“…until it starts writing itself”—the mystery of creativity

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself in your head.”

"you never know what you'll write until it starts writing itself"Today’s wisdom comes from erstwhile sheep farmer and president of my alma mater, the elegant writer Jill Ker Conway. If you have not read her memoir The Road from Coorain, rocket it to the top of your reading list right this very minute. As a matter of fact, I think it’s time to buy the iBooks edition for myself and read it again.

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself…” This may sound like balderdash, especially to Type A types who never write a word until you’ve got an outline almost as detailed as a finished book. And it’s true, many successful writers make rigorous outlines. I’ll be blogging later this week about novelist Ken Follett, an inveterate outliner.

There’s nothing wrong with being prepared, but suppose the passage you’ve planned for Section 10 really wants to be the opening of the piece?

Leave some room for inspiration so when you get the idea, you can run with it. At least for a while. Unless you’re writing on a very tight deadline, what could it hurt?

“Writing itself” works in all genres

I heard writer MB Caschetta read from her short story collection a couple of days ago. She said that as she was writing one story she noticed that all of the female characters were named after her brothers. That’s what she said, they “were named”—not “I named them.” Even though she did—I mean, she wrote them into existence; who else would have named them?

Caschetta said she had no idea why the characters were named after her brothers,

“But I knew enough not to change it.”

She just kept writing and eventually she recognized what her subconscious had been doing.

Trust your instinct—whether you’re writing fiction like MB Caschetta or nonfiction like Jill Ker Conway. If it doesn’t work—so what else is new? Not everything we write works; that’s part of the drill. But if it does work, well, your work may be writing itself something magical. Something you wouldn’t have had if you stuck to the plan.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Daily writing practice —consistency breeds success

Some people practice yoga. Other people practice their golf swing. Me, I practice writing. Every day for the last 511 days (as of yesterday). That’s what you call a daily writing practice.

Why is a daily writing practice important? Two reasons:

  1. Consistency and
  2. Consistency

First, consistency: a daily practice makes you better at whatever you’re doing—the old 10,000-hour rule. I’ve written about this a lot (here and here, among other places) so I won’t revisit the discussion.

The second point of consistency, though, is not for you. It’s for your audience. You might call that the Field of Dreams rule. And my friend Melissa Smith is a shining example.

Daily writing practice leads to 1400% more readers

daily writing practice
Daily writer Melissa Smith

Back in March, her blog had about 250 subscribers. She says she remembers the date well “because that’s when I was sure it couldn’t still be just family and friends.” Six months later—with zero marketing—she’s at 3600. That’s more than 1400% growth. With—did I mention?—zero marketing.

Melissa says:

“When people ask why I have been having success with my blog I tell them the single biggest reason is because I write and publish every, single, day. They would rather me give them magic answers, tips, tricks, and awesome SEO. It’s so much easier and so much harder for them as well.”

I added the emphasis there: Every. Single. Day. No, it’s not magic; just work.

If you show up, people will show up with you. Of course, then they’ll expect you to keep showing up. Meet their expectations and you’ll develop a relationship with your followers, sustained by your daily writing practice.

Melissa runs ThePVA.com—an excellent matchmaking service for VAs and employers like me—but it’s not her work blog that’s attracting so much attention. Melissa is documenting her year as a “Roamer,” a group of entrepreneurs settling in a new country every month. It’s not shiny travel porn, and that’s key to its success. Melissa is a real person writing about her real life. The homesickness. The joy of discovering new places, new pursuits. The friendships she’s forming. It’s like a one-woman Amazing Race.

I don’t know what Melissa plans to write about when her year of Roaming ends. But I do expect she’ll be writing. Once you’ve seen what a daily writing practice can do, there’s no going back. That’s why I hit Day 511 yesterday and why I’ll do all I can to make sure I hit 512 today.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Equity & shoes – a memorable metaphor

I learned a new term listening to Deray McKesson’s Pod Save the People today. And just when I was getting around to berating myself for not knowing it, actress Tracee Ellis Ross needed to be schooled in it too.

It’s “equity,” the latest term of art in inclusion. McKesson’s other guest, the mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, defined it memorably for me: “Equality is ‘everybody gets a pair of shoes’; equity means everybody gets shoes that fit.”

Yes indeed, equity is the way to go.

The mayor used another great analogy to explain how she describes equity to her white constituents who seem worried that life is a zero-sum game, that if I’m not winning then I’m losing, do I sure don’t want you to win. She said it’s like you’re in an elevator and another elevator passes you and you think you must be standing still but in reality your elevator is rising too. Well, or something like that.

I’m not sure how McKesson felt about the shoe metaphor. He was gracious but wary with the mayor—which is understandable, since her city just went on full high alert when the police shot a white woman; a significantly more proactive response than they’d had a few years ago when a black person got killed. Mayor Hodges said the response was different this time because of all she learned the last time. She seemed humble enough to me—owning her past mistakes. I thought she did a great job. But of course a podcast interview is a different thing than actually governing. 

