Thursday, November 29, 2012

5 Pieces of Advice That Changed the Way I Write

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Long ago, when I first read the statement above, I imagined an encounter with a big-bellied, toga-wearing monk who would whisper the secrets of the universe into my ear.

Over the years I've learned you don’t necessarily need a monk to show you the way. If you’re open to it, wisdom comes in many guises, such as advice from a friend, a passage in a book, an overheard conversation or even a sudden insight.

What follows are the valuable writing gifts I have received over the years. Depending on where you are in this journey, they may or may not resonate with you, but each one was precious to me and changed my way of thinking about my craft.

Morning Pages

Since I was a little girl I always dreamed of being a writer but it wasn't until I started doing daily morning pages that I gained the courage to face the blank page.  And what are morning pages?

Simply, first thing when you wake up in the morning, you write longhand in a notebook for twenty minutes without stopping. It’s best if you practice morning pages for two or three months and you shouldn't read what you've written until much later.  The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron popularized morning pages but they've been around for decades.

Morning pages train your subconscious to write. It coaxes out the muse, and, trust me, the practice is utterly magical. Morning pages work best with new writers or writers who have abandoned the craft for a while.

Save the Cat!

Storytelling is a skill separate from writing beautiful sentences and Blake Snyder, author of “Save the Cat Strikes Back!” explains plotting in the most eloquent and accessible way possible.

After reading his book, I knew I would never again plot myself into a corner or abandon a project because of structural problems.  Although his work is written in a breezy style, there’s something very elemental and old-world about Snyder’s approach.

He died a couple of years ago, and even though he was a successful screenwriter, I think his insightful how-to books were his true legacy. I recommend all of his books but if you were only to buy one, I’d get “Save the Cat Strikes Back.” In addition to giving structural advice, he shares the very personal story of how he changed his writing life around. An inspiring man who will be missed.

Pomodoro Technique

Former Girlfriend April Henry turned me on to this incredible yet simple technique. Basically you write for twenty-five minutes, no interruptions, and then take a five minute break.

Repeat as many times as necessary. This method has increased my focus ten-fold. I no longer worry about being distracted by the Internet or e-mail, because during each twenty-five minute period, you trick the brain to attend only to the writing. Here’s more about the Pomodoro technique if I’ve piqued your interest.

Rachel Aaron’s Amazing Productivity Method

Recently I decided I wanted to write first drafts faster, and I ran across author Rachel Aaron's advice on that very topic. Using her method, I easily upped my daily word count from 2,000 words a day to 3,000. (Accomplished in a four-hour time period with brief breaks) The secret?

Aaron suggests writing a brief summary of what you’re going to write each day before plunging in.  Her advice should be worth a $1,000 it helped me so much. But I only spent $.99 on her book. Thank you, Rachel Aaron! XOXO

A recent insight about the writing game

Once during one of the best performances of his life, Laurence Olivier came off the stage and was approached by a reporter who was bowled over by his mastery. Olivier acknowledged he’d done well, but he also said, “I don’t know if I can ever repeat it, because it did not come from me.”

The more I write, the more I understand that the best writing is achieved when I leave my ego outside the writing room, and surrender to my unconscious mind.

If I show up every day, the muse will arrive, and if I’m humble and understand that I’m only a conduit or co-creator at best, then good writing will almost always result. When I’m co-creating, the supply of ideas are endless, and I never get stale. Maybe this gift was the most important one of all.

So those are the best gifts I've received in over twenty years of writing, and I hope at least one will speak to you. And since it’s the gift-giving season, I would love to hear the valuable insights you have received during your writing life. I’m always looking to add a few more to my treasure chest.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Be Original

Tell the truth, dear writer.

Had to share this quote because there’s so much brilliance in it. Nowadays when I write, I keep telling myself, “Tell the truth. Tell the truth” even though fiction is, of course, a pack of lies, but still, a kernel of truth must be there. What a paradox!

