Creativity Corner #2: Find your idea

In the last installment, our Heroine found herself a writing class.

Being in a writing class boosted my self-confidence and gave me some self-imposed deadlines. And I met them: bringing in three or more pages of new writing for each class. I thought of these things as essays; they seemed too slight to be book chapters. I wasn’t yet sure I had a central idea. But I remembered enough of what I tell the writers who work with me that I decided it didn’t matter WHAT I wrote; it only mattered THAT I wrote.

So I plugged on, writing my essays. And then I got a nudge from a playwright I’d worked with briefly in college. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban émigrée, made unique contributions to the Greenwich Village theatre scene in the 1960s. She passed away several years ago, but this summer the City Center Encores Off-Center program did a concert staging of the one musical she contributed to—a bizarre and jaw-droppingly absurd thing called Promenade.

Irene wrote the lyrics and book (the script) and she did it in what seemed to me a miraculous fashion. She wrote the character names on index cards, one name per card, and then wrote various plot points, again one per card. Then she shuffled the cards and drew them at random: the results became the “plot” of the show—quotation marks because I recognize that not everyone would call it that.

By the time I’d left the theatre—or at least by the time I’d gotten home—I realized that this book I’d had in my head for so long didn’t have to be chronological. So what if it jumped around the decades like a rogue Tardis. Irene gave me permission to tell my story in any way I wished. The next day, I sat down at my computer with a completely different attitude: my first pages after that may have been tentative, but it wasn’t long before even I had to acknowledge I was writing a book.

Between that revelation in mid-July and the end of August, about six weeks later, my first draft had grown to over 60,000 words. I knew they wouldn’t all survive the revision process, but I was and am proud of my work.

I kept going, day after day, carefully monitoring any doubt that surfaced. “It’s not my job to judge this now,” I told my writing. “My job is just to write.”

And so by the beginning of September I was ready for the next stage.

Creativity Corner: What I’m learning about writing

I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, but I’ve rarely written for myself. I’m writing something for myself now, though, and I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m learning about writing.

I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for something I might write. I’ve actually written bits of it, but it never went anywhere because I lacked a few things:

  1. a deadline—I was just kicking these ideas around figuring that one day they’d gel. But “one day” is not a deadline, so I spent far more time not writing this material than I did writing it.
  2. belief—in myself, in the project. I fell into the Willits—”Will it mean anything to anyone, will anyone care?” The one Willit I did not entertain was “Will it sell?” because I knew I was only writing a first draft (when I was writing at all, that is) and first drafts are just for getting the material out of your head and into your computer.
  3. support—yes, I read a couple of pieces to a few people; they liked it. But I needed someone or a group of someones who could keep me accountable and nudge me forward.

I remembered the old saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And I realized that despite all my decades of writing for other people, I had no idea what I was doing in this new format. Well, I had some ideas. But not enough to shore up my belief in myself—I just needed someone more experienced to tell me I was on the right track. And support—yeah, that one made me laugh because I tell my writers all the time that sharing their work with other writers is the only way to get better, whether it’s with a writers’ group or a coach.

A coach. I needed a writing coach. And as if by magic an email floated into my in-box: my friend Nadia, a very fine writer, inviting people to join her private Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction class.

I committed to bringing new material to each class, even though I knew I’d probably only get a chance to share it every other week. I had a deadline.

Sharing did indeed help shore up my belief—in myself, in the material I was working on. The women in my class seemed eager to hear what I’d brought each week. We did a group reading in front of a small audience—the strangers liked my work, too. I began to believe that I do have a story to tell.

And support—I did learn one or two technical things about writing a memoir, and my classmates always offered sensitive, insightful comments about the pieces I brought in. But I think the most supportive thing for me was just to sit every week in a roomful of writers (yes, this class happened in the real world. Can you imagine it?) and have them accept me as one of their own.

That’s why I called the program I offered this summer “Permission to Write”—because I realized that everyone needs it. Even me.

I’ll post every week about the things I’m learning and doing as I write the book. Subscribe to this blog to be sure to catch every post.

Should I finish my work before I revise it?—Frequent Questions

Q: Should I finish my work before I revise it?
A: Oh my goodness—yes.

"Do a good job. Be vulnerable. Make things. Choose to be kind."—Lindy WestCreating requires you to let go of your self-criticism and just write. Revising is all about being self-critical—in as kind a way as you can manage. You can’t just switch a toggle and go from creator to reviser and back, not without losing momentum and mindset.

