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 19: Slasher Revision (“Tuesdays with Nari”)

Scream 2

Revision Inspiration

When I was thirteen, I spent Christmas with my aunt and uncle in SoCal. My uncle had devoted a large hall closet exclusively to movies–the kind that consisted of black plastic and tape (after all, we’re talking the nineties). I’d never seen so many movies anywhere but the video rental store. The closet was filled with hundreds, many of them with their Costco stickers still attached, ranging from Disney classics to suspense. Because my parents didn’t let me have many movies, all I wanted to do during my visit was work through those VHS stacks. I shared a guest room with Rebekah, the twelve-year-old daughter of my aunt and uncle’s friends, also there for the holiday, and since our room had a TV and VCR, we watched multiple movies every day. She liked horror, so one night she picked Scream 2. We watched it well past dark, and, since this was my first slasher flick, I was terrified well past those two hours. Although fifteen years have elapsed, I remember the character Phil getting stabbed in the face through the bathroom stall’s wall and later his wife Maureen crawling in front of a projector screen, a knife protruding from her back. A complete slasher film lightweight, I’ve never watched another. And Rebekah didn’t have much of a chance to suggest any more because the next day her dad walked in on us cuing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was rated R, and he said she couldn’t watch movies for the rest of their visit.

Despite my dislike for slasher flicks, I recently took to slashing my drafts. A few weeks ago I was revising an unwieldy, twenty-something-page essay (I’ve written about it before here and here); its many sections hadn’t found the right order yet, and after scrolling through them over and over on my computer, I couldn’t see them clearly–they’d blurred together into a confusing, unattractive lump. So I decided to make “cut and paste” literal. I took scissors, tape, clean paper, and a printed copy of my draft to a local coffee shop. With a cup of hot spiced chai as fuel, I sliced my essay into pieces and started moving them around as if solving a puzzle, which in reality I was. Once a sequence was right, I taped its parts together. On the plain paper, I handwrote new material–transition sentences, paragraphs that suddenly felt necessary. Mostly, though, I just worked with what I had. For more than two hours, I unscrambled my puzzle, and by the time I called it quits, the draft, while still imperfect, sang with fresh clarity. Other coffee shop patrons probably wondered why a grown woman was happily waving scissors about and stirring scraps of paper on a table. And if they had asked, I’d have replied, “Re-imagining.”

That’s really what I was doing: Most of the blocks were in front of me, and all I had to do was assemble them into a structure that held strong and pleased the senses. I had to re-envision what I had, like a dream that features real-life characters and locales but an element of the fantastic so that when you wake up, you see these people and places a little differently than you did before.

Usually I write fifteen-to-thirty page essays and stories. Somewhere between drafts three and seven, my subject and most of its development have been found, but they haven’t evolved into the right form yet. Until my “cut and paste” fest at the coffee shop, I’d muddled through that stage on my computer, but even my decent-sized monitor couldn’t truly show the scope of a draft; the most I could see at once was two pixelated pages. As a self-righteous proponent of printed, three-dimensional books over Kindles and their ilk, I hadn’t even bothered to consider that I could re-form my prose with the weight of actual paper and toner in my hands. But now that I’ve tried it, I’ll keep at it. Sometimes seeing your words isn’t enough to believe in them–you have to feel them too.

SLASHING AS REVISION

Whether you’re working with stubborn poetry or prose, print out your draft and cut it into sensible units. Then play with them. Start with a different line or paragraph. Swap a couple images or sections around. Let the old stuff surprise you. A hot beverage doesn’t hurt either. But a slasher film might.

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 13: Triskaidekaphobia, Don’t Let Fear Keep You Away

Writing: A safe place for the Triskaidekaphobics (is this a stretch? probably)

Writing: A safe place for the Triskaidekaphobics (is this a stretch? probably)

The Apollo 13 mission may have made it safely back to earth, but it wasn’t without overcoming major obstacles.  The superstitious types were shaking their heads: with a name like that, the mission was doomed from the start. And, as if that ominous name wasn’t enough, NASA seemed to be taunting fate: the spaceship launched at 13:13 from pad 39 (13×3).  On top of that, astronaut sleeping arrangements were scheduled for 13 minutes after the hour.  With so much 13 in play, it’s wonder the crew made it back alive!

