Enjoying Your Writing

I started writing for fun when I was a child. I can’t remember the exact year, although a story remains from when I wasn’t much older than five and wrote a tale on gray pulpy paper about a bear who got “stickers in his nose” and couldn’t get them out. I do know that shortly after learning to read well, at some point it occurred to me that people wrote books and that meant I could write books too.

When I was a child and a teen, I wrote because it was fun to write and I enjoyed it. That was it. Yet, as I have previously mentioned, eventually, writing became imbued with so much seriousness that it lost its fun. I’d sit in front of a computer with ideas, but they wouldn’t come because I felt I had to Write Something Important, which of course, is stressful and the furthest thing from fun. I am here to tell, you, though, that the single biggest way to begin writing again is to make writing enjoyable and fun once again.

Take exercise as an example. We are all different when it comes to how we like to get our exercise (if we exercise at all), but the key to doing it frequently is to find a way to enjoy it.  For years, I tried to go to the gym. I’d don my gym clothes and dutifully drive to the gym, only to be accosted by a gust of ice-cold air and the smell of human sweat. I think it may have been the cold air I hated the most. Gyms keep their temperature cool on purpose because obviously, when people are working out, they get hot and most people are not as cold-blooded as me. I also hated dealing with each machine—wiping it down, hooking up my music, etc. If I found a way out of going to the gym, I found it. Eventually, I canceled my membership ever single time (well, except when we lived in Dallas with small children and the trip to the gym allowed me to put them in the child watch, which they loved. This was my only hour alone for a year, but I digress).

It took long time before I realized that I was far more likely to exercise if I went on a walk or a run outside my house. Sometimes I listen to music or audiobooks and sometimes, I just think. The air is warm (very warm in Houston) and I’ve found out that I look forward to walking or running each day. The trade-off of sometimes being rained out (or flooded out, in Houston) or having to run when it’s cool enough to avoid death, but this is a trade-off I have to make to keep me exercising most days out of the year.  After analyzing why I wasn’t exercising before and doing what I needed to do to make it enjoyable, I was able to make it part of my regular routine.  Again, if it is fun, we tend to do it more.

The same goes for writing.

Write what you want to write!  Tell yourself a story and for a first draft, don’t think beyond yourself. If you suffer from writer’s block, you might want to first begin a new draft by telling yourself that you are just writing for fun, no one has to see it, you are just playing. Tell yourself this even if you have every intention of ultimately submitting the draft for publication.  Writing what you want allows you to try new things you wouldn’t have tried before. It allows you to explore different themes and concepts and techniques.  Just let that first draft unwind and go where it wants to go. You will reel it back in and edit it later, after all. You can fix what ails it later. But the first time you write it? Let her rip. You need that raw material.

Some people will love what you wrote and others won’t. It’s a simple fact of life. Don’t worry about it. You are not trying to please the entire world—you are just writing in a way that will probably please some of the world.  I have had people read things I have published—one story in particular that is fairly experimental—and tell me “I didn’t really like that one,” or something to that effect. This is fine. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. That same story also received quite a bit of kudos from others and actually made a small amount of money, so some people liked it. Every piece is not for every person. Don’t sweat it. Just keep writing.

Explore in your writing. Use it as a project to understand something, whether it be understanding a new technique or understanding a personality trait. Or write because you have a story to tell and that story isn’t written yet.

At the end of the day, we all need to take ourselves a lot less seriously. We need to do things because we enjoy doing them, regardless of the bigger picture.

When to Use First Person Point-Of-View

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When I was writing about The Blank Page the other day, I pointed out that one of the most difficult choices to make initially is deciding which point-of-view to use.  Whether you choose to write a story in first, second, or third person POV will depend on a variety of elements and, ideally, should be an intentional decision you make at the outset. It’s not always intentional, but upon revision, that choice should make sense.

A first person narrator, for one thing, will ALWAYS  be at least a little unreliable.  Always. Why? Because a first person narrator can not necessarily be depended upon to tell the entire truth about his or her experiences, even if the narrator is sane and reliable on the outset. With a first person narrator, everything in the story is filtered through that first person conciousness.

For example, you are probably sane for the most part, but pretend you get a speeding ticket and later, you are telling someone about that speeding ticket.  You may, as the unreliable narrator of your life, change the details of your life just a bit so as to paint yourself as not driving so fast. You may paint the cop as being unfair or brusque or determined to give a ticket.  Or maybe, you want to depict yourself as a speed demon, so you tell the tale where you are driving very fast, with flames following you down the road, but then, you slowed down just in time–so it could have been worse!–and yet you still got a ticket because you were going that fast.  And so on. The details you choose to tell in that story will be filtered through your consciousness–they will be the details you choose to tell so as to continue on with the narration of your life, so no matter how truthful you may be on the bare facts of life, you are still not fully reliable.  And this is only a speeding ticket. We can only imagine what you might say (even to yourself) when depicting the deeper elements of your life–the things that keep you up at night. We all do this, which is why first person narrators are unreliable.

So, if you plan to exploit a narrator’s unreliability in your story, then you should write your story from first person. If the lack of reliability adds to your story, then you should write your story in first person POV.  For example, take the narrator from the “TellTale Heart” or the novel You by Caroline Kepnes or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Those are extreme examples, but even John Updike’s “A & P”  would not be the same story unless it was written from a first person point of view. That story is told from the perspective of a 19-year old who doesn’t fully understand why he walks off his job, except that it makes him feel “squishy” inside to see the way the girls were treated. He can’t even articulate his emotions or why he chooses to take certain actions and this adds volumes to that story.

