A Writing prompt from a spammer

A special Thursday post from Bob

I was cleaning out the spam filter of my ballpark blog when I came across a very unusual comment. Usually, spammers like to make innocuous-sounding comments like “cool post” or “you know what your speaking about” to get you to approve the comment, and unwittingly put up a link for a Canadian pharmacy specializing in Viagra or some similar business venture. And this particular comment did indeed have such a link embedded. But as my cursor was hovering over the “delete forever” option, it occurred to me that this really could be a very good writing prompt, so here it is in all its unedited glory:

First off I want to saay superb blog! I had a quick question in which I’d
like too ask if you do noot mind. I was curious to ffind out hoow you center yourself and clear your toughts before writing.
I have had difficulty clearing mmy mind in getting my ideas out.
I truly doo take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are
usually losxt simply just trying too figure
out how too begin. Any deas or tips? Kudos!

If you think this might be a helpful topic to meditate on your own process, then grab a pen, set your timer for 16 minutes or more and see what you come up with. If you’re looking for Canadian Viagra… well, that’s your business.

What I’m Giving Up for Lent

by Guest Blogger Lisa D. Chavez

I’ve been struck by the fact that A Writer’s March coincides with the Lenten season, when Catholics all over give things up for Lent.  I’m only culturally Catholic, but every spring as I listen to people’s Lenten sacrifices, I toy with the idea of participating.  I never actually do.   But this year, I have thought of something I’d like to give up:   the things that stop me from writing.

Writing, like life, follows cycles, ebb and flow, fallow times and fertile.  One of the most valuable things I have learned over a somewhat long writing life is that there will be times I am not writing at all, and I don’t have to fear those times.  Writing will never vanish for good.  It will come back, often in a new and unexpected way.  Those seemingly fallow times are often what we need, a time of rest, when we may not seem to be doing much, but most likely, the seeds of the new are planted, getting ready to stir in spring.  Slow times are needed, and that’s not what I’m talking about giving up.


Fallow Fields image courtesy of Piquenya @ Free Stock Images

I’m talking about giving up the other kind of barriers.  The ones that stop you from writing because you’re thinking too much, and not about process, but about product.  Perhaps it’s your overly-critical editor that you’re not turning off, so you’re worrying about every word you write.  Stop it!  As all writers and teachers of writing know, the editing stage needs to come after the drafting stage, and letting the editor voice get the best of us can stop us from exploring new ideas.  So stop listening to Ms. Overly-Critical Editor’s voice when you’re drafting, and go for the churning-out-words drafting stage!

I know this can be difficult:  for years, I had a disdain for this kind of drafting.  Part fear, and part snobbery, I thought things like NaNoWriMo were just ridiculous:  try writing a novel in 30 days?  How good could it be?   What I was forgetting is that in the drafting stage, good isn’t the point.  Producing a lot of work is, and in December, NaNoWriMo writers can start to worry about the editing stage, but in November, the point is to get words on the page.  I decided to try NaNoWriMo when I was at a low point in my writing, and was trying to recapture a sense of play.  I tried it, and I was a convert:  sure, I wrote a lot of crap, but I also wrote a lot of good stuff, too, and more importantly, I had a lot of words I would have never written without it.  I even discovered a new style of drafting:  writing as discovery.  I didn’t have to have a plan–I could wing it, and often that took me into unexpected places.  (This may be an obvious discovery for novelists, but as someone who works primarily in poetry and short essays, it was eye-opening!)  I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo twice, and I still continue to work on both of the novels I produced.  (In fact, one is part of my Writer’s March project!)   So that’s one thing I suggest giving up for Writer’s March:  Banish Ms. Overly-Critical Editor!  Let her come back in April, but for now, words on the page!

2014-03-11 00.22.08

Banish the overly critical editor for March!

There’s a related barrier I’ve encountered, which I’ll call Dr. Writing Biz.  Dr. Writing Biz is an editor too, one who is very concerned with product.  But Dr. Writing Biz is also about prestige:  what journal will I get this piece in?  Is it good enough?  Can I send this off to a big agent, big publisher, big prize?  How will this look on my CV?   Dr. Writing Biz is all about writing for someone else, whether that someone else be a prize committee, an agent or editor (perhaps one you don’t even have yet), a dissertation director, a workshop, whatever.  Dr. Writing Biz can stop you cold, too, because he’ll say “oh, that piece will never get in journal x.”  These kinds of conversations before you’ve even written anything can be deadly.  I personally find the business of writing (and thus Dr. Writing Biz) so awful that it will sometimes freeze me up before I write anything at all. (No, the NaNoWriMo novel I’m writing is NOT going to be literary fiction, and what will I do with that?  Answer:  keep writing it.  Finish it, and then worry about what to do with it!)