You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it... Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.” 
― C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Thursday, November 1, 2012

2 Very Inspiring Posts on the Magic of Being a Writer

A couple of posts on writing that spoke to me this week, and I hope they’ll speak to you as well:

From author Leslie Stella comes a lovely rambling post about all the ups and downs in a writer’s life.
Here’s an excerpt:

You cannot go to sleep at a reasonable hour for the same reason you cannot have a glass of wine and the idiot box: because you were a writer, you were born to be a writer, and you still want to be a writer—no, not yearn, just want, want—it’s a simple word and you have read enough crappy writing by now, including your own, to know that there is something to be said for the simple and direct and plain way of speaking; you are a writer and who is going to tell you that you are not? You are a writer; you are a writer.

Also this from an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love:

It’s okay to recognize that you took a wrong turn, and to begin anew. It’s okay to write a book that gets bad reviews. It’s okay to write a book that no one reads. The idea is just to focus on how you want to spend your life. My intention is to spend my entire life doing this, so any one piece of it isn’t that important when you think of it in the long scale.”

It’s all a journey isn’t it? And a lovely one at that. Enjoy and try not to get too frustrated with the bumps. It’s merely part of the wonder. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Outline Without Losing Your Wild Writer's Mind

 Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.

Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy -- doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play not work.

Unfortunately Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: Her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding: she needs to be reigned in.
Enter Ms. Grind.

 Rules can choke creativity 

She’ll tell Crazy Daisy that a sentence can’t run on for three pages or that exclamation points shouldn’t be showered over a page like pepper. She’s so bossy and judgmental she frightens away Crazy Daisy. Ms. Grind doesn’t care; she doesn’t needs that wild little girl hanging around anyway. Yet when she tries to have fun with her prose, it’s scary like having Dick Cheney ask you to pull his finger. Most of her writing comes out freeze-dried and soulless.  

Fact is, all writers are slightly schizophrenic, their mind divided between Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind. We usually start out dominated by Crazy Daisy but once we immerse ourselves into  the sea of endless writing rules, Ms. Grind tends to take over.  

Can Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grim live harmoniously in a writer’s head? In other words, is it possible to create prose that’s technically proficient but also has passion, wonder, and playfulness? Yes, but only if you allow Crazy Daisy and Ms Grim to play to their strengths.

Before you run with a new idea bring in your rational mind

You’re talking a walk or daydreaming and suddenly… BAM! You get a great idea. Crazy Daisy, impetuous minx, wants to start writing immediately. It’s like she has a case of diarrhea. You’ll be tempted to run with her. Don’t do it. Stop and take a moment to diaper the little imp.

Believe it or not, it’s time to bring Ms. Grind into the equation—not to shoot down the idea--but to structure it. Ms. Grinds loves outlines and plans and she’s good at them. After a little structure work, she might find that the idea isn’t workable after all. Sadly not all of Crazy Daisy’s ideas are golden. She likes to take risks and some don’t pay off.   

In fact, it’s wise to begin with every writing session with Ms. Grind and structure your thoughts when you sit down to write, whether to compose a short scene or a brief essay. You’ll satisfy Ms. Grind and give Crazy Daisy some perimeters. T.S. Elliot summarized this process:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its upmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

Never stop to judge your first drafts 

Once structure’s in place, time to let Crazy Daisy loose. Allow her to scribble on walls, turn somersaults or eat paste. Sometimes she might break down structural walls and that’s okay too. Ms. Grind, however, isn’t allowed in.  Why? Because she’ll keep up a steady stream of inner dialogue that sounds something like this:

That sentence was abysmal. It must be fixed immediately. Can’t you do anything right? Who do you think you are, passing yourself as a writer?

Occasionally Crazy Daisy interjects, bringing flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s Ms. Grind who stands over the writer, wielding her ruler.  

Not surprisingly Ms. Grind doesn’t give up her authority easily. How can you keep her out of your head when you're drafting?

Breaking through to writing that's true

Most people aren’t aware of the stream of criticism flowing in their mind while they’re writing. Thinking is so fast and transitory; it can be hard to catch Ms. Grind’s endless digs. That why it’s helpful to develop a habit of sitting quietly and meditating for fifteen minutes each day. Ms Grind will no do doubt object saying, “What a ridiculous idea.  Do you realize we’re wasting valuable writing time sitting around doing nothing?”