The superstitious 13 has caused a number of omissions:

  • Tall buildings and hotels often eliminate their 13th floors
  • Airlines often eliminate their 13th row
  • In Italy, lottery tickets often eliminate the number 13
  • in France, a dinner party with 13 guests marks a major Faux Pas
The 13 has struck such fear in people that the state of anxiety has number even earned itself a name: Triskaidekaphobia.  Today, on this 13th of March, don’t let the unlucky win.  To help you hunker down, here are three writing methods aimed to help you barrel through (I was going to give you 13, but that seemed a bit much…)

#1: TYPE INTO THE VOID (A writing prompt from Danner)

Sit at your computer. Turn the screen off. Get into the head of your perspective character. Type into the emptiness without worrying about editing, typos, or anything else. Just let yourself speak with your fingers into the computer for an hour.

DSCN4985#2: RETYPE YOUR REVISION (A writing prompt from Nari)

Print a hard copy of our draft.  Read it through and edit the paper copy.  Then, sit at your computer, open a blank word document, and retype the draft in its entirety.

Last year, Jennifer offered this same advice in a post titled “Retyping your Revision.” This year, Nari send the same idea in when she officially joined the March.  As Nari explains, one day, “I found myself at a coffee shop without my flash drive, and since I had a hard copy with hand edits, I decided to retype it. I started to do so (and still am) because I’ve found quite a bit to refine. Retyping the sentences that I’d read on my computer monitor so many times before has forced me to rethink them and, most importantly, really listen to them. This is a great way to work with a draft when you feel it’s almost there, just not quite there yet.”

#3: HAND-WRITE THE SCENE TWICE (A writing prompt from Sam)

When working with a particularly troubling scene, write the pages by hand.  Then, write the scene by hand a second time.  Then, type the scene into a word document.

Lately, this has been my method of choice.  I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful when writing problematic scenes (particularly climactic moments or difficult conversations).  When I write the first draft of a scene, I find myself putting in some fillers (as in “yadda, yadda, yadda, something will happen here” or “this scene is still not quite right.”)  Or, more often than not, I’ll be so compelled by the scene that I’ll skip exposition and narrow in on the dialogue (during these moments I feel like I, the writer, am simply trying to keep up with the characters).  When I hand-write the scene the second time, I focus on filling in these moments and playing with my sentences.  The second hand writing is important because it doesn’t allow me to become impatient.  I have to take the moment slow.  By the time I type the scene, I’ve found that I can type quickly, ironing out the language and punctuation but usually able to leave the scene in tact.

FINALLY:

What are you waiting for?  Set your timers (for 13 minutes!) and go!

______________

Information about the Number 13 were taken from “Number 13: The Legends, Myths, and Facts”.  Click the link to learn more.

Shameless Plug? or Inspiration?

Hopefully a little of both…

Before you dig in too deep with your Writer’s March goals, I’m going to suggest starting with writing about why you write

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference as a graduate student intern–the last time I will be able to do that since I’ve now graduated. At The Conference I signed up for Seattle-based writer Priscilla Long‘s week-long class, “The Art of the Sentence, the Art of the Paragraph.” (PS there are still spots left in Priscilla’s class for the summer 2013 Conference)

Two great things were sparked by in-class writing exercises: one, an essay that while it has not yet found a home (rejected by 6 of the 12 journals I’ve sent it to) was a finalist for the A Room Of Her Own Orlando Prize for creative non fiction and two, the I WRITE BECAUSE project.

In class, Priscilla had us write to the prompt, “I write because….” Twelve of us sat around the table and furiously wrote for 12 minutes. What amazed me was the commonality, that 12 people from different walks of life, different life histories, living in different parts of the country, at different ages, could connect on so many of the basics about why we are driven to do this writing thing. And how many of us like the sound of pencil on paper.

Maybe more importantly the exercise reminded me of why I’m doing this thing that is so often seemingly unrewarding.

Goals are good. Measurable goals even better. But understanding the why: why is it important to you, what is your mission, what part of your soul does attaining this goal feed? those are the things that will keep you going.

(and for a twist, if you’re curious, I wrote tongue-in-cheek “Why I DON’T write” post.)

And so, I invite you all to read about the exercise, then set your timer and go!

PS: did you know that you can get these blog posts delivered as emails right into your inbox.. on the sidebar you’ll see a tab that says “Write with us!” and you enter your email and we’ll send you prompts and inspiration every day throughout March.