Part of the problem with Dr. Writing Biz is that for him, writing is all about prestige and jockeying for position.  Dr. Writing Biz encourages us to compete, to compare ourselves to others, which is not useful.  There will always be writers who are better and worse than us, and that’s fine.  In fact, it’s not our business to worry about that.  What is our business is to get words on the page, and not worry, in the drafting stage, about what to do with them.  For me, a writer and academic who often becomes paralyzed by Dr. Writing Biz’s critical gaze, what has been most valuable is to remind myself WHY I wrote in the first place.  In my earliest and purest encounters with writing, words were simply play.  I did it because it was fun, because I loved to read and loved to write.  Later, I wrote to express things that were important to me:  often out of a sense of outrage or a desire for justice.  Later still, I wrote out of a desire to understand my own experiences and share those experiences with others.  All are valuable.  And none have to do with winning prizes or getting big publications.  It’s not wrong to want those things,  but thinking about them just made me beat myself up when I wasn’t getting them, or made me feel envious, and did nothing for my writing.  So I’ve kicked out Dr. Writing Biz too (and I’m not letting him come back!)


Zora says “Are we having fun yet?”

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

But for now, banish them all.  What I’m suggesting for Writer’s March is just getting words on the page.  Don’t edit them yet.  Just write.   Give yourself exercises.  Give yourself prompts, and follow them, daily–worry about what you’ll do with these words later.  Practice free writing:  here’s your prompt (see some below), write for 10 minutes, or 20 minutes, or 60.  Go!  Practice play:  be silly, imaginative, fun.  Let the words flow!


Time to Write!

Included are a couple of my favorite exercises, which can be used with any genre:

* Go somewhere different to write.  When you get there, take out the bag you brought with you, your backpack, purse, briefcase.  (Travel lightly? Only have a wallet with you?  Ok, what’s in there?)  Take everything out of that bag and spread it on the table in front of you.  Make a list of everything you brought with you.  Be detailed and imaginative in this list:  don’t just write that you have a pen, but you might say a blue pen with the cap gnawed like a dog’s bone.  When you get done with listing, refashion it to create a portrait of the person who owns all these things.  You can add things that you didn’t really have with you if you like. You can also do this by making a list of things in a different space:  a room, a car, a cupboard.  Think of The Things They Carried, and how that list of things carried by the soldiers tells us so much about them.

*A writing prompt:  write in the voice of a character not your own.  Choose a character from a fairy tale, from myth, from movies or popular culture.  Tell a side of the tale not usually told.  Have fun with it!  For inspiration, look at Angela Carter’s very adult retellings of fairy tales, or Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

*A bigger project:  taking a piece through transformation.  This is a way to re-see something.  Take a stuck piece and rewrite it in a new genre.  Make prose into poetry and vice versa.  Then, transform it into another media entirely.  Draw it, collage it, make a diorama out of it (remember those?  Take a shoebox and make a three-dimensional representation of it).  Then take it back to its original genre.  How is it different?  What did you let go of and add in the different transformations and how can you use those? (This last part might be for your editing stage!)

Week 2 – Post 2: Shape it up

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

You may recall last year Sam shared a video of a talk by Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of plot. If you’re new to The March or if you want to refresh your memory, you might want to check it out here. Don’t mind me, I’ll wait. Now, I enjoyed the video immensely and suspect that Vonnegut is pulling our collective leg. However, there was something about the idea of writing stories to fit specific shapes that I found deeply unsettling.

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

I thought of doing a sarcastic response to this video by charting some of my own work. (Shameless plug in ten… nine…) “What did he plot?” you’re probably thinking. Well, I’m glad you asked. I decided to plot the first section from my book of short plays. Ok, was that too shameless? Perhaps, but it is pertinent. At no point when I was writing any of these plays was I thinking of structure, and yet each one is—to me, anyways—very satisfying.

