always running late. On everything. Shopping, writing deadlines, cleaning, visiting, card writing … you name it, and I’m behind on it.

I do my best to manufacture small havens of quiet amidst the chaos, but lately those moments of respite have been few and far between. It’s  okay. Over the years, I have grown used to this routine and I know that the wildness of these days will eventually spend itself and I will be left to happily curl up on the sofa with a soft blanket, a mug of tea, a satisfyingly thick book, and my journal.

That day can’t come fast enough. 😉

How goes your journey through the last few weeks of the year? Are your celebrations shaping up to your liking? Are you feeling ready for the holidays? What kind of goodbye will you wish 2016? What are your favorite guilty pleasures at this time of year?

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As promised, I will continue to highlight one or two “deep” posts in these Sunday missives – posts by writers who are exploring and addressing the role of art and specifically writing in the world today.

In the New York Times article, Now Is the Time to Talk About What We’re Really Talking Aboutnovelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, among other things, about the importance of accuracy in the words we choose and the stories we tell:

Yet, a day after the election, I heard a journalist on the radio speak of the vitriolbetween Obama and Trump. No, the vitriol was Trump’s. Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one.

Now is the time to refuse the blurring of memory. Each mention of “gridlock” under Obama must be wrought in truth: that “gridlock” was a deliberate and systematic refusal of the Republican Congress to work with him. Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it. Now is the time to forge new words. “Alt-right” is benign. “White-supremacist right” is more accurate.


And from Lisa Cron, author of many excellent books on the writing craft, comes the post, The Power of Story, Now More Than Ever via Writer Unboxed. In this piece, Cron

Stories aren’t merely for entertainment – no matter what the writer intends. Stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them – it’s biological. Stories press the pause button, allowing us to slip out of our own lives the better to experience the protagonist’s inner struggle. Stories thus tacitly change our perception of what’s right and wrong. What is sacred and what is profane. What is fair and what is not.

Stories are simulations that put facts (real and imagined) into a human context that gives them meaning and makes them actionable.

And so your novel will change how your readers see the world. It will also – in ways large and small — change what they do in the world.


Last but not least, in his post Putting Your Purpose on the Page (also for Writer Unboxed), Don Maass writes about the power of fiction to change the world and offers inspiration and tactical tips for writers who want to do just that:

If your intention in writing is to “illuminate” or “explore”, or simply to entertain, why are you aiming so low?  Make a statement.  Declare yourself.  Teach us what we don’t know.  Show us how to accomplish that which we are afraid to do.  Don’t just challenge our thinking, change it.  Don’t just create conflict, shine a light on injustice, stir our timid hearts, make us want to leap up and act, show us the better world in which we could live.  Don’t just warn us, inspire us to change.

The novels that will change the remainder of the 21st Century have yet to be written.  You have a keyboard.  You have the craft.  You have the eyes, mind and heart of a great storyteller.  What are you waiting for?  As I commented the other day, we are all writers.  The worst thing we could do, especially now, is to keep quiet.

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My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

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Sundry Links and Articles:

The Oatmeal is mostly known for it’s snarky style, but “Plane” is both poignant and inspiring. It’s a story I didn’t know about one of the most prolific and successful storytellers of our time, and a story that reminds us that even though we may feel helpless, we should still try to help people.

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Finally, a quote for the week:

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Here’s to pockets of calm in whatever storm you’re navigating, holiday cheer that lights up your days and nights, and the courage and passion to tell your stories.
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

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