Spying On The Neighbors (Confessions of a Writer)

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Okay, I feel I should begin this post with two disclaimers:

First, if any of my current neighbors are reading this, you can rest assured that I would never spy on you. You should know that the houses in our neighborhood are designed and constructed in such a way that makes it impossible for us to look down into each other’s backyards or look into one another’s windows through the kitchen. Very thwarting, but it keeps the good-will flowing, and now you don’t have to look at me with suspicion when we meet at the mailbox.

Second, I am making a confession here, but please judge me kindly. If any readers lived next door to the reality-TV situation I’m about to describe in this post, you’d be spying too. Especially if you are a writer.

With those two disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin.

Writers observe. We are the ones in the grocery store noting your purchases of kale, cookies, ibuprofen, white wine, almond milk, cat food, and roach traps.  By the time you pay, we have your life worked out and a short draft written in our heads about your vegetarian diet and cat addiction. We are piecing together why you need white wine and wonder whether you realize the ingredients of Oreos are far from being vegan? Then we wonder how do the roach traps fit in to the developing narrative. Those aren’t very animal-friendly–you must be very fed up with your roach problem. Now, we have imagined you with roach traps lined up all over the house, which causes great philosophical angst for you and this morphs into an existential crisis, causing you drink more white wine, which explains the need for the ibuprofen.

By the time you pay, you will feel our eyes and look at us. What are we staring at?

We smile at you. Go on. Pay. We want to know if you are paying with cash or credit card. Maybe you are even writing a check? We wait to see if you will pay with a check.

And so it goes.

But what if you lived next door to us?

So, many years ago–in a different city and different neighborhood–we bought a house and only after we moved into it, as we were arranging our twin daughters’ bedroom furniture, did we realize that the huge floor-to-ceiling window in their room overlooked the next door neighbor’s tiny back yard, which featured a giant flagstone-surrounded hot tub.

My husband and I looked at the hot tub and at each other and discussed our hope that they didn’t use that hot tub in any kind of an illicit way,  what with our four year olds able to look right down into their back yard. Maybe we needed to keep the blinds shut most of the time?

As it turned out, that particular neighbor was an older woman whose husband recently died and no, she never even went into the backyard, let alone soaked in the hot tub. After a year or so, however, she put the house up for sale and another woman bought it.

Enter interesting neighbors.

The woman who bought it was a single woman–about fifty-five, if I had to guess–and when she moved in, she brought her own daughter, who was then in her late twenties or early thirties.  She, too, had a daughter–a little thing of about two or three. I learned all this one day when, while changing the bedsheets and straightening the twins’ room, I heard the squeals of a small child. Most of my own kids were in school, with exception of the newest four-year-old, who had taken advantage of his siblings’ school day to commandeer the Gamecube.  The sounds of Mariocart lilted from the living room. Nope. Wasn’t mine.

I looked down and saw the tiny neighbor and her mother, floating on a pink raft in the hot tub, a cold drink in her hand. The daughter ran around the edge of the tub, blond hair tucked up into a short pony-tail. As I watched, the older woman came out and smoked a cigarette, watering the plants and talking on the phone.

Ooooh. Interesting. I sat down on the floor with the old bed sheets. A pattern of threes. All women. All three home on a week-day. Smoking and watering plants. And I was hooked.

And it only got better from there, let me tell you. I would come to learn a lot about this trio, but at this point, I am going to be late for work. What to do, what to do.

I guess this will have “To be continued….”

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You Can’t Capture Reality

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One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

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Writers Should Read (A Lot)

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Many of us became writers because we first enjoyed reading. I know I did. I was one of those kids who would get excited about library day at school. When my mother took me to the library on other days, I would retreat to my dad’s brown leather chair with my cat and my mom would have to make me go outside after awhile just to give my eyes a rest. On more than one occasion, my parents punished me for reading under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime.  And when, at the public school I went to in Denver, we got to choose a free book as part of the RIF program (“Reading Is Fun-damental”), this was as close as school could ever get to being Santa Claus for me, who already owned bookshelves crammed with books. I was the kid who walked to school while reading—it’s amazing I never got hit by a car—and eventually, I morphed into a book-toting teenager who read every Stephen King at least twice. I haven’t changed much from there.

I have, however, while leading writing workshops and also when teaching, found folks who write, but claim they don’t have time to read.  On one level, I get it. We only have so many hours in the day and we have to make choices. It makes sense to spend that time writing instead of reading if writing is the goal. And I understand that, except that in my experience, we learn to write by reading. New writers can learn more from reading more than anything else they do.

Reading exposes you to possibilities in writing. How else will you know you can tell an entire story as a list of rules or instructions? Or tell a story backwards? Or never use a polysyllabic word? Or spend five pages describing a cookie?