At first I thought I’d just draw a random mess of lines on a page and call it a plotting of that section of plays, but struck by a sudden and inexplicable bout of honesty I decided to do my best to accurately chart each one of the 33 short plays according to Vonnegut’s grid. I mean, what if I’ve so internalized the “boy gets girl” shape or the “man in a hole” shape that I’m writing them without even thinking of it? What if I’d charted out my plays and found them clustering around those few tried-and-true curves? It would seem to invalidate my argument, don’t you think? I sat down with the manuscript and three different colors of pens. Here’s what happened: Continue reading

Week 1 Post 2: Add it all up

The first of several “Mondays with Bob”
By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

In some ways, I’ve got an ideal writer’s job. Without going into too much detail, I work from home for a call center that doesn’t get very many calls. I’ve come to the realization that I’m not getting paid so much for the work I do as I am for agreeing to tie myself to a phone eight hours a day and watch the nicest February/March weather I can remember out my window. As someone who likes to be kept busy, it became clear that I had two options. I could sit there and bemoan the fact that I was inside doing nothing, or I could find something to occupy my time. Naturally, the bulk of that time is spent writing.

The goal I set for this Writer’s March was to fill out a 100-sheet comp book from cover to cover in the month. After two days of sitting next to the phone and answering it when it deigned to ring, I can see that I might need to expand my goal. I noticed even with frequent distractions and interruptions, I’d average about 1 page an hour, and when things got really slow and I found myself in a groove, I could get closer to three or four pages in an hour. At the pace I’ve set, I could very easily get through the 200 pages well before the 20th.

“Well,” you may be saying, “that’s all very nice for you, but what about those of us who have to do work?” Or school? Or parenting? Or—in some cases—work and school and parenting? No matter how modest or grandiose your goals, you should take some time to celebrate your accomplishments. One thing I told fellow wrimos over and over again during the course of the madness that is NaNoWriMo is that no matter what, whether they were working on a single novel or if they were using the month to sketch out many different projects, they should keep everything together in one document. It was extremely gratifying on November 17th to open up my NaNoWriMo Word file and scroll down to page 100 to pick up my writing for the new day.

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

Day 30: Marching into the Void

By guest blogger Lenore Gusch

Back when I was still a student, complaining about being in school, how all of my time seemed to go to studies that didn’t have anything to do with my writing, and how much more creative I could be if I just had more time to myself, everyone warned me that life after graduation would be different, and maybe not in the ways I wanted. No more deadlines. No more workshops and writing prompts. No more interesting literary internships. No more instant writing community at my fingertips. My motivation to keep at it would have to be entirely my own.

It was true. I graduated, and suddenly was writing into a void. The writing community that had nurtured me for four years went missing.

Many of us on the March have been lucky to keep in touch with our writerly friends from school or to find our own new writing communities. (I still send drafts and story ideas back and forth with a few of my close friends.) Some have been even luckier to go on to MFAs, lead their own creative writing classrooms, or find other careers that foster their continuing to write. But I suspect that out of the fifty-six challengers this month, there are just as many of us who are not surrounded by a single other writer in our day to day lives. (My boyfriend sometimes jokes that he is illiterate, which, although completely untrue, still sends chills down my spine. He rarely reads and never, ever writes.) Many have other full time careers, significant others, and/or families commanding their attention. (Lots of it!) And still, we write on. For some reason, we insist upon it.

A lot of the posts on this March have been about doubts. “Why am I doing this?” “Am I crazy?” “Is my writing any good?” “What is the value of art, anyway?” Some of these are easier to answer, like the first one. Revisit Jennifer Simpsons blog to see why a whole slew of writers are sticking with this insane endeavor. Some of them are more problematic, like the second one. (Only you can tell you how truly neurotic you may or may not be, and why, and if you’re really crazy, you probably won’t be able to tell!) I tend to get hung up on the last one. What is the value of art? What is the value of writing? Why is it important that we tell stories to one another? Are there better things I should be doing? I have a deep belief built from groundless faith that it IS important. That it is, perhaps, the most important thing that humans can do while they’re stuck here together on the earth. But when it comes to articulating this to a society-at-large which is less and less invested in art as a measure of success and happiness, I often falter.

