Write about staying late at the office, or staying too late at a party. Let your imagination take this scene wherever it wants to go.
Category: The Writing Life
I’m delighted to be a guest on Clifford Garstang’s blog today, posting about writing when you’re not actually writing.
As busy writers, we can’t always sit down in the chair for hours of writing time — and this post offers 5 ways to keep your projects moving forward during your everyday life, even when you don’t have a writing session in your schedule. Enjoy!
And while you’re visiting Cliff, check out the rest of his blog, Perpetual Folly, which includes a wealth of info for readers and writers alike, including his famous Pushcart Prize rankings. And don’t forget to check out his books as well!
Write about a dessert cart. Write about what’s on it, what is most tempting to you and why, and let this take you far into the world of sweets.
Write about a toy you loved as a child.
Happy new year to all!
So, here we are. It’s 2013, and most of us writers have grand writing plans and goals — right? I know I do…and I also know that I don’t want any of them to be forgotten by February. So I have a few things that I hope will inspire you and get your new writing year off to a good start.
First, if you’re in San Diego, come to one of my jump-start-your-new-year-of-writing workshops! I’ll be in the lively studio of author Judy Reeves on Saturday, January 12, from 1 to 3 p.m., for Everyday Writing, where you’ll learn how to fit various aspects of your writing into every day (from how to hone your powers of observation to how to keep your projects moving forward even when you’re short on time). We’ll work on overcoming your biggest obstacles and do writing prompts that will teach you how to become an everyday writer, even if you’re not able to sit down to write every day. Click here to register. (You’ll also be able to pick up copies of Everyday Writing and Judy’s new Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers.) And check out all of Judy’s upcoming workshops and events here.
And if this is your year for sending out new work, join me on on Monday, January 28, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., for a workshop on writing contests at San Diego Writers Ink. This workshop is for all writers who have wondered what goes on behind the scenes of writing contests, from literary magazines to small presses. We’ll talk about how to tell whether a contest is reputable, when it’s worthwhile to enter a contest, and how to make the most of the opportunities contests offer. We’ll go over submission guidelines as well as tips and resources for finding the best contests. Click here to register — and check out the rest of San Diego Writers’ great lineup of winter workshops.
When it comes to writing, I’m usually in need of a daily dose of inspiration, whether it’s about the craft of writing or the business of writing. Here are a few resources that I enjoy…
For both the business of writing as well as inspiration, check out Erika Dreifus’s blog, Practicing Writing, which offers wonderful opportunities and resources, as well as notes on her own progress as a writer.
And, of course, the Paris Review Interviews, which go back to the 1950s, are fantastic.
Now that you’re inspired, back to your own work. If you haven’t already, follow Priscilla Long’s invaluable example and create a List of Works. If you already have one, now’s the time to update it. This may be the most important thing you do to get you on your way to a fruitful new year of writing.
Write about a project you never finished — from your novel to a home improvement — and why. Next: Write about starting it up again and what that would be like.
Write about a bargain. This can be anything from buying a sweater on sale to the price of your first home to the deal you got on beets at the farmer’s market — or something different altogether, such as a time you had to make a compromise.
Write about a chimney.
Write for one minute about each of the following: pumpkin, dish, moon, tiger, green.
Write about your least favorite vegetables, and why. Are there any associations with these veggies that play a role in your dislike of them?
Next, write about three veggies you love, and why. Be detailed in your descriptions.
Write about going to three different stores to find what you need, whether an ingredient for a recipe, just the right gift for someone, a pair of shoes for a date, etc.
Brenda Miller is an award-winning author, a professor of English at Western Washington University, and the editor-in-chief of Bellingham Review. Her many books include Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays; Blessing of the Animals; Season of the Body; and Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Most recently she co-authored, with Holly Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World — and this is what I’m chatting about with Brenda today. This new book is a wonderful reminder to us writers that we need to create the time to write rather than wait for it — and its prompts show us how we can incorporate mindfulness into our writing practice in order to deepen and strengthen what we do.
Q: Brenda, I love that your book connects writing and mindfulness—and your own writing space is the same space you use for meditation. What are some of the ways in which being mindful in turn helps you with your writing?
A: I think it allows me to practice observation, even subliminally, so when it comes time to write, I have images/words/memories that can float more easily to the surface. It also teaches you patience and faith: I might be writing something that seems odd and random, but I’ve learned to just go with it and see where it leads. If I stay quiet, without too much judgment at the beginning, the writing can flourish without the intellectual/critical mind interfering too soon. If the writing ends up not leading anywhere, that’s okay, because I haven’t labored over it, beating it into submission. It’s all practice.