I am always very careful when using first person POV because in order to use it responsibly, first person POV HAS to exploit that lack of reliability some way and this exploitation has to add to the story in order for it to work. You can’t just use first person as an immediate go-to point-of-view because you like it (Well, you can, but your story will be stronger if you don’t).  You will use first person POV because the character is lying to herself, maybe, and this inability to see the truth is part of the story.  Or your character is very young and unable to see the bigger picture or come to a full realization due to inexperience.  Or your character is insane or going insane and you want to raise the question of that insanity (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).  Or your character is hurting deeply and lying to himself about the reason for that pain.  Or your character is doing something wrong and lying to himself about that wrong (for a brilliant example of this that will reduce you to tears, read “Dark Meadow” by Adam Johnson. Read it. Then read it again. And again).  But whatever the reason, you need to have a purpose for exploiting the first person’s unreliability and that needs to add to the story. This doesn’t happen often.

Not everyone understands this. I once ran across—years ago—some editor’s comments in the submission guidelines for a literary journal (not sure which one) which said something to the effect of how the magazine didn’t want short stories that “used the crutch of first person.” That comment always bothered me because first person POV is NOT a crutch. It’s actually harder to write an effective short story in first person POV, but beginning writers don’t always know this. Nor do editors of certain literary magazines, apparently. Or maybe they just worded this badly.

I rarely use first person when writing fiction because it IS more difficult to do.  Still, if I choose to use it, the aforementioned are the reasons.  If there is no particular unreliability at play, then third person or second are possibly more appropriate choices.

At any rate, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and it has saved me rewriting stories on several occasions.

A Space to Write

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In addition to allowing yourself time to write, you also need a physical space to write.  This is also something I struggled with, but once I found the spot, writing became easier.

With seven people living in our house–seven people demanding and exerting their wills upon the spaces of our home–finding a spot is not always easy.  When I wrote my dissertation. I commandeered half of the dining room table. It’s not as if we dine on the dining room table anyway, except for major holidays, on which I would dutifully stack all of my notes, papers, articles, and texts and pile them on the floor while we ate. The entire time, I would watch the stacks to make sure no one stepped on one of my highlighted and annotated articles. No one did–I think they sensed the danger of going anywhere near my dissertation stuff.

Some people recommend having a “door you can shut” for a writing space, but if you are in charge of the people roaming around in your life–or at least feel responsible for them–you cannot just shut them out–at least not without upsetting your writing schedule. The dining room table was a perfect solution because it was out of the way, but still in the midst of things.

After defending my dissertation, however, I celebrated the event by packing up everything on that table and stuffing it all into two large plastic bins for my children to have to deal with after I die. Then, to finalize the celebration, I set out a few candles on that table and for a few months, it once again became a dining room table. I didn’t want to write a damn thing for a long time.  For six months, I avoided my personal laptop at all costs and devoted myself to reading only novels–preferably novels I had already read before so I wouldn’t have to think too much.

Eventually, though, my son started college and because he currently lives at home, one day I saw that he had  set up camp in my old dissertation area on the dining room table.  Now, the dining room table is completely covered with neat piles of textbooks, homework, papers, and a cup of pencils and pens, along with his computer. The spot that had served me so well when writing my dissertation is now serving him in the same way–a place that is somewhat removed from the chaos of our house, yet not so far away to feel excluded from the excitement.  As a mother, I can hardly say no to this commandeering of the dining room table/academic workstation–not when I arrive home in the evening to find him buried in those textbooks or hunched over his own laptop, earning A’s.

Still, if I wanted to write, I needed a space.  Even though half the time, I choose to curl up on a chair with my laptop, there is something symbolic about having our own place, dedicated to our most important pursuits. Similar to not seeing writing as a hobby and thus giving it importance, having a space of our own is critical to making writing an important place in our lives. After all, I required a space for my dissertation–why not other writing as well?

We do have a secret little attic room that looks like a closet from the hallway and I knew that space would be perfect. For a few days, I considered buying a desk and turning it into a writing den, not unlike that of Ernest Hemingway (see above). I could even get a lock for the door and paint it a sea green, but as I fantasized about what my accompanying bookshelves might look like, I heard the inevitable “MOM!! MOM!!!” in the back of my psyche. That still happens, even with teens and young adults, so rather than simply taking off my earphones and addressing the kid, I’d have to walk to the door of my writing oasis, open it up, yell downstairs, then walk downstairs, all writing interrupted. Nope. Wasn’t going to work. I needed to be in the midst of things, yet, not.

My own bedroom was a possibility, but when I need to write, I can’t kick my husband out.

Outside? Sure. Except when it rained or approached 100% humidity and the trees may drop water onto my laptop.

Well, we also have this little built-in-desk area, circa 1980’s style. It’s not exactly lavish–there’s not much room to spread out–but I could sit at it and type. And it has drawers to put old drafts and notes, although originally, those drawers were filled with the usual detritus of a paper world–old bills, faded Christmas cards, warranty paperwork for products we no longer owned. I spent an entire day going through it all, but in the end, I came up with this space: writing spot

My son laughed when he saw it.

“Is that your new space since I took over the table?”

And so it is.

Half the time, I don’t even write sitting at this little desk. I pick up the laptop and move somewhere else–the kitchen table, if no one is there, or a couch in the living room. But, the space is mine. If I write notes and put them in a drawer, everyone knows not to mess with them.

We all need our space for things that are important to us. What space do you have?

 

Conquering The Blank Page

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So, I’m about to face The Blank Page this morning. I tried to face The Blank Page yesterday, but in the end, I had to work on other things to meet my daily writing quota and give The Blank Page some further consideration before I began to type. After all, The Blank Page cannot stay blank forever.

I have a love-hate relationship with The Blank Page, and I’m sure I’m not alone. On the plus side, The Blank Page offers so much potential. It is an unscripted world I’m about to create and I know that I can write anything I want on that page. It is an unpainted room awaiting a brilliant accent wall. It is a new garden in springtime. It is a refrigerator full of food that I can combine to make a delicious meal. The Blank Page is an uncut pattern and two yards of luxurious fabric. The Blank Page is full of beginnings and possibilities.

The Blank Page also holds risks, which often prevents me from writing at all–as it did yesterday. The Blank Page holds the potential of a paint color that dries too dark to be beautiful. The Blank Page can get taken over with weeds to choke out the roses.  It is a refrigerator full of substitute ingredients that don’t quite work. The Blank Page is an ill-fated home-economics throwback jumper. The Blank Page is so….blank.

