Friday Fun – SO … Where D’You Get Your Story Ideas?

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:


JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Ahhh … the always-asked question about where story ideas come from. This is a query with no right answer. The genesis of each story is unique and sometimes completely inexplicable.

I can, however, point you to two of my past blog posts: 4 Steps to Capture the Muse – Documenting Ideas and Your Writer’s Mind.

I’ll also offer up this video featuring the inimitable Neil Gaiman providing one of the most informative and entertaining responses I’ve ever heard to this question:

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think it’s more a question of how do you get the ideas to STOP flowing in? I could spend so much time every day writing down ideas for stories, articles, blog posts, etc., that it’s more of a challenge to know which ideas to grab and make note of than worry about where to look for ideas.

When struggling to find inspiration to write, take a minute to pause and think about what it is you’re truly finding a challenge. Is it really that you have NO inspiration to write? NO idea what to write about? NO motivation to create?

I find the best way to find inspiration is to show up and start writing – without thinking. Just start writing. Words my be gobbly-gook and make no sense. Maybe it’s simply writing “What do I write about What do I write about What do I write about” over and over until suddenly you find yourself writing about something.

Give it a shot. You have nothing to lose.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso

Lee Laughlin CU 7-13

Lee Laughlin: I’m with Lisa, for me it’s about filtering the ideas that are floating through my head. I try to keep a running list of things that have caught my attention and stay with me for more than 30 seconds. If I overhear a snippet of conversation and it’s still with me 2 days later I write it down.  I saw the movie Spotlight on Monday night and I’m still reflecting on the movie and the broader story. Who knows where that will lead. =

I also play the “What if?” game. What if Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had to share a jail cell when they are in their 70’s? What do they talk about? Do they talk? Why are they in a jail cell in the first place?

Sometimes an issue is important to me (i.e. the maiming and killing of people with albinism in Tanzania) and I rage at the computer until I get my ideas out and then see what can be done to turn it into a salable piece.

My fictional WIP features a heroine with multiple chemical sensitivities. This came out of issues my husband and daughter have with VOCs (volatile organic compounds). There are gems to mined in every aspect of your life, just pick up the pen or sit at the keyboard and start typing. In my experience people who have trouble coming up with topics to write about are letting their self-editor get the upper hand. Lock him or her in a box somewhere and just start brain dumping.

For more inspiration, I highly recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: I’m interested in ordinary, daily life, so I find ideas everywhere; for me the trick is to capture them, which is why I carry pen and paper with me at all times.

Like Lee, I ask, “What if?” Case in point: I was stuck in construction traffic near my house when the state highway was relocated. While waiting for my turn to bumpety-bump over the dirt lane, I wondered what Vermont was like before the interstates were built and what happened during construction. I did a lot of research, including interviews. The result: my novel, Elegy for a Girl.

Ideas for radio commentaries and my weekly blog come at me thick and fast, alongside the rush of daily life. And ideas, scenes, characters, voices all bubble up on my daily walk.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: I don’t have much to add to the answer listed by my colleagues above, except to say that if I don’t write ideas down, I end up thinking I didn’t have any ideas that day. If I make a point to write my ideas down, (or record them as voice memos in my phone,) I’m always surprised by how many ideas I have.

For my life coaching blog, I write about things that come up in my daily life or in the lives of my clients. For other writing, I often write about things that happened years ago that have stayed with me. Recently, a writer friend asked me why this incident I was trying to write about was so important to me. I realized it was much more than one incident and I suddenly could see a thread running through a number of situations that happened to me and others in my life–they were all connected in my mind.



Weekend Edition – What would Bowie do?

charlie brown david bowie

··• )o( •··

My daughter knew him as the Goblin King, but to countless fans around the world and across generations, he was so much more. Since Monday morning’s announcement of his passing, the Internet has been abuzz with lamentations for, tributes to, and a veritable flood of shared memories about David Bowie – the man who fell to earth.

I have spent more time than may be appropriate consuming these digital sound bytes in great gulps, trying to come to terms with the loss of a beloved artist and the feelings that loss has stirred in me. It is disorienting to feel such a genuine sense of sorrow over the death of someone I never met. Bowie was, after all and despite appearances, just another human being. But great artists change us. We are moved by their work and fooled, because we have access to their public personas, into believing in an illusion of intimacy. We weave their personalities and their art into the fabric of our lives, tying their threads to ours with inextricable knots.