Q: Yes, practice—that is another key component in your book; in fact, Chapter Six is devoted to the idea of writing as practice, as with a musical instrument. You mention in this chapter that you sometimes do a writing practice with friends. How is this different from writing alone? And do you have any tips (such as using a timer, as your group does) for writers who get together with others for their writing practice?
A: Writing with others provides a certain kind of focus and momentum that I find is not possible when writing alone. Since we are writing in a timed fashion (with a timer) there’s also an intensity about it. When I’m writing alone, it’s a bit more leisurely, and I’m gathering my thoughts and written fragments together to form a bigger picture. It’s more of a “mulling,” a stroll, while the writing together is more like aerobics! If you write with the same group for any length of time, you may also find yourself subtly working off each other’s imagery and energy; oftentimes people will end up having the same imagery as if they were telepathic.
I think it’s important to have a certain level of commitment from the group; while it’s okay to be flexible of course, it’s best to have the same time/day that everyone agrees on for a certain length of time. Then you’re not always trying to figure out schedules and it becomes a habit.
Q: I agree that getting into the habit of writing is one of the best ways to get into and remain in that creative space. In your book, you write, “As a young writer, I don’t think I ever really understood that you need to prepare for writing…I’ve come to see that I need to be warmed up.” In one chapter you mention the importance of observation, and how a woman who prunes the roses in the park near your house always makes you eager to write — I love that! For me, too, paying close attention to the world around me always sparks my creativity. Have you ever experienced a loss of connection to your writer/creative self, and if so, how did you reconnect? Do you have any advice for writers seeking to find better access to creativity in their everyday lives?
A: That’s a timely question, Midge, as I’m experiencing that right now! It usually happens when I’ve finished one project (in this case, a book of linked short-short essays) and don’t really have another one in the works. I get very, very nervous during these fallow times, and the intellectual mind feeds that anxiety, giving me messages of despair: “Okay, that’s it, you’ve written everything you’re ever going to write.” So, at some point, with the help of my therapist (a saint!) and my writing friends, I remember that this voice is not the true voice. I continue with the weekly writing practice, even if nothing I write feels “good.” I read poetry. I take a lot of walks. I type up words from the writing practice just to see if anything might spark something new. I find a writing contest deadline to motivate me. But the main thing is having a sense of humor about the whole thing, not being so heavy about it. I slap that critical voice on the shoulder and say, “Cheer up, old chap!”
Q: This is all such great advice … I often finish a project and lose my connection to writing, and then it only becomes harder to reconnect. I like the idea of continuing to write, but I especially like the idea of taking walks, which is not “writing” but an activity that opens up the mind, which in turn leads to writing. Your book includes chapters on travel and encounters with the wild — how does connecting with other places and with nature affect your own work?
A: I recently returned from a trip to northern California, a landscape that is quite special to me. I lived there in my early twenties, at a hot springs resort, and as I walked down the road from that resort, I found myself talking to the trees. Really talking to the trees! I know this sounds crazy, but there’s a point on that road that shifts from mellow oaks and dry grass to old redwoods. You feel like you’re crossing a threshold into a deeper place. It’s very, very quiet–and timeless. And I truly felt like those trees remembered that younger self I’d so firmly packed away. They were asking me to remember her, to accept her, to welcome all her good qualities into my life now.
That’s a long (and maybe pointless) story, but in regards to your question: that experience in nature allowed me a moment to feel something unexpected, and to have the space to really feel it: to let it settle and expand. This would not have happened in my quotidian life, where I live more on the surface, where the familiarity of the day-to-day landscape can dull my perception. I haven’t yet translated this experience into writing, but it’s certainly a seed that is germinating.
Q: It’s so true that stepping outside one’s everyday life can be so enriching; we notice things so much more. Your chapter “Emptiness” reminds me of how I need to get away from the clutter of my desk in order to think more clearly. Do you have any advice for writers who tend to avoid the emptiness and the quiet that is both necessary as well as a little intimidating?
A: I’d say it’s important to know that you don’t necessarily need A LOT of it; just a small respite can do. Even 30 minutes off of email/Internet at a particular time every day. Or a ten-minute intentional breather outside where you practice, simply observing without doing anything. And also to enlist allies: make a contract with a friend and hold each other to it!
Q: Last but not least, one of the many things I love about your book is hearing both your voice and that of your co-author, Holly Hughes. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to collaborate?
