Day 31: Farewell March! It has been swell!

Congratulations!  You’ve made it!  We are at the end of this year’s Writer’s March, and I have very much enjoyed writing with you this year, and hope to do so again in 2015.  In the end, I felt like this month had some of the best posts the March has ever seen thanks to an amazing team of bloggers!  And so, I thought it would be fitting to leave you with the best tidbits from the month:

Key Quotes from Week #1:

Let me tell you this: there is nothing more delicious than writing when you know you are supposed to be doing something else. -From “The Start of March”

If you have the time to fill out a 200 page comp book in the month, feel the heft and the thickness of it and revel in the fact that it was blank at the start of the month. Of course some of it will be crap, of course it’ll “need a lot of work,” but we’re writers: cleaning up crap is part of our work. And unlike waiting for a phone to ring, writing is work. Even if you’ve only got the time for a page a day, that’s still 31 pages. It’s a healthy chunk of a tree, it’ll need quite a bit of extra postage to mail. Enjoy that feeling. Heck, if you’re so inclined, mail it to yourself so you can see that great big envelope with all those stamps arrive and know it was something you accomplished. -From Bob Sabatini in “Add It All Up”

Sometimes life is hard.  Things go wrong – in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways that life can go wrong, and when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. – A Neil Gaiman tidbit from “Neil Gaiman and the Top of the Mountain”

At the same time, sticking to the familiar path ensures that you will never turn a corner and discover something beautiful, interesting, or confounding. How many side streets do you drive past every day without turning down them? Yes, most of the neighborhoods look the same, but sometimes you discover a park with a cool public sculpture, a house covered in brightly colored tile, a tree where someone carved Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is a reason that many people would rather risk a hole-in-the-wall restaurant rather than eat at a chain restaurant again. – Upon discussing “The Thing” in Jennifer Krohn’s post “Leaving the Familiar Path” 

I’ve found that writing in this way, with a prompt and a timer, really gets the inner critic and the censor off the page and out of your head.  It allows you to dig deep into your subconscious and get at the heart of things. -From Jennifer Simpson in “Playing with Words”

Key Quotes from Week #2:

I’m a firm believer that stories should tell themselves, that while broad structures could be useful in giving guideposts to a writer who is lost in a piece, but if the writing is going smoothly it should be allowed to explore. After all, what’s the point of taking a road trip if you don’t get off the Interstate once in a while? -From Bob Sabatini in “Shape it up”

For me, writing poetry is not like doing a triple axel in the Olympics. I can’t just leap with no warning with the pulse of the music in my throat and throw down ice chips in my wake like broken stars. Even Olympic figure skaters can’t do that, I don’t think. They leap effortlessly because they’ve practiced and trained and fallen for years. They’ve sat there with their bodies and their work and haven’t expected things to just work out. – From Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco in “Sandcastles of Crap”

There are a dozen other things to get rid of for March:  the Thirteen-toed Sloth of Procrastination (oh, wow, write?  No, I better wash the dishes, take the dog for a walk, check Facebook, take a shower, do my taxes);  the Pernicious Pit of Cumulative Despair (Oh, I didn’t write for three days, might as well give up the whole thing),  and her cousin the Sad and Stubborn Can’t  (this scene isn’t going well, so obviously I can’t really write at all);  the Uninspired Auntie (I can’t think of anything to write.  I don’t have any ideas.  Might as well give up).  I’m sure you can think of some of your own. But for now, banish them all. -From Lisa D. Chavez in “What I’m Giving Up For Lent”

“Cloud spotting” he says, “legitimizes doing nothing.” He reminds us (well me at least) that inspiration can be found in the every day, that looking up at the clouds is about being present and letting your imagination wander. – From Jennifer Simpson in “Looking (Up) for Inspiration”

I’ve set some pieces in the desert, but I find that I tend to do what that panel of Western writers called “window dressing.”  I bring in details of the setting and I make it clear that it’s taking place in Albuquerque, on a desert road, etc., but I have yet to write anything where the desert setting feels absolutely essential and integral to the story.  -From Melanie Unruh in “Let the Sky Haunt You”

Key Quotes From Week #3

Suspension of disbelief is no mere myth. If your story is compelling, your characters engaging and with an emotional heart that resonates deeply, then readers (or viewers or listeners) will happily grant you that suspension of disbelief, and either not notice or choose not to care when you need to hedge “reality” or common sense in order to tell that story. -From Bob Sabatini in “Up in the sky!  Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a plot hole!”

