Thursday, December 27, 2012

Time Outs

Heading into the new year, it struck me that the one thing that would help my personal writing is a time out. I'm talking about not doing anything considered productive. Just sitting.

We are taught to keep going. So I hear people undergoing cancer treatments say that they aren't doing enough. As if they aren't in the battle of their lives and need to rest, maybe for the first time since they learned to walk.

If you have created New Year's resolutions and the need to organize, clean or take an extra class is on that list, take a deep breath and put it aside for a moment.

Take yourself somewhere that doesn't look out on the room that needs cleaning or the papers that need organizing, or the book that needs editing. Close your eyes, if you just can't resist list making if your eyes are open. Try just five minutes and hum or count or recite poetry, if it gets your mind off everything you "must" do. This isn't meditation, just a few minutes to regroup.

I'm going to put myself into a time out after finishing this post.

If I don't get back to the blog before 2013, Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tis the season...to write!

It has been awhile since the last posting, but many months of research and writing for university courses.

Now, I'm teaching myself jQuery, JavaScript, Ruby and SQL. In other words, one of the best aspects of being a writer to me is the ability to create worlds with HTML and the codes above, which make it possible to turn a vision into an immediate visual.

For now, and between class sessions, I want to talk about passions and how those translate into doing what we love instead of watching the clock and measuring our lives by the seasons.

Do we write for the pleasure or to survive? The answer matters because writing should be a passion, not a way to get through a day, a week, a month, a year, to the next vacation or holiday.

The flow touted as a creative nirvana is open to any creative individual who wants and needs to focus on an hour or a day of sheer exhilaration. It's a breath of inspiration that comes only from committing to the vision you have and following it without anticipating where it will lead. If you have ever been writing and looked up to find that three hours had passed and it felt like 15 minutes, you have tasted this creative flow.

So this season, gift yourself with an afternoon at a coffee shop, or bundle up and sit in your backyard, with a pencil, pad of paper, or your computer. If you can let yourself go,  you might rediscover a passion for writing that knows no season or even a reason for being. It exists because you do.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Think Big! Write Small...

I'm working on several projects for school that involve research, writing and visuals. Over time, this blog, which is an endeavor of the heart and mind, needs to evolve. This will be the next step in adding video, albeit a short one, and animation to the dialog.

The overall philosophy, however, is that we build our writing talent and muscle over time by taking the small and writing it into a whole. No matter how each person accomplishes this feat, it starts with a single thought, an observation, a smell that triggers an emotion, the anger or joy that is followed almost immediately by an urge to write.

As I emphasize over and over again, this process is organic. It grows from our need to communicate and to make something amorphous into something concrete. The one desire we all share is to write, but how we get there is uniquely styled and yet familiar.

First comes the thought, the feeling, the experience... It starts with the smallest breath of inspiration.

video

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Finding Our Way Home

I'm not talking about a home page, more that writing is where my heart is for the long haul.

On any given day, I'm thinking about a character, closing my eyes in a movie theater to picture another scene triggered by the sound effects and finding ways to look at a different story angle spurred by an encounter with family or strangers.

It is surprising at times what triggers the urge to follow a story line to its quite unnatural end, if that is where the whim takes me. Fortunately, as writers we find ourselves constantly moved by events both seen and imagined.

This pull away from the mundane is the true charm of writing, even when we write about everyday feelings or events. Just as each of us learns in our own way, we also put together words based on that unique styling we call our own.

Again, our home as writers lies in the writing inspiration we wrap ourselves in at any given moment.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Organic Writing Path

In looking at adult learning theories for a class I am taking, it struck me that we write despite everything we have been told about why we should or shouldn't create through words.

Look at the history of communication and we share a very basic need to share our stories, to warn others of possible dangers ahead and to imagine better or worse worlds. This is the organic path we take in writing because we need to, not because we must.

Writing is as natural to human beings as breathing. We get beyond the basic need to survive in this medium, just as visual artists do through paints, chalk, clay, marble and textiles, and musicians via sounds and instruments.

We may have been taught to write, to understand the common rules that allow others to understand our works and to assign the correct meanings to words, but not everyone feels this urge. So give yourself credit for every word, idea, thought, desire and slash mark you commit to paper or digitally.

 

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Short-Short Version of a Writing Vacation

On the downhill of one semester and into a new educational experience, it's hard to even catch my breath without wanting to write it out.

That's right, writing may be what I do for a living, but living to write and having two weeks to edit one book, continue on another and flesh out a third sounds like a delightful creative vacation. However, with school starting again on Monday, and so many necessary distractions like cleaning and fixing things around the house, there's so little time to play with words. And for the next semester, research will influence everything I write, and provide another focus. (Just what I need....)

For now, let's just imagine how a vacation that concentrates on writing would feel and how to etch out a day "away" to make it so. First, it requires the best pen, ample ink, a journal, notebook or paper pad and leaving electronics, except for music, at home. Getting away means having something solid to show after you are done and no hesitation when you are in the flow that you don't control.

I can't write at a bookstore because of too many distractions, so for me it would be a vacation to write at the zoo or the Biopark. And while I may have my phone with me, it must be turned off.

Finally, rain or shine, I would give myself at least two hours with no preconceived notions of what should be finished or finessed.

That's my version of a vacation in town and immersed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Pull of Writing On- and Offline

Considering that children and adults from age 4 to 90 have access to smart phones and interactive computer pads that encourage quick and easy creative expression, does this ease motivate former non-writing writers to write again?

I come by this question naturally, because my teenage son who says he hates to write is writing a 1.500 page book spurred by Google documents and the worlds created in the visual games he plays. From what I understand, because he won't let me read it, he describes actions and his characters vividly. He's also gathering readers.

He also tells me that he will finish this first "book" before I stop rewriting and editing my first science fiction novel. As a direct challenge, it is more than welcome. Although publishing is not the only reason to write, writing teachers (they can also be reading ones) have recognized the opportunities for students of all ages to publish online or in local papers or magazines. The National Writing Project at http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/about.csp provides a thorough overview of this issue, although it also touts its writing programs and consulting service. 
 
Unfortunately, in many schools throughout the U.S., the emphasis is on reading and math, not the writing that would help both learning areas. Less than a quarter of  American 12th graders were proficient in  written expression in two studies, in 2002 and 2007, sponsored by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The remedies, culled from years of studies, include:   students analyzing models of good writing; explicitly teaching students strategies on how to plan, revise and edit their work; students collaboratively using these writing strategies; and students receiving specific goals for each writing project. This study can be found at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/regions/northwest/pdf/REL_20124010.pdf.

In terms of inspiration, this knowledge is useless, at least to me. I have seen young students who write outside such boxes get discouraged because teachers cannot differentiate. On the other hand, all of us could use the basic tools this study describes to frame our forays outside these far too restrictive walls.

Also, for those of us who write because it is a creative expression of our inner imaginings, it may still be necessary to create more standard pieces to survive and to grow. That is where all these studies come in. Doesn't it make you feel good to know that you may be in the quarter of those students who can write, or that despite not being in that quarter of students thought of as good writers, that you still write, and write well?

In other words, at some point you became a writer despite all odds against, or for you. Celebrate that knowledge.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bad Influences

I'm taking a class on interpersonal business practices that emphasizes the point that this blog is attempting to debunk: The only way to lead or follow is to conform. We are supposed to mirror, smile when we don't mean it, be false to ourselves and others just to fit in and accept that without doing all these things, we will never make good corporate cogs.

Does this sound familiar? Consider the day to day bad influences in writing. Few, if any of us, have been encouraged to write without both the text and our ability to write being judged, graded or critiqued in some way.  That means that most writing these days does not come from a genuine desire to communicate. We write to earn money or a grade, to prove something to ourselves or others, to convince or cajole and because we are told over and over that all writing is formulaic.

If you are lucky, as a child you were allowed to read every book you could understand and get your hands on. You read for pleasure, because the illustrations and the words' rhythms made you smile or laugh. We could get lost in that flow for hours.

