That’s A Story


People who know me in real life know that I tend to punctuate most conversations with “That’s a story.” If you tell me about how your next door neighbors got divorced and moved into separate houses on opposite ends of the same neighborhood?  Well, that’s a story.  If you tell me how your uncle won a hot wing eating competition? That’s a story as well.  And your description of your great aunt Lucille who can’t take left-hand turns?  It takes Lucille an extra hour to get anywhere because she refuses to turn left. That’s definitely a story.

Everyone is fascinating to a writer.  Everyone is a story.  Even boring people are fascinating in their seeming-boringness; no one can be boring, so what tumult lies beneath those still waters?

Writers love jury duty and airports.  Recently, two members of my family got called to jury duty and I was jealous of them, first because I want to serve on a jury, but also because I, too, want to sit in a room with a selection of random individuals for a few hours, all in the name of civic duty. I want to study the lines on eyes as they squint through glasses, and the curves of mouths as they whisper words into phones, and observe calloused fingers as they punch cracked phone screens.

This post was going to be a list of ways to get ideas for your writing, but at the end of the day, all it boils down to is having the realization that people are endlessly fascinating. And pretty much everything can be a story, if you are waiting for it.

Aim Low! (The “A-Little-Is-Better-Than-Nothing” Approach to Goal-Setting)

This post goes out to the procrastinators of the world. The writers who have great ideas bouncing around in their writerly minds, but still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed to transfer those ideas into words. I feel you, procrastinators! But I do have some advice: Set a low daily writing goal you know you can meet and stick to it. Pretty soon, you will be not only meeting those goals, but exceeding them.

How low, you ask? Very low. As low as you think you need in order to get yourself in the habit of daily writing. For some people, that may only be a couple of sentences, even, or a couple of paragraphs. For others, it may be a couple of pages. Whatever “low” is for you.

This is how the medical community motivates people to exercise, after all. If they tell folks who haven’t walked any further than from their bedroom to their living room or out to their car in the last fifteen years to suddenly walk the hour per day necessary for optimum health, they will immediately squash the poor patient’s feeling of agency. “Why even bother?” the patient will think, “I’m gonna sit here and watch Judge Judy. I’ve been fine all my life so far without this walking nonsense.” Instead, doctors tell patients to walk or exercise an achievable amount of, perhaps, “fifteen minutes per day.” An hour seems unachievable, but fifteen minutes–a walk around the block–seems more doable for almost everyone. Of course, once people begin walking around the block, they realize (depending on their health, of course. I’m not trying to be insensitive here) that this is not only doable, but they feel better. So the next week, they maybe walk further. The next week, they may walk further. And pretty soon they are walking all over the neighborhood, five miles a day. But initially, they need to set a small goal and meet it. And even if the goal never grows, fifteen minutes of walking is better than nothing at all.

As a person who suffers horribly from writerly self-doubt and perfectionism, I set my own daily goal at an achievable 500 words. Five hundred words is a pretty easy goal to meet for me and if I’m on a roll, it takes no more than twenty minutes of my day. If I’m not on a roll, it can take longer, but it’s never more than 45 minutes to write a measly 500 words. The goal here is to just get myself writing: It’s “only five hundred words. It’s like brushing your teeth and washing your face. You brush your teeth, don’t you? You have time to do that….” So, I sit down to write my 500 words more often than not, and while I’m writing, I realize I’ve actually written 700 or 1000 because once I cross the “I don’t have time to write” threshold, I remember how much fun it is for me, how relaxing it is for me, how much I fundamentally enjoy writing. If I had never set a low goal, though, I never would have been able to talk myself into it. Because I am ever-so-busy, of course.

I stand by this little trick–it works every time. Would I be more productive to force myself to write 2,000 words per day? Maybe. But for the long haul, sometimes we just need to get into the habit of doing a little bit, every day, consistently. Because in the end, that’s how we live our lives. Bit by bit, day by day.

NaNoWriMo Nearly Done!!! Keep Going!

So….last week, I didn’t write for four days and I had already mentally composed a blog post where I described how while I hadn’t “won” NaNo, it had still been worth it and blah, blah, blah…November is a brutal month for this, particularly when you ARE the person who cooks Thanksgiving dinner for 14 people and puts up the Christmas trees (fun fact: the Christmas decorations are in boxes on my kitchen floor right now and have been there since Friday). I have been following along with Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! which has been useful and fun, but Chris, lemme tell you, I don’t have a “caretaker” in my writing quest. I AM the caretaker. I have five kids and a career where I can’t just write at work, even if I were so inclined to do that morally, because I actually have work that has to be done and I even bring work home I have so much work and blah, blah, blah….NaNoWriMo is just too hard.