One of the best writing exercises Demetria [Martinez] offered was this: “Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is grieving.  Do not use the word “grief” (or any of its forms).”  And then, “Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is in love. Do not use the word “love” (or any of its forms).” I don’t know about you, but I tend to write too much in my head, and these exercises, even for a nonfiction memoir writer like myself, are very useful. -From Jennifer Simpson in “How We See Things”

Today, my days are more full and my writing has more weight, more pressure.  BUT, this month, when I’ve been sitting down to work, I’m letting the fun win more.  I haven’t always worked on the novel.  I haven’t always worked on prose.  One day, I sat there and drew pictures and called it the beginning of a graphic story.  Another day, I cut out bits from a magazine and glued them into a scrap book.  As artists, aren’t we allowed to sow as many seeds as we see fit? -From “Gardening Tips for March”

Key Quotes from Week #4:

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. – From Bob Sabatini in “Write it!”

Your intuition knows when the writing is good and when chances are necessary.  Get it down, and while you’re at it, get out of the way!  -From “Faulkberries!”

Remember, challenges like the Writers’ March are meant to work for you, not the other way around. If you find that any approach leads you down an ill-fitting path, simply turn around. You can always return to your comfort zone any time you like.  -From Lisa Hase-Jackson in “Five Weird Ways to Get Writing”

We’re always going to find someone who is more than willing to tell us that we’re not a writer. Someone who is more than happy to point out that what we’ve written doesn’t really count. The best thing that I’ve ever done was to ignore (or at least actively try to ignore) them. Today, I suggest you think about that subject matter, that genre, that form or lack of form, that thing that you’ve been avoiding writing about because it doesn’t count, and, of course, write about it. -From Jennifer Krohn in “Prove Them Wrong”

In short, at school I was becoming known as a “writer.” And my family still supported my work. I wrote a poem about our pet cat, Fat Cat, and won a local poetry contest with “Butterfly,” about a monarch who met its death when it fell prey to a crow. When my great-grandmother died just before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called “Granny.” (“Granny was a good old soul. / She lived to be quite old.”) I used my finest penmanship and wrote its seven lines with the faintest of pencil strokes. That last line, standing alone with no rhyming couplet, may symbolize my grief, or perhaps it marked a Coleridgean inability to finish. When I handed it to my grandmother, she cried and cried. That poem made her so happy. She quoted it often. -From Marisa P.C. in “Sweet Inspiration”

And what I’ve learned THIS MONTH (why only now!?) is that it is only when I STOP thinking about [external factors like publication and money] that writing is fun again, and only when writing is fun again that I come close to finishing. – From “What’s Your Motivation?”

Final Thoughts & Final Thanks

This year’s March has been a huge challenge for me, and it would not have been made possible without the help of my fellow bloggers.  Thank you, thank you, thank you to Jennifer Simpson & Bob Sabatini for your weekly help!  And thank you, thank you to this year’s Guest Bloggers: Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco, Jennifer Krohn (who wrote TWO posts!), Lisa Hase-Jackson, Lisa D. Chavez, Melanie Unruh, and Marisa P.C.  Without all of you, this year’s writer’s march would have been a series of author quotes and writing exercises.  I am so grateful for the added dimensionality and insights you’ve provided.  You definitely kept this blog afloat!

And finally, to those out there who wrote with us this year.  Thanks for being a part of the March!  Hopefully, we’ll see you next year!  And if you are interested in blogging with us, please let me know!

Marching across the dunes

(Note: There were a few missed messages about who would be writing the farewell post for the last of the month, so here is a ¡Special Bonus! farewell to March, the final “Monday with Bob.”)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Hello! I hope A Writer’s March has been an enjoyable and inspiring experience for you. On this, the final day of the month, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the challenge, not as the end of a process of growth, but as another step in the journey. A chance to pause and catch our breaths and take a look back before continuing this march on into April and beyond. At the beginning of the March, Sam shared a video of a commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. One of the most striking devices Gaiman uses in this speech is the metaphor of the mountain. He gives the directions for anyone who wants to pursue a life in the arts to think of their goals as being on the top of a mountain, and to make decisions—life defining decisions, sometimes—based on what gets you closer to the top of that mountain.

After hearing the speech, I spent nearly a week trying to determine exactly what my mountain was. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t have one. I am wandering—not exactly lost, but without definite purpose—through a desert where my horizon consists entirely of dunes. I clamber up to the top of one dune, slipping in the sand as I go, sometimes getting winded and needing to take a short rest, but getting there eventually. Then I take a look around and—still not seeing any mountains off in the distance anywhere—pick another dune and start the climb all over again. Continue reading

Day 30: What’s Your Motivation?