Then as we grew, others decided what we should read and what shape our writing would take. For many of us, our only writing outside school was in diaries or journals. We started judging our own writing abilities based on whether the teacher put a star on a poem or shared a short story with the class.

In the next blog post, I will go into how high school English has always been about reading and comprehension. Although there is a push to change this.

For today, though, look around at the influences you embrace because they are familiar and make you feel like a writer when you follow the prescriptions closely. Think about one piece of advice that doesn't work for you, but has become a habit, such as outlining. Then consider how you can change that habit to help you write without caring about how it ends; to concentrate instead on how writing makes you feel at this moment.




Sunday, July 8, 2012

It Doesn't Take a Floodlight

Imagine lighting one small birthday candle to ferret out the fears you don't even know exist, except as a constant exception to your own rules of creativity. That small flicker is how many of us perceive the ability to look into the corners of this attic we call a brain and confront the writing terrors that hold us back. These may include:

1. Too little attention.
2. Too much attention.
3. Not creative enough.
4. Too creative for anyone else to understand.
5. Rejection based on valid concerns.
6. Rejection based on invalid concerns.

You get the idea...sometimes a writer is so busy fearing all the possible outcomes that she or he can miss an opportunity to write without caring about the end product.

Instead, take a few minutes to write out those fears, along with the most far-fetched ways you would handle  a rejection, too little or too much attention or being misunderstood. Outside school and work, our writing efforts don't get graded except by our harshest critic -- ourselves. (Granted, some people can't or don't do this to anything they create.)

No writer can control how a book will be received, despite all the advice on how to critic-proof a query letter and sample. You just have to trust that after all the time spent writing and rewriting, you have done your very best and let that baby go. Move on to the sequel, or a different genre, if you feel the spirit. After all, fear is what you make of it in terms of horror.

(I'm going to go off rail for a minute, but still talk about a fear that legitimately stalls many freelance writers. In November, I will no longer have health insurance and had to look for an alternative that makes sense economically and mental health-wise. My solution is to return to the university and put into an education what I am now paying each month for COBRA insurance.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Creatively Numb?

How long has it been since you gave in to your "calling" as a writer? Do you have to sneak up on it? Does it take meditation or medication to get you started?

If we constantly deny or avoid the creative urge, this power to make and break worlds can seep out through the cracks in our dreams and a constant feeling that we have left someone or something behind. (And you thought it was pure paranoia?)

First, a 2011 study at Cornell University found that wildly creative ideas often meet with resistance due to the fear of change, along with an inability of many humans to easily adapt to new situations. In a news release at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Aug11/ILRCreativityBias.html, the authors of dual studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania reported that common reactions to creative ideas include resistance and prejudice against all the details. Four findings of the studies were that:
  • The novelty of creative ideas can lead to uncertainty that makes many people uncomfortable.
  • Tried and true ideas, considered practical, win over creative ideas.
  • Facts or objective evidence in favor of a creative proposal do not lead to acceptance.
  • The subtly of this anti-creativity bias works against a person even recognizing that a creative idea is valid. 
Take a few minutes now to look at how you react to creative ideas at work, home or at school. Think about how many times you might have thought to yourself or told someone else,"That's not possible." If it is within the last month or week, it's time to push back against any fear of the unknown to find the breakthroughs that get you beyond "creatively numb" to creatively active.

The fear factor involved in creativity has been studied from both sides: catalyst and roadblock. The next post will address how to harness common inner fears as a catalyst to kick-starting your writing creativity.




Friday, June 29, 2012

Obervation and Breathing

Each day we breathe in and out, something so many people take for granted, requires our body's attention to the details of survival. If you have ever been so involved in a project that food was the last thing on your mind, it's your stomach and waning strength that made you break that concentration and eat.

For many of us, writing hinges on the same incentives. We truly live through words, thought and creative use of metaphor or rhythmic intent. Take a few minutes to look around you and discover how you have paved the way to write. Do you surround yourself with paper, pencils, notebooks, computers with at least five programs that allow you to draw along with write, or write and add sound to the creation?

Take a few minutes each week to really see how you feed your need to create with words. Honor that creative force that depends on our breathing to keep it going, along with our belief that writing is as natural as air to us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Product in Productivity

In a work world increasingly squeezed by the idea of more work in less time, with the understanding that technology is an aid, the productivity of a writer is measured like any other metric.

Take for instance an article on "Measuring Technical Writer Productivity," published at http://www.writingassist.com/newsroom/measuring-technical-writer-productivity/. This article makes the case for using a spreadsheet to balance the workload and the capacity of each writer to complete that load.  The variables measured by the authors, Pam Swanwick and Juliet Wells Leckenby, include: an estimate of the number of topics or pages required for an end product; the complexity of a project based on a value from one to three; the percentage of new or substantially revised content, such that starting from scratch provides a value of 100 percent; and any special projects that a writer has taken on in addition to the regular workload. It's actually a great system...in the workplace.

Although I understand and appreciate this need for a product that can be measured in the corporate world, the push in writing advice to quantify the productivity in personal and fiction writing makes me cringe. Writing outside a job you get paid to perform is more organic, or should be.

Some days life gets in the way of completing, or lends itself to, a short story, poem or song. No one is looking over your shoulder, or at least I hope not, in these moments. You can move between a blog, cooking a meal and finishing an article on your own. A writer can spend a whole afternoon working on one paragraph to perfect a chapter in a novel or spin a narrative off the cuff in a spate of Tweets.

The real world inevitably knocks us back to the lists, goals and the pressure to produce. But if we can play before the next summons, we can take back and own our private creativity.  (This flower represents to me the seamless beauty of letting our own nature decide when we work best and how. It is not Photoshopped, only cropped by the GIMP program.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Who Defines Success?

It is not a trick question, just a tricky answer for many writers. When you picture yourself outside the role of  a writer, do you feel successful? Do you judge success by money, fame or recognition?

The reason I ask is that an e-mail touting how to be a successful writer made me think about my schooling, the newsletters and news magazines that I've produced and the newspapers in the past that carried my photos and articles. Then I moved on to my current attempts to master graphic and photography programs, and everything in my past, including the books, essays and poetry faded for a minute.

So bear with me as this post works to give some perspective to accepting each step we take on our creative journey as successes. This is the anti-monetary view of accomplishments, a top five reality check:

1. Acknowledge every word you have written, from that Mother's Day poem in kindergarten to the business letter that went out today without errors.
2. Specialize in recognizing what motivates you to write. Is it rhymes, poetry, scenery, caustic wit or visual gymnastics? If you are like most creatives, you can look around right now and find a whole list of specialties that you don't recognize for what they are: the stepping stones to writing "success."
3. If you have a blog, do it because it brings you joy or connects you to others who share your interests. The same goes for Tweets, Google+ and other social media outlets. Make it about what is possible, not building a platform. (That is unless you have a contract for a book and need to market it. Then build away!)
4.  Touch base with past and present accomplishments. These can be as simple as the notebook you bought this week that holds two pages of free-form writing, the bookcase you have filled with stories and articles or the ideas written on notes that you keep finding around the house in the strangest places.
5. Focus on the possibilities that you have made into reality.

Above all, recognize that every day you write is another day of success.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Returning to the Basic Motivation

Whether you believe, or not, in Maslow's hierarchy of fear and subsistence, let's consider writing in this context for a second.

For anyone who writes because they must, that need falls under the physiological imperatives of food, water, shelter and sleep. Taken to the next step, this discipline is also tied to our assurance of physical and emotional safety. We control the outcomes.

The next one, that social need for love, affection and belonging can be fed through online groups of like-minded individuals, in classrooms and just sitting next to a stranger writing in a cafe. The esteem part is where we have to feed ourselves long enough to trust our work with others.

Finally, continued writing provides the self-actualizing need for self-fulfillment and personal development.

Once again, writing proves nothing to anyone else and everything to the person who writes day after day and year after year.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Understanding the Digital Divide

In times like these, I wonder how famous and infamous writers would have dealt with our increasingly fickle reading public. After all, a whole social media site is dedicated to visual communication, Tumblr, and Amazon and other digital book publishers are attempting to kill the appetite for printed books and dominate the online market. (I may be showing my age, but holding a book beats squinting to read a digital novel, even with back-lighting, any day.)