For the alienated and the disenfranchised, the prosecuted and the lonely, Bowie was a kind of savior – a beautifully vulnerable yet rebellious demigod of originality and self-expression. Over the course of this past week, I have read dozens of heartfelt stories from grieving fans who relate how Bowie and his music made them feel less alone and inspired them to embrace their weirdness, despite the world telling them they were freaks.

I don’t have a story like that. I can’t lay claim to a moment of teenage epiphany while listening to Space Oddity or Ziggy Stardust. I never wrestled with issues of gender, and my tussles with sexuality were your garden variety coming-of-age affairs. And yet, Bowie was still an important and persistent presence in my life. His music was a linchpin of my personal soundtrack, and his larger-than-life persona was a staple of the room-sized collages that adorned my bedroom door, bulletin board, and eventually the cinderblock walls of my college dorm.

··• )o( •··

Great artists – writers, musicians, actors, painters – touch our hearts with their work. They become a proxy for our feelings, saying the things we are afraid to say, don’t know how to say, or aren’t even aware we need to say. This ability to capture and convey human emotions in a story, a song, a performance, or a painting is the closest thing to magic we humans have discovered. The transference of experience and emotion is a powerful tool for discovery and connection. Perhaps the most powerful tool.

But, if we go beyond our experience of great art – if we get a little meta (because that’s where my musings about David Bowie have brought me) – we find that there is something very moving about  the creative act itself.

Bowie was fascinating. He was an enigma, a rebel, an otherworldly force of nature. But, that wasn’t what drew me into his orbit and kept me there for all these decades. Yes, I loved his music and appreciated the message of the lyrics he wrote, but there was something else that went deeper than that. I’m only just now beginning to realize that the something else was the spirit in which he made his art – his creative drive and integrity, his insatiable curiosity, his courage and his commitment, and – not any less important – his sense of play and mischief.

Even more than the overt messages of his songs or the outlandish flair of his stage personas, my artist’s heart responded to the way he threw himself into his creations, the way he believed unwaveringly in the importance and value of what he was doing, the way he never gave up.

And, his road wasn’t easy.

Earlier this week, I watched a documentary about his very early years and learned just how hard Bowie had to work to develop into the artist he became. His earliest albums were wildly erratic explorations of strange territories, many of them very dark. He tried so many different styles, experimenting his way to becoming David Bowie. And with each step he pushed against personal, professional, and cultural boundaries in order to create the art he wanted to create because he believed it mattered.

That’s what makes my throat tighten and brings a tear to my eye – his faith in himself as an artist and his belief that the art – his art – mattered. How many people have that? How many people give themselves permission to create at all, never mind giving themselves carte blanche to create without constraint – to put it all out there, to be outrageous and beautiful, to ask the hard questions, to dive into the darkness, and yet – at the end of the day – to still be amazed that people take any of it seriously?

··• )o( •··

I never needed Bowie to be my champion as an isolated or abandoned youth. I didn’t need him to tell me it was okay to be different. What I needed, though I didn’t know it, was someone to show me what it looks like to have faith in your art.

I’ve been mourning Bowie’s death because we lost a one-of-a-kind artist, but there’s more to it than that. As fans, ours is not the deep heartbreak of Bowie’s friends and family; but our grief is no less real. We may not have known the man – David Jones – personally, but he was a part of our lives nonetheless. When he died, a little piece of me died, too. My connection to my past became a little more tenuous. The reality of my own death became a little more concrete. As a friend of mine said on Monday, “It was only today that I realized he was mortal.”

And so, we come to the heart of the matter.

As human beings, we routinely forget that we are mortal. We grant ourselves a kind of immortality born of denial. We have time, we think. We have tomorrow. But then we lose someone like David Bowie, an artist who touched our lives deeply and who seemed to exist outside of the limitations of mortality, and we are reminded how little time we actually have, how fragile we really are.

As artists, this realization is terrifying; but it’s also a wake-up call. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that my mourning for Bowie is tangled up with gut-twisting feelings of regret and remorse for the time I’ve lost. The dark side of my admiration of his commitment to his art is the cruel comparison to my own creative shortcomings – all the times I’ve failed to follow his example, instead choosing the safe and comfortable path.

There will never be another Bowie, but each of us can learn from him. Bowie taught us many things about how to create art and how to live a creative life. Now, it’s up to us. You don’t have to be a rock star. You don’t have to be outrageous or famous. You just have to be the artist you already are. You have to embrace your own creative spark and spirit and find the courage to share that with the world.