So, that was my whiny post until Friday, where I decided that while I wasn’t going to finish NaNo, I’d finish the novel I started. So I sat down to write a more reasonable 1,000 words before starting to put up the Christmas decorations.

But then I saw….I wasn’t THAT far behind. If I wrote a little under 3,000 words per day, I could still “win.” Hmmm….I guess I could decorate for Christmas in early December.

I hate not winning. I’m pretty competitive, even with myself. And while I still maintain that even if you don’t “win” NaNoWriMo, it’s still worth tackling, I, personally, felt it was worth it to see it through to the end.

So, I started tapping away at the keyboard.

Oh, it’s an awful piece of crap, let me tell you. This crap novel will not see the light of day, I swear, but I’m at 41,531 words now (I haven’t written yet today) and I think I’ll finish it.

So, all you Wrimo-ers out there! It might be worth it to keep going! You can do it.

Driving and Accessing the Unconscious


This last summer, I drove to Austin for a work conference.  I had a choice of flying or driving and most of my colleagues chose to fly. Not me.  For one thing, I did the travel math and figured that by the time I drove to the airport, parked, went through security, waited for the flight, spent 30-45 minutes in the air, landed, got an Uber, etc., I’d actually spend less time in transit if I just hopped in my car and headed out. More importantly, however, once I get out of the special hell that is Houston traffic, road trips are great for writing and boosting creative energy.

Just as with going for long walks, driving is a great way to access the unconscious.  Once I escape the city and I exit onto the smaller highways, I turn up the music and my mind takes off, wandering and exploring.   This is when, while one part of my mind is engaged with the physics of passing slow trucks and keeping a lookout for cops, memories I haven’t thought of in ages come flooding back.  Ideas for stories, blog ideas, characters, Big Questions all come bubbling up in a way that just doesn’t happen otherwise.

When I drive, my mind is open to new experiences, to new energy. Synchronicity occurs. Once, while on a road trip to Florida, the song “Fifty Seven Channels” by Bruce Springsteen came on the radio and a few minutes later, a car passed me with the license plate “57.”  I’m not making that up and I spent the next hundred miles (and beyond) pondering why. I still don’t know, but that experience gave just enough magic to bouey my creative energies for another day.  Driving allowed me to pay attention to that instance of synchronicity, whereas I may have overlooked it in the every day.

So, if you get stuck creatively, you can hardly do much better than to go for a drive.

Update: “Fifty-Seven Channels (and Nothing  On)” is a pretty good tune. The above instance was the first time I’d ever heard it:

No Need to Explain (why you write)

hand pic LLAP

This post goes out to the misunderstood.

You know who you are. You live with people who love you very much, but who do not necessarily understand why you’d want to get out of bed early in the morning (and thus wake them up) to creep over to the kitchen table and…what? Why?

Or you realize they are occupied one Saturday afternoon watching YouTube videos, or studying for exams, or playing with the backyard kitties, so you seize the moment to grab your laptop and write for a bit.  As soon a you settle in and begin tapping away, ear plugs in, world out, however, your people find some reason to need you. They can’t locate the sauté pan. They need help revising a paper. They can’t find one of the cats. Please help.

And you have to help because you want to help. Because you love them more than writing–as you should–and to explain to them that “this is my writing time,” doesn’t always sink in. Because they simply don’t understand.

So what do you do?

Well, I am probably not the best person to ask, given the scenarios above, which happen daily, but in the past, I have written some ideas I had on  how to find time to write when you have a day job,  That post, however, didn’t really address what to do when the little time you do carve out competes with others’ desires for how you spend that time.

As I prepare for NaNoWriMo, my biggest challenge will be that big question from family and (most) friends as to “why the hell would you want to do that?” The implied question is also, “Why should I take second fiddle to your hobby, even for a few hours a day?”

When I wrote my dissertation (much of which I wrote in a fairly short time-frame, buried in notes, writing music blasting into my ears, pen inked up my hands and arms, my bird sitting on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, me chattering to myself), I had an easy answer.  After all, no one debates why you’d want to complete your dissertation–I mean, duh. But a novel? Writing just to write? For what purpose?

And the answer to that question is: Because I want to.

How do you like them apples?

There are certain things in life you have to do because you simply want to do them and in general–as long as you aren’t harming others–that is enough of a reason. There doesn’t need to be another.

You get to be you.