I’m currently teaching a composition course linked with intro psychology, and the other day, there was a guest lecture on motivation.  As the man spoke, I couldn’t help but think of writing and, since it is now the end of March, all of you.  In a way, I think of this post as the most important post I’ve written on this Writer’s March blog so far.  It is also a meditation on the entire lecture.

First, some definitions…

When I’m talking about motivation, I’m talking about the drive to do something, anything, whether it be wake up and go for runs or – more on subject – what drives you to write?

Nothing makes me want to write as much as the Ghost Ranch library...

Nothing me want to write as much as writing in the Ghost Ranch library…

Psychologists divide motivation into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation comes in the form of external things.  Remember those programs they used to do in grade school where if everyone read X amount of books, then the class would get a pizza party?  That’s an extrinsic motivator where reading = pizza party.  Work = pay.  Study = good grades.  Intrinsic motivation, as you probably know or probably guessed, means that the thing you “get” out of any given task comes from inside you.  It is the feeling you get from playing soccer, playing the drums, scratching in your notebook.  It is, in a nutshell, the things we do just because we want to.  The things we do for ourselves and our sense of well-being.

So, which one is better?

It doesn’t take make to know/believe/understand that being intrinsically motivated is better in the long run, but why?  Remember that example above about books = pizza?  On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea, right?  If you extrinsically motivate kids to read more, then they will discover reading and will be readers for life, right?  Well that was the thought, but when psychologists studied these programs they discovered that in the end, the program was counter productive.  Here’s’s what I mean (and here I’m going to unscientifically summarize for you):

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

Let’s say that a kid was reading something like 5 books every month before the program.  During the program, the same kids had to read 10 books a month in order to help the class win the pizza party, and so he/she did.  Books were read, pizza parties were won, the program – as programs do – came to an end.

So here’s the important part: what happened to our readers after the program?  That same 5 book/month kid now reads 2, much less than he/she had read before.  Why?  Because there’s no more external reward.  The external reward (the pizza) had come to stand in for the internal reward (the joy of reading), and without the pizza, there was no more joy.

As I learned about this, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this is the reason so many people stop writing after attending an MFA program.  You take something intrinsic – the love of writing.  It is something you do because it brings you joy, makes you feel good, makes you feel like an individual with something to say while during the day maybe you are a starting to feel like just a cog in the working world.  You love writing.  You love it so much you quit your job for it.  Then you go to school, and now you are writing because you have to turn in a workshop story and then you start writing because you want a good workshop (you want people to just stand up and clap, not critique you anymore), and then you write because you have a dissertation/thesis to finish, and then you write because you want to get the book published because if you have a published book you can apply for the job market – and you see what I’m saying?  All the motivators for writing became extrinsic, and the intrinsic motivation is lost (for many of us, we can probably find it still hanging out with our healthy livers…)

But what about the extrinsic, doesn’t it make us work faster? Be better?  Get Stronger?

I mean, we are America, right?  Land of capitalism and opportunity.  Land of…be the best and get paid the most.  Land of…bonuses, commissions, incentives…you get the picture, but do these extrinsic motivators really make us into better beings?  This was a question tacked by  the following TED Talk by Dan Pink on “The Puzzle of Motivation”:

At the beginning of this video, Pink tells of two different psychological experiments.  First, in 1945, a psychologist did an experiment to test people’s ability to look “outside-the-box.”  He invented “The Candle Problem” where people were put into a room with three objects on a table: a candle, some matches, and a box of thumb tacks.  They were tasked with attaching the candle to the wall so the was wouldn’t fall on the table.  People tried melting the candle to the wall.  They tried thumb-tacking the candle to the wall.  None of those things worked. Eventually, they figured out that you could remove the thumb tacks from their box, tack the box to the wall, and then set the candle on top.

Another psychologist took this experiment even further.  Using the candle problem, he   divided subjects into two groups:

  • Group #1: These people were told that they were looking to find the average amount of time it took people to solve the candle problem.
  • Group #2: These people were told that the faster they solved the problem, the more money they might win.  The person who was fastest would get $20.  The top 25% of people would get $5 (think inflation – this used to be a lot more money than it is now).

Again, you would think that the people with the incentive to work faster would finish faster, right?  Right?!  But the opposite turned out to be true. Group #2 took an average of 3 1/2 minutes longer!  Again, contrary to what we might think, instead of inciting creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, the incentive actually DULLED creativity.

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born...

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born…

Not sure about you, but this makes me consider my own writing life and the way my own desire to write and ability to be “creative” seemed to disappear the second I started to focus on the extrinsic factors.  Such as: I want to publish stories so that I can find an agent or qualify for residencies/fellowships, and I want to publish the book so that I can go on the job market so that I can make some money so that I can buy a house and start a family.  And what I’ve learned THIS MONTH (why only now!?) is that it is only when I STOP thinking about these things that writing is fun agan, and only when writing is fun again that I come close to finishing.