Think about how many e-mails you get from signing up for just one online writing course. And many ever-hopeful writers believe they must follow these bread crumbs no matter where they lead because they could miss the one nugget of wisdom necessary to succeed in this business. We are inundated with visual distractions and verbal floods of nonsense day after day.

Yet this online haven of possibilities also has led to my non-writing son collaborating with four Norwegian individuals to create a fan-story. (I don't care about the subject, just that he is finally discovering the writer within and  reaching out internationally to do so.) It's his second collaboration, and all it took was a passion for the subject and a new-found ability to recognize where the plot is going astray and a desire to fix it.

And I'm working with both Photoshop and Illustrator to enhance my communications with visual "aids" that can further express the way I see the worlds I create with words. It may be that each of us must filter out the distractions to do what we love and succeed.

Finally, I just want to acknowledge the influence that Ray Bradbury has had on the way I view writing. His book on writing will remain in my collection, along with a book of short stories and several novels. The author died last night at age 91.    

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Different View of Words Through Design

In taking a class on Illustrator, my view of words and their essential beauty is being enhanced. The teacher of this online course at a local community college is asking us to consider kerning and its effect on how we view the printed word as part of a design statement. In turn, we are learning to appreciate something more than what to me has always been about getting enough words into a given space.

For those visual artists who are also writers out there, you may be laughing at me right now. But each of us finds our way into and out of writing in a unique fashion, and for this visual, spatial learner, the artistry in words helps me use them to greater effect.

As writers, taking a step back to enjoy the fonts or the figures that make up our written language provides a perspective on a subject that people who have studied and created font styles are as passionate about as I am about writing. We are seldom taught that each font design is more than a tool to use in getting to our final goal. True, it may be distracting for awhile, but two fonts, Verdana and Georgia, which I compared for class, made me think about fiction writing again.

Some writers, including me, can get caught up in the rhythm of words. It's just nice to have a visual path to add to that sensual journey.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Give Back to Yourself -- Acknowledge Your Strengths

I have concentrated on criticism, whether constructive or destructive, for the past few posts (and a few in the past dealing with conformity), because in writing we need to lead with our strengths. To do so, it takes acknowledging that we have more strengths than weaknesses. After all, it takes a strong spirit and belief in yourself to continue writing despite all obstacles.

Building self esteem may help, but it's more about recognizing what you do day by day to embrace a writing life free of self-doubts.

In pursuit of that ideal, let me give you a checklist of things to work on in acknowledging and building your strengths:

1. Determine your own success. This means not depending on any "experts" to tell you how success should look, feel or be accomplished.
2. Celebrate those successes. Buy a book on gardening, instead of another one on how to write or succeed in writing. Or use the funds for a trip that you have put off until you "made it big."
3. Say you love to write out loud, every day. This is one piece of advice that makes absolute sense. Our self-talk is often self-defeating.
4. Don't defend or define your need to write. This includes having to answer the inevitable question: "What have you published?"
5. Play with words and ideas. If you write for a business or corporation, it takes reshaping how you approach a writing life on your own time. This can be done by playing with the words or overriding the restrictions you face every day, if only in a five-minute free-for-all of irreverence.
6. Acknowledge the changes you seek as positive moves forward for you.

I'm going to post only once or twice a week for a few months because I'm taking four classes toward a degree in computer media and a certificate in programming. Please bear with me.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Own Your Imagination and Work

In a world of online ease and work productivity, the software we use often comes with a price. That price in both dollars (pesos, Euros, etc.) and conformity can warp reality and demand a writer's soul in exchange for a steady job. Or at least that idea is what scared me about a recent discussion on LinkedIn about the evolution of workware (my word) and ownership issues.

The original article touted the "death of the document" and the need for programming, which would allow workers to cut and paste across a corporation. Innocuous on the surface, this idea of taking all creativity out of corporate communication even bothers the editor in me who makes a good living on understanding house and specialty style guides and adhering to standards. I would rather wade through someone's original ideas, which ultimately could help that writer grow in his or her ability to think and write, than have the job "simplified."

Don't get me wrong, I am forever grateful to the programmers who shared HTML, JavaScript and cascading style sheets. And in that spirit, any coding that I create that would help further the work in that community is freely shared. But my writing is personal, and just because someone came up with the alphabet eons ago doesn't mean the "community" owns my private works.

The very idea that all writing should come down to topics, content and conclusions, which workware encourages, says that the technical and scientific worlds have no room for original works. As a writer who appreciates the occasional software guide that is witty or even charming in its approach, leave our documents alone and let writers in every field "own" their creativity.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Read for Pleasure

Although many college English courses advise writers to read in order to hone their authorial skills, the real motive behind this is to teach students to think like researchers. Of course, that is my opinion. But telling a writer to read is like advising artists to look at artwork:  It should be a given.

We learn to love books and creative writing by growing up with books that we love and exploring as many different writing styles as possible, not by tearing apart what others believe are great works. Or, at least, that is how I have grown as a writer.

In high school English we delved into both "A Separate Peace" and "Romeo and Juliet." My bookshelf still holds the first because it made a difference to me due to its symbolism. Other books, along with short stories, were ruined because teachers or professors couldn't leave well enough alone. Most touted reading comprehension as the outcome of reading, rather than savoring the lyricism of words and the mind-stretching ability of writers to speak in more than one literary language. In other words, we need to decide for ourselves what to take away from any book, essay, poem or play.

Let others carve books up based on the academic pursuit of verifiable literary worthiness, but leave me to enjoy what I believe the author was saying to me alone. A little self-indulgency keeps a writer loving the process and can help avoid the restrictions inherent in believing that the readership is set in stone and cannot be tempted to stray.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Find a Good Editor & Ditch the Critiques

This post has taken a few days to finish due to a conflict in the way criticism is viewed and voiced online as almost a rite of passage, when writers often need an objective assessment more. Criticism is only for the ironclad, for the most part. (This relates to the competitive edge that cuts some writers, while it holds others aloft.) So, before you venture out with your writing into the world of critiques, consider carefully the source and any ulterior motives.

Unfortunately,  slash and dash commentaries eviscerate anything and everything deemed "different" or "not like me"  Critics put the personal and subjective out front and with pride. This isn't to say that a critical assessment isn't needed at times, just that it requires an editor more than someone with a greater opinion of her or his own talents than those of the writer.

I would rather have a good editor than a critic at any point along the journey. An objective eye for the repetitive nature of starting every paragraph with a "the" or changing the first or last name of a main character in the fifth chapter is worth far more than a person stating that a work is "mundane or pedantic." One person sets out to help, the other to destroy.

As a writer who appreciates honesty when it is given in small doses and privately, I'm also aware that all writers must face critics to be published. But it goes so much better if a good edit is performed first.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mentor Be or Find

A friend's love of science is a constant reminder of how creativity is found in everything that allows us to try and fail, yet succeed in the end. She has also passed on that passion for science year after year as a teacher and a biologist who can name all the wildflowers and plants that most of us must look up.  However, a deep down belief in the creativity of science, rather than a rock-solid discipline, came after talking to a research assistant who believed in science's inherent creativity.

My friend inspires me to write because of her brilliance. Other people I know or have known also serve as mentors through commitments to everything from cancer support groups to computer coding.

For the most part, however, other writers need to concentrate on their own writing rather than serve as advisers. That doesn't mean that another writer can't be a mentor, but it takes someone who is secure enough in their own style not to lose their voice in the words of someone else.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Over or Under Generalizing

What is your specialty as a writer? If you answered in genre terms rather than based on your strengths in  writing dialogue, plot or characterizations, it may be that you have listened to far too many "experts" who advise digging into a specialized niche.

Granted, being a generalist presents its own problems for those who can't quite decide after three or four chapters whether to continue the book as a mystery, fantasy, literary epic or romance. But at least this type of writer could produce a different genre entirely. (I'm ever hopeful.)