Writers, you do not need to explain yourselves or your desire to write (for NaNoWriMo or anything else).  After all, I don’t challenge people’s desires to watch videos of cats knocking coffee cups off high surfaces. And if a person wants to spend an afternoon watching Grey’s Anatomy? By all means–we have choices in life. And fantasy football? I don’t get it, but I certainly can understand why this is enjoyable, and even a psychological need for some people. I get that we all like different things and, frankly, need different things, just as I can understand why someone might want to climb a mountain or venture under the sea, just because it calls them. Isn’t that part of being alive?

The same is true with our writing. And if you’re like me, you’ve been writing since you could spell, so writing has become part of who we are, how we engage with the world, how we make sense of things. And yes, it is part of how we have fun, which is a completely valid reason to write–as valid as any other.

You need no explanation other than, “Because I want to,” but if that doesn’t work, I also have a few more ideas:

  • The people around you love you, so when you are trying to find time to write in your home life, start by explaining to them how you are writing because it makes you happy and you want to do it because you just want to. That’s a good enough reason and you don’t need to explain beyond that. In fact, if you do, you’re defending, which you don’t need to do.  You get to be you.
  •  Let them know that you will be writing from x time to y time and to not interrupt you. This allows them to realize that there is an end to this madness and the sauté pan hunting can wait until noon. Keep it realistic (i.e. I don’t advise ignoring your family for an entire week-end, every week-end. Break it up a bit. An hour here, an hour there, etc.)
  • Earphones and loud music. I can’t stress this enough. I started using this tactic many (many, many) years ago when I lived in a very loud dorm as a college freshman. That dorm was so loud that once, the fire alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. and I completely ignored it because I thought it was just my neighbors’  typical antics. With that level of noise (and the fact that I couldn’t just pack up my giant word-processor and head off to the library in 1990 like I could with a laptop now), I had no other option but to crank up the tunes. The training of that served me well–now I can write anywhere as long as I have earphones and music.
  • Get away to a library or a coffee shop as a last resort (and don’t take your phone). I did this for my dissertation on a couple of occasions when I had a tight deadline and needed little interruptions. I try not to do this often, though, because I prefer to be around my family–them doing their things and me doing mine–and I try not to leave them very often. And clearly, this won’t work with little kids (mine are all teens and/or in college).
  • That said, I wrote when the kids were little, too. When I really wanted to get something done, I wrote at night, but if I needed to write in the daytime, that’s when I broke out a new Lego set or made them a new batch of sparkly play-doh. That type of thing can buy at least an hour until a fight breaks out.
  • Scrivener can be used on an iPhone and iPad….I have been pondering what program to use for NaNoWriMo and I’ve used Scrivener enough to know how to use it (I’ve written three short stories using it), but it does have a very steep learning curve, of which I’m still ascending. So I considered just writing the thing in Word and being done with it, until I considered how useful it is to be able to pick up where I left off with my iPhone and iPad.  Let’s just say that in the past, I have been able to get some words written on an iPhone in a doctor’s office waiting room using Scrivener or Evernote.  That type of thing is golden when you are trying to get your word count up.

But at the end of the day, remind yourself that you don’t need to explain yourself. You want to write because it makes you happy. It’s just how you are. And that’s good enough.

On Being a Pantser


I expressed excitement in my last post over having time to plan for NaNoWriMo, but that planning will not include outlining, deeply developing characters, or anything of that nature. While no approach–being a “Planner” or a “Pantser”–is the “right” approach and every writer is different, I don’t have to ponder long to know I’m a Pantser.

I know I’m a Pantser because I am a Pantser when it comes to writing short stories.  Most of the time when I begin, I have a character and possibly a situation, and mayyyybe a vague idea of what direction the story might take (and generally, I end up being wrong about the direction), but that’s pretty much it.  Sometimes, I start with nothing at all. One of the best feelings in the world is when I’m finished writing, I feel as if I’ve woken up from a really interesting dream, or feel as if I’ve just been reading really good book. I love the slow realization that I wrote that story–it didn’t even seem as if I were writing, but rather reading and watching the events unfold. For me, the un-known element plays a large part of the fun of writing. That’s the playtime element that makes me want to keep writing, the fun, the reason for getting up early in the morning.

If I plan out my stories ahead of time too much–if I flesh out my characters too much, if I know what will happen each step of the way–then my mind balks at this and suddenly the task of writing ceases to be play and becomes more like writing a dissertation, a research article, or a narrative for a program review. All writing is not fun, in other words, but the writing I do early in the morning for personal fulfillment and enjoyment ought to be.

I started writing originally as a very small child. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but not too long after mastering the basic skills of reading and writing, it occurred to me that I, too, could write and that meant I could make up my own stories and write them down. I could write things that didn’t exist in the world yet. And for me, most of those things are settled so deep in my unconscious that planning them out too much robs them of their magic.

