Creativity Corner #4: Fear and Stasis

I haven’t made much progress with my revisions. Oh, I’ve been writing every day, nibbling around the edges. I’ve written several new openings for the book—think I may have finally settled on one I can live with, at least for now. And I separated out 20-ish pages for a retreat application and another seven or eight to submit for publication. That may seem like progress to you, but to me it seems like stasis—or perhaps like treading water. A lot of energy expended, but you’re not going anywhere.

The most consequential comment my writing coach gave me was that I should restructure the piece. Her reasoning seemed sound, so I committed to doing it. A month later, I haven’t even started. First, I told myself that to make a change that large would require that rarest of rarities in a writer’s life: Uninterrupted Time. Not only that, but the Uninterrupted Time should probably take place somewhere other than my house. I’ve had my eye on some chic, Scandinavian-type trailer “cottages”—one step away from camping. Now I’ve mentally added Money to the things preventing me from doing this work.

Eventually, I caught on to my self-sabotage. I set aside a weekend—not an entirely uninterrupted weekend (I wouldn’t have those until baseball season ends), but a weekend nevertheless. I would devote myself to the manuscript. Maybe after that massage I rescheduled for Saturday. What happened? Well, my house finally got cleaned.

No, something else happened too: I realized that one of the things keeping me from restructuring the manuscript is fear. (I mean, duh. But when you’re in the middle of the fear, it’s rarely that obvious.) Although my coach offered sound reasons for restructuring the piece, I’m afraid she may be wrong. But Fear overplayed its hand on Sunday morning when it told me that reordering the manuscript would “ruin” it. Ruin? Like I’m not smart enough to make a digital copy before I start cutting it up?

So I’ve started the manuscript, because

1) she may be right.

2) she may be wrong, but I don’t know how else to structure it. Maybe pulling the piece apart will help me put it back together in a more compelling way.

I’m doing the work sitting at my very own desk in my very own house. While I started with a great swath of time on Sunday, I’ll continue in whatever bits of free time I have. Fear is a shifty, sly thing, but I’m going to win in the end.

DIY Writing — How’s that going for you?

DIY — do-it-yourself. Is that the way you learn best? Me too.

I’ve been a DIY learner pretty much my whole life. One day when I was a toddler, I heard one of my mother’s teacher friends talking about my education. She mentioned the time—still some years off—when I would learn to count by twos.

“I can already count by twos!” I announced indignantly. And indeed I could. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but once she named the skill I recognized the game I’d made up with my grandmother’s playing cards.

DIY
Hardanger altar cloth by me, photo by Nina Nicholson

Many years later, I bought something that looked like a counted cross-stitch pattern book and was working through one of the pieces when I encountered a stitch I couldn’t figure out. I went back to the store for advice and the proprietor said, “Oh, that’s probably in the beginners’ book.”

There’s a beginners’ book? I’d done it again—taken a skill that some people find impenetrable and taught it to myself.

For the record, it wasn’t counted cross-stitch; it’s a Norwegian craft called Hardanger. I made this altar cloth for my old church using the technique, which turns ordinary linen into something resembling lace. And, yep, I’ve still never had a lesson in my life.

DIY writing?

If you’re a DIY learner like I am, you may think that what you already know about writing is sufficient.

Well, is it?

Are you satisfied with the work you turn out, or do you secretly wish you could be a stronger, more consistent writer?

You don’t need the “beginners’ book.” You just need a nudge in the right direction. And maybe a dose or two of real-life inspiration from writers further along the path than you.

And because writing can so often slip to the bottom of the to-do list, maybe you’d like a reminder every now and then, a writing prompt to kickstart your creativity.

A DIY writing program

That’s exactly why I created Write Now—a 13-week-long DIY writing program. Every week you get a writing prompt. Use it or save it for the proverbial rainy day. Post your work to my private Facebook group—if you ask for feedback, you’ll get some thoughtful comments. If you don’t want feedback, say that and we’ll respect it. My group attracts some amazing people—whether they’ve worked with me through a course or three or a 5×15 writing challenge, they’ve all been where you are.

If you’re nervous about calling yourself a writer, there’s only one thing to do: Write. And if the “I’ll do it someday” approach hasn’t worked for you yet, Write Now may just be the extra (pardon the expression) prompt you need.

Register here and get your first prompt in minutes.

“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed recently. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if the food is “shockingly expensive,” though I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you often see in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed revision course costs nearly $900. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s not just a bunch of videos—you get actual, one-on-one coaching with me. Where are you going to find that for $59?