As always, if you can terrify someone with words, bring to life magical lands, plot the perfect murder, after murder, or take the reader out of this world, then continue to carve out your niche.

For those writers who love to play with any and all of these aspects in writing short stories and books, keep in mind that the one person you need to please is yourself. A few years back, I was warned that the science fiction series I was writing for young adults would never find a publisher because middle  and high school readers weren't reading the genre. Now, many believe that YA readers could save science fiction, again.

That series embraces only one of several genres I play with, revise and rework until they sing to me. Fortunately, as writers we have many more options to get our works read and bought than in the past. So much is possible for both the specialized and generalized author.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Contests Contested

Do you find yourself on a seesaw when deciding whether writing contests are good or bad? If so, you are among friends. A recent blog post that got raves on a social networking site warned that a writer's work would be stolen and claimed by the individual or individuals sponsoring a contest, any contest. On the other end, many advice columns claim these contests are ways to gain confidence and exposure for little or no money.

The truth lies somewhere in between all loss and true gains.

First, let me tell you about a former fellow student who won $20,000 in a short story writing contest with a story she shared during class. I envied her before the win because she was also a sculptor who knew how to get into the creative flow. After, although many studies show that competition can spur both creative problem solving and motivation, my reaction was less than generous. (After all, only the prestigious contests pay out that much.)

Writing contests tempt us to put our writing out in the real world, and apparently encourage the lone writer to engage in competition that will yield more than angst. The way competition is seen in research, dating as far back as the 1800s, depends on the context.

In sports such as cycling, adding just one rider to the mix encouraged both riders to push themselves to better times and feel more successful, according to an article at http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/06/ social-facilitation-how-and-when-audiences-improve-performance.php. In 1898, researcher Norman Triplett reported that both cyclists and children tended to perform faster, if not better, when competing against others.

In a recent (2011) study of musicians who improvise, Jacob Eisenberg, of the University College Dublin School of Business, and William Forde Thompson, of the Macquarie University Department of Psychology, found that individuals who enjoy competition gained an intrinsic value from competing. In addition, Eisenberg and Forde Thompson discovered that the performances were judged as better when the musicians were more stressed because of the competition.

If you believe you are ready to enter a writing contest, consider whether you thrive or suffer when it comes to competition. However, every writer must face rejection at certain points along the line.

Fortunately for us, we don't have to go it alone due to features like the Science Fiction Writers of America's "Writers Beware" page that provide a starting point for deciding whether the risks are greater than a writer's desire to be published at the moment.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Writing Home

No matter where we write, it's home. That is why when someone suggests that we carve a small space in which to create out of a communal space, it drives me crazy.

The reason Virginia Woolfe wrote essays on a "Room of One's Own" was to lament the fact that women often give or have even a corner they carve out wrenched away in the name of "community." As a community of writers, we are often told that we should settle for the least when we have the world around us to "own."

So, if you are tasked with making due with a corner of a kitchen table, the bathroom sink edge or a dark corner of a front porch, please understand that a bookstore or a coffee shop is a much better place to write. To me, libraries are just too quiet, with any conversation or movement too distracting.

At a university, the best place to write is in the cafeteria because no one tells a student to leave. The noise is also just enough not to harm your hearing, but still aids concentration and writing dialogue.

If home is where you prefer to write, then ensure that you claim the space you need rather than making do. Otherwise, you are telling yourself and the world at large that writing can be contained.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Drawn-out Outline

Proponents of outlining books and stories far outnumber those of us who believe outlines do more harm than good. So for those of you who swear by the standard decked, organized thought process that outlining represents, please continue.

For the rest of us, who have dutifully tried and had too many works die this way, there's got to be a better way to organically work through longer narratives without resorting to this structural dead end. (If this sounds similar to my post on lists...it is.) Have you ever shared a story you are writing with a friend, only to feel that it had been written and you didn't need to finish the tale?

No matter how you put together an outline, the basic idea is the same. You decide the main topic, add subtopics and explanations, partition the facts into understandable chapters or subheadings and conclude with a reasonable ending. The very nature of this organizational "tool" is to tame the creative urge.

I will concede, however, that despite all the downsides of this organizational aid, it may be the tool many fall back on just because nothing has come along that works better. Here are two suggestions to aid in the search to organize more visually:


  • Notecards: I have tried using notecards with colored inks, along with using the Microsoft cards that come with the Windows operating systems, all with no long-term success. However, the ability of some apps to "gather" the notes and make them searchable is worth researching.
  • Mindmapping: Whether on paper, a computer or through an app, being able to brainstorm rather than organize as you go along can help some writers push through the organizational maze.


If you have any other suggestions, please let me know by commenting.



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Love What You Do and Write

This is a reconstruction, rather than a deconstruction, of one piece of advice. When we are passionate about what we write, then the urge to create flows.

The moment we lose sight of why writing draws us in day after day and year after year, when it becomes a drudge instead of a joy, this calling becomes just another job. This can happen if we depend on others to define what writing means to us as individuals.

For instance, it may be grief that drives you to write, or peace that feeds the muse. The wide array of emotions and how we perceive them are the driving factors and motivators in creation.

E. Paul Torrance talks about loving what you do in his 1995 paper, "Insights About Creativity: Questioned, Rejected, Ridiculed, Ignored." As the title spells out, he is one writer and researcher who continues to push forward because he must:
 "Very early in my attempts to understand what made for creative achievement, I developed the insight that being in love with what you are doing was very important in creative achievement. I began collecting data that would enable me to find out."
In all fields, we have amazing discoveries because inventors, writers, artists, researchers and others loved what they were doing. Ultimately, being a writer should make you feel good about yourself and everything you accomplish, large and small.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Between Now and Never

I believe that between now and never lies a wide stretch of possible outcomes, both good and bad. So why do so many writing experts tell us not to procrastinate?

This is not about putting off work that has deadlines. That type of procrastination just makes you crazy and could lead to starvation. Most of us exist in a world of constant demands on our time and attention. But the inevitable push me, pull me nature of survival offers more incentive than free time to put off work.

Instead, let's view this as an exercise in balance. Just like the ability to both show and tell with finesse, knowing when to put aside a book or article to let it "stew" is an art form in itself.  It ranks right up there with knowing when and how to let the writing go. These are my signs that an article, book or treatise has benefited from a short time away -- a fresh breath of procrastination:

  1. You can stand reading through the work twice without changing more than one sentence or deciding to start over.
  2. It's a relief to start on the marketing and public relations. (Just don't let these promotional efforts stop you from launching another project.)
  3. No guilt is attached to taking time away to do the dishes or sweep floors.
  4. Completing the work ranks as a success, rather than a gut-wrenching fear that you have missed something.
I separate the "chronic" procrastination that can paralyze artists of all ilks from these time outs for perspective. I believe a majority of writers have moments of doubt about being good enough to send out a book, article or poem, even after years of success. Just know that you are in good company if you put off to tomorrow what seems overwhelming today. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Play Versus Hard Work

Seat on the chair, nose to the grindstone, pull up your boot straps...all sage advice that short circuits creativity and attempts to take all the fun out of any artistic endeavor.

Some writers are hard-wired to create before playing, while others desperately need the flow that evolves from laughter and even plain silliness. That doesn't mean that all the playful writers then turn to comedy or satire, or that the nose-to-the-grindstone ones can't create delightful children's books. Instead, it speaks to the wide variety of ways that writers approach this craft successfully.

Yes, this topic has been covered in research, but mostly directed at the role that play has in teaching children to write. As adults who write, we play with words and ideas constantly. It just makes sense that this play should extend into the physical world.

When was the last time you played a board game, went bowling with friends or just joked around over a cup of coffee? If it has been too long, or never, then put aside your keyboard or pen and pad and find a way to play that holds meaning for your inner adult. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do Lists Count as Writing?

The standard advice to make a list may have its place, but it takes too much time away from writing. Does it make sense to snatch a few minutes during a busy day to write, only to spend that time on busy work instead?

Lists can be used in writing to keep each character's details straight throughout a story or book, but they may limit the way we "draw" those characters. Granted, apps and other computer aids can make list making simpler, but they also distract more than encourage.