Usually, when I first approach The Blank Page, I already have an Idea. Having an Idea is not really the problem—as I’ve aged, I have tons of great Ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s just my life and experiences and outlook have come together to marinate just so to allow me to have endless writing ideas or what, but I am currently backed up three story Ideas already. And all of them are currently Blank Pages.

No, it’s the smaller details. I know the big picture, but The Blank Page forces me to face the little details before I even begin and I must make choices. Once I puzzle my way through these, I am able to write some words.  So, yesterday, here is what I concluded:

First, the biggest question we need to ask ourselves is which point-of-view to use. I am going to write about this in more detail with my next post, but this might be the most important choice we make when we are facing The Blank Page. We have to ask ourselves, who should tell this story?  There are some very specific reasons to choose first person POV over third person POV, or vice versa and it pays to be intentional with this choice.  The problem is, we don’t always know the whole story before we write it (at least I don’t), so we don’t realize a story should be told in first person instead of third until we are several pages in. C’est la vie. We still have to face The Blank Page.

Next, we need to decide how to structure our story, more or less.  Are we going to tell it from the present tense fully? Why? Or will it all happen in the past? Why? Are we going to flash back to various events? Are we going to circle back into the past, then up again in the future, then to another point in time, in a figure eight?  Or will it be a frame story? Are we going to focus all of the scenes over one image or theme?  What is our reasoning, more or less, on any of these decisions? Eventually, the structure will find itself, but a little forethought can get us going. Then again, sometimes we just feel like telling a story a certain way and we have absolutely no reason for it. Generally, though, when this happens, we aren’t staring at The Blank Page.

If we want, we can put a character in a situation and see what happens—to an extent.  I love to put a character in an interesting or difficult situation and see what happens. Or give the character an object and see what he does with it. Still, this sometimes gives me angst because it can cause spinning wheels after a page or two, or start a story that slides into ennui if nothing happens. Or I know I will have to hack off the first half of the story on rewrite and start it in the middle if this happens, which is   one reason why I like to have a basic idea about what the story MAY be about. I might be wrong about what I think the story is about—in fact, I generally am—but I like an idea to have some sense of gravitas before I begin. I am nearly always wrong about my stories—they always end up being about something entirely unforeseen as my unconscious works its magic, but I like to be able to answer the question, “This story is about x” or “This story explores y,” even if I am wrong.

We will revise anything we write, so we need to not get too worried about any of this.  All of the above is just to get us started writing. To have a game plan of sorts.  It does not mean that we have to stick to it and not change anything. Think of it as a general guide for a road trip. If we want to, we can just hop in the car and go (that would be fun), but most of us, due to time and financial constraints, like a little focus. So, we navigate the trip, plan a few rest stops if we are organized about it, and maybe decide where we’d like to eat. When we actually leave the house, however, we never know if a road will be shut down and we will have to take a detour, or if there will be an accident, or if we will all decide to pull into the Amazing Cave of Bats because why the heck not? or buy fake-grass flip flops at a funky cafe.  The trip itself will pan out—we just need to make some general plans to get us on the road.

So….if you are having to face The Blank Page like I am currently facing, those are just some thoughts to consider to get  you on your way.

Well, let’s see if I can follow my own advice….here I go! Wish me luck.

Using Concrete Details in Writing (The Love-Coat Hanger Story)

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When I used to teach creative writing, I realized early on that new writers needed to learn the difference between concrete and abstract words.  After reading how a girlfriend or boyfriend was “the most amazing person,” or throwing the word “love” around all willy-nilly, I knew that we had to discuss this very important skill upon which believable writing relies.

I’d ask them to name a concrete word. Sometimes, someone knew what I meant, but usually, they blinked and looked confused.  So then I explained how concrete words are words that readers can experience with their five senses.  Then, I’d name them, ticking them off on my fingers as I went because I’d always forget one:

Smell. The scent of popcorn popping. Sea salt in the ocean.

Taste. Dill pickles. (“Salt in the ocean, too!” someone would interject. Exactly!)

Sound. Rain on a rooftop. Tinny music from an old radio.

Sight. A red dry-erase marker (I’d hold one up). A blue Volkswagen Jetta (I’d point out the window).

Touch. Sand clumping between toes. A bumpy seam on a sock.

Then I’d tell them that abstract words are words that cannot be experienced with their five senses and such, the reader cannot form an image of those words.

“Take love, for example,” I’d say. “If we all heard a knock on the classroom door and we opened it up and saw Love standing there, would we all be able to say, ‘OMG!  It’s love knocking!  Come on in, Love!’? No, we could not.”

This elicits laughter and then I go on.  I tell them that we do not know what love looks like. We cannot recognize love like we can recognize a dry erase marker or the President of the United States because love is not a concrete thing.

“Well, what about Valentine’s Day?” someone will inevitably say. “That’s love.”

“Well, I can see why you say that, but no, Valentine’s Day is Valentine’s Day. Technically, it’s February 14th on the calendar and that’s that, but it is not love.

I explain to them that when use concrete words, we are able to create an image in the mind of the reader using his or her five senses. The only way people CAN interact with the world is through their five senses–otherwise, those words are only black dots on a white page. They can’t come alive unless they transmit their images into another person’s mind.

“So, we can’t write about love?” someone will inevitably ask. I just wait for them to ask it because they always do.

I tell them that of course they can write about love. And hate. And freedom. And war. And sorrow. And loss. And redemption. And everything else because those abstract big concepts are the heart of why we write. Yet, we need to use concrete words to get there, to make the reader share in the world we are creating.

This is when I launch into the “Love-Coat Hanger Story.” To begin with, this story has a nice hook with the title and all that. I’m a little proud of the title and the story, which I invented it on the spot one day as about thirty eyes stared at me, waiting for me to illustrate the whole “use concrete words to access the abstract idea” point I was trying to make. So, I gave the story a title and then launched right into it. It worked out so well that I went on sharing it with future classes and now, I’m sharing it with you.