I’m currently writing a book—my first time writing for myself, instead of a client. Yes, I will occasionally spend 15 minutes sitting in a waiting room going over something I’ve written and adjusting a word here, a comma there. But I’m looking at the work through my eyes, not through the eyes of a reader. The reader can be a scary beast, wild-eyed and hypercritical. Once you start looking at your unfinished draft with hypercritical eyes, you’ll see so much wrong with it that you wonder if it’s worth continuing.

Of course there’s a lot wrong with your work—it’s a first draft! And we all know what Hemingway had to say about first drafts. Still, even if it is at this point, Hemingway-sh*tty, commit to finishing your draft. Then put it away for a while. And then revise.

This weekend I had to put together a sample of my book to support an application, carving out 10 pages from the tens of thousands of words I’ve already written. I spent part of one day and all of the next rewriting, revising, staring down every word and sentence to make sure it’s my best. No first draft can withstand that kind of criticism. And when I tried to put the sample away and get back to the work of writing, adding to the pile of words I’ve already created, I couldn’t do it. I had to step away from the computer and read, play with Fenway, clear my mind.

I’m back in writing mode now. But I’m annoyed that I lost so much writing time.

So finish your first draft. Don’t welcome the editor into your head until you’re done. You will thank me.

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And if you need some help to get started with writing, visit me at shywriters.com to see what I’ve got cooking for you.

An unwelcome voice — when distractions get in your head

"You want to write, but who in the world would want to read it?" That unwelcome voice again.Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.

My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.

My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.

Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:

  1. I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
  2. I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
  3. I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.

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I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.

Writer’s Burnout—it’s really real

Regular readers know I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. But I recently passed through a stage that made no sense to me. And I just came across a blog in which another writer named it:

Writer’s Burnout

writer's burnout is realThat’s exactly what I went through. I wrote—I mean, writing’s what pays the mortgage around here; I had to write. Also, my writing streak: 15 minutes every day for over 950 days. That’s at least 237.5 hours of writing, just for myself. Clearly I loved writing.

But then I didn’t. I still wrote well enough, but it brought my zero joy. I resented every word I wrote—for my clients and for myself.

And when your main source of joy morphs into an ocean of resentment—well, it’s scary.

I realized I was burned out. It’s happened once before, over 10 years ago, and I swore I’d never let it happen again. But I had no idea until I read this blog that I wasn’t just burned out as a worker, I was burned out as a writer.

Writer’s burnout is looking at the page, hating the page, and questioning your entire identity as a writer, all for an extended period of time.—Kellie McGann

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my long writing streak ended during my burnout. Fortunately, I picked it back up the next day—and that’s one of McGann’s prescriptions: Whatever you do, keep writing. The voices in your head may tell you you need a break from the keyboard. But step away and you might never return. Find something light to write about, something silly that will make you laugh. Write limericks or doggerel—intentionally bad verse.

Like any burnout, Writer’s Burnout sucks. But keep writing and eventually you’ll remember how writing feeds you. And not just literally.

The world needs your voice.

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Now through April 16th, 2019 I’m offering “Practically Free Writing Coaching.” Feeling burned out? Let’s talk about it. Feeling stuck? Need some objective feedback? Book your time now; use it through May 31st.

Frequent Questions: How do you deal with an idea drought?

Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.

rain. not an idea droughtIt’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.

But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.

Same with writers and our ideas.

Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)

Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.

So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.

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Now through April 16th, 2019 only: I’m offering “Practically Free Coaching.” Get some support for your writing challenges.

Fear & Flight—a writer’s perspective

EDIT: I wrote this post before I finished the book. I won’t do that again! Halfway through, I ran into some racist language. Yes, perhaps it’s standard for the period in which he wrote, but there’s no reason to recommend it today. Still, this piece makes some good points for writers, so I’m not going to take it down.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Many of us read his gorgeous writing as children—he wrote The Little Prince. But Wind, Sand & Stars is not a fable, it’s a 1929 memoir of his youth as an air-mail pilot, flying the mails from France to Africa, or across the sea to South America—back before radar could show you that mountain you needed to steer around, back when you had to radio an airport to flash its lights three times so you could see where to land. Not an easy job.

cover of Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars

I’ve seen several sources cite Wind, Sand and Stars as one of those must-read books for any writer, and not even a quarter of the way through it, I have to agree. Here he’s talking about the reactions when his colleague Mermoz radioed that he was cutting off an engine. Ten minutes went by with no contact:

“It would be ridiculous to worry over someone ten minutes late in our day-to-day existence, but in the air-mail service ten minutes can be pregnant with meaning. At the heart of this dead slice of time an unknown event is locked up. Insignificant, it may be; a mishap, possibly: whatever it is, the event has taken place. Fate has pronounced a decision from which there is no appeal. An iron hand has guided a crew into a sea-landing that may have been safe and may have been disastrous. And long hours must go by before the decision of the gods is made known to those who wait.”