Reading shows you how to pace a story.  If you read a piece that you appreciate, it’s worth it to spend a little time considering how the writer paced the story. How did it begin? Did it hook you right away? What kept you reading? Or if a story drags, you can ask yourself where it drags and why. Then you can do the same thing with your own writing.

Reading shows you how not to write (for bad writing). Along those same lines, there is nothing to show you the effect of bad writing than to read some bad writing. Can’t stand the overly-plotted tale populated with cardboard characters? Well, now you are less likely to write one.

Reading expands your vocabulary. How do we learn words like “lugubrious’ and “soporific”? We read.

Reading allows you to appreciate different writing techniques. Just like a film buff appreciates different camera angles, a writer will come to appreciate the reasons why stories are told in first person POV or in third, or why a story should be told in present-tense or past. Reading a lot reveals the structure of stories–will it be told chronologically?  Or using a lot of flashbacks? Who are the narrators? All of these elements and more are important to writers when they see a piece of work coming together.

Reading gives you confidence. Reading provides a familiarity with language that allows it to become second nature for a writer. You will know where the commas go because you’ve seen commas in action a million times. You know when something doesn’t sound right because you know how language fits together. Like an experienced driver making her way down a highway, these things become automatic. Also, if you read something particularly atrocious, you can feel confident by knowing that if that piece can be published, there is hope for you.

What should you read? Anything you want. I know, many of us have heard the phrase “crap in, crap out,” but I don’t agree with this. Everyone should read whatever they heck they want to and if what you end up choosing to read is crap, well, then you will learn a lesson from that.  If a character seems flat in a novel you just read, take some time to pin that down. Analyze it. What should the writer have done? What advice would you give her? Eventually, as you grow as a writer, you, too, will cringe at the adverb-laden and clunky plot-line and strive to do better. Sure, you should strive to read works you know are good and can help you see beauty and art of your craft, but the most important thing is that you read and read and read. Whatever you want to read.

How much should you read?  This is a personal choice since we all read at different rates and have different approaches to what we are reading. Some people I know race through everything they read, trying to get to the point, while others will linger. I am a lingerer and even tend to re-read entire books as soon as I finish them—or a month or year later—so counting the number of books I read is not necessarily helpful because many of them I will have read twice or more.  I will say that I read roughly a book a week, depending on how thick or dense it is, and this is not including non-fiction or scholarly texts for my day job. A good plan of action is to make time for reading, just as you would for writing. I like to read in the evenings, which I do instead of watching TV.

So, fellow writers, give yourself permission to indulge! Go grab a cup of coffee and settle back with whatever you’d like to read today.

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Stay The Course

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This week, I haven’t felt much like writing. There is no single big reason, no one thing that sticks in my mind as The Reason. You may know what I’m talking about. I think all writers sometimes feel this way, so since it’s so apropos, that’s going to be the topic for today.

As with anything, I analyzed the situation. I assessed the current goings-on in my life to see what might be the issue and came up with these theories:

  • I had to tweak my writing schedule just a bit, but given the tenuous arrangement of my writing schedule as it is, sometimes one tweak can mean a lot.
  • With the end of a semester, there are a lot of work issues that need to be dealt with, which can leave the writer part of my persona mentally-drained.
  • The college kids have new summer schedules, which doesn’t overtly affect me, but subtly seems to affect my unconscious. They are finishing something and moving on to something else, which gets me thinking seriously about all of my family and the future. This isn’t a bad thing, but it takes mental energy.
  • The high school seniors are about to graduate. See above. Times two.
  • I can’t stop reading Kim Addonizio’s novels. I love her poetry, but I guess I didn’t know she even wrote novels until I was scrolling along in my Kindle library and found one I bought years ago and forgot about (My Dreams Out In the Street). Two “pages” in and I was hooked and I read it every free moment I had. I guess it makes sense that a poet would write so artfully, but still. Her writing does not play. After I consumed that, I bought Little Beauties, which is even better thus far. I won’t even attempt to give it a review here (and I’m not done with it yet), but Little Beauties was one of those books where I wanted to reach right out to an author and send fan mail using a lot of unstable and scary exclamation points when describing my awe of her skill. Teach me your ways (!!!!!!!).  So, maybe, as I absorbed Addonizio’s brilliance, I needed to take a bit of a break and step back for a minute from my own writing, just so I could learn lessons and also not allow my reverence to interfere with my latest story? It’s a thought.
  • Then, I started thinking how I might want to write some poetry again. I never felt as if I gave poetry a fair shake, after all.
  • Then I started to try to eat healthy again and spent a lot of mental energy contemplating which foods to eat and in what order.
  • I had to resist making another batch of fried Oreos. See above.
  • A few weeks ago, I wrote for a day straight and I think I wore myself out, temporarily.  I liken it to when we go on a 9-12 mile walk on a Saturday and then temporarily hate the look of my walking shoes and have to let the blisters on my feet heal. I have not built up to writing all day at this point. I also needed to let my thoughts gel.
  • Fried Oreos are seriously delicious. No joke.
  • And so it goes….