 

Day 6: Here’s to Disgust

DSCN3357Yesterday, as I was washing dishes, I ran the sponge over the final cutting board and Randi and I caught of whiff of something foul.  We looked at each other.  “Did you smell that?” I asked.  We checked behind us (beware floating clouds of filth!).  We checked our shoes.  I even went so far as to smell–discreetly–my own armpits.  We narrowed in on the sponge at the same time, bending over the sink, our nostrils flared and sniffing.

Once, when I worked in a Berkeley retail store, someone thought it was a good idea to set mouse traps in ignored corners of the building–the back of the photo lab, along the balcony, amidst the scores and scores of refrigerator-sized boxes of Croc Shoes and Gaiaim yoga mats.  The traps were then forgotten until one day the scent of decay wafted over the ventilation system.

The sponge smelled like that.  Randi and I both reared back, the same wrinkled noses and gagging tongues.  Our reaction was so synchronized, it felt premeditated.  I tossed the sponge in the trash, activated another, and immediately rewashed the entire dripping stack.

In “The Strange Politics of Disgust,” David Pizarro, a psychologist who studies the way emotions affect moral judgements, presents a handful of interesting findings about this basic human emotion, including the origins of disgust (as a survival skill) and the psychology of disgust (and how it ties into hate).  In the past, I’ve had a handful of writing prompts that revolve around fear.  This year, I thought why not turn our pens towards another powerful feeling?  And so, here are three writing prompts inspired by Pizarro’s talk:

Prompt #1: Feces, Urine, Vomit, and More

Speaking of disgust: why is it that dogs don't seem to be disgusted by things?

Speaking of disgust: why is it that dogs don’t seem to be disgusted by things?

On Facebook not so long ago, one of my friends and favorite writers, Lori Ostlund, posted the following update:

Each time I sit down to revise my novel, the thought comes to me: How much scatology is too much?

Well, Lori, I say let’s test that shit out.  And while we’re at it, here are some other disgust-inducing delectables to choose from (you can see images of some disgusting things in Pizarro’s talk below):

  • rotting flesh
  • blood
  • pus
  • body odor
  • urine
  • vomit

Got a dead scene that needs some spicing up?  In need of a striking image?  Ever wonder what might happen when a bowl of okra is left in a refrigerator to rot?  In your own lives, what do you find most disgusting and why?  Grab a pen.  Set your timers.  Go!

Prompt #2: Contamination

Another interesting Pizarro tidbit:

“One of the features of disgust is not just its universality and its strength but the way it works through association.  When one disgusting thing touches a clean thing, that clean thing becomes disgusting and not the other way around.”

Here, I’m reminded of my sponge and the load of not-so-freshly-cleaned dishes, but there are other ways to take this thought.  I once had a creepy neighbor who lived down the street.  Whenever I walked to the bus stop, I found myself cutting down other blocks simply to avoid his house.  I’ve heard stories of friends who will not place backpacks on top of beds because said backpack touched a multitude of dirty floors.  On a more global level, Pizarro points out the way disgust has been used to augment prejudices (one group avoiding another group of people and/or one group associating disgusting things with another group in order to spread feelings of disgust to the masses).

An official prompt:  Write a poem or a scene about a moment when something that was once pure became contaminated.  What was the event?  What was the contaminant?  What was the once pure thing?

Or, an alternative:  Write a scene in which someone or something is wrongfully labelled as “contaminated.”  How did this come to be?  How was it righted (if it was righted at all)?

Prompt #3: Stinky, Stinky, Stink

One of the main points in Pizarro’s talk dealt with the relationship between disgust and morality.  As his research has shown, when faced with something disgusting (like a foul odor) or even the thought of something unclean (like a reminder to wash one’s hands), people are more likely to find a certain act morally wrong. For this third and final writing prompt, why not see what happens when you put a bad smell in a room (or a poem). How might something malodorous exacerbate an already tense scene or moment?

Still don’t have enough?

Watch the talk for yourself.  It doesn’t have much to do with the act of writing, but clearly I got a lot out of it.  There’s much more information worth mining.