In modern times, we have everything we need at our fingertips to write and continue writing. Then why is it that we insist on making this creative process more complicated through list making and rule making? It's one thing when we take a list and make a picture out of it, or play with the words and color the ideas. When we have this much freedom, it's best to wring life out of all writing.

If you, on the other hand, produce book after short story by writing lists, by all means continue. I'll limit my lists to grocery items and the piles of house repairs I'm avoiding in order to write this blog and put the finishing touches on my YA SF books.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Show and Tell

The next "wisdom" that gets pulled out and polished regularly is the "show, don't tell," line. (And what often follows is the "learn the rules, then break them.")

Show and tell sessions in school taught us to express ourselves by storytelling with a prop. Why is it that we were advised afterward to limit the verbs and expand the description? Where is the balance?

Granted, as a reader I skip the descriptions unless they drive the action. Of course, every story takes both showing and telling to drive the narrative and fill pages.

Also, after completing a multimedia class today that emphasized the absolute need to show with colors, graphics and photos, along with telling through words, movement and music, it is far past time that we re-frame this staid advice for the digital age. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Belaboring the Point

Do you fail if you don't write every day? The answer is different for each writer, depending on the motivation behind the maxim, "Write every day."

If you write to avoid life, then you weaken the narrative. If, instead, a writer avoids the "practice" because she or he fears the outcome, the person may need to strengthen an inner resolve to face anything and everything that life has to offer for writing.

On this one I can't find any help from other writing blogs, websites or magazines because they tend to toe the line on how one can become prolific. You "plant" your seat in a chair and force feed your muse.

So, here's another take on this perennial favorite. If writing every day brings you happiness, then do so. But could you take a few minutes off to spread that around?

If the opposite is true, and you would choke on even a word per day forcefully repeated just to reach the goal, start listening to yourself instead of the experts who don't know or care if you succeed.

Do you want to pen a novel that represents your best, or the one that proves you could push out a 75,000-word tome in six months? Pick a schedule you can manage and is uniquely styled for how your brain functions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Taking on the Advice Mills

The irony of this post does not escape me, but deconstructing all the varying and varied advice that writers receive is the next step in empowering writers on all levels.

Advice is shaped by personal convictions and inherent prejudices. Consider how many times you have been told "in all good faith" that someone is telling you something "for your own good." That is seldom true. When anyone claims to be an expert, that person is saying what they know to be true, not what is inherently truthful for everyone.

This blog already covered the "write what you know" line of thinking, which appears to be a very fear-based piece of advice. Yet it gets recycled in one form or another over and over again.

Let me know what advice gives you a headache or has helped you as a writer. Everything is fair game, including what is written here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Day 31: Writing What We Think

On this final day of posts about aiding the process, rather than the philosophy, of writing, I'm back to where it all begins. What we think about obsessively, or not, often serves as the foundation for a writing jaunt. And every thought is uniquely personal.

Yet, how many times have you stopped yourself from committing something to paper because someone might be offended by what you write? This is not about the constant snarking that goes on in the loathe-and-run posts or comments on the World Wide Web. It's easy to be negative about something without offering a solution when you don't have to face someone.

It is more difficult to be truthful in a story, poem, creative nonfiction article or personal essay if we fear the outcome. That is when writing tends to become stilted or formulaic.  Also, one of the advantages of writing for yourself before sharing it with the world is the freedom to say whatever you want to, in a way that may not be grammatical or could contain misspelled words.

Go ahead and be nice, if that is what drives you to write in the first place. Kindness isn't a weakness, any more than a critical view of events is a strength. Our greatest strength as writers is in speaking our truths as we view and feel them.




Sunday, April 15, 2012

Day 30: Your Personal Style

In describing all the variables we may face as writers, I emphasize how each person may be driven by similar desires and motivation. After all, we share the urge and ability to write.

On the other hand, each person offers her or his unique style and voice to this mixture. So, even though this blog post refers often to studies, it is with the belief that no form of "normal" exists because the norm is averaged. Face it, when it comes to the human brain, emotions and creativity, as humans we yearn for the similarities in order to belong. The "outliers" are denied or eliminated as aberrations.

To write, however, we need to understand the 49.9 percent of ourselves that may fall outside the averages. Creativity, which comes in different intensities and trigger points, isn't something we chase. It is the driving force that shades our days, shapes our dreams and pushes us to write despite all the disappointments and even the real, but fleeting, accomplishments. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 29: Shall We Dance?

First song, now dance. Bear with me as I explain how movement can tempt your muse out to play, or just help shake off any negativity or doubts you may still have about writing.

Although many writers wax poetic about dancing with or in their writing, I'm talking about the brain changes that occur when we move.

Dancing is used in psychotherapy, along with music, art and drama. (I also know of cancer survivors who use journaling as part of their journey, which suggests that writing may also effectively help relieve stress and work through grief.) No, I am not suggesting that writers need to see a therapist.

Dance is the most fundamental art form, based on its using the body as a "medium of direct expression and communication," according to Fabian Chyle's thesis on dance therapy available at http://tanzundtherapie.de/nl/_files/nl/ 206/Applying%20Creativity-Thesis.pdf.

Dr. Peter Lovatt, as head of the University of Hertfordshire's Dance Psychology Lab, says that improvised dancing helps with divergent thinking, which is devising different answers for a problem. On the other end, structured dancing, such as ballet and ballroom, helps with convergent thinking. (This interview can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jul/31/peter-lovatt-dance-problem-solving.)

Other studies show that dancing is more effective than reading or doing puzzles at keeping our brains limber.

Granted, I don't need an excuse to dance, but the brain power behind this type of movement offers one more reason to dance before I sit down to write.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 28: Finding Kindred Souls

In attempting to look at all the external and internal roadblocks we face as writers, this blog is essentially about connecting with kindred souls.

This means that although writing is a joy to me, I don't expect everyone else to feel the same. However, those who do may find a home here.

I'm constantly amazed at all the individuals who take the time to sit down, research, take videos and share every piece of advice on the World Wide Web. So if you have something to share, please do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Day 27: Starving for Words

In describing many of the external and internal influences on writing processes and motivation, my intent is to reinforce that storytelling is something that chooses us. But we choose how to proceed.

Since most of us have lost the writing practice that letters afforded pre-Internet authors, we could become jaded by the instantaneous responses possible now. We judge ourselves and others on an ability to write quickly and with brilliant wit, and in less than 14 words. We push and get pushed to the point where writing is more automatic than satisfying.

At a certain point, we read the same formulaic writing over and over again until it becomes a mantra of sorts that can push out the voice of our wildly spontaneous creativity. (How many times can we "like" articles that say the same things, but with different bullet points or Top 10 lists?) We starve ourselves, when we are born with a buffet of endless words, ideas and  plots.


What I suggest is an electronic "diet" of sorts. For writers today, it is almost impossible not to use the electronic devices we surround ourselves with to keep writing and survive on words. It is possible, however, to unplug occasionally from the distractions that abound and play with the words and ideas we use in telling stories of all types, sizes and intent.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 26: Real Life "Prompts"

When was the last time a "writing prompt" inspired you enough to follow its lead?

For a majority of writers, that would be never. Despite the ubiquitous prompts offered on many writing websites, in writing magazines and even some writing classes, these ideas often fail to excite the imagination of anyone else except the one who creates them.

The only time that prompts may prove effective is when a prize lures us into entering a contest. (Contests are on the list of "items to be covered" in future posts.) Otherwise, so many writers that I know or have overheard believe that this is another area that requires a skill they don't have.

One problem with following the lead of others is that we often forget to double back and gauge how advice or prompts may have silenced our natural gift of story telling.

So in the spirit of our ancestors who felt the need to tell stories without the desire to "publish," I propose pausing long enough right now to open a window and look out. Don't think, just feel, or listen, or smell, and allow the first impressions to steep.

At lunch, listen without judging the snippets of conversations around you. Look through your photos, to see the lighting and what mood they evoke now.

