Writing Outside The Box

“Think outside the box” has always been one of the phrases I love to hate. In my agency days, it was something that echoed up and down the corridors, usually tripping lightly off the tongue of some overpaid creative director-type who couldn’t come up with a more helpful way to articulate his “vision.” The writers and designers would cringe in unison and wonder exactly what the hell they were supposed to do. Most of the time, they weren’t even aware they were in a box, never mind understanding how to get out of it.

Still, getting “outside the box” does have some validity in the world of marketing if you think of the box as the “shoulds” of marketing.

The myth of “best practices”

I have some bad news: there is no silver bullet, no 100% guaranteed roadmap, no one-size-fits-all solution. I also have some good news: there is no silver bullet, no 100% guaranteed roadmap, no one-size-fits-all solution.

If anyone comes to you and tells you they have The Answer, run.

There is no “always” or “never” in writing. There are some basic common sense guidelines, but, other than that, I don’t give the “shoulds” and “musts” of writing much credence. What works for someone else might work for you, or it might not. And, as the masters will tell you, even the most widely touted rules are made (once you have the chops) to be broken.

“Best” practices can quickly close in around you like that proverbial box. At first it seems comfy and cozy – safe, tested, proven. But in the end it winds up limiting your options, shutting down your creativity, and rendering you blind to opportunities that lie on the other side of the walls.

The truth is that the “best” in “best practices” depends entirely on the context – on the box you’re playing in.

YOU make the box

Maybe nobody puts Baby in a corner, but we often put ourselves in a box.

We listen to People Who Know Better and believe everything they say, even when it doesn’t quite ring true for us. We willingly subscribe to their methods and madness, contorting ourselves so we can climb inside their box. Though we might feel cramped or claustrophobic, we tell ourselves that we’ll get used to it. Though we may feel like we’re operating in the dark, we tell ourselves that soon the lights will come on and everything will be clear.

We stay in the box, but we shouldn’t.

Boxes have walls, and as you grow those walls will start to close in. Your view of Blue Sky Possibilities will start to shrink.

Your comfort zone vs. where the magic happens

If you stay too long inside the box, you start to get comfortable and complacent. You begin to distrust the world outside your box. You don’t want to try anything new; you just want to stick with the tried and true things that are already inside your box and within your comfort zone. After all, they are “best” practices – if you keep at them long enough, they are bound to work eventually, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Even if they do work, staying inside the box will likely cause you to miss out on more exciting, more effective, more “you” ways of becoming the writer only you can be. Your comfort zone might not seem so comfortable once you give yourself the chance to climb out of that box, wiggle your bare toes in the grass, inhale the fresh air, and stretch your limbs.

Stepping outside your box means giving yourself the chance to explore all the possibilities, indulge your creative urges, and discover new insights into your own writing process.

Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Leaving the faux security of the box can be scary at first, but the exhilaration you’ll feel once you realize that you don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules far outweighs any perceived risk. Fear will become excitement. You’ll feel like Julie Andrews spinning giddily through meadows of writing bliss.

Really.

Are you stuck in a box that doesn’t quite fit you? What could you do to step outside that box – outside your comfort zone and into the place where magic happens? 

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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. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/or introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post was adapted from a piece I originally wrote for my Suddenly Marketing blog. Who knew that the same get-out-of-the-box rule would apply to both marketing and writing?
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Recycle, Reuse, Reduce

It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

You’ve all heard the mantra, “Recycle, Reuse, Reduce” in terms of paper, plastic bags and trash. The mantra also applies to writing. It is possible to recycle ideas, reuse stories and research and reduce effort.

Recycle.

Sometimes, it’s possible to mine one piece of work for another. Recently, I wrote a post about the application of the word “elderly” to Bernie Sanders for my blog about being middle aged. These posts also appear in the Rutland Herald (both in print and on-line) as well as on my website, my Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

You can recycle your work for different audiences. photo: Deborah Lee Luskin

You can recycle your work for different audiences. photo: Deborah Lee Luskin

I then reworked the piece for broadcast. While still focused on the definition of elderly, I slanted the piece more towards Vermont, where Bernie Sanders is junior to thirteen other, current US Senate. He’s even the junior senator from Vermont; Sanders is two years younger than Patrick Leahy.