My husband and I share a closet. It’s a large walk-in closet with two doors–his side and my side–but once inside the closet, the closet is all one room. My clothes hang on the right side of the closet and also throughout most of the middle, but my husband has the left hand side. In the mornings, my husband, rushing off to work and taking a shirt off of a coat hanger, doesn’t always know what to do with the hanger. When I remove clothes from hangers, the hangers go in a special place on the bottom right-hand side of my closet on the lowest rod so that I know where all of the empty hangers are located. This makes it easier to either use them again or find them when I need to take a bunch to the laundry room for more clothes-hanging purposes.

My husband does not have a coat-hanger system as I do, so instead, he began tossing his daily hanger across the closet, so it landed on my side of the closet, on the floor.

Eventually, a small pile of three or four coat hangers grew and one day, irritated with his actions, I scooped up the whole pile and let them fly, back over to his side of the closet. Then I went on with my day.

The next day, I saw the pile back on my side, plus one.

I scooped them all up again, plus one more from my own blouse, and tossed the whole pile back to his side.

The next day, the pile was back on my side, plus one.

The pile grew considerably over the next few weeks, until the coat hangers not only fell on the floor in a haphazard pile when they landed, but also scattered across the rest of the closet, hooking in t-shirts and landing on the shoes which lined the floor. At this point, neatness prevailed and I declared him the winner of our little game. I gathered all of the coat hangers and took them to the laundry room.

In the morning, however, he said, “Where’s our coat hangers?”

“In the laundry room. Where they belong.”

“Oh. But I thought that was our little love game.”

So, the next day, I felt bad and tossed a coat hanger onto his side, but later, he told me, “It’s only fun it if it irritates you.”

At this point, people laugh and some people sigh and say, “Awwwww.” Which is a good time to debrief the story.  In order for that story to work, you have to have a pretty good sketch of the inside of my closet.  You don’t need to be overrun with details about which of my specific clothes hang where, but you do have to know enough concrete details to understand the layout of the room so you can see how it is possible for the coat hangers to be thrown. You also have to have enough details to hint at our personality differences.  I don’t want to say, “I am neater than my husband” because again, “neat” is an abstract word.  I need to show the relative neatness by describing how one character has a plan for dealing with accumulating coat hangers and the other has no plan except to toss his to the other.  These details speak volumes about our relationship, as does the romantic qualities of my husband, who sees romance and fun, even as he is attempting to irritate me.

All of those details are important because they reveal volumes about the complexity of our love, which an abstract statement such as “I love my husband” cannot. This is why it will not do to simply write,  “I love my husband.” The abstraction of that statement is meaningless, and in fact, we probably shouldn’t use the word “love” at all–only “tell it slant” to quote Emily Dickinson. Each love has a complexity to it and one can only get to that complexity through the revealing of concrete details that help create that meaning and access the bigger issue of our unique love.

So, there you have it. The “Love Coat Hanger Story” on using concrete words in your writing.

Writing Is Not A Hobby

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The word “hobby” means, according to Dictionary.com, “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.” Certainly, writing technically fits that mold for many of us. We enjoy writing—many times we are relaxed by writing—and for many of us, it is not our main occupation or we would starve.

Yet, I felt a twinge when I listed “writing” among my hobbies if anyone asked.  It just didn’t fit among my other pursuits such as sewing and growing herbs in little mason jars.  There seemed a crucial difference between what I did when I wrote and the times when I pulled out my sewing machine to sew an occasional skirt. There is a psychological urgency for me when it comes to writing that simply isn’t there for the other hobbies I listed. While I do not make any serious money writing, the potential is there, even though money is not the main reason for doing it.

So, as I tend to do, I attacked the question logically and came up with the concept that even if one of our passions does not make money, it is not a hobby if it has potential to be a serious identifier in our lives and if we have concrete plans in place to make that happen. That can go for anything. If I had hopes of creating and selling my own dress patterns or clothing (I don’t), I could hardly call my budding business a hobby, even though it may start out not making any money. While it may bring me relaxation and and pleasure while I dedicate time each day to the tasks associated with the business, the seriousness removes the label of “hobby.”  The same is true for writing.

A true hobby, on the other hand, really is a non-serious way for a person to unwind. For me, sewing is a legitimate hobby. I find it relaxing to focus on seams and to mathematically puzzle out the process of altering a pattern. I love the process of creating things, especially things I can wear. I also can cite and argue a great deal about the importance ethical fashion, which sewing supports.  Yet I have absolutely no plans to do anything further with my sewing than making occasional skirts or dresses. Therefore, sewing is only a hobby. I don’t get up at 5:00 a.m. out of duty to sew, but I do wake up that early to write.

Why even hash this out? Well, the largest reason is that if you, as a writer, think of your writing as a hobby, then you may be tempted to not give it the seriousness it deserves. This is especially true if you have limited time resources. If you are scrambling through your day, dashing off to your day job and running around afterwards doing all of the necessary things you need to do in a day, the hobbies are the last priority. And if you are an especially giving person who says yes constantly when others ask of your time, it may seem extremely selfish to tell people “no, I need time to work on my hobby.” This is the subconscious excuse many people have for not writing—it seems too selfish to indulge a hobby when there are many more pressing “real” things in our lives.

So, the way around this is to stop thinking of our writing as a hobby. After all, it isn’t—at least according to my argument above. By thinking of writing as a “second job” or a “career,” we then can give it the attention it deserves. I began to tell myself that I worked two jobs—my day job/career and my writing career—both are important and both are serious. The writing career is, of course, a part time job, but it is a job,—not a hobby—nonetheless.

So, with that, make sure you put in time at your second job today!