Day 5: Run Toward Confidence (The First of Several “Tuesdays with Nari”)

Yesterday I went on the longest run I’ve gone on for a while. (Using patchy to describe my exercise record for this past winter is optimistic at best.) It hurt. For the last two miles, I was out of energy and out of breath. I had to pause four times to rally my muscular and respiratory systems, each time imagining that my body was a story’s punk villain staring insolently at me as she raised her middle digits. When I got home, I sank down onto the carpeted stairs, chugged water, and felt pathetic. But also accomplished.

This is not me.

This is not me.

After enjoying a snack–which I’d like to say consisted of exquisitely balanced portions of carbs and protein, but was really a Trader Joe’s cinnamon roll slathered with cream cheese frosting–I embarked on the next item on my agenda: three hours of writing. 

I love what my friend Sam wrote about seeing writing as play, as enchantment. But for whatever reason, yesterday’s writing session was for my attention span what the run was for my body–hard work. I’ve been revising a personal essay that’s almost finished, but it’s not there yet. Sentences need to become cleaner and sharper. Sections need to be swapped around for maximum potency. I thought this final drafting process would be easy, but it’s not. And yesterday I had to summon all remaining willpower to keep at it for those three hours. As the minutes ticked by, distractions continued to appear: The couch wasn’t comfortable. The air felt too cold, then too warm. I was thirsty. I satisfied each need as it arose, determined not to let it eclipse my productivity. Although the going was slow, I got through the three hours, at the end feeling mentally hyperventilated. But, again, accomplished.

My point here is not that I’m awesome (though my back is always available for patting–that is, unless you’re creepy). My point is that on the days when writing feels like work, that’s okay. Adjust the thermostat. Kick your roommate/partner/spouse/cat out of the comfiest chair and claim it. Just keep writing.

Recently I read Stephen Koch’s fantastic book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, and there’s no other book about writing that I’d recommend more. The chapters travel through the writing process, from inception to the final draft. Chapter two, “The Writing Life,” is about becoming a writer by living as a writer. Koch says that any talent a writer has “will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a . . . vocation. Call it dumb persistence. Call it passion. Call it a fire in the belly or the madness of art. It is less the ability to write than the insistence upon writing.” I freely admit that I’m not obsessed with writing. I’m not the crazy wordaholic who sees scribbling in a notebook as her bread and water. At least not now. For me, writing is a choice–in the case of this Writer’s March, a daily choice. And today, day five, I can’t say that my writing is that much more brilliant, but I do feel like more of a writer. After all, as Koch points out, “Productivity is the only path to confidence. . . . Since writing is what generates inspiration–and not the reverse–abundant writing produces abundant inspiration.” So when you don’t feel the enchantment, write your way toward confidence. If you produce writing, you’re a writer.

Or, to speak for myself, the more I write, the more I know I’m a writer.

This is not me either.

This is not me either.

Exercises (No Actual Running Required)

In the spirit of generating writerly confidence, feel welcome to try one (or more) of the following:

  • Pick a phase of your life (high school, for example) and write about how your spent the bulk of your free time. What did you love to do? What images and moments can you recall involving this activity?
  • Write about something that you’ve produced (infuse that last word with whatever meaning you wish).
  • Write a scene that shows you practicing something (an instrument, a sport, a concept like compassion).

Day 4: Unicorns…why not?

When we talk about writing, we often talk about work.  I can hardly think about my novel without ordering myself to “get to work.”  We even use the word “work” to refer to the novel or the poem itself: as in, “Here is a sample of my best work.”  We “work” the prose (and sometimes over-work it), share our “work,” “work” on our stories and, when we are feeling uninspired, we “work” through it.  There are also a handful of writing tidbits that utilize the work metaphor.  Here’s a handful:

      • Writing is 1% inspiration and 99% work (or some variation on this theme)
      • Your job as a writer is to show up
      • Writing is work
      • Since writing is work, you should dress for the occasion

This sign sits by a jungle gym more elaborate than any jungle gym I've ever seen (and so elaborate I couldn't get a decent picture)

Sometimes, however, I wonder if we think of writing too much as “work” and forget about other words…like “play” and “joy” and “wonder”  These words aren’t associated with  words like “I have to” (as in “I have to go to work”) or “I don’t want to” (as in “I don’t want to go to work”).