The piece was broadcast on April twenty-first, and is archived in both audio and text formats on the Vermont Public Radio website.

Reuse.

It’s possible to reuse your research and ideas for different formats and different audiences, as long as you’ve retained rights to your work. This is crucial, especially when you’re being paid, as I am.

I’ve been able to reuse research I’ve done for novels to write essays and give lectures. This has been a great way to recoup some of my investment and generate interest in a novel that has not yet sold.

I have also mined this novel and its outtakes for short stories, which have won prizes and publication. Plucking a chapter out of a novel, or condensing a storyline from a larger work into something shorter to suit a particular call for submissions, is a terrific way to reuse your own material. Often, the exercise of condensing a story helps me see how to tighten the original work and make it better.

A magazine article I wrote was then anthologized in a book.

A magazine article I wrote was then anthologized in a book.

Another way to reuse your work is in anthologies. Sometimes, editors of anthologies put out calls for stories on a certain topic and invite writers to submit previously published work for consideration. Other times, editors read something you’ve published and ask permission to include it in an anthology they’re putting together. I’ve had work republished by both these methods. A cover story I once wrote for a magazine was anthologized in a book and also reprinted in a newspaper. Three credits and two paychecks for one piece of work.

Reduce.

Maximize your time, output and income by reducing your effort. This is especially true in regard to research, where you inevitably learn more than you can use for the initial project. When this happens, you can find another way to use the material in a piece with a different slant. No knowledge ever goes to waste.

Compost.

Ideas and drafts can yield rich fertilizer for new work, just as composted vegetable scraps yield rich soil. (pixabay)

Ideas and drafts can yield rich fertilizer for new work, just as composted vegetable scraps yield rich soil. (pixabay)

To Recycle, Reuse and Reduce, I’d add Compost. Just as your compost pile you can turn your vegetable scraps into valuable, rich, soil, so you can turn your outtakes, incomplete drafts, and half-baked ideas into finished prose – with time. I keep running lists of ideas and file drawers of stories I’ve started and abandoned – until the idea turns over in my mind, and I’m ready to take another look, give it another try. Truly, these pieces may not ever be successful stories on their own, but they can and do often fertilize a new idea and help it grow to publication.

While I always welcome your comments and usually reply right away, I’m writing this post in advance of being away and off-line. Look for my replies when I return to my desk in mid-May.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin has won awards for her fiction and editorial columns. You can subscribe to her weekly blog at Living in Place.

Grammar-ease: ‘That’ vs ‘Which’

That_Vs_whichIt’s a common trouble spot for a lot of people — creating a story or document and the words are flowing easily, but then the conundrum of ‘that’ or ‘which’ arises.

Do you rewrite the sentence to avoid the confusion all together? Do you flip a coin to decide? Or maybe you just go with what sounds the best. After reading this grammar-ease tip, I hope the confusion will be removed.

It can be simple: If a restrictive clause, use that. If an unrestrictive clause, us which.

What does that mean?

A restrictive clause is part of a sentence you can’t get rid of; it’s necessary for the meaning.

  • Dogs that bark are disruptive. (Without ‘that bark’, you’d have “Dogs are disruptive.” Unless you want to say that all dogs are disruptive, you need ‘that bark’ in the sentence.)
  • The vase that you dropped was a priceless antique. (You can see how ‘that you dropped’ clarifies the meaning.)
  • He refused to sit in the chair that his wife put together.  (he might trust a chair that he put together himself!)
  • Gifts that keep on giving are her favorite. (not all gifts are her favorite)
  • Vehicles that have hybrid technology get great gas mileage.  (in other words, not all vehicles get great gas mileage)

A non-restrictive clause is a phrase that can be removed from a sentence without losing the meaning (if you take out the ‘which’ phrase in any of the next examples, the remaining part of the sentence hasn’t changed its meaning). A non-restrictive clause adds non-defining details.

  • His new running shoes, which were expensive, wore out after only five miles of use. (you don’t really need to know the running shoes were expensive)
  • There was a landslide at the resort yesterday, which is bad news for vacationers. (one can infer a landslide is bad news)
  • Cats, which are great pets, can be quite destructive at times. (not just cats can be great pets)
  • She signed up for the continuing education class, which is free for all town residents. (the details about the class being free aren’t necessary — they can be useful, but not required in regard to knowing she simply signed up for a class)
  • Your task, which is to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeders, will be a never-ending chore.
  • The book, which I had at the lake, is the one I wanted you to check out.