As a student, I had a built in excuse when I needed to go “work.” Now, when I have to explain to my boss why I don’t want to work full time at the douchey steakhouse downtown, or why I don’t want to go to yet another family dinner with my pseudo-inlaws, I can’t play the student card. I just have to be a degenerate recluse who isn’t motivated by things that make sense, like making as much money as possible, finding a career, starting a family, yadda yadda yadda. Instead, I’m just messing around with this weird hobby that few people really “get.” (I thought about writing a whole post on how society tends to measure success, and how we fit in—or don’t—as writers, but it goes down such a bitter rabbit hole that I thought better of it.)

Still, we are compulsive. We are crazy. We are going to do this thing no matter what, right?

Playing by the Mississippi river.  Absolutely not writing.

Playing by the Mississippi river. Absolutely not writing.


All that being said, I will be the first guest blogger this month to confess that I totally, utterly failed at reaching my Writer’s March goals this time around. Partly, it was just bad timing. The busiest month of the year at the douchey steakhouse is March, and I was working twice as many shifts as I usually do, which left little time or energy for anything else. Then, I spent a week in New Orleans with my two best friends and my illiterate boyfriend, where I ate and drank and napped to excess, cooked, read, took pictures, biked around the city exploring and listening to great live music. I had a wonderful, wonderful time. I never picked up a pen the entire time I was there. So partly, it was timing, but partly I was unwilling to be that crazy degenerate recluse who skips out on that breakfast with friends or that last beer in order to go home and write. I didn’t demand it.

We’ve established during this month together that, for whatever reason, this writing thing makes us happy. It fills some need in us. My advice is: embrace the fact that you may, indeed, be a crazy reclusive degenerate. Stop justifying your motives to yourself and others. If you need to work less (ya know, for “the man”) and write more, demand it. If you need more time alone, demand it. If the only way you can produce anything is with Ziggy Stardust playing on repeat at top volume, demand it. Society be damned! When you start to do more of what makes you happy and fulfilled, low and behold, you will become a more productive member of society anyhow. You will become a better lover, parent, and worker because your neurotic, creative itch will be scratched, and then you can contentedly go about other things.

Now that I’m getting ready to march out into the void again, I regret that I didn’t take more advantage of all the lovely advice and writing prompts this month. I wish that Writer’s March could last all year. I want to run around screaming “No! Don’t leave me! Don’t go! I don’t want to be alone again!” But the spirit of the March can carry on!

I try to read something, write something, and play at least one instrument every day, for any amount of time, even if it’s just five minutes. It’s sort of a mini-March that I keep in mind all year long. Here are some things I do to that help:

  • Set goals. They don’t have to be as extensive as what you chose to do in March. They don’t have to be daily. But as Sam keeps assuring us, they really do help.
  • Keep in touch with your writer friends. (Some of these bloggers have their own blogs you can follow, for example.) Even if they are only virtual, remember that you are not the only crazy one. Exchange work if at all possible, and if you’re lucky, find people who will give you honest critiques.
  • Buy a book of writing exercises, or look them up online, and play with them when you don’t feel like working on other projects.
  • Ask friends for writing prompts (even then non-writerly friends) and then give them the results (even if they don’t care).
  • Read as much as possible. I always think of reading as brain-food. Without enough brain-food your brain will be too hungry to write when you sit down to do it.
  • Remember that you don’t need to justify what you’re doing—to yourself or anyone else. 

Good luck out there. I’ll miss you!

Day 24: Showing up really is half the job—Book it

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

As long as I could remember, I wanted to write a book someday. Longer than that, even. I recently came across papers from my elementary and middle school days, and what do I find over and over again? Spiral notebooks with some scribbled sketches—I hesitate to call them illustrations, exactly—on the cover over a very carefully lettered “by Bob Sabatini.” Once I could steel myself to open them up, what did I find? A title page on the first sheet, and then—I kid you not—a table of contents, with chapters listed as “Chapter I” through at least “Chapter X” and space for yet-to-be-determined page numbers, followed by somewhere between five to ten pages of almost illegible scrawl. Following that, I’d find some notes, some doodles, a few half-completed homework assignments, and a whole bunch of blank pages.

That was where doubt crept in. “You’ll never be a writer,” it would whisper, “this isn’t any good.” It was the same story with a number of the writing projects I attempted in the years off between graduating high school and beginning college, I’d spend weeks outlining a story or diagramming character interactions, and then I’d start writing, get discouraged, give up, give it another try only to get more discouraged.