Times columnist Caitlin Moran may have put it best,

When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that – but everyone else wanted to be like him, too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make being you cool. PLUS, unlike David Bowie, you get to listen to David Bowie for inspiration. So, you’re already one up on him, really. YOU’RE ALREADY ONE AHEAD OF DAVID BOWIE.

Fans, critics, and even the people who were closest to him are calling Blackstar Bowie’s parting gift, but I think Bowie’s true parting gift is so much bigger. Teaching by example, he gave us an inspiring blueprint for how to believe in and commit to our own art. He didn’t hold back, and he never stopped creating. He remained eternally curious and enthusiastic. He experimented, collaborated, and played. And, perhaps most importantly, he embodied a steadfast belief in the intrinsic value of art and of the creative process.

What would Bowie do? No matter what, Bowie would make art. Thank you, Mr. Jones, for setting the example. Thank you.

Jamie Lee Wallace David Bowie fan, evolving writer, and creative human being. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Ten Things David Bowie Taught Us About Creating Art

One of the last photos taken of David Bowie

One of the last photos taken of David Bowie

On Monday morning the news of David Bowie’s death took us by surprise. Two days after his 69th birthday and the triumphant release of his latest, and last, album – Blackstar – the man who inspired a generation to new heights of curiosity, creativity, and self-expression was gone.

Though I loved all of Bowie’s music, including all the classic songs that were released before I was quite old enough to appreciate them, the first Bowie record I owned (and played to death) was Tonight. I think I may still have a battered cassette copy of that album somewhere. Two years later, in 1986, I – like millions of other teenage girls – fell in love with Bowie as the evil but oh-so-alluring Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s movie, Labyrinth.

I have spent more time than I’d like to admit over these past couple of days reminiscing about Bowie – reading tributes and articles, watching video interviews, and – of course – listening to his music. It’s funny, a couple months ago on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I bought two Bowie albums from iTunes. I rarely buy digital music, but I couldn’t get the song Tumble and Twirl out of my head, so I downloaded my beloved Tonight album and then picked up the Best of Bowie because – man! – I loved every song on the playlist.

I wish I felt up to offering a fitting tribute to Bowie, but I’m not yet able to articulate my feelings fully. So, instead, I humbly offer this list of ten things David Bowie taught us about creating art. I still have much to learn about the man, his life, and his art; but these ideals are ones he embodied boldly, through his creations, actions, and words.

#10 – Be original, but also don’t be afraid to steal. Bowie is renowned for being a one-of-a-kind geek/freak who never shied away from embracing the weird, eclectic, or fringe elements of his identity or his audience. He is credited with inspiring many, many other artists from the 80s, 90s, and today. On the other hand, he readily cites the heavy influence of other artists on his own work – Little Richard, for instance, John Coltrane, Shirley Bassey, and John Lennon. Bowie had a way of processing all these influences, making them part of his own art. As they say, nothing is original. You can only take what’s been done and do it your own way.

#9 – Look at things from different perspectives. Bowie was able to create such fresh and unique music because he had such a huge talent for looking at the world and his art from different perspectives. In a 1999 commencement speech at the Berklee College of Music, Bowie talked about how he liked to play the game of “What if?” – what if you combined this thing with that thing? By mixing wildly different elements in unlikely combinations, he was able to create something new. In another interview, he walks through the “cut up” method he sometimes used to write his lyrics. (Don’t pay attention to the lines of coke on the table.)

Bowie also famously created characters that he inhabited on stage and sometimes off – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Major Tom. He looked at the world through the eyes of these characters, and he told their stories – and ours – with their voices.

Finally, David was an avid reader. In 1998, Vanity Fair magazine published Bowie’s responses to the famous Proust Questionnaire. His answer to the first question – “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” – was “Reading.” Bowie was curious about life, you might even say he was voracious. Of the Bowie quotes making the rounds on the Internet, one of my favorites is, “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”

#8 – Don’t be afraid to confront what scares you. Much of Bowie’s work has a decidedly dark bent. His lyrics dive deeply into themes of loneliness, exclusion, fear, death, loss, and grief. He was never afraid to write the hard stuff, and his courage made us brave. He faced many demons and he did so with an air of rebellion. Robin Williams made us laugh about the scary stuff, Fred Rogers comforted us, David Bowie invited us to explore it – to get inside and see what made it work, to take it apart so it couldn’t scare us anymore.