If you stop every now and then as you go through your days, ideas just happen.  We can follow, and create new plots and characters by paying attention to what we collect along the way and the responses of animals, vegetables and minerals to attention or neglect. Everything counts.

You might find that once you start putting all these pieces together, the ideas will be endless.

  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Day 25: Sing it into Being

If your first reaction to this post title is a groan, a giggle or a retching noise, then take a deep breath before reading on.

Think, instead, about the rhythms that are inherent in words and the melodic counterpoints woven through the greatest writing, artworks and even some online comments.

Because we are on our own, brainstorming sessions often take the shape of berating ourselves for a lack of brilliance or a forced "mind-mapping" that is too far away from an organic play of words and ideas.

Instead of digging in to come up with another mind map that takes you nowhere, try fleshing out an idea by rapping or singing it out loud. Or try listening to music that fits the scene you are writing, then type or write a description of the feelings it evokes or a weeping willow encased in fog that blocks your way.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Day 24: Know Your Limits -- Then Push Past Them

In a 2009 Wired editorial on "Design Under Constraint," creative director Scott Dadich talks about the limits inherent in filling a magazine page with anything other than text and designs. It's still not economically feasible to add video or sound to a printed page, but what Dadich understands is that every page offers the opportunity to overcome its apparent limits. (http://www.wired.com/culture/ design/magazine/17-03/dp_intro)

As writers, we push past the limits of a page every day to build our writing practice. In fact, we only limit ourselves by adopting restrictive ideas about inherent abilities, judging whether our writing is "good or bad" and by seeking a critical view of our writing when we are too vulnerable. Unfortunately, seeking criticism too soon can reinforce a false sense of inferiority.

Limits and goals can fence us in only if we allow them to build a brick wall around our imaginations. As a writer, it's possible to tear out the bricks, but it takes less time if you start with a picket fence that you can squeeze through.

One way to get beyond false restrictions is by writing in a genre or style that you despise or fear-- because some teacher or mentor in your past told you not "to go there." Try a page of science fiction, a limerick or a romantic scene. I know many of you flinched at the last one, but going beyond the limits of your prejudices can help you find a character's voice or put a false limit behind you.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Day 23: Sentenced to Write

To take the step from words to sentences requires more than a comma to signal a pause or a period to end an idea. It takes a certain courage to pen or type a stretch of letters that may take forever to craft on days when we cannot accept the inevitability of the climb we face to reach the next level.

We only have to commit (every pun intended) to take some pleasure from this process. Playing with words means taking the time to map the journey. In connecting the dots of words to sentences, without worrying about the perfection of either, writers write.

Although short, this post recognizes the need we have as writers to communicate in the best way we know how. Face it, it has been a long time since many of us have considered the basic building blocks of writing. We take for granted this ability to leap from words to sentences. So pause for a few minutes just to acknowledge how you became a writer through an appreciation of its finer points.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Day 22: Word Bites

Following up on the Day 21 post on language, I want to note how many people, including Mark Twain (apparently) believe in a magical "perfect" word or words.

Take the Twain quote: "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself..."


Although it's laudatory to encourage writers to edit their works, every sentence begins with the words you use every day. There's no "secret" to writing or the process. In fact, it's simplicity itself. 


Just like learning to walk, we start out slowly and gain more confidence as we build to a run and then learn to slow down again in order to take in the words and world around us. At a point that we can't control or design, our own writing becomes criticism-proof. 


This can only happen if we take our time finding the words that are right for us, the rhythms that sing to us and the stories that are written word by word by us because of the sheer pleasure of creation. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Day 21: The Language Beat

If you write based on the rhythms inherent in the language you speak, dream or learned as a second or third means to communicate, you understand how I feel about words and the way they shape us.

Lera Borodistky tells the story of a 5-year-old girl who can point north without thinking it through, while academics across the world cannot do the same. In her 2011 Scientific American article, at http://psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/sci-am-2011.pdf, Ms. Borodistky notes that this girl's facility for finding true north lies in the language she uses and how it relates to space and time.
"Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think. Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it."
Languages with their shapes, such as Japanese and Chinese writing, their accents and, as with English, a confusing multiplicity of meanings, provide more than enough ways to communicate. But on the page, most words are just chicken scratch without a writer making them mean something more.

Early language development depended on our ancestors turning their oral stories and their wisdom into a visual, understandable, representation: a written language.  But consider the quote above about how changing the way people talk changes the way they think.

As writers, we have this power. We take four-dimensional ideas and create third dimensional images that take root in a person's imagination. It's something we can only guide, not control. Yet, it's the beat that goes on in our unique form of language as art.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 20: Kick the Goals -- Embrace the Writing

Given the opportunity to write, do you take it? Or, have you listened to so much advice on goals and a requisite number of pages that you have to check your day-planner first?

In other words, do you see writing as a treat or a tricky manifestation of hostile forces? Also, when was the last time you laughed out loud from the high that writing gives when it's focused?

If the last time you laughed hard enough to make you sick happened at age 3, it's time to embrace the writer that started growing at that moment. It's also way past time to kick every goal to the curb and drive over them.

Creativity comes from unexpected observations. In writing down those "aha" moments without needing to structure them in a "logical" way, we make them ours.

If you are stuck, try writing in the voice of your childhood self. Give your adult self the permission to write when the spirit strikes hope into you, and tune out the fear that holds you back.


Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 19: Avoid Shame-based De-motivation

I have a 15-year-old son who is brilliantly creative, has the ability to write and the humor to make it relevant to his generation. But he hates writing and school. For most of his school life, he has been told that the unique way he learns and reports back is wrong. The administrators and teachers who believe that every child should learn and test the same have shamed him, told him he was broken and unwilling to learn, when all he wants to do is excel.  Schools lean on shame as a motivational tool. And they lean even harder when it's high school.

Too many writers believe deep down that authors who have made it big, or even self-published at this point, must have a magic formula for understanding the structure, the conventions and the right words in the right order to use. They don't. Many just didn't listen to those voices, or weren't subjected to the talk about laziness or an inability to "play the game."

Because it's seldom possible to get away from that one-size-fits-all school-yard thinking, even in business, as writers it can be difficult to "self motivate."

Philip Stiles points out that "Shame has been called the 'negative side of an individual's motivational scheme," by Giddens. (Stile's paper titled "The Negative Side of Motivation: The Role of Shame," can be found at http://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/research/working_papers/2008/wp0807.pdf.)

Institutions reinforce one viewpoint, corporate or administrative, through setting goals for the employee or student. In turn, this push for normalization and the student's or employee's: "Adherence to the norm or standard of the goal is a process of normalization of the employee and, importantly, deviation or failure to meet the standard invokes a judgment of abnormality...."

Years of having goals pressed on us have led many writers to attempt the same "discipline" in shaping the writing process. Although this may work for some, the restrictive nature of this practice can choke off creative expression.

Hope lives, thrives and trumps every voice that is not ours. Motivation is internal, and the infernal aspect of this blog. The one thing that each of us carries throughout life is an individuality that can drown out the codified voices of shame we internalized long before we could filter out their repetitive mantras.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 18: Confidence in the Process

One thing I know for sure as a writer is that no one else sees the world just like me. No else puts together the ideas, the blooming words and visions that spur my muse. My writing is unique because it's my inner voice that speaks out through everything from poetry to articles on radiation therapy and cancer.

Even in researching ADD, the IDEA and creativity spurs (for anyone who has ever been through an IEP, you will understand this), what catches my attention and lives on in the writing gives a different flavor to the way characters view the world around them. Everything adds to the process; nothing detracts.

It has taken a lifetime to reach this confidence in the day-to-day surety of words and the meanings upon meanings derived from experience. The journey has also led to a rock-solid faith in a vision that evolves along with each discovery.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Day 17: Stress and Release

The stress we experience day by day builds and wanes based on our responsibilities at the time. It's different if you are single, the mother or father of a toddler versus a teenager and whether we hold a day, night or midnight job and write around the edges of these experiences.

At helpguide.org, the society states that stress is not always bad: "Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price."