And so my posts have now brought us full circle.  I’m now back to where I was in the beginning of this month: thinking about how to make writing fun again.

And so, where does that leave us?

Here on the second to the last day of Writer’s March, I find myself wondering about what kind of a motivator this March is?  The hope is that it is meant to tap into our intrinsic side,  but I worry that it might be just another extrinsic motivator.

And so, today, as you finish out the month, I urge you to take a minute to examine your own motivations.  Are you more intrinsically vs. extrinsically motivated?  How are the extrinsic factors getting in the way (becoming the pizza party) for the intrinsic joy of our task?  How might you shift your focus to the things which bring you joy?  I urge you to make a list and put it by your desk.  Retrain your brain somehow.  See if you can start thinking of writing NOT as work, but as….I’m not sure…  Play?  Fun?  Your life?  You decide.

And, just because, here are my hopes for you at the end of this March month:

  • I hope you wrote more than you might have written
  • I hope that you had at least one day where writing brought you joy.
  • I hope you tap into that day of joy as often as possible for the rest of your writing lives.

Now, what are you waiting for?  This was a very long post.  Go to it!

Sweet Inspiration

–by Tyger Burning (Marisa P.C.) in loving memory of Gena N. (1963 – 1996)

Gena N. and me in fifth grade, with some kid in a hat that screams 1970s

 

Confession #1: I’ve officially written only TWO of the days of the Writer’s March. That means putting words on the page. As usual, I’ve done a lot of work in my head, but that’s not what the March is about.

Confession #2: I agreed to write this post several days ago. As usual, I crafted it in my head. It was wonderful. It was about a recent hike I went on with my friends and how I didn’t finish it but didn’t feel bad about it. I was going to make it into a metaphor about writing, sort of.

Confession #3: I wrote this post last year for Writer’s March, but it wasn’t used. I hope it’s of use to you now. Maybe it will be of use to me in these last days of the march. (By the way, the photos are today’s additions.)

 

Sweet Inspiration

Hello from Marisa! How is your march going? Today’s post is intended to encourage those of you who may be struggling to keep up with your goals and to inspire all of you to remember the early inspirations in your writing life.

 me in third grade

The first half of third grade was coming to a close, and I had just turned eight. We’d been working on multiplication tables, cursive handwriting, and the proper use of ballpoint ink. I don’t remember what we studied in English, only that my teacher, Mrs. Zettel, taught us how to write poems. They had a bouncing meter and a strong dependency on rhyme. I wrote my first poem in rhyming couplets. It was an eight-line masterpiece titled “December”: “December reminds me of red and green. / It also reminds me of Christmas string.” I meant “tinsel,” but “tinsel” didn’t rhyme. “It reminds me of Santa Claus / and how he makes such a ho-ho pause.” I didn’t know what a “ho-ho pause” was; the important thing was that “pause” rhymed with “Claus” and “ho-ho” was, obviously, an onomatopoeia representing Santa’s laughter. I remember the rest of the poem too, but I trust you get the picture: Its reliance on rhyme was wreckage to image and accuracy.

At eight, I didn’t still believe in Santa. But Christmas was coming, we wouldn’t have to go to school for a few weeks, there would be decorations and presents, and that was what was on my mind when we were assigned our first poem. I don’t remember anyone else’s poem. I do remember how much everyone else loved mine, though. Mrs. Zettel, of all people, loved my poem! She was a strict, paddle-wielding teacher who rarely smiled. She often wore an avocado-colored dress that raised up to reveal her girdle whenever she wrote on the chalkboard. She was a stout woman who pinned her graying hair in a swirl atop her head. She seemed old. She may not have been. But Mrs. Zettel, she raved about my poem.

Mrs. Zettel with a rare smile, not looking so old after all

All my classmates loved my poem. Most important among them was Gena N., my first love. (She looked like Barbara Feldon/Agent 99 in Get Smart!, I swear it to this day. A lifelong fan of my writing, Gena N. also read my first novel during study hall our senior year of high school.) Anyway, it was also important that my parents and grandparents saw greatness in my poem. Writing those eight lines was the only thing I’d ever done in the whole of my life that made everyone lavish praise upon me.

Gena N., out of focus, but looking decidedly like Agent 99!