A: It was wonderful; we each brought different perspectives to the topics and so our voices complemented one another. We wrote the book as letters to one another, so it was always easy to simply sit down and write “Dear Holly,” which would be like a mindfulness bell, putting me immediately in a writing frame of mind. We enjoyed the letters so much that we kept the first draft of the full book in letter form, but got the feedback that it wouldn’t work in the long term for the reader. The hard part was shaping the book out of the letters, but keeping that same sense of intimate communication. Letters are a wonderful practice, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a way to infuse your writing with joy.
Write about the last time you did something, whether it was play the piano, ride a horse, or smoke a cigarette. Is this something you chose to give up, or something that simply faded away? Do you miss this activity? Why or why not? Be as detailed as possible, and write for as long as you can, letting this prompt lead you wherever it wants to take you.
Just in time for a new year of writing, I’ve received a copy of the latest wonder from author Judy Reeves: her Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers.
In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, this book is filled with daily writing prompts, quotes, and inspiration — and its workbook shape and style make it easy to personalize, make notes, and (especially) to carry around everywhere.
You may already know Judy from her many books on writing, among them A Writer’s Book of Days — and she generously agreed to chat with me about this latest project. And, as you’ll see below, chatting with Judy is always inspiring…
Q: I love that this is a perpetual calendar—writers can begin any day, any year—and I especially love that it has a spot for us to note what hours we intend to spend writing, or, if we don’t have a specific schedule, what our goals are, such as “finish chapter three.” Over the years, what are some of the things you’ve learned about your own writing practice, and how has it evolved?
A. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that if I don’t make the time to do the writing, the writing won’t get done. It is so easy to say, “I’ll do my writing as soon as I _____________.” You can fill in the blank. I joke now that “as soon as” is going to be the epitaph carved on my gravestone. Thank goodness I’ve learned to do the writing first, and let “as soon as” refer to what I do after the day’s writing is done.
Another thing I learned the hard way: perfectionism is my Achilles’ heel. Many years ago when I was in a read and critique group with Janet Fitch, I used to stay up until o’dark hundred the night before group laboring over sentences and auditioning words for the perfect fit. Then I’d take these fraught pages to the group only to have that sweat-drenched sentence I’d struggled with until 2 a.m. x-ed out as “overworked” or “unnecessary.” Get the words on the page, I say; read them aloud and give them an edit or two to make sure the whole thing works, then do the fine tuning and wordsmithing. There’s always the next draft to change magenta to fuschia and use a semi-colon rather than a period. (I still haven’t perfected this practice, by the way.)
Do it alone? Not a chance. My writing community is critical to my well-being; to my self-esteem and conversely, to my humility; and to the writing itself.
Q: Throughout the calendar, you incorporate tips and inspiration from myriad writers, from Janet Fitch to John Steinbeck to Ann Patchett. What has been among the most helpful advice on writing you’ve ever received?
A: I’ve been a student of writing for so many years, and I am grateful to all the writers who have shared their experience so I am able to get better at this thing I want to do most in the world. Every piece of advice I’ve included in the Appointment Calendar, and in all my books, is something I have taken to heart.
Maybe the most liberating tip is Natalie Goldberg’s “You’re free to write the worst junk in America.” In our regular writing practice groups, we use that quote in the guidelines we read at the beginning of each session. Then add to it, “and some days you will. Other days you’ll write something really beautiful, and some days, you’ll just write.” Meaning, don’t let your writing be so precious. Just get out of your own way and fling the words down on the page.
The most affirming advice is Brenda Ueland’s “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” To me this means every human being is given some gift of expression: painting, singing, dancing, making pottery or poetry, cooking, crafting, and so on, ad infinitum. For those of us who are called to write, this is our gift, and we have a responsibility to use it. No one else is going to write like you do and no one else can tell the story you can tell.
Janet Fitch told me to “stay in the room,” and Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” Colette wrote, “Look long at what pleases you, longer still at what disturbs you.” Facing a blank page and writing from our most vulnerable place, being willing to expose ourselves, telling the truth even when it scares us—writing is fraught with danger. Before I understood this, I veered away from the scary parts by trying to be clever and glib. Those hours looking for the perfect word were really a way to avoid going deeper, which is what I needed to do to write the truth. I’ll admit my need to munch on almonds or raw carrots or apples when I hit the parts in my writing that need a longer look; there’s something about all that crunching relieves some of the anxiety.
I’ll stop now, though I could fill a book with advice that has helped, and continues to help me.
