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 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

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. ( 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, 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.