English translation by Lewis Galantière

Before this passage, Saint-Exupéry treated us to detailed descriptions of the many times Mermoz had escaped certain death: he’d been captured and held for ransom by an African tribe; forced down in the Atlantic and rescued by a passing freighter; stranded for two days on a 12,000-foot high mesa in the Andes. Surely this would turn into another of those triumphant stories.

“But the hands of the clock were going round and little by little it began to grow late. Slowly the truth was borne in upon us that our comrades would never return, that they were sleeping in that South Atlantic whose skies they had so often ploughed. Mermoz had done his job and slipped away to rest, like a gleaner who, having carefully bound his sheaf, lies down in the fields to sleep.”

How can a few dozen words make you care so much about someone you’ve never met? But I feel the loss of Mermoz, don’t you?

And actually, it’s Mermoz more than Saint-Exupéry who inspired me to write today. He braved the skies and risked his life every day. On more than one occasion, he came close to death—yet he continued to fly until death overtook him. He flew because he loved it.

Fear & writing

Mermoz’s story reminded me of Agnes, a woman I worked with for a bit. Faced with an unplanned career transition, she decided she wanted to be a writer. Yet she didn’t write.

I suggested that she enroll in my writing class, but she believed she couldn’t afford it. Instead, she opted for a program that offered analyses of great pieces of writing—more an intellectual how-to than a hands-on DO IT. And even though she received a writing prompt every other week through that program, she never posted any work. Strange for someone who claims to want to write professionally, eh?

When we talked, she rationalized all the busy-ness of her life that prevented her from sitting down to write. Yet she continued to say she wanted to be a writer. Who was going to win that battle—Agnes or her fear? So I made her an offer: she should take two weeks to write something—anything—and show it to me and I would give her a free coaching session to discuss it.

Ten days later she told me she couldn’t do it. Agnes, like Mermoz, was lost.

The difference that is by facing his fears, Mermoz was able to pursue his passion. Agnes succumbed to her fear without even trying. The other difference, of course, is that writing is a much safer endeavor than flying a 1920s-era airplane. Paper cuts and maybe carpal tunnel are pretty much the worst you can do—and neither of those will force you down in the South Atlantic.

Mermoz died doing what he loved; Agnes wouldn’t even allow herself to try.

Which one are you?

“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.

Overdrawn at the word-bank

scrabble tiles - overdrawn at the word-bank

I love my job, I love my life; I love writing. When I write my daily list of things I’m grateful for, writing/creativity sometimes even bumps Fenway from the top spot. (Don’t tell her.)

But for the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project for a client who passed the draft along to a Higher Authority. And the Higher Authority suggested rewrites. When I turned in the second draft, I thought I’d get at least a month’s respite. But Higher Authority turned around comments in two days, requesting an entirely new draft in a month—over the holidays. I limped to the finish line about 10 days ago, putting the last period on the third top-to-bottom rewrite. And I was done. Not just done with the project, but done with writing. I never wanted to see a computer—or even a crayon—again.

I knew it would pass. It had to; I’m a writer with bills to pay. But I was overdrawn at the word-bank. Nothing left to say. This wasn’t Writer’s Block—longtime readers know I’d believe in Bigfoot sooner than Writer’s Block. It was Writer’s Overload, I guess; too many words in too short a time.

A couple of days off followed by a week with the flu (apparently the Universe found my plan for two days off insufficient) and I’m almost back to normal. Well, I’m writing.

Okay, to be perfectly honest I never stopped writing. I had my daily 15 minutes to do. Usually that’s no more arduous for me than making a cup of tea, but the Project That Would Not End moved my 15 into the category of chore. Then burden—I think that’s around the time I let my 953-day writing streak slip away from me. After I turned in the last round, though, it had moved from burden to existential torture. Still I wrote (51 days as of today—I’ll be back in triple-digits before the new baseball season starts, though it’ll take several more seasons to get me back where I was).

What could I have done? I could have used my 15 to do fun writing projects—silly poems. A haiku about a ridiculous subject—pickles? It’s one of the funniest words in the English language; I should have written an Ode to a Pickle. I could have taken Fenway for a long walk and talked to her about what we were seeing—then scribbled it all down when I got back to my desk.

Many famous writers have made big bucks talking about the pain of putting words on paper. I don’t want to add to the pile of writing about how horrible Writing is—that’s as much bullshit as Bigfoot. Writing has always been a joy to me, and always given me joy. Don’t use my experience of Writers’ Overload to feed your excuses about why you Just Can’t Write. But be prepared, because it might happen to you. Even in the midst of an unforgiving project, turn to your list of reasons writing gives you joy. And write something joyful. (Then rest!)