Monthly Archives: October 2015

Track Your Progress, Celebrate Your Successes

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Thanks to the Writer’s Digest Platform Challenge, I’ve kept track of this month’s activities on a calendar. I start out with the week’s goals in red and as I complete each task, I change it to black and move it to the day the task is completed. This way, I can look back on everything I’ve accomplished, and still keep my upcoming deadlines in mind. So, when I have one of those days where coffee just isn’t helping me focus, I have something to provide a clear path for what I should be doing.

It’s simple. In Microsoft Word, I create a table with 7 columns–one for each day. Here’s an Example Calendar to show, rather than tell you what I mean.


It’s also important to celebrate your successes!calyx

This year, my poem “Mourning List” appeared in the same issue of Calyx as the memorial to Margarita Donnelly, founding editor of the beautiful publication. Margarita Donnelly died Christmas Eve 2014, the very same day as a good friend of mine, Sarah Edwards McFarland, who I’d known since 4th grade. The title and subject matter of my poem was appropriate, though when I wrote it, I had no idea Sarah or Margarita were going to pass on. I wish I would have known. I wish I could say goodbye to Sarah, or thank Margarita for building such a wonderful home for women to place their works of art.

Sadly, we cannot time travel. (Yet.) So, forget the rejections. Draw from them whatever constructive criticism they offer, then press that lovely delete button. Life’s too short to dwell on your failures. And, if you haven’t had any publications yet, tomorrow is a new day.

In fact, tomorrow is November 1st and… NaNoWriMo BEGINS! So, let’s get to work. And WHEN–not if–you have a publication or acceptance from an agent, come here and let me know. I’ll feature your good news in a pretty post dedicated to your successes and we’ll all celebrate together!

What Are You Reading?

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Though the words may differ, the advice is always the same: If you are a writer, you must also read–widely and often. Among my stacks of lit magazines, poetry collections, young adult novels, encyclopedias of paranormal/supernatural phenomenon, and geography/history resources are quite a few books on writing. I pulled these 4 to show you:

4 writing booksWriting from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie (top left)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (top right)

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood (bottom left)

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg (bottom right)

There are others–such as Stephen King’s On Writing and most of Janet Burroway’s guides on narrative craft–that I return to often. But these are the books I’ve heavily marked with scribbled notes in the margins and little fluorescent tabs sticking out the sides.

In Ms. Aronie’s Writing from the Heart, I like the practical exercises she prescribes.

Write about a lie you told. Do not soften the circumstances. Be tough but gentle. Be tough in writing the truth, but be gentle on yourself. You were just being human. Do you think you’re the only person who lied to get what you wanted?

Write about a lie that was told to you. (p. 72)

From Bird by Bird, Ms. Lamott tells us

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around. (p. xii)

There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way. (p. 13)

In Negotiating with the Dead, Ms. Atwood lets us know that “it is artists who possess the secret identities, the secret powers, and — if posterity goes their way — the last laugh… As for artists who are also writers, they are doubles twice Writing Down the Bonestimes over, for the mere act of writing splits the self into two.” (p. 32)

As you can see from the picture to the right, my copy of Writing Down the Bones is dense with tabs. I read Ms. Goldberg’s book while riding the bus to David Zimmerman’s novel writing class one summer in grad school at Iowa State University. In addition to the assigned and workshop readings, I chose to dive into this book that was recommended to me by a professor while I was still an undergrad at Simpson College. I believe it was one of those situations where it meant more when I finally got around to reading it, more than if I had read it back then. As if the right time would present itself, like a chance encounter with a person who’d been placed in your life precisely when you needed them the most. Such is a good book.

In Writing Down the Bones, Ms. Goldberg discusses the way we have to distance ourselves from the place (be it a physical or an emotional state) we need to write about. She gives the following metaphor:

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil. (p. 14)

While writing, I return to these works often, and I may mention them again here.

How about you? What are you reading? What gives you inspiration? Whose advice do you find yourself returning to, time and again?