Q: The “Dear Lively Muse” feature appearing in the calendar is wonderful. In your experience as an instructor and workshop leader, what is the most common question writers have about the writing process, and what’s your answer?
A: Probably the most common question about process is, “Do I have to write every day?” I tell them it’s a good idea to write every day, at least five days a week if possible. I say they need to create what Flannery O’Connor called “a writing habit” and that the writing will come easier if they do it daily and writing every day keeps the story alive. I also tell them that I understand daily writing isn’t the be all and end all to being a good writer, and then I recommend your book, Everyday Writing, to show them how they can be about their writing when they’re not actually sitting at their desk and writing.
The most common question about the craft, probably because I mention it so much, is how to “show, don’t tell.” So we talk about lively verbs and specific, concrete details and writing from the senses. We unpack abstract words and play around with descriptions that move on the page and characters that have unique qualities and interior lives, and settings that make the reader feel as if they’re actually in the place. We examine writing in scene as the events in the story actually happen so the reader experiences them right along with the characters, and moving from the head into the body, and from the brain into the heart.
Q: I enjoyed the section on rituals and habits—for Francine Prose, it’s a view; for Toni Morrison, it’s coffee and morning light. What is it for Judy Reeves?
A: Candle, coffee, journal. More coffee.
Q: The calendar makes note of literary events—National Poetry Month in April, for example, and International Short Story Day in June. What are some of your favorite literary events, from local to international, and how do you celebrate them?
A: I love Banned Books Week, which is the last week in September. Over the years, I’ve been part of number of Banned Books readings. I think it’s important to call attention to our freedom to read and write whatever we choose. This isn’t the case the world over. During Poem in a Pocket Day I print out little poems from the poets.org website and leave them around places, and I chalk poems on the sidewalk. Last year I participated in World Book Night, and gave away 20 copies of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I hope I’ll be chosen as a participant again this year. I make sure to kiss a librarian during National Library Week, which is also in April, and I wouldn’t miss San Diego Writers, Ink‘s Blazing Laptops Write-a-thon. Oh, and the LA Times Festival of Books. What an abundance!
Q: Tell me a little bit about the process of creating this book, from the fabulous prompts to the wonderful illustrations and design.
A: I first thought of creating a daily calendar for writers with a prompt for every day more than a dozen years ago. When I sent my proposal to New World Library, they said they didn’t publish calendars, but would I consider writing a book. (Would I?) This is how A Writer’s Book of Days came about. But the idea of a calendar for writers didn’t go away, and somehow the project found its way to the top of my list last winter.
The daily prompts were critical to my concept. From nearly twenty years of leading writing practice groups, and from the response I get from my books, I know that no matter what else is going on in their writing, writers can use a prompt to get started or get unloosed from a stuck place. Where they go from the initial prompt doesn’t matter; all that matters is getting the hand moving and the words on the page.
My initial idea was a single-year calendar, spiral-bound and hardcover. You see that the published book is actually a perpetual calendar, rather than a single year, that it has a soft cover and is perfect-bound. Concepts change as you talk to friends and get practical advice from people who’ll actually use the product. Designs sometimes have to change, too, as you research what’s available in POD format. Oh, what I have learned!
About those wonderful illustrations and the design: Steve Montgomery, my close and dear friend and co-leader of our Thursday Writers group, has so many talents and gifts, I can’t begin to list them here. Among the many things he does really well is design. He and I have co-created many a project and work easily and well together, so I asked him if he would be interested in doing the layout and design for the calendar. He answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” and am I ever grateful.
I knew I wanted to use the Lively Muse as inspiration—a muse for us if you will, and Steve found all those delightful sprites that frolic throughout the pages. (The Lively Muse comes from the subtitle of A Writer’s Book of Days, A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life. I blog as the Lively Muse, and started The Lively Muse Press to publish the book.) Steve created an elegant design with so many subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of the text in the illustrations; I think he did a brilliant job. The book is a collaboration, start to finish.
Click here to get your own copy of this lovely book (which, by the way, makes an amazing gift for the writers in your life!)
Judy Reeves is a writer, teacher, and writing practice provocateur who has published four books on the craft including A Writer’s Book of Days, which was named Best Nonfiction in the 2010 San Diego Book Awards. She lives in San Diego and is co-founder of San Diego Writers, Ink. Her website is judyreeveswriter.com, where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter. She blogs at livelymuse.com.
Write about the last time you tried a new food. Where were you, and what were the circumstances? Have you had this particular food again since?