Tip: when using ‘which’ it’s common to offset the non-description phrase with commas; you won’t find restrictive clauses offset with commas (in most cases).

Of course, there are always exceptions, and you may simply prefer to use ‘which’ instead of ‘that’ at times. These examples were to give a straightforward, clean way of looking at the two words.

I don’t use ‘which’ all that often. I find that I can write tighter when not using it.

Did these examples help clarify the differences?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links May 1

Try Something New

13092271_549604098559606_1815748772_nIt’s finally starting to feel like spring around here. Winter’s chill and damp are giving way to slightly warmer temperatures and sunnier skies. And even when it does rain, it’s the kind of rain that makes you think of green things and the joy of splashing in puddles. This is the season of renewal and growth. It’s a time when things emerge and unfurl. It’s the perfect time to stretch yourself beyond the usual confines of your daily routine and try something new.

It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering. You might get your coffee at a different place, or share it with someone you don’t see very often. You might read a different genre of book than you’re used to, or listen to a different kind of music. Maybe you’ll get the chance to try a new activity like dancing, karaoke, or roller skating. Maybe, if – like me – you enjoy hiking, you’ll find a new place to explore. Or, perhaps you’ll try cooking a new dish, wearing a new style, or learning a new language.

It doesn’t really matter what the something new is, only that it’s new. New experiences challenge and inspire us. They help us look at the world with fresh eyes so we get a different perspective. They get our creative juices flowing. So, go ahead, give yourself the chance to try something new. You never know where the adventure might lead.

_jamie sig

 

 


 Books I’m Reading:

book finishing schoolI am absolutely loving Gail Carriger’s four-book Finishing School Series. I listened to the first book in the series a couple years ago and then picked up the second one, Curtsies & Conspiracies, this past March. I recently finished the third book, Waistcoats & Weaponry, and am already about a third of the way through the final book in the series, Manners & Mutiny. The audio versions of the books that I purchased on Audible are read by Moira Quirk.

These books are undeniably a guilty  pleasure, and one I’m not ashamed to admit to. Though they might be considered genre fluff by some, they are well written, well paced, and just a whole lot of fun. They have managed to keep this picky reader consistently engaged through all four tomes.

Once I picked  up the series again, I noticed that each time I finished one book, I was automatically (and immediately) purchasing the next book in the collection. This is an important observation because it speaks not only to the value of series, but also to the value of having multiple books in the market (whether they are part of a series or not). As I anticipated coming to the end of the Finishing School quartet, I explored Carriger’s other titles and found that she has another series called the Parasol Protectorate Series. These books feature a different set of characters, but take place in the same world. You can bet your bookish booty that I’ll be buying those as well.

··• )o( •··

My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:

CRAFT

PUBLISHING & MARKETING

INSPIRATION

THE WRITING LIFE

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin parallel world

Here’s to trying new things, being your own person, and reveling in all your favorite guilty pleasures. Enjoy & I’ll see you on the other side! 
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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.
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Weekend Edition – The What, Why, How, and When of Your Story’s Theme

disney themesTheme is one of those slippery topics that can intimidate and paralyze a writer. It shimmers with a high-brow, literary aura that plunges many of us into a cold bath of self-doubt and uncertainty. Though definitions abound, it’s a difficult concept to nail down in practical terms. It’s like we have a vague sense that theme is an incredibly crucial element of a Good Story, and yet we can’t quite put our finger on why that is or how to bring that element into our own work.

Up-front disclaimer: I don’t know the answers to these questions. Yet. Today’s post is merely an exploration of the topic and the questions that I’ve been asking as part of my quest for understanding. I have much more to learn.

What intrigues me most about the idea of theme is that it seems to be a driving force for both writer and reader. In other words, our deep desire to express a particular theme is one the reasons we write, and our desire to consume and connect with a particular theme is one of he reasons we read.

Theme might be considered the soul of a story. It is less tangible than the premise or the plot. It is not something we construct through story structure or word craft, though both those tools help us illuminate and strengthen theme. Theme is not the flesh and bone of a story; it is the catalytic spark that brings that flesh and bone to life.

What is theme?