Writing Needs To Be Fun

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I started writing for fun when I was a child. I can’t remember the exact year, although a story remains from when I wasn’t much older than five and wrote, on gray pulpy paper with wide blue lines, a tale about a bear who got “stickers in his nose” and couldn’t get them out.  So, I’m not sure if I wrote regularly at that age, but I do know that shortly after learning to read well, at some point it occurred to me that people wrote books and that meant I could write books too.

When I was a child and a teen, I wrote because it was fun to write and I enjoyed it. Yet, as I have alluded to before, eventually, writing became imbued with so much seriousness that it lost its fun and, at times, became a chore.  I’d sit in front of a computer with ideas, but they wouldn’t come because I felt I had to Write Something Important, which of course, is stressful and the furthest thing from fun. I am here to tell, you, though, that the single biggest way to begin writing again is to make writing enjoyable and fun once again.

Take exercise as an example. We are all different when it comes to how we like to get our exercise (if we exercise at all), but the key to doing it frequently is to find a way to enjoy whatever it is that we are doing.  For years, I tried to go to the gym because most people went to a gym for exercise and this is what I felt I had to do. I’d don my gym clothes and dutifully drive there, only to be accosted by a gust of ice-cold air and the smell of the gym–a mixture of old coffee and stale sweat.

I think it may have been the cold air I hated the most. Gyms keep their temperature cool on purpose because obviously, when people are working out, they get hot and most people are not as cold-blooded as me.  I’d spend the first thirty minutes trying to stave off hypothermia until I sufficiently built up enough heat to carry on with my workout, but I felt miserable the entire time. I also hated dealing with each machine—wiping it down, hooking up my music, etc. If I found a way out of going to the gym, I found it. Eventually, I canceled my membership ever single time (well, except when we lived in Dallas with small children and the trip to the gym allowed me to put them in the child watch, which they loved and I loved. This was my only hour alone for over a year, but I digress, although it supports my point that when something is enjoyable, we are more likely to do it).

It took long time before I realized that I was far more likely to exercise if I went on a walk or a run outside my house. Sometimes I listen to music or audiobooks and sometimes, I just think. The air is warm (very warm in Houston) and I’ve found out that I look forward to walking or running each day. The trade-off of sometimes being rained out (or flooded out, in Houston) or having to run when it’s cool enough to avoid death, but this is a trade-off I have to make to keep me exercising most days out of the year.  After analyzing why I wasn’t exercising before and doing what I needed to do to make it enjoyable, I was able to make it part of my regular routine.  Again, if it is fun, we tend to do it more.

(The picture above illustrates this. On a recent trip to San Francisco, my husband and I walked from the financial district to Chinatown, to Little Italy, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito where we then decided we needed to Uber home. The Uber driver was suitably impressed. Suffice it to say that we both find walking enjoyable).

The same goes for writing, and this is why we should all write what we want to write!  Tell yourself a story and for a first draft, don’t think beyond yourself and the fun you are going to have writing it. If you suffer from writer’s block, you might want to first begin a new draft by telling yourself that you are just writing for fun, no one has to see it, you are just playing. Tell yourself this even if you have every intention of ultimately submitting the final draft for publication.  This isn’t the final draft, after all, and you are just playing.  Writing what you want allows you to try new things you wouldn’t have tried before. It allows you to explore different themes and concepts and techniques.  Just let that first draft unwind and go where it wants to go. You will reel it back in and edit it later, after all. You can fix what ails it later. But the first time you write it? Let her rip. You need that raw material.

Some people will love what you wrote and others won’t. It’s a simple fact of life. Don’t worry about it. You are not trying to please the entire world—you are just writing in a way that will probably please some of the world–a small faction, even.  I have had people read things I have published—one story in particular that is fairly experimental—and tell me “I didn’t really like that one,” or something to that effect. This is fine. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. That same story also received quite a bit of kudos from others and actually made a small amount of money, so some people liked it. Every piece is not for every person. Don’t sweat it. Just keep writing.

Explore in your writing. Use it as a project to understand something, whether it be understanding a new technique or understanding a personality trait. Or write because you have a story to tell and that story isn’t written yet.

At the end of the day, we all need to take ourselves a lot less seriously. We need to do things because we enjoy doing them, regardless of the bigger picture.

Finding Time to Write (When You Have a Day Job)

I know there are some people out there in the world who are able to write full time.  These accomplished folks get up in the morning, drink their coffee, and begin cranking out pages all day long, stopping around 11:30 for a quick lunch, and then pick up again until afternoon tea at 3:00. After tea, they walk the dog and cook dinner and begin sipping a glass of red wine, fulfilled and ready to begin again in the morning.

At least that’s how I idealize them as I live my own chaotic existence of waking up, herding kids around, waking up the late sleepers, dashing out the door in a skirt that needs ironing, spilling coffee on myself, and realizing I need to buy gas.  I get to work and stamp out fires all day long and then arrive home at 6:00, exhausted, just in time to maybe go for a walk if I’m able to talk myself into it. Writing, for me, is out of the question without a ton of scheduling and effort, which is what I have ultimately learned to do.

At the end of the day, I have come to believe, we manage to do what is important to us, whatever that is. If we want to write, we will write. It’s as simple as that. Still, no one says it’s easy or that it doesn’t come with some sacrifices.

We all have our own unique work situation, so what may work for me may not work for you. Still, I have a few ideas for anyone who wants to make writing a priority on your daily list of accomplishments.

To begin with, I had to analyze my current use of time.  This was a tricky one for me because I really didn’t see how I would add even one more thing into my already-full days.  Here is how my typical day used to go:

5:30-6:45    Wake up and have “domestic hour” (this is an hour in which I would do some light housework, drink coffee, pack school lunches)

6:45-7:15     Drive one kid to school (long story why one kid takes the bus, the other drives, and I drive one, all to the same school)

7:15-7:45    Dress and race out the door

8:00-5:00     Arrive at work and work. Sometimes I work later than this and sometimes I need to leave earlier to take a kid somewhere or address some domestic concern, but generally, these are the hours I work.