And so, friends, on this Monday, instead of work, let’s think about enchantment.  My computer’s dictionary reminds that “enchantment” is “to fill (someone) with delight” and isn’t that a better way to approach our writing?  To let the project both “fill us” and “delight” us.  I think of enchantment, and I think of child-like wonder and awe.  I think of magic.  I think of being put under a spell or a charm.  I think of being charmed.  While I often resist going to work, I always want to be enchanted.

When I was nine or ten, I wrote a story about a girl who met a unicorn. She fell asleep against the moss of a tree and slept without dreaming. In the margins, my teacher had written, “why not have her dream of more unicorns?”  I still remember the scene I wrote: unicorns playing in the clouds.  Tumbling about in the stars.  And–dare I say it?–baby unicorns were also involved.

If I wrote that scene today, I would be embarrassed by it. I might have lead the same young girl into the forest, and she might have imagined meeting a unicorn, but no way would I have actually written a unicorn in.  Furthermore, if I had read my teacher’s comments, I would have thought, ‘this is so contrived.’ I would have thought, ‘dreams are messier than that.’  I would have thought, ‘of course there wouldn’t be unicorns.’  And then I wouldn’t have had the joy in writing that scene (which i still remember 20 years later–why is that?)

And so, here’s a suggestion for today, an exercise in play aimed at reminding ourselves of past enchantments. The general idea was taken from a Ted Talk given by Young-ha Kim (that I posted about on the 20th of February):

A sideways view of swings

Take a simple theme. Here are a handful to choose from:

  • Your favorite childhood memory
  • Your favorite childhood toy
  • Saturday mornings
  • Your favorite game
  • Playground politics

Set a timer for 30-45 minutes and then, “write like crazy.” This part is important. As Young-ha Kim insists, we need write fast and furious to keep the devil from filling us with doubt.  “Art,” Kim insists, “is about going a little nuts.”

When I think about work, I think about that thing I have to do when I’m not at home writing. And so when I am at home writing, why not let writing be something better than work. Why not let ourselves go a little crazy? Why not let it bring us joy? Why not tap into our sense of wonder and awe? Why not write about unicorns?

Day 2: The Power of 15 Minutes

Whenever Randi and I go anywhere together, I find myself waiting. “I’ll be right there,” she says and then she struggles with her contact lens, searches the house for her wallet, decides it is a good time to re-organize our shoes. Meanwhile, I’ve already got my coat on; my bag is slung over one shoulder; if we are taking the dog for a walk, she is pulling the leash taut. I wait against the door frame; the dog sits at the bottom of the steps; Randi readies herself. Five. Ten. Fifteen minutes pass.

ABQ Central Bus

ABQ Central Bus

Here are a some other times, I find myself with fifteen minutes:

  • while waiting for the bus
  • while waiting for a class to start
  • while waiting for the doctor
  • while waiting for my food to be ready (at a restaurant)
  • while waiting for my alarm to sound in the morning so I can pry myself out of bed

Here are the things I usually do to kill fifteen minutes

  • check my email
  • check my facebook account
  • hit the snooze button
  • check the weather
  • stand in the doorway and ask Randi if there is something I can do to help

Here is what I could have been doing instead:

  • writing

Productivity experts talk about “the Power of Fifteen Minutes” all the time. As Neen James, one expert, points out: “People go wrong because they get overwhelmed. They think things will take longer than they do, and so they procrastinate. Procrastination key? Fifteen minutes.” Her overall point: stop making excuses. In fifteen minutes, one can accomplish a lot. So:

  • Get to the coffee shop fifteen minutes early
  • Wake up fifteen minutes earlier
  • Go to bed fifteen minutes later
  • Carry your notebook with you everywhere
  • Eliminate waiting
  • Stop thinking there isn’t enough time.

Here on Day 2, with the rest of the month before us, I think it is important to keep in mind the 15 minute rule. May there be more people with pens at bus stops.

DSCN4242

A Fifteen Minute Writing Exercise (that could go longer, of course)

This one comes from fellow challenger Chris Strickling, and it’s a beautifully simple writing prompt:

Write about a powerful memory.

As Chris says, “We started with that in the theater work I did for 12 years with disabled adults. Just that simple prompt started the creative flow that would take us all the way to performance.”

_______

Got an exercise to share?

A minor note: Last night’s post took me upwards of 3 hours. Today, Randi said that in honor of the day’s post, this one should fall within the 15 minute mark. Other than uploading photographs and last minute edits, I made it right under the wire…