#7 – Create what YOU want to create. Bowie was never subtle about the strength of his artistic integrity. He is quoted as saying, “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” Bowie didn’t write to please anyone but himself. I imagine he didn’t think of his work as a product, but as an exploration or an experiment. He may have enthralled millions of fans over the years, but he truly only played for one person – himself.

#6 – Keep a sense of wonder. Like most great artists, Bowie doesn’t seem to have ever felt he was “done” or knew everything. He was a constant seeker and student, and he knew the value of keeping an open mind and being willing to be surprised. “Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive,” he said, “you’re pretty much on the way out…”

#5 – Collaborate. Many of Bowie’s greatest hits were collaborations with other artists. The list of musicians Bowie worked with is long and illustrious: Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, even Bing Crosby, and so many more. Bowie knew the power of collaboration to inspire great ideas and stellar performances.

#4 – Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of recognition. In addition to creating only what he wanted to create, Bowie also seems to have had very specific opinions about accepting accolades for his work. He is one of only a handful of people who declined knighthood, reportedly saying, “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

#3 – Be a force for bringing beauty into the world. Though the sometimes outrageous personas and fashions he adopted over the span of his career aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying that Bowie brought color and style to the world. He embraced the importance of beauty – in all its forms – fully and passionately. He never held back. In fact, he pushed at the edges of traditional definitions and helped us see beauty everywhere.

#2 – Don’t take yourself too seriously. “I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.” – David Bowie

I love that quote.

On Monday, I posted the following Facebook status update, “For all his mystique and musical genius, what I always liked best about David Bowie was his sense of humor and his full-bodied, roguish smile. Gods, that smile. It was like he knew a delightfully wicked and beautiful secret – a cosmic joke that we’d all get to hear someday; and he couldn’t wait to share the punch line. There is a little less magic in the world today, but thank the gods we had him while we did. He made us feel less alone. He made us dance. He made us laugh and think and dream. The stars look very different today. May they guide you home, wherever that may be.”

The post included a link to the first in a series of three video clip compilations of Bowie being funny.

#1 – Never stop creating. The media reports that Bowie died after an eighteen-month battle with cancer, but – clearly – his personal health crisis did not keep him from creating his art. If anything, it seems to have fueled his drive to finish Blackstar, an album that his friends and family agree was a parting gift from the artist to his fans. I came across a Jack London quote earlier today that seemed fitting, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” That seems to be exactly what Bowie was doing – using his time. And, oh, how grateful I am that he did. How grateful I am that he lived.


We have lost a great artist and an inspiration. If – like me – you’re feeling down about it, maybe this tweet of questionable but irrelevant lineage from @jesuisdean will make you smile:  If you’re sad today,  just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.


Weekend Edition – The Season of the Writer

Winter is coming. Let’s write.

Winter Magic - Writer-Style

Winter Magic – Writer-Style

Sometimes, I miss being a mouse.  I miss it most around this time of year, as autumn begins to wane and small, furry animals scurry about, expending a final burst of energy before their long, winter’s sleep. Watching them stash their acorns and other treasures reminds me of winter afternoons holed up in the makeshift burrow at the foot of my childhood bed.

There was a narrow space between my bed and the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that housed not only my books, but also my large (and meticulously organized) collection of Breyer and other horse figurines. It was just wide enough to accommodate me, and I would often transform it into my own, little hideaway. With a pile of blankets and pillows beneath me as a nest, and the large cutting board my mom used for her sewing above me as a roof, I would retreat into my hibernation den with a Ziploc bag full of cheerios, my sketch book, journal, and pencils. Since my mouse house was built alongside the bookcase, I already had a built-in library, and – since the heating grate was conveniently situated at the foot of my bed – I also had a source of toasty warmth. It was the perfect retreat from the world.

··• )o( •··

Living in New England, winter has always been to me a time to hunker down in the cozy warmth of home. I am happiest when curled up on the couch under blankets with a steaming mug of tea and a good book. Even the chores of winter – hauling and stacking firewood (a chore I sadly no longer have since our new abode does not have a fireplace … yet), making soup, baking bread, even shoveling snow – make me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Winter is the time to gather around the hearth and tell tales. It is the season of the storyteller, the keeper of myths and histories. It has also always been, for me, the season of the writer. It’s as if we must keep the balance – spinning new tales as the old ones are spent around the flickering light of the fire.