Let’s start our exploration with a few definitions.

From our old friend, Wikipedia:

“In contemporary literary studies, a theme is the central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work’s thematic concept is what readers “think the work is about” and its thematic statement being ‘what the work says about the subject’.”

From the passionate Mr. Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com in his book, Story Engineering:

“To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means ... Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.”

In his book, The Story Grid – What Good Editors Know, editor Shawn Coyne defines theme (or the “controlling idea”) this way:

“The controlling idea is the takeaway message the writer wants the reader/viewer to discover from reading or watching his Story. It’s the reason many of us want to be writers in the first place. We have something to say about the way the world is and we want others to come to see it in the same way we do.”

See what I mean about theme being less about physical mechanics and more about being the “soul” or life-giving spark of your story? Theme is not what happens in your story, it’s the driving force behind what happens. It’s the deeper “why”of your story – its purpose and meaning.

Even a cursory exploration of themes in novels will yield a wide variety of examples that range from the very broad (man vs. nature, every dog has his day, love conquers all, good vs. evil) to more specific. In The Story Grid, Coyne defines the theme, or controlling idea, of two well-known novels:

  • The Firm by John Grisham: Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.
  • The Shining by Stephen King: Narcissistic self-abuse annihilates all forms of human love.

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and a client of Shawn Coyne’s, provides these helpful examples of theme on his blog:

  • The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney: Coerced manipulation of consciousness – we are all being brainwashed, and we don’t know it.
  • Network by Paddy Chayefsky: Selling your soul on every level
  • Jurassic World (multiple writers): Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
  • When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron: It’s impossible for a man and a woman to be friends.
  • The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges: Sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, literary agent Donald Maass refers to theme as a story’s “animating spirit” and encourages writers to become “deeply impassioned about something you believe to be true.” He acknowledges that it takes a great deal of courage to stick our necks out in support of a strong theme:

“A breakout novelist needs courage, too: the courage to say something passionately. A breakout novelist believes that what she has to say is not just worth saying, but it is something that must be said. It is a truth that the world needs to hear, an insight without which we would find ourselves diminished.”

Doesn’t that get you a little fired up? It should. And this is why theme matters as much as it does.

Why does theme matter?

The short answer: It’s the element of your story that touches readers on the deepest level.

Your theme reflects the courage of your convictions. It is an expression of what you believe in, what you are willing to fight for. It is a representation of your core truth. This is powerful stuff, and that’s why readers respond to theme the way they do.

Maass observes that novels “convey society’s underlying values,” and as such they validate those values. It’s a novel’s theme that embodies those values and makes your readers feel a stirring of their own values and beliefs.

Brooks focuses on a theme’s ability to make a reader feel something, “Theme is what makes you think, makes you feel. It is what compels readers to invest themselves in your story. It is what will make them remember it and treasure it.” Think about your favorite stories, the ones that have stuck with you over the years. What is it about those stories that makes them so memorable? It probably isn’t the details of the plot, the setting, or the specific language the author used. It’s something deeper than that. It’s the heart of the story – the theme.

It’s like Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Theme is what makes the reader feel. It’s the thing they won’t forget.

Theme also matters to the writer.

How much better does it feel when you really believe in what you’re writing? How much more exciting and rewarding is the writing process when you have a strong sense of purpose? Theme provides you with inspiration and it helps you maintain your momentum. As Coyne points out, the expression of theme is one of the reasons why we write in the first place. We write because we have something to say.

But understanding your theme doesn’t only have inspirational benefits. It also has very tactical ones. In his excellent post, Help! I Can’t Find my Theme!, Pressfield explains how your theme tells you who your protagonist is, who your antagonist is, what your climax is, and can even give you your title. “Theme influences and determines everything in our story,” Pressfield explains. “Mood, setting, tone of voice, narrative device. Theme tells us what clothes to put on our leading lady, what furniture to put in our hero’s house, what type of gun our villain carries strapped to his ankle.”

The question of why we write, both collectively and individually, has always fascinated me. Though worrying about the why can get in the way of the actual writing, there is also power and insight to be gained by digging into your own motivations. When we take the time to articulate the beliefs that define us, we are better able to harness the energy and passion of those beliefs so that we can translate them into the kinds of stories that make a difference in reader’s lives.

How do you find your theme?