By the time I discovered that there were such things as creative writing classes, I’d hit on the notion of the short-form work. I remember saying glibly “I can get a good beginning and a good ending, but I have trouble with the middle, so I’m just bringing the two together.” Ok, so now that book that I’d write “someday” would be a collection of short stories. Except… my doubts were still wearing me down. I’d start fussing over my short stories, even the shorter middle sections wouldn’t cooperate with my excellent beginnings and endings, and I was still not getting anything finished. By the time I transferred to UNM, I’d given up on the dream that I’d ever write that book.

BookOk, so how do you explain this?

This is me holding the final printer’s proof of my new book, A Play a Day Keeps the Grey Away. Clearly, something has changed. And as much as I’d like to tell you that change was brought about by some magic bullet or non-prescription pharmaceutical, the answer is about as prosaic as it gets. The answer, in fact, is something not exactly the same but freakishly similar to Writer’s March.

In the fall of 2009, I was in a playwriting class, the only objective of which was to have a 10-minute play ready for an undergraduate showcase to be performed the next spring. And on October first, I already had a 10-minute play mostly written. I had a fantastic beginning and an earth-shattering end, and I was fussing and fretting over the middle. In a one-on-one meeting with the instructor I was told, “Bob, you’re drunk on this piece.” He advised me to put it away before I worked it to death, and then gave me the most productive homework assignment I’ve ever gotten: “On Monday, I want to see ten pages of something completely new. I don’t care if it’s total crap, just as long as they’re new.”

What I decided to do was to write a miniature play, a scene, or some dramatic moment every day. Because the day I was given the assignment happened to be the first of the month, I decided to extend the project through to Halloween. So, just to review, one 31-day month, a commitment to write every day, a clearly stated daily goal and a ban on fretting over whether what I’ve written is “any good.” Sound familiar to any of my fellow Marchers? The result was 56 pages of new material, and—somewhat shockingly—very little of it was crap. It was one of the most freeing and generative times in my life, and once it was over, I was in a creative space that allowed me to write, very quickly, a completely new 10-minute play for the festival, better than the one I had been fretting over.

On a whim, I decided to try again in October 2010, and again found it to be a wonderfully creative and rewarding endeavor. What had once been a 10 page assignment became an annual tradition. In November of 2012, with four years worth of October plays threatening to bust the seams of the pronged folder I was keeping them in, the thought struck me, “there’s enough here to make a book.” All from making a commitment to write and then seeing that commitment through.

Now, those same doubts still whisper to me occasionally. “Your book is self-published,” they say. “It doesn’t have the cachet of having been ‘discovered,’ you won’t sell a dozen copies,” and so on. And here’s what I say to those doubts:

respectful response

Some (play)Writing Prompts:

1—The “White Elephant” in the room.

This is an exercise in working out how characters avoid talking about what’s really on their mind. Decide on two characters who have some hot-button topic (for absolutely no reason at all, I’ll give “abortion” as an example) which is very much on both of their minds, but which neither wants to discuss. Write a page or two of dialogue (and nothing else) in which the topic in question is never directly mentioned.

2—Dust off the White Pages

Open a telephone directory to a random page. Scan the names you see and look for the first one that jumps out at you. If you see the name of someone you know, keep looking or go to a different page. Once you’ve found a name, write it down. Examine the name for some time without really thinking about it. Set that timer Sam made you get for 10 minutes and write a monologue: what that person would tell an audience about him/her self if she/he were one of your characters.

3—Something poetic

Read a poem, then read it again. Adapt it in some way for the stage. If it’s a narrative poem, put that narrative on the stage. If the poem is more image-based, hold a striking image in your mind and turn it into a physical place. Put characters you write into that place and see what happens. If the poem evokes a “mood” or “tone,”  find ways to exploit/subvert/explore that mood with characters on a stage. The most important thing is to have fun with it.

Incidentally, to see one example of what can be done, you might want to check this play out

Day 23: Sometimes You Just Need To Be Alone

By Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco

Photo by Tina Roberts

This past summer, my uncle rode down from Canada on a motorcycle tour. He had packed fresh clothes and weather-beaten books into the packs on the sides of his bike, and he rode for days and days, eventually making a looping swish along the West Coast that swung all the way down through the South Bay, near San Jose, California, where he had grown up.

I saw him in Portland, at my parents’ house. My family had gone there for a weekend, and it was really just luck that had us all in the same place at the same time. We are not a family that fears geographical distance.