Winter’s descent into darkness is like journeying into the underworld – a place of foreboding and yet also a place of rest, rejuvenation, and – ultimately – creation and rebirth. Though today’s technology and modern lifestyle try to drown out the rhythms of the seasons, if you listen closely you can still hear winter’s invitation to slow down and nestle into the comforts and creativity of your own, small world.

··• )o( •··

Despite the howling of its storms, winter is a time of deep quiet. Even before the snow flies, the stillness begins to creep in as many of the region’s birds take to the skies in search of warmer climes, and the crickets and cicadas turn in for the year. Even the trees cease their endless whispering as their leaves fall to the ground to rustle quietly like the fading echoes of long ago conversations. And with the remnants of their foliage raiments scattered at their feet, the trees stand tall and naked, silently revealed truths silhouetted against the sky.

And then the snowflakes blanket the world in a white hush that  glitters like fallen stars, bringing not only quiet, but also the possibility of magic. I remember walking through snowy woods as a child, feeling like a character in one of my beloved fairytales. Transformed by winter’s artistry, the forest seemed a foreign place full of mystery. Stories called to me from the shadowy spaces under snow-laden fir trees and from around the corners in once familiar paths. My heart ran wild with the silver deer of my imagination, their jeweled antlers shining darkly against the newly white world.

··• )o( •··

More than any other season, winter still holds this sense of magic and “otherness” for me. Despite the whirlwind of the holidays and the ceaselessly churning world of business, winter manages to provide a much-needed respite from the usual grind. And it is in these spaces between storms that I find I am most inspired to write. The transformation of the world under its layer of icy frosting invites me to step outside my usual routines and thoughts into a many-storied world of endless possibilities. The quiet clears my head, replacing the din of distractions with a contemplative space that invites introspection. The cold and snow make it easy to hide away from the rest of the world, snuggled into a pocket of personal creativity where I am warmed as much by my imagination as I am by my hot tea.

Winter strikes a sharp contrast between comfort and survival. It strips the world bare, leaving us exposed to our own frailties, but it also heightens our appreciation of  the simple pleasures of hearth and home. Let the storm rage, I say. We have stories to tell.



book brene vulnerabilityI have been listening to Brene Brown’s book, The Power of Vulnerability on Audible. It’s the first of her books that I’ve read, despite the fact that friends have been raving about her for years. Now I know why.

Brown calls herself a “researcher/storyteller.” She began her work studying shame, a topic that didn’t earn her any popularity points on the speaking circuit, but eventually realized that what she was really studying was vulnerability. Though her work does not deal comprehensively or exclusively with creativity, it includes some important revelations about the importance of play, rest, and creative endeavors, and it also dives fearlessly into a deep exploration of the feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that keep us from living “whole heartedly.”

The audio, featuring Brown, was recorded at a live workshop. Though the topic is heavy and complex, Browns’s down-to-earth delivery is as entertaining and humorous as it is enlightening. For a taste of her work (and her style), you might take twenty minutes to watch her 2010 TEDTalk:

I have a feeling I will eventually share more thoughts about how Brown’s work intersects with our creative urges and courage, but – for now – I’ll just leave you with a heartfelt recommendation for this book. I’m already trying to decide which of her other books to read next!

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:

In the wake of the nightmarish news coming in from Paris and other places around the world, the pursuit of art can feel small and unimportant; but art is necessary. It is an outlet for our pain and fears. It helps us connect with others and with our own feelings. It reminds us that there is good and hope and beauty in the world, even when life seem full of cruelty and darkness. My heart goes out to the people of Paris, and to everyone around the world who suffers. None of us can single-handedly save the world, but each of us can engage in small acts of kindness, and – just as importantly – continue to create the art that only we can create. The world needs it.

pin art consoles

Close … 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Writing Fears

This fall I’ve started work on a fiction project I haven’t worked on since the spring. This past summer I focused my writing time on nonfiction, especially in July when I did CampNaNo. My nonfiction writing feels like it’s getting stronger and I’m enjoying it more and more as time goes by.

That hasn’t been my experience of writing fiction, at least not lately. Recently I wrote an outline to a short story I’ve been working on and I sent it to my critique group for their feedback. Because it was between meetings, one of the members of our group offered to meet with me to discuss the outline. She thought there were some issues with it that needed to be addressed in person because they were difficult to articulate in an email.