This is what happened to me with the last novel I tried to write.  I got a pretty solid idea based on these people and this experience and it held a lot of promise, but because I wrote it for a novel-writing class, it met its ultimate demise because we had to outline a bit more than I like to do.  We didn’t outline too much (the professor was good–very flexible on allowing us to choose our process), but the small part we did outline was too much for me. Also, the fact that I wrote the chapters as class assignments literally made the novel work and not as much fun as it otherwise would be (I got an A in the class and great comments on the chapters, though). We moved shortly after writing those chapters, then, and the rest of my life launched forward, leaving that novel in its wake.

I don’t want to write that novel now. I have already invented stories about those characters (although I’ve never written one of them down) and as far as what those characters meant to me, I have now answered all the questions I had about them and the themes surrounding that would-be novel, all by merely thinking about them often enough.  I have no desire to tell that tale any longer. Would that novel have been completed if I’d done it for NaNoWriMo, with no rules except putting fingers to the keyboard?  Maybe.  Would it have been written if I weren’t worried about getting an A in a class?  Maybe. But who knows.

This is not to say I don’t plan.  I have the POV choice made, a main character (not fleshed out, but in existence), a couple of other characters, and the general idea of the structure. In short, I did the same amount of planning that I do for a short story.  I think a lot of my planning takes place in my unconscious, though, and to bring it too soon to the conscious frames the ideas too much, solidifies them too much, limits them too much.  It’s better to keep them in the amniotic fluid as long as possible, in the dreamworld as much as possible, until I’m ready to open the tap on my keyboard.  This probably means I need to edit far more than I would if I were a planner, but maybe not. No problem. I can edit.

Rather, my planning involves figuring out how to write 50,000 words in a month.  How many do I need to write each day, then? What if I have to take a day off? (I refactor the numbers). How early will I have to get up? Will family mind if I write in the evening while we’re sitting outside? What will I do when my brother and his family visit? (I refactor the numbers). What’s my game plan here?

I do that kind of planning.  Just not the planning when it comes to the fun, the magic, the story.

November is NaNoWriMo!


Get ready, fellow writers, for the literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it, where writers of all types attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in a mere month.  I have heard of it for years, but every year, it never quite makes it onto my mental radar until the second week in November, or more likely, as I’m contemplating when to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. By then, that ship has sailed until the next year when I again don’t think about it until it’s too late.

But not THIS year, my friends! No, this year, NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) made it on my radar with almost three weeks to mentally prepare. Go me. I’ll need that three weeks for sure since I am not a novelist. YET.

I write short stories. I relate to short.  Little bites. Condensed pieces of what could be a piece of a novel, a single character or two, a couple of places….I can do short stories. That’s not to say I don’t have novel ideas in me. I do. I have ideas bopping all around my mind, but I shove them aside because I’m not a novelist (see the circular reasoning there? The “fixed mindset”?).  I take parts of them and make them into short stories–little pieces of them, little manageable nibbles.

But not in November.  This November, I’m going to start with the biggest idea that’s been knocking around inside my mind for a year or so and go to town on it. I’m going to write and write a bunch of crap that will be a 50,000 word horrible novel because it’s NaNoWriMo and I think it’ll be good, if only pschologically.  After all, if a person can write 50,000 words in one month, then they can probably write 25,000 the next, if they wanted to. After all, we don’t know our limits if we don’t push ourselves. And it’s not like I can’t do it, I tell myself. I’ve written and defended a quantitative dissertation.  I’ve gone grocery shopping by myself with five children ages five and under (pro-tip: it takes two carts and bribery).  I’m pretty sure I can do this.

I’ll keep you updated.

The Lump of Clay


Yesterday, I read a draft of a short story that I recently retrieved from its “rising” place. I marked out time to “read and make comments” to it, got myself a cup of coffee, and sat back to read.

Oh, boy, was it rough. It read not unlike the above clay face in the photo above (which my eldest son brought home from elementary school and has inhabited my bookshelves ever since).

I took a sip of coffee and slashed through the first two pages. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I wrote notes to myself in the margins on what changes needed to be made.

Then I read on. Okay, well, I liked that….let’s bring out that element more….I kind of liked those eyebrows. The eyebrows work.

Revising is like this at first.  No matter what you are revising, you start with the big stuff first before you get down into the weeds. Whole scenes. Characters. POV. We aren’t at the sentence level yet. Not even close.

Because so far, what I’ve got written is clunky, molded as if created from clay with small hands lacking dexterity.