The next year I won the fourth-grade poetry contest, and Mrs. Bullard took me to hear Elizabeth Spencer read. Our class made books — mimeographed, stapled affairs — of our poetry and drawings. One of my poems was about springtime. It mostly rhymed. In fifth grade I continued to meet with success for my seasonal writing; my poem “The Year Is Here” (about Thanksgiving) was published in the local newspaper. That year I also wrote and illustrated my first book, The Golden Pond, during lulls in class; it was about Jesus’s second coming and his deep despair over pollution. I probably plagiarized an anti-littering commercial that was popular at the time, but I forgive myself because that was before I knew what plagiarism was.

In short, at school I was becoming known as a “writer.” And my family still supported my work. I wrote a poem about our pet cat, Fat Cat, and won a local poetry contest with “Butterfly,” about a monarch who met its death when it fell prey to a crow. When my great-grandmother died just before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called “Granny.” (“Granny was a good old soul. / She lived to be quite old.”) I used my finest penmanship and wrote its seven lines with the faintest of pencil strokes. That last line, standing alone with no rhyming couplet, may symbolize my grief, or perhaps it marked a Coleridgean inability to finish. When I handed it to my grandmother, she cried and cried. That poem made her so happy. She quoted it often.

It’s true that puberty made a mess of my poetry — I suddenly found concrete images expendable and replaced them with tortured, abstract emoting — but I’m not writing this post to supply a history of my writing. Instead, I mean to pay tribute to those earliest positive influences on my writing — in particular to Mrs. Zettel and Gena N. — and I wish to encourage you to think about yours. Who has been most supportive to you along the way? What are your earliest good memories of writing? Who and what inspired you? What did you write about?

P.S. I would like to thank Sam, creator of the Writer’s March, for being another voice of inspiration. Thanks, Sam!

 me and Sam, still in school

 

Making Connections

Untitled-1Lately John F. Kennedy’s death has been coming up.

On House of Cards the character Claire Underwood talked about how visiting the site where Kennedy was shot with her father influenced her decision to go into “public service” (a term I feel compelled to put into quotes because if you know the show and the character, the only person she is serving is herself and maybe her husband–but a discussion of that character and how the writers have developed her is for another post).

My former professor Sharon Warner wrote about her experience for her “About” page on her new website.

My friend Cindy Sylvester read a story, “Stairway to Heaven”  at our DimeStories 4th Year Anniversary Showcase celebration last Sunday.  One of the main characters was born on the day Kennedy was shot.

My friend Marisa’s mother went into labor the day Kennedy was shot. (Though she was actually born 5 days later.)

~  ~  ~

Judith Barrington includes an exercise in her book, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art that I recommend (here’s a pdf of pages 148 and 149):

Think of an event of historical or cultural importance that you remember (assassination of President Kennedy; the first moon landing; the end of the Berlin Wall; John Lennon’s death; an outstanding sporting event; the March on Washington; the Roe v. Wade decision; the AIDS epidemic; the Gulf War; etc). Write personally about how you witnessed or heard about that event and how it impacted you.

I haven’t gotten around to writing this exercise yet, but I did make a list of Big Events from my lifetime.  Make your own list or feel free to pick one from my list (or one of the ones Barrington mentions) and start writing. Even if you’re not writing memoir, think about how a character you’re working with experienced these events:

  • Elvis’ death
  • The day Reagan was shot
  • The day the Pope was shot
  • John Lennon’s death
  • Mt. St. Helen’s eruption
  • Ghandi’s assassination
  • Chernobyl
  • Columbine
  • Break up of the Soviet Union
  • Rodney King beating
  • World Trade Center bombing (the first one)
  • Air Florida Flight 90 crashes into the Potomac
  • September 11
  • Largest shopping mall in America opens (on 78 acres in Minnesota)
  • Civil War in Rwanda and subsequent genocide of 800,000
  • NAFTA
  • Kurt Cobain suicide
  • Nicole Simpson / Ron Goldman murders, police chase of OJ Simpson, and subsequent trial
  • Columbine
  • Oklahoma City bombing
  • Unibomber arrested
  • Heaven’s Gate mass suicide
  • Matthew Shepard’s murder
  • Yitzhak Rabin’s murder
  • Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
  • Fukushima
  • Princess Diana’s death

That’s just a handful of the disasters and tragedies I came up with (with a little help from my friend The Internet).

And that, my friends, is it for my March madness, aka “Fridays with Jenn”. Hope your March was fruitful!