And my 12-week writing program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.” The people who start writing for fun often balk when it becomes actual work, as it sometimes must. When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, and to experience real change.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every pe…”—check out my Draft to DONE program.

I can’t promise you a puppy in your arms as you savor your avocado toast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and to show you how transform your writing from good to great.

Are you a skater, too?

I used to be a world-class skater.

revise

Not an ice skater — I’m far too uncoordinated for that. No, I skated on my writing assignments, handing in first drafts all through college.

And I got by. People even called me a good writer. I always translated that secretly as “good enough.” Because I suspected I could do better. But what if I was wrong? Better not to waste the energy trying to revise only to find out that “good enough” was really, truly, the best I could do.

I didn’t begin revising until I became a professional writer. My clients gave me notes about things they wanted to add or change; I incorporated them and started tweaking another word here, a phrase there. Then reordering paragraphs, changing the structure—revising. And I saw that “good enough” could become “good.” And even “great”—great enough to win awards.

Find your “great”

You know it’s true: second thoughts make a better first impression. Like me, you probably suspect you can do better the second (or even third) time. And you’re right.

So how do you learn the fine art of revision?

First, find yourself some clients. Make sure they’re picky and change their minds frequently. Then spend years chasing their approval as you try to teach yourself what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Or—and maybe this is easier—invest some time with me.

I’ve put together a program to help you discover how to enjoy revising—as your work gets better, right before your eyes. If you’re interested in getting more information, sign up here and you’ll be the first to know when I release it.

First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

William Finn’s Falsettos — Songs for a Sun…er, Friday

William Finn's Falsettos
By Source, Fair use, drawing by Keith Haring

My “Song for a Sunday” arrives two days early this week, thanks to the reminder I received that William Finn’s Falsettos airs on Live from Lincoln Center tonight—October 27th—at 9pm (check your local PBS listings).

It’s not actually a live performance—the show ended its limited run early this year—but it was recorded during a live performance. Which I suppose is close to the same thing.

I’ve embedded the “Sneak Peak!” they put together but I honestly don’t know what you’ll make of it. I’ve seen this material probably four times in total and if I didn’t know the plot, this mishmash of music wouldn’t do much to enlighten me. And not a note of one of the most beautiful ballads William Finn has ever written, “What More Can I Say?” (Alan Cumming does a gorgeous rendition of this on one of his albums).

William Finn’s Falsettos and the power of revision

Falsettos is actually two musicals, written nearly a decade apart—the final two sections of a trilogy about Marvin, a married man with a wife and child who discovers he’s gay.

The show that now comprises the first act of William Finn’s FalsettosMarch of the Falsettos—was the first show I saw in New York as a newly minted theatre major. A show about a gay man! Written by a gay man! Being staged in a real theatre! With a cast album, even. Okay, so what if the man and his lover had a rather pugilistic relationship. They were gay and onstage; the world seemed full of possibilities.

Nine years later, composer William Finn was back with a sequel, Falsettoland, that updated Marvin’s life in the age of AIDS. Marvin and his lover acquired a couple of lesbian friends (lesbians! onstage!). And while the show featured the aforementioned gorgeous ballad and a funny song about baseball, a show about the age of AIDS premiering in the midst of the age of AIDS…well, you’d do well to bring your Kleenex.

With a little judicious trimming, the two separate shows became one—first show, first act; second show, second act.

This 2016 production surprised me; Christian Borle’s Marvin is a bit of a narcissistic a-hole. Actually, more than a bit. Maybe I’d been blinded by the character’s gayness and just didn’t notice that back in the ’80s. Or maybe my tolerance for narcissistic a-holes has declined as I’ve gotten older, like my tolerance for wearing high heels.

It’s also possible they revised the book to make Marvin more of an antihero, though I can’t find any backup for that. While we’re on the subject of revision—since this is one thing I talk to my writers about a lot—please notice that if William Finn had said “Nope. March of the Falsettos is finished. I will not change a word or a note,” then Falsettos would never have existed.

Be open to new possibilities for your work. Try things out; you can always restore your work to the original form. (This is where art made of words has a distinct advantage over art made of things. Once you’ve sawed your painting in half, it’s hard to change your mind.)

Do watch Falsettos if you get a chance (I’ve set my DVR, since it conflicts with the World Series). And bring your Kleenex.


Check out my year-end retreat—two and a half days to focus on your story, improve your writing, and enjoy the community of a select group of women writers. Enrollment limited to six writers. Will you be one of them?