But the metaphors—that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. Especially when you’re explaining a concept like racial inequity—a concept that might scare some listeners, or cause them to shut down. We need even those people to at least begin to understand what justice looks like, so shoes. Who doesn’t like talking about shoes?

Tick tick blah – when motivation flags 

“I’ve been writing for 456 days in a row,” I told my amazed 90-Day Challenge writers this morning. “And some days I wonder, is it really worth it?” Motivation flags sometimes; that’s life.

This is one of those days for me, as it happens. For the second time in four days I’m blogging on my iPhone while sitting in a theater waiting for a show to start. 

I could be doing lots of things. Like reading the program. Or, I don’t know, breathing. But I’m committed to 15 minutes a day and by God, that’s what I’m doing. (10 to go; I might even get them all in before the curtain.)

Intermission 

The thing about any commitment that takes longer to fulfill than, oh, 10 seconds, is that you’ll go through a period of wanting to give up. Seth Godin wrote a whole book about this; it’s called The Dip. And once you know about the dip, you know (or try to remember) that all you have to do to get out of it is keep moving forward.

My 15 minutes of writing have been happening later and later in the day. Not a good sign. O, predictably, when I sat down in my theatre seat near the end of another far-too-hectic day, I actually thought about not pulling out my phone and writing. I thought, 456 is a very respectable number. Why bother to keep going? 

And then I remembered the Dip. And Reader, well, you know the rest.

Motivation flags, commitment carries

Inspiration doesn’t arrive every morning, like the 7:08 train to the city. Actually, the 7:08 doesn’t arrive some mornings until 8:15 so maybe this is an imperfect metaphor. Or maybe not. Because even if the train doesn’t arrive, you still need to get to work. So you get in your car and drive. Or you call your boss and say you’ll be telecommuting that day. You do what you need to do to get the job done. That’s commitment. That’s what carries you through the Dip.

When motivation flags, let commitment carry you. See you on the other side of the Dip.

Writers understand

I hadn’t seen my friend Tina in probably a year. But after we hugged hello late Friday night, practically the first words out of my mouth were, “At some point before midnight, I need to write for 15 minutes.”

She said, “Absolutely! I have a poem to edit.”

And we sat in her living room on our respective laptops, putting off our gabfest until we’d done our work.

Did she mind? Not one bit. She’s a writer, too.

Writers understand.

I’ve been around plenty of people who didn’t. Every writer has at least one story about a friend or family member who wondered when they’d get a “real job.” And if they don’t think it’s real work, then they’re not going to respect your need to write instead of watching a TV show, or going to the 4th of July picnic. Or using every available moment to catch up with a dear old friend on a Friday night.

Tina and I caught up plenty that night. We pulled out our knitting and laughed and talked for hours. But first I wrote and Tina edited. We honored our commitment to ourselves, recognizing that we couldn’t be fully present to each other until we did.

They say you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. If at least one of your five isn’t a writer, you’re missing out. We know from commitment. And we’re damn funny, too.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.

What’s wrong with crazy? Frequent Questions

Q: What’s wrong with “crazy”?
A: This may seem like a crazy answer, but—it depends.

I recently blogged about Warren Buffett getting caught in a time warp with one of his folksy stories. Karma’s a bitch, because I got caught in the same time warp when I delivered my Writing Unbound class last week.

Looking for some good examples of passive verbs to edit, I came a blog post called “Why Adverbs Stink (and the Magic of Editing).” The writer, identified only as Henneke, offered this example:

“Henneke is a very crazy girl.”

Well, I guess she would know. I edited that down to:

She is a very crazy girl.

Then I walked my writers through the process of eliminating redundancy—the pronoun tells us the subject is female, so we can lose the word “girl.”

We looked at ways to translate “very crazy” into a more colorful adjective without the dead weight of “very” hung around its neck. Henneke had offered

“…is insane.
“…is loony.

And an analogy:

“…is nutty as a fruitcake.”

But if we eliminate the passive verb, we open ourselves up to a much richer vocabulary.

“She acts like a crazy person.”

The crazy thing about “crazy”

And so we arrived at the point of the lesson:

Passive verbs are to be avoided.
Avoid passive verbs.

About five minutes after class ended, one of my writers sent me a note reminding me that “crazy” is not just another adjective; it’s an adjective that has been used to label and stereotype people. It’s not the kind of word one should use casually, as I did.

Now I knew this. That’s the thing—I knew this! Only the night before I’d been listening to Devon Handy and Sarah Lerner discuss this on their Hellbent podcast. They have routinely closed their show with a “Gratitude & Sanity Check”—a way of reminding us that even though many scary forces may be loose in our government, we continue to resist efforts to gaslight us. We still have things to be grateful for. Going forward, it’ll just be a Gratitude Check.

But even with that discussion fresh in my mind, I never thought twice about copying and pasting the sentence for my class. I apologized to my writer, saying I hadn’t intended to be able-ist. But she had another take on the situation: why, she wondered, is “craziness” so often ascribed to women?