5:00-5:30    Drive home, stop at store if necessary

6:00-7:30    Cook dinner and spend time going on a walk with husband or spend time with kids

7:30-9:00    Family time and reading (again, I am married with five kids. We have to be present for the kids)

9:30/10:00     Bed (I get tired since we get up so early day after day)

So, on the outset, I could see a lot of time for writing in that schedule. I mean, I could get up earlier in the morning and write. Or, what about that large slab of time in the evening, which I often used for reading? Couldn’t I write then?

Sure. I could. And if I were single or didn’t have so many kids, the evening after dinner would be a great time to write. However, my current situation didn’t seem to allow for writing because when 7:30 rolled around, my husband would want to talk to me and I can’t advocate ignoring my life partner and love. I love writing, but not more than my family. My son would ask to play a game of chess and generally, when a teenager asks you to play chess with him, you ought to say yes. Plus, while I used to be able to stay up to all hours in my twenties, as I’ve gotten older, I get tired by the evening. I am supremely unmotivated to do anything other than read or hang.  What about getting up earlier, then?  That seemed unlikely. I was already very tired and I realize I needed my sleep.

Weeks passed and I felt myself in a quandary. What to do? I approached the internet and researched to see what wisdom it offered. Some people suggested writing at work. That would be a good idea if I didn’t have a career that was already very demanding in terms of my energy and time. I have no down-time in my office—I don’t even have a lunch break, but rather eat at my desk while working. That said, finding another, less-demanding job wasn’t a good option either because I had invested a lot of energy into my career and I love what I do. I also want to give my job my all and while some people feel ethical about writing a short story disguised as an email (I read that online), I just can’t feel good about doing that. At work, I do what I’m being paid to do. So, writing at work wasn’t going to happen.

Logically, I decided that even a small space of time carved out would help.  After all, if I made a commitment to write for an hour a day, or maybe something like 500 words, all of that would add up over time, right?  A little writing is better than no writing, right?

So, I looked again at my writing schedule options.  I decided to focus on finding time in the morning, before my day began, would be the best bet.  I looked again at that “domestic hour” between 5:30-6:45. What was I really accomplishing during that time frame anyway?  Washing some dishes, maybe, or doing a light household chore. If I died next week, would I be less happy about not mopping the kitchen floor this week or not writing? Where did my loyalties lie? I think we know the answer to that. It’s not as if I’m going to win any housekeeping awards as it is, so I decided a) while I couldn’t fathom waking up at 4:00 on a regular basis, I could wake up thirty minutes earlier than I had been waking up and get up at 5:00 and b) forget the domestic hour.

I also wanted a writing goal. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends a thousand words a day, but with no disrespect to The King, I doubted he ever had to juggle his old day job (when he was a teacher) running kids around to the doctor and orthodontist while also keeping up with the vacuuming. I determined that it would be far better for me to lower my goal to 500 words per day (which I can accomplish in less than thirty minutes if I’m inspired) and feel accomplished than to beat myself up over my lack of 1000 words per day. I know me and I’m one of those people who is motivated by success—if I can accomplish my daily goal, I am more likely to try again the next day. I can write MORE than 500 words per day, after all, but 500 is the goal.

So, just by barely tweaking my schedule, here is what I came up with:

5:00-5:15    Wake up and push button on coffee maker (set it up the night before)

5:15-6:45    Write

6:45-7:20    Take other kid to school

7:20-7:45    Get dressed and ready for work

8:00-5:00     Work

6:00-7:30    Dinner and walk with husband

7:00-9:30    Read and family time (and often, more writing, which was optional)

9:30/10:00    Bed

These are very minor changes to my schedule, but they had a profound impact on my writing output.  For the most part, I was easily able to get in the 500 words in the early morning (before 6:15) and this somehow relaxed me and encouraged me to write in the evening as well at least three days per week, even though this was “optional.” Although it wasn’t part of the goal, I usually did write about 1000 words a day or more, just by creating this schedule and this space to write. I still didn’t write at work, but with the help of my iPad, I was able to write at an orthodontist appointment and while waiting for a car repair, so that is another element as well.

I guess the main idea here is that most of us have to work to pay the bills (and also because many of us truly enjoy our day jobs as well), but if we truly want something, we can find a plan to get there.

Some other ideas I thought I might mention are:

  • Limit TV. As a family, we do not have cable and rarely watch any TV at all. TV is a huge time-waster, so if you find that you spend time watching TV, that might be the first thing you consider letting go.
  • Use technology. As I mentioned, I was able to get quite a bit of writing done using my iPad and even my iPhone. If you use Scrivener, you’ll be happy to know that they now have an iPhone and iPad app that synchs through Dropbox. I use it nearly every day across three different devices. You can also use apps such as Evernote for jotting ideas, writing drafts, or keeping notes for the future.
  • Treat your writing like a part time job. Prior to this decision, I used to think of my writing as a “hobby,” because I made very little money doing it.  The word “hobby,” however, implies that it’s something insubstantial and a mere diversion, rather than the truly serious endeavor it is. If we think of our writing as a part time job, though, it becomes more serious in our minds and we are less likely to give something like mopping the kitchen floor priority over it.
  • Something else has to go. There are only 24 hours in the day and we have to make wise decisions about what to add into those hours.  Use those hours carefully and don’t waste them on things that are not important to you.
  • Be positive and kind with yourself.  If you don’t make your goal one day, don’t stress. Just try again tomorrow. After all, isn’t it better to write most of the time rather than never?

Focus your life on your loved ones and the things you love, which probably includes writing, if you are reading this post. We all have to do what we need to do to pay the bills and live, but that doesn’t need to include ignoring our dreams and making time for something that is important to us. So, go forth and carve out some time to write! Even if it is only for an hour.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Most of us have been there. We know how it is: We have arranged a time to write. The house is quiet. No one is asking anything of us. We have a cup of freshly-brewed coffee nearby and fresh legal pad with a fine-tipped pen. We are ready to write!