Prove Them Wrong

Recently, a student told me about how a graduating senior claimed that she couldn’t be a writer until she read War And Peace. My first reaction was to roll my eyes and ask if he had read it. Apparently, he was only halfway through the book. Obviously the unnamed senior was wrong; people had been writing great works of literature for millennia before Tolstoy sat down to write the first words of his famous tome. However, I kept wondering about the senior and his reasons for making such a snobbish statement. Maybe he was trying to express how this book was revolutionizing his view of writing, and in his excitement made an overgeneralization. Maybe he was repeating something that a personal hero had said; I’ve known of tons of people claim that you can’t write “until you see the world,” “until you learn to depend on yourself,” “until you get your heart broken” and so on. And maybe, he was just a jerk who felt threatened by my student’s intelligence and talent and was trying to make himself feel better by putting her down.

Jane Austen: someone else who never read War and Peace.

Jane Austen: someone else who never read War and Peace.

This is a common story. I’ve had a student who was brilliant and articulate but paralyzed herself with panic whenever she had to write because a teacher had said, “Please, don’t ever write again.” I’ve been in workshops where my fellow students’ critiques were something along the lines of “this subject matter isn’t worthy of a poem.” I’ve had strangers come up to me and tell me not to waste my time “reading that trash” (Jane Austin and Jack Kerouac). There are many creative writing teachers who forbid students from writing in genre or about a particular topic. All in all, we’re regularly told what we can’t write, and often we’re told that we’re not even writers. After a while we start telling ourselves that we’re not writers, which is ridiculous.

When I first started writing poetry, I thought all poems had to be about big emotions—emotions that start with capital letters—or about deep philosophical truths. In my first year of graduate school, I struggled to find subjects to write about. Everything fell flat. I finally turned in a fairy tale poem that I didn’t think very good (its subject matter was so very small). My professor told me that she thought I’d found my voice with that poem and suggested that I might write more. In other words, she gave me permission to write about fairy tales: fairy tales that most people think are only for children, fairy tales that aren’t well known, fairy tales that are silly and gruesome. Subconsciously, I’d been moving towards fairy tales, but consciously I’d been trying to stick with subject matter that was “appropriate for poetry.”

We’re always going to find someone who is more than willing to tell us that we’re not a writer. Someone who is more than happy to point out that what we’ve written doesn’t really count. The best thing that I’ve ever done was to ignore (or at least actively try to ignore) them. Today, I suggest you think about that subject matter, that genre, that form or lack of form, that thing that you’ve been avoiding writing about because it doesn’t count, and, of course, write about it. If it helps, know that you’re under no obligation to show it to anyone, as Bob advised in Monday’s post. Yet also remember, you don’t have to keep it hidden—if you’re proud of something that “breaks the rules” share it with the world.

Five Weird Ways to Get Writing Done

IMG_0059Towards the end of any month-long writing challenge, the average writer finds herself grabbing at straws for inspiration to keep writing. All the great ideas that had been incubating up until the beginning of the journey are exhausted and she’s left with either a lengthy, cumbersome tome or yet another blank page of reticence representing the next poem or short story. All of the conventional approaches to consistent writing   adamantly advocated by leading writer’s magazines, websites, and blogs are likewise worn thin and their effectiveness called into question under the scrutinizing gaze of the inner wild-child — who simply wishes to create with abandon.

If your wild child has grown bored with the carefully arranged, safety-approved environment of adequately structured playground equipment designed to stimulate just the right amount of brain activity and instead is testing the parameters of the playground itself, here are a few ideas to consider:

Honor the Block: Like all other demons of the psyche, writers and artists fear the dreaded Block; but fear only gives it more power. If you feel a block on your path, acknowledge it and invite it to your table. You may discover that it has something of crucial importance to impart, and it is your job to make way for its message. What questions would you like answered? Entertain a discussion and welcome the inevitable discovery of self that opens access into the deepest reservoir of your creativity. There are answers there. Some grave, some simple. Your Block’s presence may indicate major changes are in order, or it may simply mean that it is time to rest, or time to move.

Clean Something: Ever notice how cleaning off the kitchen table somehow leads to doing your taxes, a chore you’d been putting off for months? Just as our intentions are triggered and honed by unrelated activities, so can writing arise from non-writerly pursuits. And just as intent to write brings household chores to mind, so do household chores bring writing projects to mind.  And obviously, writing, for most of us, is much more appealing.

Work Backwards: In a culture that advocates putting difficult chores first, days and weeks can fly past before we get around to doing what we really want. In writing, the difficult parts include, well, writing. Take time today to imagine the day you read from your published and wildly popular work. Imagine what you are wearing, where you are reading, and even the occupied seats of the venue. Design the cover of your book or get an author photo taken. Practice your signature and what you will write when fans ask you to sign their copy of your book.