She’s no dummy. Ms. Grind knows that meditation is the best way to access all of Crazy Daisy’s wild brilliance.  Meditation helps you to recognize Ms. Grind’s judgmental thoughts, and to ignore them when you’re drafting a piece.

When Crazy Daisy takes over the draft, watch out, because diamonds and gold nuggets will start shooting out of your computer. BEWARE. Don’t pat yourself on the back because that, too, is a judgment and any time you make a judgment, you’re issuing an invitation to Ms. Grind. The time for judgment, positive or negative, is in the re-write. Not now.

Writing will suddenly be fun again and as effortless as letting out a whoop of joy. You’ll find yourself falling in love all over again.

Don't be afraid of the mess your muse has made

When you go back to revise, you might be horrified at the results. Yes, the writing was intoxicating but the hangover’s a killer.  Ms. Grind will say, “I told you so.”  Don’t listen to her. Simply ask her to help you clean it up. She’ll balk at first, saying, “If you left things to me there wouldn’t so much clutter.”

True but neither would there be so much fresh, wild writing. Give it a try and see. It can be a little disorienting. You might not even recognize your own prose. By the way, there’s an easy way to tell which personality dominates your writing. If you love the drafting phase and hate structure and rewriting, Crazy Daisy probably dominates your writing. If you like outlines, loathe the drafting phase and love to polish your prose, you need a T-shirt that says “Team Ms. Grind.”    
*If you resisted reading this article, thank Ms.Grind. She’s not interested in articles about making writing fun. It threatens her authority. She much prefers list articles like “Ten Ways To Punch Up Your Dialogue.” They’re useful; this article is a waste of time. Crazy Daisy, indeed.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

It's Selfish to Not Share Your Gifts With The World

One of my favorite blogs is Justine Musk's Tribal Writer and today she writes a post about why the pursuit of your dreams is a sacred obligation, that it's actually selfish not share them! Isn't that a refreshing point of view?

On that same note, a dear writer friend of mine died this week. Her name was Julie Cannon and she embodied a person who follows her dream and saw them as an obligation. I wrote a eulogy about Julie Cannon, and as one of my writing mentors has said to me, that's the hardest kind of writing there is. It was difficult, and I had several false starts, but writing about Julie's death and her life was so cathartic and gave me almost instant clarity about how I could begin to accept the unacceptable.

You might not have known Julie or her work, but if you've ever felt guilty for chasing your dream, I hope the story of Julie's writing  life will inspire you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Profound Writing Tips From a Zen Monk


Don’t you love it when you start reading an article, and you actually get shaky with excitement because it feels as if the author is speaking directly to you, and all you want to do is share the piece with others?

Here is a post that moved me recently:

This insightful and funny piece comes from Josh Swiller author of The Unheard, A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, whose goal is to “cultivate a peaceful and playful mind” and who is also a hospice worker and a Zen monk.

Swiller offers 12 Tips of Writing” and each one is a gem. My favorites?

“In writing you are undertaking a spiritual act. Trusting that mental slurry will clarify into something understandable and even readable takes profound faith. And it does on occasion. And that it does still amazes me, and I do believe things that require faith and provoke amazement are miracles and should be honored as such. Hence: sacrosanct. Don't be tweeting.”

Lest you feel intimidated by the whole “undertaking a spiritual act” business (and you thought you were just typing!), Swiller grounds you with this:

“Throughout the process, please recognize and celebrate the fact that writing is completely ridiculous…Does it matter whether your obvious artistic brilliance is recognized and understood and known? It does not, brother.”

So how can you undertake a spiritual act and understand what you’re doing is ridiculous at the same? It’s the razor’s edge, baby. You have to approach writing like its sacred ritual, bringing to it your respectful and full attention, and yet, keep it playful and don’t take it too seriously. That’s the best mindset for any writer! And yes, it is possible. Thanks to Josh Swiller for writing an article brimming with so much wisdom and depth.