Writer’s Paralysis

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Maybe you’ve been here. It’s more than just writer’s block. Maybe it started after the loss of a loved one. Maybe you were diagnosed with cancer. Maybe your child has pulled away from you to the point that you’re not sure they’ll ever come back. Usually, it takes something life-changing. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Maybe all this horrible news is depleting you. Maybe you’ve received too many rejections. Maybe you’ve just given up hope for anyone ever noticing your talent. Or, maybe you’re lost.

It’s okay. Now, reread what I just said. It. Is. Okay.

This is where you are. Here. Today. Now. You are going to stand up. You are going to put one foot out in front of you. (No, we’re not doing the Hokey Pokey.) You are going to begin to move. And you will keep moving forward.

Yes, the world will continue to swirl in all of its ugly and dangerous and beautiful and incomprehensible glory. Babies will be born and people will die. Wars will be fought and diseases will be cured. The hungry will eat and the rich will pay. You are here. Right now. In the middle of it all. Be in the world, but also above it. Take note of what you see and help where you can, but don’t become the pain. Rise out of it. You only have control over yourself. Others may hurt you. Others may love you. They may be selfish. They may save you. There will be days when you’re the luckiest person on earth. There will be days when nothing means anything, anyway. But you will be okay. And, when you are ready, you will write again.

Now, repeat after me: When I am ready, I will write again.

Now, go. Live.

Know Your Strengths

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As a college writing instructor, I’d be asked the same question at every interview: What is your greatest weakness? (Clue: The answer, for me, is always perfectionism.) Although I don’t understand the interviewers’ fixation on flaws, I fully acknowledge the importance of being acquainted with your inner demons. Whereas employers are obviously seeking ways to weed out all candidates who either cannot or will not reflect upon their own shortcomings, as a writer (and arguably as a human being) it seems more important to build upon your unique set of strengths, rather than constantly battling your inherent imperfections.

On the first day of class, my students complete a few activities that help illuminate their individual strengths for them. Many of them had never heard of Howard Gardner or Multiple Intelligences. This is a shame because, when you know how you learn, you will learn better.

As a teacher, I read Teach With Your Strengths by Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller, which is a great option for non-teachers, as well. Stengths Finder 2.0 is from the same publishers and, though I haven’t read it personally, I’m sure it would be equally beneficial.

There is also obvious value in learning about your unique personality type. Over at 16personalities.com, you can take the Myers-Briggs Personality Type (based on Jung’s theory) that will tell you the 4-letter combination that defines your identity. To be honest, it’s downright uncanny how accurate the results are!

A bonus: learning about ALL of the different kinds of personalities can help you write depth into your characters. K.M. Weiland discusses this in her article, “Myers-Briggs and Writing: My Characters’ Personalities.” Over here, she points out that INTJ’s are archetypal evil geniuses, but Batman is also an INTJ. So, it’s important to know your characters on more than just a superficial level.

It’s also important to know your own personality–to not only know but also to trust thyself, as Emerson said. Don’t focus on your weaknesses. Know your strengths, and exploit the hell out of them!

Writing with Purpose

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Over at Lunch Ticket, Bettina Gilois writes a blog called “Writing: The Toolbox.” In her 8th installment, she discusses character, and the necessity for a reader’s emotional investment:

As writers we are the pusher man for the reader, we control supply and demand. We get the reader hooked, and once hooked we tease with a controlled giving and taking, dealing in identification and fantasy, creating want and tension, and doling out relief and reward.

Gilois advises writers to incorporate philosophical statements as part of character building:

Philosophical statements by your characters elevate the material from a pragmatic and dramatic narrative to something that holds greater value and endures through time. While it also serves as characterization, it satisfies the reader with recognition of self in the greater context of what it means to be human.

To me, this is what mediocre writing lacks. As a young adult author, it’s important to provide sustenance in a variety of ways–be it philosophical statements or scenes that place characters in difficult situations in order to prove their mettle (or not, because that can be fun, too). In these ways, a young reader receives more than just entertainment. She is nourished by the story; he learns without an obvious moral.

So, how do you accomplish this task of writing with purpose? How do you use your characters to say something important?