Still, sitting on the deck one night, someone asked my uncle why he had decided to travel down from Canada in the first place. After all, he was riding completely alone, over wildly varying terrain, with only the wind in his ears for conversation.

“Well,” he said, “sometimes you just need to be alone.”

For me, being alone is like a cookie I can steal – something I grab when I can, and stuff into my mouth in huge forbidden mouthfuls. I had never really thought of it as a need – in fact usually, if I’m being totally honest, solitude can make me feel selfish.

But I do my best work when I’m alone.

It’s a luxury to be able to turn off the swinging, shrieking, merry-go-round of my daily life and sit quietly.

I do it in the evenings, sometimes, when I can hear the sighing of the cars on the road through the window, or the low voices of neighborhood kids, calling softly to each other down the block.

And it’s not even just being alone that I crave – it’s the quiet. I have a little boy and three dogs and two cats and a husband and a full-time job that I love, and my life is many things, but it’s rarely ever quiet.

But I’ve realized that, in order to write anything coherently, I need to give myself the quiet, as a gift. I need to shut off the noise and pull the thick silence over me like a clear dark blanket of stars. I need to let my mind stretch out and wander around, poking at things.

For example, what flavor is the sound of the wind that’s pulling the weather system towards us? When I think about its shape against my experience in this particular moment, what does that look like? Can I write a poem that matches the cadences of the chorus of neighborhood dogs out the window? And what color is their barking? How does it feel to sit here, the spring air leaning in, and listen to them?

So here’s my suggested writing prompt – take it in any direction you’d like.

Pack your worries and cares and everyday issues into the pack of your mental motorcycle – you still carry them, but for now you’ll think about them later. Find a quiet space. Breathe in, breathe out and situate yourself in the room. Look around you and notice the air, or the light, or the way the open spaces in the room interact with your state of mind. Think about how that particular vase on the table feels. Maybe connect it with something else you’ve lived through, or a story you want to tell. Listen to the wind as if it’s a conversation that someone is having – that you get to hear.

Make something happen.

Post by Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco


Day 17: The Power of Limited Choice

By Lisa Hase-Jackson, guest blogger

Fear is a familiar feeling to all artists, and writers are certainly not immune. Some of the more common triggers of fear include anticipated failure or, as is often the case, anticipated success. For writers in particular, fear is often triggered just by considering the likely ostracism that may occur from revealing family secrets, or by the realization that what was written in a passionate moment of active imagination will appear to be worthless drivel in the light of day.

Perhaps the biggest fear faced by many writers on a daily basis it that of the blank page. Even assuming a writer can overcome the overwhelming number of possibilities represented by the blank page, there are still myriad choices to make – or choices to rule out – once the page is no longer blank and writing has begun in earnest. Let us posit, then, that the progressive limiting of possibilities which occurs during the act of writing is perhaps the most difficult fear for writers to overcome – for though the writer experiences the anxiety this progressive limiting of choices represents, the underlying reason often remains obscure.

Most writers agree that the first line of any piece determines what that piece will be, as well as what it cannot be. Setting aside academic arguments over what constitutes a poem versus what constitutes a short story, it’s reasonable to suggest that once a writer ends a first line of writing somewhere before the right margin, the work in question can be labeled a poem. Conversely, this small but significant decision to hit the return key before the punctuated end of a sentence reasonably rules out the possibility of such forms and genres as the essay, the article, the epic novel, the play, or even the short story.

And that’s only the first line.

Since each line of a poem necessarily does a great deal of work (or should), the choices made and ruled out with each subsequent line after the first will determine the poem’s rhyme scheme, its form, its overall length, and whether the poem will be narrative, lyric, or something likely to be described as experimental. In the act of writing the poem, then, the poet – whether aware or not – is evoking every craft lesson, every respected opinion, every piece of mythology, and every aesthetic preference they have ever encountered or developed in their respective writer’s journey to this very moment of selective choices. What’s not overwhelming about that? Further, because (and most writers agree) the imagined poem is nearly always better than what appears on the page, the act of writing (and selective limiting of choices) is nothing less than a courageous gesture of considerable mettle resulting in an extraordinary ability to conquer fear on a daily basis.