I replied to her email saying:

“Honestly, I’m not sure if I want to keep working on this story. I think I need to start doing something completely different. The last short story I wrote had a similar setting and characters and I want to try something different. Or I guess I could just be sick of it. I don’t think we need to meet just to go over my outline.”

Since then I’ve felt like giving up on fiction: Maybe I’ve lost my fiction writing skills. Maybe I never had any to begin with. Maybe I should go back to writing prompts and free writing and stop trying to write something as ambitious as a short story. 

At this point in my thinking process, I realized I was in the grip of fear. I then asked myself if I wanted to allow my fear to lead me. I don’t.

I now see that the only way I’m going to get better at writing short stories is to keep writing—and rewriting–short stories.

I’ve been fearful of showing my fiction to my critique group—not because they are harsh critics, but because I am, at least with my own work.

I now choose to think differently about my critique group: I have the luxury of being part of a group of people who are willing to critique my work and to allow me to critique their work. I’m going to take advantage of this luxury by writing another draft of my short story and showing it to my critique group—as imperfect as it is.

I’ll become a better writer if I do. And that is my goal.

I know the fear I’ve been feeling is partly because I stepped away from fiction for too long, and partly because my fellow critique group members have been accomplishing so much while I’ve been doing other things.

I can manage my fear (not banish it, I don’t think that’s possible) by writing fiction more often and choosing to think how lucky I am to have an accomplished group of writers reviewing my work.

I feel much better now. Time to get back to my short story.

What are your fears about your writing life and how do you manage them?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I’m dividing my writing time between a coaching book for physicians and a short story these days, and it’s only two days before NaNo starts and I haven’t made the commitment–there’s still time to decide!


Cognitive Dissonance and Writing II

I recently wrote about Cognitive Dissonance and Writing. One of the ways I’ve dealt with my own cognitive dissonance (in many areas of my life) is to find small ways to “prove” both of my conflicting beliefs true. One way I do this is to use a concrete exercise I learned from Martha Beck[i]. I call this exercise the And/Or Exercise, but Martha calls it by its more correct psychological name:

Unifying False Dichotomies

To shake yourself free of falsely dichotomous thinking, try making a list of either/ors in your life. These could be any pairs of opposites, contradictory things that you could be, have, or do.

My Dichotomous Life

I can either be __________________________ or ______________________________.

I can either have ________________________ or ______________________________.

I can either do __________________________ or ______________________________.

Now, rewrite those very same things in the spaces below.

My Creative Life

I intend to be both __________________________ and __________________________.

I intend to have both ________________________ and __________________________.

I intend to do both __________________________ and __________________________.

The more resistance you feel to rewriting these either/or statements into “and” statements, the more likely you are holding onto false beliefs.

Here are some statements I’ve worked with over the years:

  • I can either be a doctor or a mother.
  • I can either have a family or a career.
  • I can either write novels or practice medicine.

Rewritten, these statements become:

  • I intend to be both a doctor and a mother.
  • I intend to have both a family and a career.
  • I intend to write novels and practice medicine.

These days, I can rewrite all those statements with an “of course I can!” feeling, but back in the day, I had a hard time believing them. Seeing the statements written out made them easier to believe.

I continue to do this exercise every once in a while, as a way to see what I’m thinking and to discover where I might be experiencing cognitive dissonance in my own life.

At one point I came across this dichotomous belief: I can be either an artist or a productive member of society.

How’s that for a creativity blocker? Pretty good, it turns out.

I intend to be both an artist and a productive member of society is a statement that works much better for me, and allows me to see the creativity I bring to every part of my life, from my writing to my parenting to my cooking. It’s a shift in perspective that allows me to see myself as the creative being I am.

Do you think you can either be a writer or something else? How about both?

[i] Adapted from The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life, by Martha Beck. Used with her permission.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, master life coach, and family physician. You can find her at

Weekend Edition – Idea Math for Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writer = Idea Machine

From "a little market" via Pinterest

From “a little market” via Pinterest

If someone asked you to name your stock in trade as a writer, what would you say?

Your knee-jerk response might be “words.” Words are the building blocks of our stories. They are like the painter’s pigments or the sculptor’s clay.

But, are they really your stock in trade? No.

As a writer, your stock in trade is your ideas.

Without ideas, there are no words. Ideas are where the process starts. They are the seeds that blossom into word-laden forests. My dad has always told me that the ideas -not perfect execution – are the thing. Anyone can learn to do a thing well, whether that thing is painting a picture, taking a photograph, or writing a story. These are technical skills you can practice and hone until you achieve a high level of mastery. But, without a good idea to drive your technical excellence, all you have is an empty exercise in rote execution. What you create will have no purpose, no meaning, no soul.