Yet, as anyone who has tried to sit still long enough to even write a thank you note when life is pushing you into action knows, rational thought may be the first thing to go. Creativity may be the next. The brain, as part of a physiological system that depends on a steady heart and blood flow reacts to an overdose of stress by temporarily shutting down. According to helpguide.org, the cognitive systems of an overload include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, poor judgment, negativity and constant worrying.

As we have been told as a society, the way around stress is to learn how to relax, which is an exercise only the person under stress can determine. However, the one thing a writer should never do when stressed is put that stress on the writing itself. (Map out a project instead of beating your head against a wall trying to come up with a lead. Daydream your way through a passage, breathing deep. Or just imagine floating on an ocean of possibilities that will never let you down.)

But never let writing become less than the joy it can be by trying to beat it into submission as another stressor.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 16: Tap Your Emotions

One essential "tool" in the writer's arsenal is the way we process and present our emotions to the world. We even get to play with our characters' reactions to emotional stimuli.

Then it follows that accepting the major emotions of love, hate, joy and despair, instead of judging them as good or bad, helps writers explore the reasons why people act and react. If you can stand back far enough to see the other side of these strong pulls to start and continue writing, then you are ahead of the game. If, as a writer, you hide from them instead, making everything sunny and bright or midnight gloomy, it's time to look at why humans live and die either fulfilled or frustrated.

One take on the emotional connection to creativity comes from a 2009 research paper titled "Emotions and Creativity, East and West."
"In popular conception --  not to mention psychological theory -- emotions are often viewed as biologically primitive responses that interfere with deliberate, rational thought; creativity, on the other hand, is typically ranked among the highest of the "higher" (uniquely human) thought processes," state James R. Averill, with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Kyum Koo Chon, with Taegu University, and Doug Woong Hahn, with Sungkyunkwan University. (http://people.umass.edu/jra/studiesofemotion/articles/creativity/index.html)
The authors argue that "emotions not only interact...but that emotions themselves can be products of creative change."

To me, creativity and emotions are both harmed by any push to control and organize them. In turn, if we trust our "instincts" and accept the wide range of emotions in being human, we free ourselves to speak and follow our own truths.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Day 15: Scenting Creativity

One thing computers don't enhance or distract from is the way we incorporate scents and our sense of smell into our writing. The best part of these sensory "gifts" is that the smell of cookies baking can mean vastly different things depending on the character, plot and scene.

But this post has more to do with how scents work on us to aid in creativity, and how they influence our beliefs. An article by Sally Augustin, Ph.D. on the Psychology Today website (at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/people-places-and-things/200912/the-smell-is-right-using-scents-enhance-life) points out how any of the following scents can be perceived differently depending on life experiences. However, more common reactions to familiar scents include:

  1. Orange, lavender and cedar are calming influences. (For anyone who has asthma or allergies to any of these scents, don't test this.)
  2. Vanilla also helps calm even others, with vanilla-scented perfumes (used lightly) sometimes effective in job interviews, according to Augustin.
  3. Specifically for the writing process: Lemon and jasmine scents aid cognitive work. Augustin suggested sucking on lemon drops during tests.

If you can, and do, try any of these scents, try working them into your writing. One way to see it from the other side is to write a character reacting to the orange scent with terror due to putting thousands of cloves into oranges in his or her youth.



Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 14: Our Dreams and a More Immediate "Fix"

To sleep, perchance to dream...then create.

It's interesting to consider that we chase our dreams while awake. Yet many people also somehow lose a dream in embracing reality, even though it's possible to live our dreams through writing.

On a more practical note: Researchers often tout dreaming as a boost for creativity. So, let's talk about rapid eye movement (REM). Specifically, consider the findings of a 2009 study on REM sleep and its ability to help with new creative problems, from a press release at http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/ health/06-09Mednick.asp. The study by Sara Mednick, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and first author Denise Cai, a graduate student (at that time) in the UC-San Diego psychology department, found that REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleeping or wake state.

Although time helps in solving ongoing problems, REM dreaming forms new connections from unrelated associations for a more immediate fix.
"Mednick said that it appears REM sleep helps achieve such solutions by stimulating associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas. Importantly, the study showed that these improvements are not due to selective memory enhancements."
This differs from the daydreaming mentioned in Day 14's post. For instance, if you are contemplating how to move a plot forward, get a good night's sleep. If you are tempted to completely overhaul a book, a poem or a research paper, start with a little daydreaming and then map out your solution. Or, once again, determine a system that works best for you.



Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 13: Day or Night Tripping

Part of the creative process is knowing when you work the best, whether night or day, colder or warmer, and if daydreaming is better at midnight than 8 a.m.

Although daydreaming is considered an important aspect of creativity, its popularity doesn't hold up in the corporate world. If you have ever "phased out" in a meeting just to be called out in front of the 15 others in the room for missing a cue to talk, you know it can be complicated.

In the writing process, daydreaming is necessary just to get around the blocks we set up in attempting to fill a word or page quota each day. Giving ourselves permission to sit back and think of every possibility for a scene or character takes confidence that the pause will add to the story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 12: Bring on the Distractions

In researching how everything in a writer's environment can affect both short-term and long-term creativity and motivation, it struck me that many of these factors are to blame for the books that aren't quite finished. They also account for another book that is an almost endless round of editing.

The computer versus handwriting research pushed me to buy another notebook to place in my purse and I am in search of that perfect, lightweight, easy-flow pen. If you have a suggestion, please comment. But it went further, into a serious question of whether my mojo has been hijacked with the ease of typing rather than writing in longhand and revising on paper.

I also realize why programming makes me happy...it's the instant gratification and an absolute fascination with the spatial wonders available to me. But I digress.

Some things are distractions that should be followed and embraced to aid us in our writing process. We need to consider these alerts, such as really tasting a chocolate bar, many times for the first time in our lives. We need to look up from that paper or computer keyboard to take a photo of a brilliant sunset or to laugh out loud at the antics of a cat, dog or the squirrel on our back fence.

Finally, if you are unconvinced that distractions bring out creativity. Consider a 2011 University of Michigan study that found individuals with ADD were more creative than those who weren't.

"For the same reason that ADHD might create problems, like distraction, it can also allow an openness to new ideas," says Holly White, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and co-author of the paper. "Not being completely focused on a task lets the mind make associations that might not have happened otherwise." (http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-03-creativity-upside-adhd.html)


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 11: The Computer as "Muse"

A 2001 New York Times article titled, "Where the PC is Mightier Than the Pen" (at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/01/technology/where-the-pc-is-mightier-than-the-pen.html) highlighted a 23-year-old computer teacher in southern China who has lost his ability to write longhand in the Chinese language he learned as a child. But he readily "writes" the characters using a computer.

This points both to our growing dependence on computers as a helper and a destroyer. It will take more than a few decades to measure the effect computers have on creativity, literacy and freedom. However, it is up to each writer to determine whether this technology serves as a muse because of its ease, or cuts off an essential connection between brain and fingers that handwriting forges.

In the NYT's article above, Chinese traditionalists lamented the spiraling losses from a younger generation's inability to pen Chinese characters.On the other hand, consider how computers make turning words into art. For anyone who is artistically challenged, programs can turn the words in your head into a visual statement.

But as anyone who has ever sent an e-mail knows, immediate access to a computer while under the influence of strong emotions can lead to embarrassment or, at the least, provides an incentive to edit messages before you hit the send.

As with any artistic process, writers need to honestly consider whether computers help or hinder their progress. And if balance is needed, then it pays to work in every medium that helps you think and create.






Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 10: The Striking Effects of Computers

(I'm was away on business, so it was hit or miss with the Internet interactivity. At this point, I will attempt to catch up.)

Consider how computers and the screens that allow us to work even in the dark serve as a serious distraction and are potentially more damaging to your hands than pens and pencils. (At least, that has been my experience.)

First, while this post covers ergonomic adjustments that might help avoid "complications" from our dependence on computers, the next one will describe how computers have changed the writing process overall. (Once again, it all begins in early childhood classrooms. This begs the question: Do children learn to use a mouse before a pencil? But that will keep for tomorrow.)