This, of course, is the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found an answer to the question. While Brooks is adamant that a writer must be proactive about defining and commanding a story’s theme, most of the insights I’ve read on the topic acknowledge that it can be very difficult to discover and articulate your theme. In fact, it seems that it’s often the case that a writer doesn’t know the theme of a story or novel until much of it has already been written. In The Story Grid, Coyne recommends patience:

“The creative energy and hard work necessary to bring these bits to life truthfully will eventually coalesce and an “aha, that’s what this is about!” moment will come. Perhaps not even to the writer, but to the reader.

One of the most difficult skills to develop as a writer is patience. And figuring out the controlling idea/theme requires it in abundance.”

Pressfield comes right out and says that we don’t pick our themes, our themes pick us,

“What do I mean by this? I mean a story—a novel, a play, a movie, a work of narrative nonfiction—is like a dream. Its source is our unconscious, our Muse. And just as in a dream, the totality arises organically and coheres naturally. The dream/story means something already. All we have to do as writers is figure it out.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Maass offers some practical theme-finding exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel. He suggests, for example, listing out a character’s inner motivations in a particular scene. He suggests that most such lists will begin with immediate physical and emotional needs before drilling down to secondary needs (such as information, support, comfort, curiosity, etc.), and then finally the “higher motivations” like truth, justice, hope, or love. Those items at the bottom of the list are clues to your theme.

Another exercise he recommends is to pretend that government agents have seized your work in progress and thrown you in prison. Just before you’re about to be executed, a warden gives you a typewriter and ten sheets of paper. What do you write? Now imagine that the same warden rips your ten pages to shreds, leaving you with only enough space to type up one paragraph. Again – what do you write? That’s your theme.

I’ve explored similar lines of questioning myself. In Five Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write, I suggest asking yourself what and who you love as well as what you want to say. This kind of brainstorming can get you really thinking. In Embrace Your Dark Side, I explain how you can use the things that make you angry to add fire and clarity to your stories.

Whether you discover your theme serendipitously in the process of writing your story, or define it up front doesn’t really matter. What matters is that once you know what it is, you bring it to bear on every element of your story.

When do you apply your theme?

Is there a “right” time to work your theme into your story? This is another question that doesn’t seem to have a universally accepted answer.

Despite his statement about themes picking the writer instead of the other way around, Pressfield stresses that the writer must know the theme because it is the foundation of the story. He urges writers to remember Chayefsky’s Rule of Theme:

As soon as I figure out what my play is about, I type it out in one line and Scotch tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that is not on-theme.

Pressfield and Coyne both acknowledge that sometimes it’s the editor who has to define the theme for the writer. They have apparently experienced this scenario several times over the course of their working relationship. In those instances, when Coyne identified the theme, Pressfield could then go back and ensure that the theme was a  core and focused element in every scene.

Interestingly, identifying your theme up front and consciously writing to it in your first draft can sometimes have a detrimental affect on your story. If you focus too much on theme, you run the risk of becoming heavy-handed with your approach and coming off sounding like you’re delivering a preachy morality tale from atop your soapbox – never a recipe for success. To help mitigate this problem, Maass suggests “keeping the message out of the mouth of the author and instead conveying it through the actions of a novel’s characters.”

Brooks’ ideas about how theme can develop organically through character behavior corroborate Maass’ suggestion:

“… if you have complete control over the character arc in particular, theme can sometimes take care of itself. You don’t have to have an agenda to speak to the truth of life, you simply need to explore and illuminate through the experiences of your characters and the consequences of your choices.”

So, I guess the jury is still out about the best way to apply theme in your story. My instincts tell me that each author may need to find his or her own “best” method through trial and error, and that the method may evolve over time along with other craft skills.

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Theme – it’s a complex and sometimes contested part of the writing craft. How it’s defined, discovered, and implemented may vary greatly from writer to writer or even project to project. Every expert who writes on the topic agrees, however, that no matter how or when you discover and apply it, it’s an absolutely crucial element to story success. It’s the secret ingredient that gives your story universal appeal, staying power, and the ability to touch people’s hearts. And that, my friends, is really what this writing gig is all about, is it not?