We sit down, computer fired up and open to a blank page, but nothing comes. Or worse, ideas come, but each one of them falls flat as they hit the page. Our writing feels lifeless and dead. Maybe we should just answer some emails instead, until we feel inspired? Or vacuum the living room. Or make a grilled cheese sandwich. A grilled cheese sandwich sounds delicious. We can add tomatoes and basil and some of that crusty bread with a little olive oil. With this thought, we close our computer and head to the kitchen, another writing opportunity lost.

Writer’s block. A cliche (“I’m blocked….”), yet all too common. There are, however,  remedies.  Below are some thoughts on the causes of writer’s block, as well as worked for me to move past it:

You are out of practice. I have found the the more I write, the more I want to write. If I go on a vacation during which I don’t open a laptop for a week or more, writing becomes much more difficult to begin again once the break is over. The same thing happens when exercising—if I take a few days off with no walking or running, getting off my butt becomes more and more difficult and soon, a walk around the neighborhood becomes equivalent to a half-marathon in my mind. So, your writer’s block may simply mean that you need to begin making writing a habit in your life, even if you don’t feel like writing.

Dorthea Brande writes about something similar in her book Becoming a Writer. If you are really blocked, try Brande’s idea of training yourself to write. She recommends pure free-writing upon waking, every single day, even before you have had your first cup of coffee. The idea is to catch your brain before it fully has a chance to wake up, when your mind is still fluttering around in the depths of the unconscious. Brande recommends taking 10-15 minutes and just write anything that comes to mind in that time. Then, put the writing away and don’t read it. Then, begin your day. After a few weeks, you may read what you wrote and, predictably, most of what you wrote will be crap. This is fine. The point is rather to begin writing and mine your unconscious.

You will ultimately find some nugget of thought you didn’t even know you had, which you can highlight and keep for later. Just doing this will train you to write and generate some ideas for future stories. Continue to do this for another few weeks and then, choose another time for writing, but this time, a bit later in the day. Look at your agenda for the day and choose thirty-minutes or an hour and again, do the same free-writing, only this time, you will be fully awake. Brande says to make a commitment to write at this time, “even if you have to climb over the heads of your friends” to do so. The point here, though, is to write every day, even if it is just journaling.

You (feel as if you) lack ideas. Following quickly at the heels of being out of practice is feeling as if you have no ideas worth writing about. Yet this is nonsense. Notice how I wrote “you feel” you have no ideas and not that you actually do not have ideas? You have plenty to write about. In addition to journaling and accessing your unconscious as mentioned above, try keeping a small notebook with you at all times. Yes, an actual notebook with an actual pen–I like to choose one that I can fit in my bag or purse. I know, I love technology as much as the next person.  For productivity, I love also using apps like Evernote and Scrivener on my phone or iPad, but there is just something motivating about having a notebook with the sole purpose of jotting down random thoughts, over heard discussion, observations, and actual story ideas. When it occurs to you, jot it down (but not when you are driving!) and then every so often, go back and read what you wrote. Not every idea will be valuable, but so what? Some ideas will not come to fruition for a few years, but if you write them down with a pencil or pen, you are more likely to remember them and be able to connect each to another idea in such a way that inspires you. Essentially, it’s all about the patterns you see. One story about the local grocery store manager moving to Russia to teach a master chess class may be interesting, but not enough to base a story on. However, a few months later, you might overhear a conversation or something may happen in your personal life to mix with the chess tale and electricity will strike. The very act of writing things down will prepare you to listen and observe and gather those gems for future inspiration.

You talked too much about your project. The cardinal rule for avoiding writers block is this: Never, ever, no-never run your mouth about an embryonic story! Never. I know, I know, you enjoy stories, which is why you started writing in the first place. Your brain craves stories, but while you might realize the difference between writing a story and verbally telling a friend about that story, your brain does not distinguish the difference. If someone asks you, “So, what is your story about?” and you tell them, your brain will then feel as if it has already told the story and now, satiated, wants to move on and tell something different. When you sit down in front of the computer to write, your brain will balk and whine and resist continuing because it has already told this story and why are you boring it with making it tell the same thing again? Now you’ve done it—you are blocked. You will now not be able to write this story at all, at least not anytime soon. So, trust me on this, resist the urge to talk about your embryonic writing project with other people. Wait until that first draft is written before you share anything with anyone. If someone asks what you are working on, just tell them,”I can’t talk about it until I get a first draft down.” Fellow writers will understand this answer and others will simply go on being mystified by you, which is nothing new anyway.

You are bored or disenchanted. Sometimes, we get in a rut and become disenchanted with what we are writing, which can happen for many reasons. We have all heard the phrase, “If you are bored writing it, your reader will be bored reading it,” and this is a phrase to write by.

Some of the many reasons for being disenchanted or bored with your writing might be that you already shared too much about a project (see the previous paragraph) and now your brain is bored. Or maybe what you are writing is not ringing true or has a false sense to it. You may have started down the wrong path with the plot or a character is behaving in a way that he wouldn’t if you were being true to her and your mind recognizes this falseness and resists. Or maybe the story needs to go in a different direction or address some crucial reality, but is failing to do that, so again, your brain resists. These are just a few ideas—you will have to discover for yourself what ails you—but there are some tricks to escaping the morass of disenchantment.

The first cure is to go for a long walk. Stephen King mentions this trick in On Writing and it works very well because walks clear your mind, give you time to think, and also offer you a fresh perspective of the world. Walking forces you to see the world differently (houses, trees, buildings, cars, people, and wildlife, all look very different up close as opposed to driving past them) while simultaneously allowing your mind to wander the way it needs to wander. If you are blocked due to boredom or disenchantment or confusion, you can hardly do better than taking a nice, long walk. Or, you might try what my dad likes to do and “take a new way home.” When I was a young child, my dad would drive down new streets and we’d ask him where he was going? His response? “In life, you have to take a new way home. Otherwise, you get bored.” I have done this all my life, especially when I feel myself getting in a rut and I can personally attest to not only new roads, but short day trips to the beach, a new town, or a new part of a big city where you’ve never been before. On occasion, you can walk somewhere new, too and do both a and b at the same time. Lastly, c) ask yourself, “What crucial truth does my story address?” Sometimes a lack direction or a lack of clarity causes the boredom or disenchantment, so exploring where you are going wrong can help alleviate your writer’s block. Even if you don’t know exactly what crucial truth your story addresses–or if there is more than one–focusing your thoughts in this direction can help bring back the critical direction you need.

