Reposting: A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

            In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.

The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.

The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.

A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.

Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.

The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.

The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.

The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”

The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.

Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.

Happy Motoring!

This piece originally posted August 21, 2012. I’ve scheduled reruns while I’m on summer vacation, and hope this ones reminds everyone to drive safely during the summer holidays. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rooted and rural life in Vermont which I chronicle on my blog, Living in Place.

Please my website to learn more about my mission to tell stories to create change. Thanks for reading!

How Peaceful the Disconnected Life Can Be

My studio was originally Internet-free; now it is intentionally so.

Earlier this week, the Internet connection to my studio went down and I was reminded how peaceful the disconnected life can be.

I had no Internet when I first moved into my Chapel of the Imagination, as I call my one-room studio tucked into a wooded corner of our land. At first, I was stunned by the intense quiet; I wrote with concentration and focus.

It was only when I returned to the house to use the printer or send email that I fell into those black holes of distraction: Facebook, news, solitaire.

As my blogging output increased, I had to return to the house and connect more frequently for fact checking, uploading photos and formatting posts. Reluctantly, I wired the studio to the Internet, which saved me the walk to the house, but where I often succumbed to the time suck of cyber distraction. Even when I was on-line to research a subject, I found myself spinning into information that was as off-topic as it was interesting – and hardly better than going deep into Facebook.

So when my connection went down, I was amazed how quickly my focus returned, and how sharp my mind without all the cyber static that has crept into my workspace.

About the same time, I started reflecting on my day with Evening Pages, rediscovering the joys of writing by hand.

The combination of turning off the static and physically shaping my words on the page has been profound. I’m recapturing the sustained quiet where my imagination is most audible and my ability to capture my ideas into words most profound.

In order to protect this renewed quiet, I’m turning off my email and silencing my phone in the studio. By disconnecting to the interruptions and distractions of the Internet, I’m concentrating on the words and stories at hand.

What are your distractions and how do you tame them?

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Note to my Readers: I wrote Lessons from the Long Trail after hiking from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains in 2016. This summer I’ll be hiking from Alaska into the Yukon along the Chilkoot Trail. While I’m gone, I’ll be republishing some favorite posts both here and at Living in Place. I hope you’ll check them both out. I’ll look forward to reading and responding to your comments when I return. All best.

Evening Pages

EVENING PAGES

I’ve added Evening Pages to my daily writing practice. I take time at the end of the day to reflect on both what and how I’ve put words on the page. Evening Pages provide closure to a day that starts with Morning Pages.

MORNING PAGES
Evening Pages

Morning Pages help me write through the fog of all that I have to do.

I’ve been writing Morning Pages as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way for years. Morning Pages are helpful as both a meditative practice to finding my center and as a tunnel into my uncensored creative ideas.

Yes, Morning Pages sometimes end up being mundane lists of tasks I need to complete on any given day. But often committing those tasks to ink helps get them out of the way of what I need to write . Morning Pages often morph into a rough draft of my work for the day, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, or a section of one of my current books.

Morning Pages help me settle in to my concentration. In an ideal world, I would maintain that focus without interruption, but interruptions happen. Lately, I’ve been examining how I cope with interruptions, whether they’re internal interruptions (like thinking about lunch at 9 am), or external interruptions, like a business or family obligation I have to take care of. Regardless of the cause, I’m trying to teach myself how to recapture my mind so I can return to my imaginative work. Evening Pages help me perform this self-examination.

EVENING PAGES
Evening Pages

Evening Pages allow for reflection.

Evening Pages allow me to reflect on how I followed through on my Morning Pages and how I coped with interruptions during the day. Evening Pages allow me to see how I handle disruption. I can either praise my efforts to recoup my concentration or consider how else I might have reacted that would have preserved my focus.

 

Evening Pages

Evening pages are about sustaining the creative mind.