So while it may seem logical that artists fear a lack of choice, it is in actuality this strategic limiting of choices through the act of creation that triggers fear for most writers. And though it is most decidedly difficult to do so, writers must make consistent effort to avoid brooding over choices sacrificed and believe with conviction in the choices they have made.

Gather your mettle now and try one of the strategic choice-limiting writing exercises below:

  1. From a literary magazine, of which most writers have dozens, select ten words you DO NOT usually use in your writing. Use these ten words in a poem, perhaps one per line. The more foreign they are to you, the more interesting the resulting draft will be (and the more fun you will have writing it).
  2. Formal poem construction strategically limits choices for you, leaving your creative mind room to focus on other aspects of a poem. Most poets find traditional Sonnets relatively rigid while Pantoums and Villanelles are considered by some to be a little more flexible. Experiment with these and other forms regardless of your opinion of their merits.
  3. The blitz is a form that makes choice elimination particularly fun. Follow this link for directions on how to construct a Blitz Poem: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides/poetry-prompts/poetic-form-the-blitz-poem.

Day 15: Pewter or Brass?

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

decisions, decisions...

decisions, decisions…

There are some important considerations that go into the design of a house. Especially if it’s going to be someplace you’re planning to spend a major chunk of your life, a place where you’ll be entertaining friends and family, a place where, just possibly, you’ll be raising a family of your own. Should you paint the kitchen eggshell or mother-of-pearl? Should the cabinets be maple or cherry? Should the handles be pewter or brass? These are all decisions that will make an impact, not only on how a visitor may perceive your home, but also on your own state of mind. However, there is a time and a place for everything, and the time to make firm decisions on these questions and countless others… is quite a bit later than the day you start on the foundation.

It’s the same thing with writing. Details are important. They can make or break your story (or poem, or essay, or script…) but you can’t let them get in the way of the writing. I’ve had numerous discussions with writing friends who have shared works in progress with me. What I’ve found in more than one instance is that the friend in question will ask my advice on details as minute as the question of whether the cabinet hardware should be pewter or brass. They are trying to make chapter 1 absolutely perfect… before they’ll even think about chapter 2. In other words, they’re tidying up the kitchen before they’ve even begun wiring the living room. What I also generally find is that the writer in question is—more often than not—having difficulty writing.

Writing is about polishing fixtures and spot-painting. But it’s also about mixing concrete and cutting drywall. It’s about making messes. You’ll have plenty of time to clean up later, but you’ve got to get that frame built first.

So, an exercise:

(Except this isn’t really new. It’s based on suggestions made yesterday by Jennifer Simpson, myself last year and Sam two years back—re-framed to fit the house metaphor.)

Get hold of a wrecking ball!

If you are at a stage in the construction of your work where you’re not ready to polish up those lovely cabinet handles, and if you’re having trouble writing it, give yourself permission to break down some walls and try something else. Try writing a piece you’re having trouble with in a different genre. If your dialogue seems forced, try imagining it on a stage and write it as a script. If a prose character seems flat, put yourself in his/her head and write a persona poem. If your novel is refusing to move from one room to the next the way it should according to your very carefully plotted-out floor plan, then by all means tear down a wall and see what’s on the other side. Maybe your “house” never wanted to be a house at all, maybe it’s a skyscraper. Local zoning ordinances don’t apply to your writing.

Day 9: Obsession Is Not A Problem, It’s A Cure

A Guest post by Randi Beck Ocena

Somewhere in my head, there is a filing cabinet full of things I want to find, learn, peruse or pursue.  These projects vary from the ephemeral to the interminable and when I do chance to swim through them, I often find myself lost in a vast sea of library stacks research, internet archives, paper trails, and hazardous materials, or caught up in some precarious experiment requiring a double boiler, gum mastic, and power tools.

(In the end, this will have something to do with writing. I promise.)

Among the more recent interests: testing various sizes of spade drill bits, mapping with astrocartography, tracing my family lineage, investigating a string of local missing persons, and memorizing the Tsalagi syllabary by heart.

Sometimes there are more spontaneous projects.  For example, I once carved the likeness of Boris Karloff into half of a honeydew melon.  It took over an hour.

I have collectively filed these projects under Distractions, Creative. But when I really get interested in something, It becomes nearly impossible for me to leave it alone. I go to bed and wake up thinking about it. I’m easily consumed by my interests and my wife can testify to my single-mindedness.

Recent conversation:

Sam: “What do you want for dinner?”