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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.
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Friday Fun – Creating Emphasis in Your Writing

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

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:

FriFunQuestion8

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Hello, Faye. There are probably dozens of ways to emphasize a particular statement or detail in your writing, and which ones work for you will be a matter of personal style as well as what makes sense in the context of your work. I’m a fan of white space and short, punchy sentences. I like setting important bits off visually by literally putting space around them. For instance, I might give a five-word sentence its own paragraph, leaving blank space above and below it. I also like paring my sentences down to the fewest possible words so that there’s nothing left to cloud my meaning. Simple is often better when you’re trying to make a point, so keeping it short and sweet is a good bet.

You can also use cinematic writing to draw the reader in so that they are able to understand exactly why you are so vehement about a particular point. In your example above, you mentioned that you detest cruelty to animals. Instead of just saying that, describe a scene of cruelty and use all the descriptive powers at your disposal to make the reader see the horror and by seeing it not only understand your passion, but come to adopt it for themselves.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: This question goes directly to the heart of style, and each writer develops her own, so there is no “right” answer per se, just the best choices that suit the circumstances layered with your voice and personal preference.

Grammatically, “and” is one of seven coordinating conjunctions, used to link equal parts. It’s been said that “and” is one of the hardest words to use effectively. When joining two independent clauses or complicated items in a series, it can be replaced with a semi-colon; or, as Jamie suggests above, when used between two independent clauses, it can be eliminated with a period.

And white space, for emphasis.

As you can imagine, there are whole books about writing effective sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are just one tool; punctuation is another, and word order is a third – of many. You might look at The Harbrace College Handbook or similar manual of style for insights. There are also writers whose prose style can take your breath away, and there’s nothing like reading great prose to learn effective methods. A great example of tremendous writing is The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz, for which she just won a Pulitzer.

Good luck!

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think Jamie and Deborah have great comments. All I can add is, I recently saw a statement  that said that when you use ‘but’ in a sentence, it negates everything that came before it.

So, “I like you, but you make me crazy.” is contradictory and it’s difficult to ascertain which part of the statement is true.

In your example, I’d keep the statements separate (maybe even different paragraphs as they are opposites) so that neither loses its importance.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Hi Faye! I agree with all of the above advice. The only thing I can add is an element of style I’ve taken from the world of public speaking: Always put the most important part of the sentence at the end. I think, for your purposes, you could end with …”and I detest cruelty to animals.” Keep it clear and declarative. And use lots of white space, as already mentioned. Good luck!

 

The Arrogance of Belonging

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.37.01 PMI just finished listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, for the second time. It’s been a few months since I first listened to it and when I started it again, I thought: Why did I wait so long to listen to this book again?

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear has now joined the ranks of craft books I will read and recommend over and over again. It’s right up there with Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

One of the topics covered in Big Magic is the idea of personal entitlement. Ms. Gilbert speaks of this as a positive attribute, rather than a negative attribute. She says we need to know we have the right to at least try to be creative.

Ms. Gilbert goes on to talk about “the arrogance of belonging,” a phrase she borrowed from the poet David Whyte, who claims that it “is an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life.”

Ms. Gilbert states the arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption, but it’s opposite; “it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself.” She states the arrogance of belonging takes us out of our self-doubt and self-protection. It is only when we are not so self-involved that we can begin to be creative.

After reading this part of Big Magic, I realized I was most creative with the people I love the most, the ones with whom I know I belong. These days I’m always making up stories and performing little scenes for my son with his Lego mini-figures or his morning Gummi vitamins. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how I look to him or if he thinks the scene I created is any good. All I’m thinking about is what would be fun to say or do next.

I once wrote a sonnet about cheese curls. That was for someone I didn’t worry about, either.

I also write some really funny emails, if I do say so myself. Usually to my twin sister—they are silly and often involve talking kitchenware, but I don’t worry what she’s going to think. I assume she’ll think they’re funny because I think they’re funny. There’s that arrogance of belonging Ms. Gilbert wrote about.

The trick, I think, is to try to expand that arrogance of belonging beyond our friends and family, to the audience we are trying to reach. I so often stifle myself as a writer because I’m so concerned I will come off sounding stupid or clichéd.

But writing nothing helps no one and I would like to help people with my writing. And if I can become a little less self-absorbed, a little less worried about what others might think of me, I might be able to create something really interesting—and helpful, too.

Do you have the arrogance of belonging you need to write creatively?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, family physician, and life coach.