Evening Pages have already helped me see how many interruptions are of my own making. For years, I thought it was family life that was the major source of interruptions, and maybe it used to be. But Evening Pages have helped me realize that I’m often the source of my own distraction, not the other members of my household. Evening Pages allow me to examine just how I undermine my focus, and they are where I brainstorm ways to sustain the flow of words, even when writing what is uncomfortable and true.

Evening Pages are helping me learn how to cope with the powerful feeling of doing something dangerous and wrong by penning my truth on the page. Evening Pages are helping me to give voice to my truth.

The very process of written reflection allows me to examine more clearly my creative process: what I wrote, what comes next, and where my pen is taking me. Writing is often an act of discovery, and these Evening Pages help me stay oriented to the progress of my journey – even when I’m uncertain of my destination.

Cameron says that Morning Pages “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.” I’m finding my Evening Pages to be a bit more deliberate, more reflective. Morning Pages are about unleashing the creative mind; Evening Pages are about sustaining it.

If you give Evening Pages a try, if you already have an end-of-day writing practice, or if you have any questions about Evening Pages, please be in touch via the Comments section below.

As always, thanks for reading.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator. She lives in southern Vermont and on the web at www.deborahleeluskin.com

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
FLATspellagainstselfdoubt

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.

ToolsFlat

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.

 

Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.

WRITING PRACTICE

Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.

TEACHING WRITING

I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.

 

Narrowing down the PURPOSE of your blog

 

 

 

 

I’m currently teaching an adult education class on how to start a blog.

When I teach these classes, we spend much time during the first class trying to narrow down the purpose of the blog you want to create. Before you can write your first word, you need to figure out what you are going to write about. Just like when you work on any writing project, you need to outline and plan. You need to make a map so that you’ll know where you are going.

It’s vitally important for both you and for your readers to not get lost.

Unless you are very famous, (and even then, it is “iffy”) or the most exciting person in the world, no one wants to read about what you do every day.

A blog should not be a diary. There is no purpose to that.

Instead what a blog should be is a collection of “like-minded” topics that provide value. Sometimes that value is to teach and sometimes it’s simply to entertain. Often a blog’s topic is specific, for example you could write posts about cooking, traveling, books that you’ve read, or fun activities you can do with the kids.

Whatever topic you choose, you should remain devoted to that topic. At all times.

If you have a blog about cooking, then your readers will expect to read about cooking. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can *never* write about anything else, but keep in mind that every time you stray from your topic, you run the risk of confusing your readers – Hey, what happened to the recipes?

Every time you stray from the topic, your readers stray from your map and we all know that that means they might get lost.

A lost reader is one who might not come back.

But what if you write about many topics? Does that mean that you can’t write in your blog or have to have different blogs? In my personal blog I write about parenting, recipes, books, I’ve read, and chickens, but here’s the thing – all my topics fall under the umbrella of “living with children and chickens in New Hampshire.” So I get away with it. (Or at least I hope I do.)

I describe my blog as being like a women’s magazine. I have many topics, but they are all covered under that little tag-line of mine that sits right there at the top of the blog  – children and chickens. It’s a mighty umbrella under which all my topics fit.

This doesn’t mean that your blog can’t evolve. In the early days, my blog went from talking about my newspaper column to focusing heavily on chickens and the kids. For years I wrote about the lessons I learned from our flocks, both chicken and children.

I think my blog is about to evolve again. This summer all our chickens were brutally killed by a predator that came in the night and took out each bird one-by-one.

Right now we are chickenless.

I haven’t written about chickens since spring and I’m not sure we will be getting more chickens next year (cranky neighbors have something to do with it.) I can continue as is (just because my chickens are gone doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn from them) or I can make a modification for my readers and concentrate on other topics. I haven’t decided yet, but when I do, I need to tell my readers what is going on and where we are now headed.

My point is that your blog should never be confusing for your readers. If you don’t write about the purpose and topic of your blog then you need to address that sooner rather than later. You’ll either have to change the purpose, topic, or both so that your new blog map becomes clear.

And if you do it sooner rather than later, you’ll have less chance of losing any of your readers.

 

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.