But the upshot here is that I know I can’t stay derailed. That can’t happen. So, when I had this happen before, I allowed myself to take a three day hiatus from everything and then gave myself a little talking to. We have to move onward. We have to stay the course.

And then I wrote this post.

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On Finding a Writing Community

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The email goes around on Thursday mornings, announcing to all of us in the Faculty Writing Group that we will be meeting again tomorrow, Friday. Sarah will read her short story and if we have time, Sam has a play he’s been working on. Who will be there?

I love getting these emails, even after I moved to a different campus at our college and attending the group became more difficult.  Later, when I took time off from writing to attend grad school and then write a dissertation, they kept me on the email list and when I’d see my old friends, they’d ask when I’d write fiction again. They gave me the encouragement only one writer can give to another. When will you write again? When can you come back?

These were things I needed to hear.

I joined the group many years ago, shortly after I began working at the college, and when the faculty learned that I wrote, they invited me to attend, even though I was still an adjunct and not as connected to the college as I would be in the future. Every Friday, we met at 1:00 and workshopped stories, poems, essays, and plays.  We have workshopped cartoon novels and flash fiction. We once workshopped a Twitter story. We could bring anything we wanted to workshop—nothing was out of bounds—and the comments and support I received from this group have proved instrumental in my revisions. In fact, everything I have ever published as an adult has gone through this group and their support and ability to analyze my work has made that happen.

This semester, I made it a priority to go back to the group. I can’t always make all of the meetings, but even attending some of them has been rewarding and motivating.

Having a community of writers in your life—whether you know them online or in person—is incredibly important. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, we spend a lot of time in our minds, so good community of writers in your life can help us stay motivated and keep us accountable. While I am sure I would have still continued to write fiction after the dissertation defense,  knowing that I had this group in my corner, encouraging me, helped give me the nudge I needed to start up sooner.

A community of writers will keep you accountable.  Each semester, we sign up for a day to read our work and have it workshopped.  If I know that in advance, I will have something ready, come hell or high-water. Sometimes, a good solid deadline is all a person needs to get going with a project.

A community of writers can also give you feedback to make you a stronger writer. This group is especially good because as professors (mostly English professors although we have also had professors from other disciplines, as well as administrators), they are already skilled when it comes to analyzing literature.  They can spot patterns in my short stories, or comment on the unconscious meaning of repeating the word “green” and its effect on the story, or let me know the need to condense several characters into one.  Also, if they “get” what I am writing, I know that I’ve succeeded at least somewhat because they understand how to read in a way that many other people don’t. They also point out errors in shift changes that happen, or question a use of point-of-view, or challenge the use of an adverb, all without quashing my desire to write. I trust their advice and while I don’t have to take that advice, I usually do.

Writing communities can also give each other connections or advice.  In the group I am in, several members have published a great deal, so when one member has a question about publishing a romance novel, for example, at least one of them will have some good advice to dispense on that subject. I recently encouraged one of our newer faculty to attend, once I learned she wrote.  She fretted at first because she did not write “high-brow stuff that should be in the Norton Anthology” but rather romance novels.  My advice to her was a) we don’t judge the genre and b) someone there will know what to do about publishing a romance novel. And sure enough, several people had excellent advice for her.

If you don’t have a writing community, it might be worth your while to go find your village.  This can be an online group, but I also like the intimacy of speaking with people in person. In the actual world, people can come to your poetry reading, celebrate your novel release, or attend the performance of your play, which doesn’t always happen in an online venue. Still, whatever works for you is the important part. Having a community of friends who also write has possibly more valuable than any education or any word-processing tool. Writing does not need to be a lonely endeavor, done in a vacuum.

On Riffing in Fiction Writing (How To Have Great Ideas If You Are Stuck)

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A few years ago, I found my oldest daughter’s acoustic guitar in the secret attic room and after restringing it and tuning it, I decided to teach myself how to play it. I didn’t make it very far (I really don’t have time to properly teach myself how to play a guitar. After all, if I have any time, I need to be writing), but I made it far enough to learn a few chords and understand the concept that you can take a simple song—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” for example—and then, if you feel so inclined and have the ability, you can add different strum patterns and other dimensions, all based on that same basic song. You can take the skeleton tune and turn it into something entirely new.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this out. After all, almost everything we learn to do is based on this idea of what I call “riffing”—starting with a simple structure and then adding complexity and other dimensions to make it our own.