Catalog Your Work: On days when I feel overwhelmed with things to do, I make a list of things I have accomplished. It immediately puts things in perspective and takes the pressure off. Instead of worrying about all the work that stands before the present moment and the moment when you can say you’re finished with your project, take a look through the work you’ve accomplished so far. I don’t just mean in the month of March, either, but through all the days of your writing life. This includes the comic strip you wrote in Jr. High, the love letters you penned in college, and the Journals you wrote as an undergrad. It should be obvious that everything you wrote for your college classes belongs in this survey as well. Impressed? You should be. Now to really bring to light just how much you’ve written over the years, index your journals, create a spread sheet of your papers, or stack everything you have in hard copy smack dab the middle of the floor and walk around it for a week. As a penultimate exercise in self-appreciation, check your Submittable account and wallow in the success of having actually sent your work out into the world. Some people never make it that far!

Go Where You’re Unknown: At the extreme end of this spectrum is moving to a differentIMG_0075 state or leaving the country. Culture shock will send you running to your Journal, your only true friend in the world, to normalize your experience, as a plethora of raw material pours forth. But even if you are a lifelong member of your community with no plans for ever uprooting, just going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or opting for a different branch of the library — ones your friends do not frequent, whose “regulars” are new to you, and whose location is in an outlying area — can trigger the kind compulsory focus needed for productive writing.

Remember, challenges like the Writers’ March are meant to work for you, not the other way around. If you find that any approach leads you down an ill-fitting path, simply turn around. You can always return to your comfort zone any time you like.

Good luck, good work, and happy writing.

Lisa Hase-Jackson

Faulkberries!

I thought I’d give you some Tuesday tidbits from some famous writing folks.  I ran across a lot of quotes, and it was a toss up between William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury!  Personally, why not mix and match the advice, do with it what you will…  Hmm, maybe I’ll try that! But first:

Some Faulkner Advice

“Get it down. Take Chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner

Some Bradbury Advice

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” – Ray Bradbury

Super Combo Faulkbury Advice

“Your intuition knows when the writing is good and when chances are necessary.  Get it down, and while you’re at it, get out of the way.” – Sam
Happy Tuesday writing folks.  Only 7 days left!

Write it!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Last year, I took part in some writing challenge for March, the name of which escapes me for the moment. I set the “modest” goal for myself of a thousand words a day, for a grand total of thirty-one thousand words. I called this “modest” because I’d easily cleared fifty-two thousand words for NaNoWriMo a few months earlier, during a month which is one day shorter. I put “modest” in quotes because I failed miserably last March. Quite simply, in March I stopped myself from writing anything I didn’t consider meaningful, while in November I let myself fully explore whatever I felt I had to say. In other words, by stopping myself from writing anything that wasn’t “meaningful,” I stopped myself from writing, period.

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. I am a firm believer in writing for the sake of writing and the writer’s right to write for nobody other than him or herself (try saying that five times fast). Anything you write—whether it is suitable for anybody else or not—is a whetstone for further sharpening your craft; practicing dialogue, understanding characters, testing images, whatever you feel your weaknesses may be.

You ever have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but then stopped yourself because “it’ll never work in this story”? Think character x from story A would be a worthy adversary for character y from story B but don’t want to mix story A with story B? Write it anyways. Here’s a helpful equation:
—————————————x+y=practice writing dialogue.
Maybe there’s a situation you’d like to put a character in just to see how he handles it? Write it, it’ll help you get to know that character better. Want to write a sex scene but feel it’s totally gratuitous? Don’t even worry about justifying it, if it wants to be written, then write it!

Don’t stop yourself from writing because you feel you need to do more research. Let’s say you want to set a story in a cheese factory but don’t know the first thing about making cheese. You will need to do research in order to create a believable environment and believable characters to inhabit it, but don’t let a lack of research keep you from getting whatever wonderful idea that had you wanting to write a story about a cheese factory in the first place down on paper. Write it! Make it up as you go along, and make adjustments as needed when you do get that research done.

Last but certainly not least, do not stop yourself from writing something just because you know you’ll never be able to publish it. You know what I’m talking about: fan fiction. Interesting characters and settings from established books, movies and television shows should spark the imagination, and just because those characters are somebody else’s “intellectual property” doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them for your own personal use. If you think it would be fun to have Alex from A Clockwork Orange steal the TARDIS, escape to the antebellum south and run afoul of Scarlet O’Hara… WRITE IT! Sure, you’ll almost certainly never acquire the rights to publish it, but that’s not the point, the point is to practice writing. Alex and Scarlet. Just try writing a page or two of that without needing to flex some underutilized imaginative muscle.

So, your writing prompt for today: Alex from A Clockwork Orange steals the TARDIS and takes it to________.