And, that’s no good.

··• )o( •··

So, ideas. Where do they come from?

The Muse, you say? Really? I like to think the Muses are kind of like Sharon Stone’s character in Albert Brooks’ film, The Muse. (If you haven’t seen this, please watch it. It is fabulous from any angle, but from the writer’s perspective it’s especially funny.) Stone plays Sarah Little, a modern day Muse whose tactics are more than a tad unconventional. She is petulant, feisty, demanding, and – more to the point – she never actually gives anyone ideas. She doesn’t consider that to be part of her job.

So, if not the Muses, where do ideas come from?

They come from you, silly.

And, like any other skill, idea generation is something you can practice. It’s not magic or a creative gift or the whispers of those pesky Muses. Idea generation is about treating your brain like the muscle it is and working it out to improve flexibility, stamina, and strength.

··• )o( •··

Though he is sometimes a little over the top for some people, I kind of adore James Altucher. He’s more of a business/finance/entrepreneurship blogger, but many of his ideas apply beautifully to writing. One of my favorite posts of his is The Magic of Idea Math, in which he outlines seven different ways to generate ideas:

  • IDEA ADDITION: Take a big, popular idea and add something to it.
  • IDEA SUBTRACTION: Think you’re stuck in a situation with no options? Consider your situation without the roadblocks. Just take all the “can’ts” out of the equation, and see where you go.
  • IDEA EXPONENTIALS & SUBSETS: Start with ten ideas and then add ten ideas for each of your original ten, and so on. (This, as Altucher points out, is a good recipe for writing a book.)
  • NEGATIVE IDEAS: Look at opposites and opposing forces to get a completely different perspective that opens your mind to new possibilities.
  • IDEA MULTIPLICATION: Take a good idea and figure out how to scale it through replication.
  • IDEA DIVISION: Take a good idea and divide it again and again in order to break it down into its component, “niche” parts. I picture cell division that breaks one big cell down into dozens of smaller, more specialized cells.
  • IDEA SEX: This is similar to idea addition, but more integrated. Altucher uses the example of “sampling” in the music industry. The popular term “mash-up” also applies here.

Go ahead and play around with these ideas in the context of your writing or your writing career. This is all about “thinking outside the box,” as the tired cliché says.  It’s about training your brain to think about problems (and possibilities!) in different ways.

··• )o( •··

I use the word “training” intentionally. As I mentioned earlier, you need to treat your brain like a muscle. You need to exercise and stretch it constantly. It’s the old “use it, or lose it” idea.

My daughter and I recently discovered, courtesy of another mom, a great show from the National Geographic channel called Brain Games. The series is a fascinating exploration of how our brains work. Much of what we’ve learned by watching so far has surprised the hell out of me.

One thing that didn’t surprise me, however, is the fact that our brains are amazingly adaptive machines that learn at an incredibly fast rate, but will atrophy if not properly exercised. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that brain training falls into two categories: strength and flexibility.

Strength exercises help you hone your memory, analysis, observation, and problem solving skills. I subscribe to a great brain-training tool called Lumosity to help me with these kinds of exercises. Using my desktop computer or their handy mobile app, I play fun games that are scientifically designed by neuroscientists to help me improve these basic mental skills. It’s easy, fun, and kind of addictive.

Flexibility exercises are the ones that help you improve how creatively you think. This is where the “outside the box” stuff comes in. One of the best ways to increase your thinking agility is to “think like a kid” by removing any assumptions you have about how a certain problem “should” or can be solved. A Brain Games episode we watched recently demonstrates the power of thinking like a kid by asking adults and kids to describe what they see in an abstract drawing. Adults can usually only come up with one or maybe two ideas, while kids can go on and on (and on!) as their imaginations rev up.

··• )o( •··

That’s kind of what ideas are all about, right? Imagination. And isn’t imagination the domain of a writer?

We writers ply our story trade by repeatedly asking the all-important question, “What if?” This deceivingly simple question is the key to opening a world of possibilities. Though the process may start slowly with a grinding of the wheels in your brain, once you get going all kinds of ideas jump out at you.

“Possibilities” – you may notice I’ve used that word a number of times in this post. That’s because ideas are about possibilities. Ideas aren’t intrinsically right or wrong, they are just potentialities to be explored and tested.