For example, we do this with cooking.  When we first want to make a new dish, we probably hunt down a recipe to figure out where to begin. Then, generally, we follow the recipe pretty closely that first time, just because we don’t necessarily trust ourselves not to mess it up (depending on what we are making). Once we have made it a few times, however, we decide to use different noodles, perhaps, or add some jalapeños. Oh, and red onion would be another good addition. Maybe some cilantro. Soon, the new recipe is perhaps but a shadow of the original one, with our own flare and probably even more delicious. It doesn’t always work out, but this experimenting with recipes is half the fun of cooking.

We do this with everything, actually. We start with something basic and then make it our own. And so it goes with fiction writing: if you are stuck for an idea, you can hardly go wrong with riffing an urban legend or a fairy tale.

You will start with a basic tale—take the “Three Little Pigs” for example.  With this tale, we have three pigs, one of them a bit lazy, one a bit middle-of-the-road, and one who gets shit done. We then have a wolf who, of course, wants to eat them because they are juicy and that’s what wolves do. Then you have some bit about a fair and rolling down the hill with a butter churn and the wolf meeting his demise by falling through a chimney into a pot of boiling water. All that, however, is old detail for the basic upshot of the tale, which is that the two pigs run to the house of the pig who gets shit done and they work together to foil the wolf. That’s the bones of the story, but you can take this story so many different ways.

In your story, perhaps, the pigs become human brothers (or sisters), who probably all have a bit of emotional baggage about their perfect brother who builds sturdy houses out of brick. The middle brother just wants to be left alone to publish articles on sub-tropical islands he can never visit since the mortgage to his ranch house in the suburbs takes all his cash. The younger brother, who built his house out of hay, lives in his girlfriend’s condo in LoDo because he’s charming and attractive, but doesn’t have a dime to his name and he is resentful of the other two. At some point, he wants to impress his girlfriend (so she won’t kick him out) and he starts a business by borrowing from a loan shark (enter Wolf)….

And, we’re off to the races. Now we have an idea! The point here is not that this would be an excellent story or not—we have no idea because a story like that is in the telling and the details. In fact, we could all write this exact same story and none would be the same, which is the great thing about writing.  The point here is that if you ever get stuck finding a writing idea, you can always start with a basic skeleton of a well-known tale and, with a little riff session, make it your own.

Blending Reality into Fiction in Your Writing

I had an imaginary conversation with my mother the other day.  I had just finished a story involving an alcoholic and somewhat neglectful mother and in my imaginary conversation, I was explaining to my Imaginary Mother (I have a real mother, too, but she hasn’t read this story yet. I was imagining what I would say if she did read the story) that no, that story was not a commentary on her or her job as a mother raising me.  Not at all.

Imaginary Mother didn’t buy it.

“But you wrote her driving a brown Oldsmobile,” said the Imaginary Mother. “Just like we used to own.”

“I also wrote her smoking and you don’t smoke,” I said. “I also made her an alcoholic and you hardly drink.”

“You wrote about that boy I chased down in a car because he hit you,” said Imaginary Mother.

“Yes, but you actually caught him! This character didn’t catch the kid because she was drunk.”

“You didn’t even change his name!”

“Whose name?”

“The bully!”

I went on to explain to Imaginary Mother that the bully was actually an amalgam of three different people, melded into one who looked nothing like the original one that she once chased down with her car, so it wasn’t a matter of writing a story about a single person or an incident that actually happened. None of it actually happened.

Because I write fiction.

As writers, we take bits and pieces of random parts of our lives and toss it into the blender of our unconscious when we write. Our unconscious then blends the raw pieces of our experiences with its sharp blades and the end result is something entirely new, yet still retaining the some of the taste of the former.

We watch people. We take notes. We observe the crossed arms and breathing patterns of a bored co-worker. We file away knowledge that someone never takes left hand turns and it takes them two hours to get to work each day. We take note of a statue of a monster at the foot of the stairs when we are touring a house for sale (we didn’t buy that one).  We record the numerous times we have almost run over a man riding a unicycle down the street in the dark. We jot down the couple who takes their dog for a walk in a baby carriage. We remember the way our stomach hurt with hunger before lunch in third grade and our teacher wouldn’t let us walk down the hallway to the cafeteria until everyone stood perfectly silent.  We recall the time we went on a carousel for the first time, the scents of old wood and  machine oil. And all of that comes together in a way that blends reality into a new reality of fiction.

That’s what we do when we write. So, when people say, “Are you going to write a story about me?”  The answer is probably yes. And no. And maybe. Maybe just a snippet or two of a hint of you. Mixed with everyone else, including myself.

Because I write fiction.

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.