Gardening Tips for March

Who knows what the world is like in other parts of the country, but here in Albuquerque, we are having a Spring like no other.  Usually, when March rolls around, so does the wind, and if the weather is beautiful, it is difficult to tell with the sand being blown in your eyes.  And while the wind is still there, its been a much tamer year so far.  Weather like this, everyone is outside, walking dogs, taking bike rides, and – at least in my neighborhood – gardening.

It occurred to me as I sat down to write this post, that writing and gardening make a lot of sense when considered together.  It makes so much sense to me, that I thought for sure I had written posts and posts about the relationship, but in truth?  Not so.  Not a one!  (Though there was a reference to “planting seeds.”)  And so, today, my friends, a few gardening/writing thoughts for you as we head towards the end of this month:

1.  Don’t be afraid of the weeds

early days of the Huning-Highland Community Garden

early days of the Huning-Highland Community Garden

There’s a flowerbed in the back of the house that has been over-run by weeds and cats and trash blown in from the wind.  The other day, Jenn and I set about clearing it all away.   We were outside for an hour or two and the flowerbed is little more than a California King sized bed, and I felt like the progress was slow and arduous.  “This weeding thing is such a pain,” I said, and Jenn in her wisdom pointed out that weeding is not always like this.  Once we had it cleared, the rest would just be upkeep.

Is the writing metaphor glaring for you as much as it was for me?  As you probably know, I’ve been working on a novel – the same novel I’ve been working on for almost seven years – and many of the days, my work feels like that – like I’ve slaving away and my progress appears minimal to the actual task.  Those are the bad days, the weed days, and sometimes the only thing I can do to make it through them is remember that those are the days of clearing the way.  Tomorrow, I tell myself, I’ll have cleared a path.  (And it is usually true).

2.  Don’t be afraid of planting a variety of seeds

When I lived on Walter Street, Randi and I were a part of a community garden, and every year (at about this time) we would have our first meeting of the planting season.  Bonnie, the head of the whole operation, would pull out a white board, and we’d list the different seeds we’d want to plant, starting with tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and usually ending with a discussion about marigolds and zinnias.  Even within each type of fruit, we planted a variety, and by the end of the season, there would be almost a dozen different types of tomatoes, half a dozen varieties of basil, multi-colored and multi-textured lettuces, and peppers of different shapes, sizes, and levels of spice.  Cooking during harvest season is always spurred along by the inspiration of what the garden has to offer.

DSCN4638Lately, I’ve been wondering why writing cannot be like this as well.  Usually, I am a fan of the process, of sitting down every day and hacking away at my novel.  This is good practice.  It has gotten me through some tough days and tough drafts.  Since moving back to New Mexico, however, I’ve been wanting to get back to the fun.  Maybe it is a product of returning, which is reminding me of all of the reasons I moved here in the first place – I had a strong urge to create.  My first days in Albuquerque were spent writing story after story after story, and I wasn’t worried about doing any one thing, and I wasn’t worried about being any one thing.  I was just happy to be living the life of an artist.  Today, my days are more full and my writing has more weight, more pressure.  BUT, this month, when I’ve been sitting down to work, I’m letting the fun win more.  I haven’t always worked on the novel.  I haven’t always worked on prose.  One day, I sat there and drew pictures and called it the beginning of a graphic story.  Another day, I cut out bits from a magazine and glued them into a scrap book.  As artists, aren’t we allowed to sow as many seeds as we see fit?

3.  Don’t forget to add water

What to say about this other than we live in a desert.  Sometimes the seeds need shade.  All the time: they need water.  Even the ground needs water if you are going to try to pull up the weeds!  And so, if we are planting seeds of stories, poems, photographs, drawings, DSCN2886what are the things that water you?  Is it the walk in the woods?  Is it waking up before the rest of your household?  Is it conversations over beer?  Long road trips?  A month spent sleeping in your childhood bed, hanging out with your mother?

Of all the metaphors, perhaps this one feels the most cheesy to me – especially because I want to caution you about over-watering (when does a walk go from inspiration to writing distraction? Isn’t a weekend with the mother enough?  Sometimes you need sleep, too, don’t you think?), but I still think it is true.  Maybe our stories (or at least my novel) feel like they have deep, dark, twisted roots, but we don’t.  I don’t. I guess you could say that my task is to bring the story water…  Feed the story, feed the soul: isn’t it the same thing in the end?

And so…

The metaphor can go on.  We plant things.  We watch them grow.  We harvest the fruit.  We slice it up, cook it up.  We share it with others.  But that is for the summer months.  And this is March.  …the month of getting the garden ready.  So what are you waiting for?  What does your garden need today?  Now, go!