Judy Gitenstein’s Commandments — Guest Post

Judy GitensteinJudy Gitenstein has worked on staff at Dell Publishing, Random House, Avon Books and Bantam Books, and now independently with writers who want to get the inside scoop on the industry. She is a writing coach, editor . . . and secret weapon.

Especially this week, she’s my secret weapon. I’d asked her to guest back in August, when I went on vacation, but she wasn’t able to fit it into her busy schedule. But—hallelujah!—her blog arrived at exactly the right time: when my doctor ordered me to bed for two days. Thank you, Judy Gitenstein!

 

Commandment 3 (of my ten commandments of writing and publishing): Do what works for you

by Judy Gitenstein

When I was growing up, I liked to figure out people’s names backward. Mine was Yduj Nietsnetig, and sounded like “E-dudge Ni-etz-netig.” Other kids played with their food; I played with words. Go figure. As an editor I’m in the right business.

So, thank you, Eniale, for offering this guest slot on your blog.

I started in publishing before anyone was called a writing coach and now I find I am one. It’s what I’ve always done, just with a new title. Writing coaches nowadays freely share their process by which you can—pick one—write/deliver your essay/book/memoir/speech. By following 3/5/10 steps during a weekend/week-long workshop/boot camp or six/eight/ten webinars, you can finish your essay/book/memoir/speech in record time.

There’s only one problem.

You’re learning someone else’s process. Workshop and boot camp leaders are teaching you what works for them. It may work for you while you’re taking the course because you’re being helped through the process. Their process. But it won’t work when you’re on your own.

Find your process

So, the very most important thing I can tell you, Elaine’s readers, is to find what works for you. Figure out, try out, and refine your process, whatever it is, no matter how weird it may seem. It’s the quirkiness, the “you-ness” that distinguishes you from other writers. This is what I tell my clients all the time.

Yes, take the course. Learn someone else’s process. Then create your own.

The next time you have to write something, do what you normally do and simply notice your inclinations. Do you think first or write first? Do you write a little every day or write it all in one sitting? Do you spill out a draft or craft each sentence as you go? Do you work in the morning or in the middle of the night?

There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works for you.

My process

I write best under deadline, real or self-imposed, and I pretty much write best in crisis mode, with fear as my motivator.

There are those who get a certain amount done every day. If something’s on their calendar, they do it and check it off. I’m not one of those people and I realized only recently that I’ll never be one of those people. In fact, I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to follow my natural pattern. I kind of like immersing myself in what I’m doing so that I can take walks, ponder, fiddle, nap, and get down to work, often in the middle of the night. I isolate myself so I can focus. I love the feeling of swimming upstream while I’m working and I love the feeling of joining the world again when I’m done.

I have on my wall a New Yorker cartoon of a king looking out over a parapet in the middle of the night. The caption is: “It’s nice when it’s quiet.”

What a relief it’s been to allow myself to be even more who I am, and in the process be even more productive and effective.

This method is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for anyone but me. As for you, figure out what you do, embrace it, refine it, and most of all remember it so that you don’t reinvent it every time you write.

What starts as the hardest, most insurmountable task can in a flash become the most wonderful, satisfying experience—so much so that you’ll quickly forget the excruciating part when you sit down to write again. Find something for your wall that reminds you of that while you’re struggling with the tough part of your process.

What’s your process?

What’s the thing you do that seems the most useful but that might also be counterintuitive, simple or just downright funny? Share it with us in the comments.

And please visit judygitenstein.com. I’m working on all ten of my commandments of writing and publishing (each one in the middle of the night, of course) and am eager to share them with you. Join my mailing list to read them all. And please note: by making this promise to you I’m creating a crisis whereby I now have to write them. My crisis, my process. My way.


Write better when you write daily. My next 5-day writing challenge kicks off on September 18th.

Draft Z — the nightmare of endless revisions

New clients are often surprised when they open up my first draft and find “DRAFT A” at the top. Don’t people usually number their drafts? Show me a numbered draft and I’ll show you a writer who’s never had to do endless revisions.

endless revisions make a writer unhappyI switched over to letters early on in my career, when I had a client who got me to Draft 23, or perhaps beyond. They were paying me well for the privilege of being picky (or indecisive), so I couldn’t complain. But I did celebrate when the project ended.

That’s when I decided I needed a more opaque draft-identifying system. Letters.