And they aren’t just for stories, either. There are countless possibilities to explore in your real life, too. We often get stuck thinking about our world and our lives from only one perspective and based on one set of assumptions. But, what if we looked at our situation with the eyes of a child?  What if we used Altucher’s negative ideas mind math to remove the obstacles that we assume are keeping us from achieving our goals? What if we let our imaginations uncover new solutions to our problems?

··• )o( •··

Your stock in trade as a writer is your ideas. They are what set you apart from everyone else. They are what capture a reader’s attention, whether you are writing fiction, nonfiction, or marketing copy. As much as you practice the craft of writing – style, voice, syntax, and all that good stuff – you must also practice the craft of idea generation. Give your brain the opportunity to stretch and play. Make coming up with new ideas part of your daily writing routine. Drop your assumptions and inhibitions and see how bizarre and silly you can get. You never know what bit of brilliance will emerge from the chaos.


What I’m {Thinking About} Writing:

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

Wall art by spellandtell via Etsy

As I mentioned above, considering “what if?” possibilities isn’t an exercise that’s only good for writing stories. It can be a powerful and transformative tool for shaping your life and your writing career.

I have been working as a freelance marketing writer for almost the last decade because I asked myself, “What if I gave the copywriting thing a whirl?” I’m so grateful that the answer to that question turned out to be the successful business I’ve got now. But, even while I deeply appreciate each and every client and project that enables me to keep a roof over our heads and Boboli pizzas on the table, I can’t quite seem to stop asking, “What if?”

  • What if I tried my hand at nonfiction … maybe writing a book about writing?
  • What if I did a self-publishing experiment around a serialized story?
  • What if I offered custom stories about people’s pets?
  • What if I …

You get the idea. Sometimes we get too tied up in thinking about “writing” in only one way. We think that being a writer means being a novelist or a journalist or a screenwriter. We stop seeing other opportunities, we forget that there are all kinds of species of writers and all kinds of different ways that stories and information permeate our world and our lives. If we stop assuming that, as a “writer,” we can only exist within the confines of a very specific identity, all kinds of new possibilities open up to us.

It’s something worth thinking about.


What I’m {Remembering About} Reading:

Jessie Willcox Smith - Mother and Children Reading

Jessie Willcox Smith – Mother and Children Reading

Last week’s Friday Fun was all about early influences on our writing. My response took me on a walk down memory lane where I recalled the books I’d read as a child. It was interesting to look back on my long list of favorite children’s and young adult reads and see some patterns in the kinds of stories, characters, and themes that I’d been drawn to. It’s also interesting to see how my preferences have evolved over the years.

But, one influence I thought of after the Friday post was published was how my mom read aloud to my sister and I right through our teen years. Though the specific stories she shared with us did influence me, what was more important was simply being exposed to and enveloped in my mother’s love of books and reading. Experiencing that passion first hand made a lasting impression that has sustained my own reading and writing ever since.

Now that I’m someone’s mom, I have spent countless treasured hours reading aloud to her, starting with picture books and graduating over the years to easy readers and novels. Now that she’s almost too old for bedtime stories (at least, she thinks so), I’ve introduced her to the wonderful world of audio books. She has spent dozens of hours this summer, listening to fantasy novels while coloring or doing some other creative activity. I just love knowing that her head is filling up with stories and adventure.


A Personal Announcement:

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

By SusanBlackArt on Etsy

So, in case you missed my post about the influence of “place” on writing, my daughter and I have been dealing with some upheaval in our housing situation.  I am excited to share with you today that as of this past Monday I am, once again, a homeowner. After nearly three years of house hunting, the demolition-driven crisis we were in turned out to be  just the thing to push me out of the nest, or … er … into the nest?

Either way, we found a charming cottage-style cape that is in the same neighborhood we’ve come to love over this past eighteen months. My daughter is over-the-moon thrilled, and – even though there’s some work to be done and money to be spent – I’m pretty much right there with her.

So, if my posts over the next month or so start to wander off into home-related tangents, you’ll know why. I promise to stay as focused as possible on writing-related topics, but I’m sure that some domestic themes might sneak in there. At the very least, I’m sure our mini renovation adventures will yield some worthwhile anecdotes.



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:

Image from Pinterest

Image from Pinterest

Here’s to lots and lots of new ideas, having fun playing with possibilities, and finding (and making) your own, sweet home. 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.