Me (squinting at digitized family tree): “…hm?”

Sam: “Dinner? What do you want for dinner?”

Me: “Hey I think my great great great Uncle Ephraim might be related to Elvis”

(20 minutes later)

Sam: “Did you switch the laundry?”

Me: “Soup is fine, thanks.”

As a graduate student and someone with major guilt issues, not to mention serious problems with time management in general, I sometimes worry about “wasting” my time (egad, there’s a whole other post in that), particularly when the time I spend actually writing seems brief by comparison. Most writers/artists I know have a similarly vast and eclectic array of interests.  But what good are these odds and ends? Why does one need to find their missing relatives? Or know the difference between the smells of cut cedar, birch, and oak? Or the name of every native wildflower in English and Latin? Sure these things can liven up your writing. But I’m talking about weeks, months, even years of study, not just an hour rummaging Google or the public library. And more specifically, study that has nothing at all to do with your career or financial gain or any benefit beyond your personal interest and investment in it. For our purposes, we’ll call these positive obsessions.

Madness and the Creative Mind

There’s a lot of research out there on the relationship between creativity and madness and I don’t dare venture into all of it right now.  But when I looked into the notion of “obsession” in particular, here is a tiny bit of what I found, drastically oversimplified:

According to most modern psychologists, there are both “positive” and “negative” forms of obsession.  The line distinguishing them may be hazy, but basically, if it makes you want to work constantly at something you love or can’t stop thinking about, you can call it a positive obsession. If it makes you want to cut off your ear, that might be toeing the line. And if it makes you want to cut off someone else’s ear, then you’ll probably want to talk to someone about that.

Here are a few inspiring examples I found of positive creative obsession:


#1: James Cameron: For his latest movie, Avatar, he employed a university linguistics professor to create an actual functioning language for the tribe of blue aliens on Pandora. And one can’t help but be reminded of JRR Tolkien, who spent decades developing Quenya, one of the Elvish languages spoken by the characters in his books, complete with regional dialects, grammatical rules, complex syntactical structuring, and a lovely writing system. As far as I know, Mr. Tolkien didn’t receive any additional monetary gain by inventing an entire language. That was just part of his project, and he was dedicated to it.

#2: Another written testament to obsessive creativity. Here’s a neat book by Lisa Congdon:


“A Collection a Day catalogs all 365 of Congdon’s quirky, obsessive, endlessly curious collections of tchotchkes — erasers, pencils, vintage stamps, mushrooms, receipts, medals, maps, sea urchins, and just about everything in between — in a beautiful volume that’s somehow calming and centering in its neatness, a rare oasis of order amidst the chaos of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.”

#3: A Water and Stick Sculpture by Land Artist, Andy Goldsworthy:

ImageHis philosophy: “My approach to photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit.”

The Good News About Obsession:

In an article on positive obsession, natural psychologist and creativity coach, Dr. Eric Maisel says:

“When you obsess, you learn how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate. You accept the hard existential fact that if you intend to matter you must act as if you matter. You retrain your brain, asking it to halt its pursuit of fluff and worry, to instead embrace its own potential. In addition, you announce that you prefer grand pursuits to ordinary ones; you stand in solidarity with other members of your species who have opted for big thinking and big doing. And you turn yourself over—even to the point of threat and exhaustion—to your own loves and interests.”

Make Obsession Work For You:

“Embark on a month of productive obsessing, then another, and, ultimately, a lifetime. If you end up with a ballet like Swan Lake, a business like Apple, or a new theory of relativity, congratulations. But congratulate yourself just as much if what you end up with is a stream of brainstorms in the service of a fulfilling life.”

Last Word: 

For the next month, perhaps we should all adopt this attitude toward our own obsessions, whether fleeting or long-standing, but especially toward writing.  Instead of trying to conquer distractions, make it your goal to turn writing into a distraction in itself. Write about something that makes you want to sneak away at work or go to bed late. It is a gift, I think, just to feel passionate about something, anything, really. The fact that you’re reading this right now means you must have the gift too, and that makes me happy.

After this month of March writing madness, whatever it is that causes your heart to race or makes your ears perk up–building a ship in a bottle, learning a dying language, sharpening all your pencils by hand, making found art out of office supplies—whatever it is, go ahead and do it. Let it feed your writing where it will. And feel free to obsess a little. It’s good for you.