My job in the revision process is to hone, to shape, to redo the eyebrows and give depth to the eyes.

For me, that takes time.


Embracing the Post-It Notes

post it notes

Last week, my daughter introduced me to the concept of bullet journaling. If you want to read more about this method of journaling, you can do so here, as well as many other places. That’s what I did, anyway, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire afternoon engulfed in website-Pintrest-YouTube-knowledge gaining of the mysteries of bullet journaling.  As my daughter suspected, I had all of the markers of a budding bullet-journalist:  an intense love of planners and organizational systems (check), a love of all writing accoutrement (check), an addiction to paper (check), a collection of journals and a penchant for toting one around in my bag at all times (check), and generally, a love of anything to do with putting pen to paper (check).

I also have an extensive addiction to Post-It notes (check).

Extensive addiction to Post-It notes.  Bordering on pathological. I easily go through a package of post-its a week and I use them for everything. I post notes on folders, telling my future self what to do with the contents. I put notes on doors, telling people where I went. I post rules for the kids. I post notes all along my computer screen and across my desk. I post them on my bulletin board at work and on the refrigerator at home. While I keep a digital task list on my phone for domestic to-dos, for some reason, I keep a written Post-It note “to-do” list at work, adding notes as I think of new things that need doing. Every Friday or so, I will rewrite the latest tasks and toss out the old notes, which feels as refreshing as making a bed with new sheets after a rough week.

Indeed, the bullet journal approach enticed me and a few Amazon purchases and 48-hours later, I was ready to construct my journal.

I already knew it would be a messy affair, seeing as how I am not remotely artsy or pintrest-y.  Any artistic ability with a pen or pencil halted for me at the age of five and I’m so bad with coordinating colors or choosing matching flair that without my daughters to help, I’d look like wallpaper from the 70’s if I went at it alone. So I expected a visually-messy bullet journal and that was okay with me.  Artistically, I am a writer and at this point in my life, I don’t have time to not be myself and/or learn calligraphy, so I planned to just see what happened and go with it. But–and here’s the crux of this post–I didn’t realize just how much I’d hate the idea of removing Post-It notes from my life. Or at least from my daily “to-do” lists.

After all, one of the potential appeals of bullet journaling would be that I could finally remove the row of post-its from my desk and write all that stuff in the journal instead.  Easy, right? Apparently not.

I arrived at work, opened my journal, and transcribed the current list of notes into my journal, using the little “bullet” symbol to show that it was a task that needed completing. Then I tossed the old post-its in the trash.

Within minutes, I felt withdrawal symptoms.

It’s hard to describe, but I just felt anxious looking at that list, its items all in a row, one item after another. The same list that had inspired me moments ago when written on a Post-It note caused stress for me when written in a vertical list (my general plan of attack is to choose an item that needs doing and then accomplishing it. Once complete, I cross it off and choose another and so on, in no particular order except, of course, sometimes in order of urgency. My to-do list is written with two or three to-dos per post-it, in random order as they occur to me).

So, then two things dawned on me: First, it’s my damn bullet journal and if I wanted to stick a bunch of Post-It notes in the pages because it made me happy and productive to do so, then I wasn’t going to fight that battle. Bullet journals are supposed to be what works for their authors and not what they were supposed to do. If I liked post-its, then post-its I would have!  Boo-yah! I’m a grown-up and can do what I want!

With that, I picked the discarded Post-It notes out of the trash and taped them into the journal. I did write little “bullets” next to the entries and decided to cross them off instead of scratching them out, per the bullet journal best-practices, but I was okay with that.

I felt instantly better.

Which led me to realization number two: My brain thinks in Post-It notes. Who knew?

I always suspected this. My short stories, for example, are rarely linear. They circle, they jump forward and backward in time, the figure-8 around a central issue, much like a dream or my thoughts. When I tell a story about something that happened, I have long noticed that I will start off with the main tale, but then digress to a plot and a sub-plot, before rising back out of the layers to the main story again. Rarely are my ideas for other things linear either. Ideas come at all angles, like a stack of Post-It notes, layered, crooked, connected to one another at times.  Often,  my connected ideas are several Post-It notes away from one another and only by staring at the disconnection, the colors, the different inks and patterns in the juxtaposing ideas do I see the bigger picture.

In short, I think in “Post-It Note.”  No wonder I have an affinity for them.

The takeaway for me here is that we all need to embrace how we think, how we are, and delight and embrace whatever that is. We shouldn’t try to be someone that we are not or force ourselves to stick to a practice that doesn’t work for us. Especially when it comes to writing or generating creativity, whatever it is that we do.