Yes, I could figure out that Draft W was actually Draft 23 in disguise. But that would take effort, and in the midst of revision that was effort I was unlikely to expend.

My numbering system got a bit more baroque when I worked in-house for a bit. My boss was a serial reviser and we also sent multiple revisions to the external clients. I needed to identify the drafts that had managed to escape—er, that the external folks had reviewed. So it became letters for external review, numbers for internal. Thus Draft B3—the third in-house revision of the second draft the external client would receive.

Did I say endless revisions? The external clients would approve before we got too far into the alphabet, but the internal numbers routinely broke two digits. You’d better believe I celebrated when I escaped that situation.

Endless revisions — the search for perfection

Look, I understand the constant search for “better”—my own personal writing projects can hit Draft L before I push them out of the nest. Fortunately that’s just a letter, not a Roman numeral.

But sometimes revisions make things worse.

So how do you know when to stop?

In the beginning, the best practice is just do to it. Stop. A lot. Stop after each draft and let the piece rest—overnight if you can; for 15 minutes if that’s all you’ve got. Heck, take a five minute walk around the office. That’s enough to refresh your perspective a little. Maybe enough to recognize that the piece is good.

Good. You can live with “good.” Good is better than average, better than most of the stuff out in the world. Good is good enough to ship.

Once you’ve sent “good” out into the world and the sky hasn’t fallen, it’s easier to do it a second time. And a third. And you’re on your way to stopping the cycle of endless revision.

Which is also good. And feels better every time.


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How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do you know if something is a bad idea?
A: Have you tried asking it?

bad ideaSome days I think the definition of a bad idea must be any idea that originated in my head. I’ll bet you’ve had days like that too. Especially if you’re a writer.

But my answer above isn’t 100% snark. If the idea that seemed so promising when you wrote it down last night (last week, last year) seems somewhere between clichéd and imbecilic today—well, it might be. You could be seeing it clearly and objectively for the first time. Or maybe the moment of clarity happened when you created the idea, and you’ve just stopped trusting yourself in the interim.

So take that idea out for a spin. Spend 15 minutes writing about it. Outfit it with the best words you know how to create. Then wait. Close the file or put the papers in a drawer overnight. Look at it again in the morning. That old idea just might surprise you.

The way-ay-ting is the hardest part

Please notice that sentence in the previous paragraph—two words right about in the middle:

Then wait.

Whether you start with a bad idea or good idea, do not judge your first draft immediately after writing it.

That’s one of the key principles I talk about when I teach revision techniques. And even though my writers have heard me say it a million times, they still succumb to temptation.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who judges your work harshly—yes, I’m talking to you, Dear Writer-Who-Thinks-All-Your-Ideas-are-Bad—you need to get some distance from your work before you make any decisions about it.

You need to trust your instincts, but if your instincts tell you to trash every idea you come up with, you might need to recalibrate. Find a trusted friend, a teacher, someone whose writing you admire, and run the idea by them. Chances are, you’ll have a glint of a good idea in there somewhere. Just keep looking for it, as objectively as possible.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Valuable stuff — permission to write

“Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.”

valuable stuffThat’s what Anne Lamott says in her great book on writing Bird by Bird. And I wouldn’t dream of arguing with her.

I’m in the “naive enough” stage with a personal project I’m working on. Every time my fingers hit the keyboard I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter whether anyone will want to read it. It matters even less whether anyone will want to buy it. What matters is that I give myself permission to write.

That doesn’t quite rise to the level of believing that what I’m “thinking and feeling is valuable”—but it’s good enough to make words appear on my screen. And that’s my goal right now.

Don’t let the noise mask the valuable stuff

Lamott again:

“The discouraging voices will hound you—”This is all piffle,” they will say, and they may be right. What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”

And so I write. Every damn day. Because some of what falls out of my fingers onto the screen may turn out to be valuable stuff.

Which is the valuable stuff and which is the crap?

That’s for sorting out another day—when the discouraging voices take their coffee break. Try to revise when the discouraging voices are on duty and you’ll end up throwing it all into the trash. Which I know writers don’t really do anymore—all we have to do is drag an icon into the trash bin icon. But that’s hardly satisfying.

No, when the discouraging voices shout their loudest you’ll be ready to print out the whole draft for the sheer joy of chucking it into the real-life trash bin just to hear the satisfying CLUNK.

But it’s not, you know. It’s not all crap. There’s some valuable stuff in there, and you’ll see it once you’ve given yourself some distance. So step away from the computer. And breathe.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.