For now, we will stick with the physical aspects of writing on computers and how to avoid the repetitive stress injuries (RSI) that can painfully sideline anyone who uses computers.

Look at how you are sitting at the moment, what fingers you use to scroll and think about whether you have stepped away from the computer screen for more than 10 minutes at any time in the past two hours.

The repetitive part of RSI involves both mouse work and striking the keys, but a few basic adjustments can make a world of difference in continuing to create those worlds.

According to Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D. in "Ergonomics & Computer Injury: FAQs" at http://www.netsci.org/Science/Special/feature01.html#Q17:
Two main themes permeate ergonomic study of RSI prevention: posture and relaxation. Appropriate posture is necessary to keep the strain of performing work in a near stationary position (static exertion) to a minimum. But even the best posture can fall prey to overload when combined with bad work habits.
Relaxation involves taking regular breaks and stretching, rather than working, "through" the pain, and ensuring that you don't tense your neck, hands, shoulders and back while you type. And, for older writers, don't recreate the typewriter in your past -- your wrists should not flex upward or downward, because this causes stress. Also, few desks and chairs are coordinated to ensure that you don't strain in working on a keyboard, so take that into consideration.

You can find out more about this issue on a number of sites, including www.osha.gov. But, if you are already experiencing pain, tell your physician and get help before the mini-tears in your muscles and the inflammation in finger and wrist joints (upper arms and neck, also) cause you more tears than the critics.







Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 9: Pain and Ergonomics

This is one of those times when guidelines can aid the writing process, rather than slowing you down. As someone who underwent carpal tunnel surgery, it was a little late when I discovered that adjusting my seating, the height and angle of my keyboard (so my wrists weren't bent back), the size of a pen or pencil and the pressure applied when writing could help head off this injury.

Part of the problem is genetic, so many of you could conceivably do your worst and never suffer a day of being unable to write. (And even surgery doesn't have to stop you from writing because of voice recognition programs that help you tell a story in the oral tradition.)

This entry focuses on the ergonomics involved in writing with a pencil or pen. The University of California--Los Angeles (UCLA) offers a number of suggestions for avoiding injury and continuing to write at http://www.ergonomics.ucla.edu/Tips_Writing.html:

  • Keep your weight off your forearm.
  • Position your elbow at 90 degrees or more, because wrist and hand strain increases past that point.
  • Relax your fingers. If your knuckles or fingers turn white and cold when you are writing, you are putting too much pressure on yourself and the pencil or pen.
  • Give your fingers a break by using the wrist and forearm to move a pen or pencil.
  • Instead of writing on a desk or propped up on a table, put the pad in your lap with the top of the pad pointed toward the ground and keep your wrist relaxed.
  • If your thumb hurts, adjust the pen in the webbed space between your index and middle fingers.
  • Write in a large, cursive style rather than printing.
  • Use large diameter pens, but make sure they are lighter, and pencils. Rubber grips can also help remind you to loosen your grip.
  • Find pens that feel good in your hand and easily flow, such as ink fountain pens, roller balls and gel ink pens.
  • Give yourself breaks. If it starts to hurt, get up for a glass of water and walk around for a few minutes, at least.  
 As always, this is about listening to your body and following your inspiration.
                             

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 8: Resounding Silence (Or Not)

Not counting the noise in our heads that sometimes drowns out the pitter-patter of writing confidence, can music or background conversations aid in the process?

Although numerous smaller studies (all with fewer than 500 participants) have considered the effect of noise on productivity, mood and creativity, none provide guidance that makes sense to everyone. We have noise machines to help us sleep, can be distracted by "elevator music" in office buildings, are lulled (up to 70 decibels) by the background noise in a coffee shop and can even use a computer program in some workplaces to focus more on the job at hand.

Personally, I can't write fiction listening to any music that affects my moods or it changes the tone. (On the other hand, if the passage requires more moodiness, bring on Grieg.) And after reading some of the literature on noise and creativity, writing in a coffee shop or bookstore is my connection to low-decibel comfort.

I found numerous websites on work-based creativity, but one article struck a "chord" at http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/musiccreativity.jsp:

"Is creativity just the gift of a few--just sprinkled on a few people and that's it? I would argue no, that creativity is something that we all have inside of us and what it's all about is finding out, how do we unlock that creativity," he says."

The "he" in the quote is Parag Chordia, director of the Music Intelligence Lab at Georgia Tech.

Chordia and others emphasize one aspect of creativity that is applicable to writing: We take in everything around us and make it ours by processing the sounds that surround us, the things we touch and how we interpret the emotions garnered from those stimuli. Finally, our writing lives are far richer than we believe at times.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 7: Let Me Sleep

In the U.S., this is the beginning of daylight savings time. As a writer and any creative individual understands, the springing ahead does nothing but drop productivity overall and require extra measures to adjust our sleep cycles.

But sleep itself is important to the writing process. Leslie Berlin said it brilliantly in a New York Times article on a sleep study from 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/28/technology/28proto.html?_r=1:

"Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas."

Berlin interviewed other experts who theorized that sleep may improve creativity through a breakdown in the standard thinking we employ. That means that our resting brain fills in the missing parts we may not recognize when we are awake.

Once again, be kind to yourself if you are in a U.S. state that pushes an outdated attempt to control time and energy through DST. And, if you can't sleep, try writing longhand or speaking your ideas into a recorder to prime your brain for when sleep comes again.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day 6: Put a Light on It

The buzzing fluorescent lighting that follows us from preschool through college is familiar but mostly a distraction. That is, unless your brain is the type that adjusts easily and readily to anything in your environment.

For the majority of us, however, the closer we are to natural light, the better we can concentrate and create. This goes back to science aiding in our understanding of the writing process.

This subject also relates to the colors we seek, which was Day 5's observation:

Cool white fluorescent lights are concentrated in the yellow to red end of the visible light
spectrum. Incandescent lamps, similarly, are concentrated in the orange to red end of the
spectrum. In comparison, energy-efficient fluorescent lighting is typically concentrated in the yellow to green portion of the spectrum. These three light sources lack the blue portion of the color spectrum (Liberman 1991), which is the most important part for humans and is best provided by natural light. Full-spectrum fluorescent lighting is the electrical light source that has a spectrum of light most similar to natural light because it provides light in the blue portion of the spectrum. (A Literature Review of the Effects of Natural Light on Building Occupants by L. Edwards and P. Torcellini.)
So blue, within the color spectrum, is essential to mental health in humans. That means we stay calmer and more focused when our bodies are soaked in daylight, rather than lighting that lacks this essential element. Better still, write near a window. According to the literature review, "many countries in Europe require that workers be within 27 feet (8.2296 meters) of a window."

Failing that, walk outside for at least 10 minutes during the day and use a full-spectrum light source. Step by step this blog is addressing how we short-circuit our ability to write.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 5: Color My World in the Process

Color soothes, energizes and sabotages our writing process when we are unaware of the effects it has on our ability to concentrate and create.

For me, words speak in colors, rhythms and actions. So the science behind how colors affect our moods, creativity and confidence is relevant to the writing process.

For example, a 2009 study describing the emotional pull of red and blue (at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090205142143.htm) found that:

"Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 percent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red color condition."
Personally, I surround myself with reds and greens when I write. Pink, purple and yellow don't inspire me in surroundings. (They may remind me too much of the early classrooms.) 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 4: Environmental Factors

As much as I knock the conformity of learning to write in schools, the influence of those days and the discomfort that surrounded us should be acknowledged to get beyond the deja vu of it.

The hard seats, the buzzing overhead lights and the hiss of the heater as it kicked in never leave us completely. That means that we must be aware of our environment to escape the association of noise and pain connected with our earliest efforts to form words.

To redirect that energy into writing, it helps to understand the more ideal school room described at http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=390. Specifically: "To achieve environmentally pleasing classroom spaces, teachers need to get in touch with what feels good to them and attend to the specific population that will be using the room."

Once again, don't think about this too much or you ruin the effect. As a writer, be sure to hide or get rid of anything that distracts you, or still has the ability to make you wince.