You are emotionally upset. Maybe you have something else going on in your life that is preventing you from having fun or enjoying passion with your writing. This one is a bit obvious, but it has to be said because after all, it is difficult to write with enjoyment if your personal life is in turmoil. In this case, you may need to take a small break from your main project, but still continue to write in the form of journaling. Journaling can be a tremendous help as a mental health tool and I highly recommend journaling even if you feel great. Of course, depending on what is going on in your life, you might also consider seeking the help of a therapist, as well as eating healthy food and getting plenty of exercise and rest. I know, I sound like a mother, but there it is.

You are being a perfectionist. Okay, this is a big one. As a fellow perfectionist, I am here to tell you that perfectionism can stifle your writing and everything else as well. As a young child, I wrote because I enjoyed writing—nothing more. It wasn’t until I began submitting my work in writing workshops in college when the monster of perfectionism reared its ugly head. I remember my time in undergraduate writing seminars so well. I’d submit my fledging short story with its wandering plot and half-developed characters while a roomful of wannabe Kerouacs in leather jackets judged aplenty. It wasn’t long before I hit the writer’s block big time. Nothing I wrote was decent, I told myself—why was I even bothering? Grad school seminars were less obnoxious, but that sense of inferiority never really went away until recently. I apparently had to live a long time in order to learn that no one knows the answers, least of all people whose job it is to judge your writing. While it is great to strive for improvement, perfectionism can keep you from writing at all.

The cure for perfectionism, is to give yourself new permission to play, to make mistakes, and to produce crap, if it comes to that (although I’ll bet it isn’t even crap anyway. Perfectionists tend to judge themselves far too harshly). Anne Lamott writes of her own technique for living with perfectionism in her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” where she describes the importance of allowing imperfection to enter as part of her writing process. I do something similar. For years, I felt that writing was SERIOUS and IMPORTANT and I had to do it WELL and these thoughts paralyzed me. Long gone were the relaxing afternoons spent in my room as a young teen, scribbling away in notebook after notebook and tapping along in an archaic word processing program, writing story after story, simply because it was fun to do and part of who I am as a person. I had to go through a large part of my life—including living through things that actually ARE serious, far more serious than any writing—to put all of this into perspective. Yes, I take my writing seriously as a craft and try to improve every day, but if there isn’t some element of fun, you won’t want to do it. So, go ahead and agree that everything you write doesn’t have to be perfect. PLENTY of people write crappy things and are published every day, so stop being hard on yourself. Do what you have to do. I personally have to take drastic steps on occasion, including telling myself over and over that it is fine to not be perfect, or despite the fact that I have at my disposal a couple of decent computers, writing software, and an iPad, I must handwrite the first draft of a difficult story on yellow legal pads, in PENCIL, just so I can make myself understand that it is “just a first draft” or “even a pre-first draft.” I don’t always do this, but I do resort to whatever I have to in order to get started writing again. You do what you have to do to fight the perfectionist bug.

This is of course not an exhaustive list of reasons (and some cures) for the dreaded writer’s block, but it’s a start. Do you have a cause and a solution you’d like to add? I’d love to hear from you!

Washing Dishes By Hand

So, my dishwasher broke. It’s a long story and I won’t get into the long saga of my Google searches involving the overall dishwasher decline in the 21st century and the subsequent ordering of sulfate-laden detergent via Amazon, culminating with the final demise of the 2-year old dishwasher where not even a cup of water seems to swish water around in the tub. But that doesn’t even matter. I’ve called the Nameless Fix-It place that stood me up on Friday and now calls me relentlessly to reschedule, even though I’ve already rescheduled for next Friday, so I know that ultimately, the machine will be fixed or replaced sometime in the next year. In the meantime, however, I am hand washing all the dishes.

But I’m here to tell you that something to be said about the zen of washing dishes by hand.

A few times a day, I stare at the handwritten sign I have posted above the sink which reads, “Please wash and dry your own dishes!” Occasionally some of our teens will feel bad enough to wash their dishes, but generally, the dishes sit in the sink until I walk in.  (Luckily, this isn’t a parenting blog. I’d never profess to tell anyone how to parent a child, even though I have five. There just are no answers when it comes to that, but I digress.)

I lift the dishes from the right side of the sink and place them in the left side. I pile the rest of the dishes from the counter and the stove and then fill up the right side with hot water and soap.

I begin washing each dish and and all of a sudden, something soothing sets in. It’s the same way I feel when I’m tapping along on the computer and a character is running down a hallway into some darkness where who knows what will happen. What will be around the corner?  Will she escape? Will she have a realization?  I don’t know, but as my fingers make their way across the keyboard, I feel alive because I am Accomplishing Something. I am Creating.

To be honest, when I wash the dishes by hand, I may not be creating much. I may simply be creating orderliness out of chaos, just as when I clear a room of thrown shoes and socks and tossed textbooks and pens, but it is still a form of creating and that alone is something.

I wash the dishes and rinse them. One by one. Each one with focus. Then, unless I am really pressed for time, I dry them and put them away. I rinse out the sink and light a candle or some incense.  If I’m really on the ball, I will sweep and mop the floor and at the end of that twenty minutes, I will have accomplished something. And that alone is a reward.

The key is to focus on the task at hand. The hot water. The soapy bubbles. The plates smooth under fingertips to guage their cleanliness. One by one, they become clean.

And that goes for everything. It is the same, whether I am washing dishes, creating a presentation at work, sewing a skirt, or writing a story. It is pleasing. It is real. It is creating.

Which is why I am completely okay with waiting yet another week to fix the dishwasher.