In my case, I used a female example because I adapted it from a sentence I’d read in that blog. And the blog’s example was female because the blogger was talking about herself.

But my writer noted that Google’s definition of the word uses a female example when discussing mental illness and a male example for the part of the definition that connotes enthusiasm (“He’s crazy about her.”) Think the sexism of the tech industry doesn’t warp our perspective? Think again. Gender bias is so endemic we barely notice it. And I’m in the business of “noticing” words. Go figure.

Still one day this will change. We should probably just be more patient, right? After all, my writer notes:

“…it’s only been 116 years since the Victorian era ended…”


Want to avoid passive verbs? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

Pushing past your limits: on swimming and writing

“About 40 miles into the [120-mile-long] swim, I tore my right bicep,” the petite woman standing in front of the room said. You bet it hurt. “But,” she continued, “I realized I still had three other limbs: I could keep swimming.”

Last week, I complained a lot here on this blog. Well, maybe it wasn’t the worst complaining you’ve ever heard; let’s just say I was transparent about my frustration and exhaustion. While I was grateful for all the opportunities I had that required me to write, I’d been writing too much—I felt “overdrawn at the word-bank.”

Can one compare these two situations?

In the first corner, we have an athlete who’d trained for years, hour after hour of swimming laps. Not to mention nailing a swim across the English Channel on her first attempt. She was exhausted and sore, but she didn’t complain; she kept going.

In the other corner, we have the sedentary writer who’s written for years. She’d written every day for over 11 months (Day 343 yesterday!). She was exhausted and sore (a shoulder impingement; maybe a writing injury, though our heroine suspects knitting). She complained wrote transparently about her frustration. But she kept going.

I’m pretty confident that I am never going to swim across the English Channel or down the mighty Hudson River (that was Paige Christie‘s 120-mile swim). But I’m gonna cross the finish line of this writing every day for a year thing. And when I do, I’ll set my sights on year 2.

When the most athletic thing you ever do is watch baseball games, there’s something surreal about listening to endurance athletes tell their stories. But this feat of endurance writing I’m working on takes a similar kind of commitment and strength. No, I didn’t have to worry about being attacked by jellyfish (one of the perils for Channel swimmers) or keeping a hand-built boat from breaking apart in a hurricane (as Tori Murden McClure did in her first attempt at rowing solo across the Atlantic). But I have had to write through emotional storms raging in my personal life (don’t ask) and in our culture (I wrote on November 9th, just not with the same enthusiasm I had on the 8th).

And now my writers are three days into their 90-day commitment. So far everyone’s on track.

Flying, writing, and other thINGs – song for Sunday

Words that end with “-ing” often don’t provide the best bang for your writer’s buck.

Compare:

I am thinking about going to Ikea.
I might take a trip to Ikea.

When building something from a kit, checking for all the parts is essential.
If you plan to assemble Ikea furniture, first ensure that you have all the parts you’ll need.
[Not that I have any personal experience…]

Getting screws into the pre-drilled holes caused my fingers to start hurting.
Ow!
[Just kidding: My fingers ached when I tried to tighten the screws.]

Notice how getting rid of the “-ing” words makes the language more present. Sometimes it seems to me that “-ing” is like the velvet rope in front of a museum painting: it keeps us from getting too close. But unless you’re writing a standoffish character, you want to draw your listeners or readers close. They’re much more likely to remember what you have to say.

My favorite use of “-ing” words: The Roches

This video doesn’t replicate the full glory of the recording, which used the magic of stereophonic sound to have the “-ing” burst from alternating sides of the listening environment. But it’s still one of the most amusing songs about words I’ve ever heard. Enjoy!

Hmmm…Wordpress doesn’t seem to want me to embed the video. Until I can get that sorted out, here’s a link.

Sing – a Dresden Dolls song for a Sunday

“All the world’s history gradually dying of shock”

Yep, that sounds about right for a song this Sunday, the end of another week of unimaginable deeds committed in the name of my country. Or the beginning of a week filled with new unimaginable deeds, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person. But when you’re talking about a poisoned chalice, it hardly matters.

Sorry, I thought I’d gotten a handle on my political pessimism. Let’s blame it on the pain meds, shall we? I’m strictly over-the-counter from here on out.

But, “Sing” – this Dresden Dolls song, music and lyrics by Amanda Palmer. Neil Gaiman brought it to my attention in the final essay in his collection The View from the Cheap Seats. He called it “a plea to make art, whatever the hell else you do” and that sounded about right to me. 

But then there’s the music video, with people from the world’s vast history frozen as if statues. I kept waiting for the statues to come to life, for the music to reanimate them, but I guess the Dresden Dolls never take the easy road. 

And this 11-year-old song feels as fresh as today’s fresh hell: 

“There is this thing keeping everyone’s lungs and lips locked
It is called fear and it’s seeing a great renaissance

After the show you can not sing wherever you want

But for now let’s just pretend we’re all gonna get bombed

So sing.”

Yes: Sing.