One of my favorite images on Instagram is one that reads, being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Because, it is, isn’t it? This is not necessarily a bad thing. I was always the nerd kid that loved homework and writing reports. But it can be a tiring thing. Because from the moment I wake up, I’m thinking, when am I going to write? I should be writing. Why aren’t I writing?
Most of the time, taking time off from writing is not an option, because it is such a compulsion. And those feelings tend to extend to all the related things I do as well. Since I’m always trying to find more time to write, I’m usually playing catch up with client work, writing blog posts and newsletters, into the weekend.
But all that is about to change.
I’m having surgery in three days and I am bound and determined to take time off. For real time off. I’ll write in my journal or on my novel if I feel so compelled, and I have a couple long manuscripts to read, but beyond that, I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to relax and heal and read and do some drawing, knit and watch a whole lot of TV. (For starters, I plan to watch Outlander from the beginning.)
I’m not going to worry about blog posts or social media or anything along those lines—unless I want to. Which may or may not happen. I will most likely return to writing newsletters post haste, but don’t expect anything from me next Sunday. That will be four days post-surgery, so nope, nada. (Yes, I could easily set a newsletter up, as I did when I was in France, but for some reason that doesn’t feel right. If I’m taking time off, I need to really take time off.)
It will be interesting to see how this works out for me. I’m not good at taking time off, so we will see how long my grand plans last! But I truly do want to use this time to ponder and be open to new ideas, to think about where I want to put my precious time and energy from here on out.
I’ll end with a quote I just found in my journal: writing is my companion and I have a hard time letting it go. So at the very least, I will likely be journaling throughout these days to come! But we shall see.
An email came into my inbox this week with the subject Deep Inner Magic. Being a sucker for such things, I clicked. It was a promo for a webinar that didn’t interest me much, but the phrase stuck with me.
As I pondered why, I realized it’s because deep inner magic is what I believe happens to all the best story characters. The characters I love to read about in novels transform themselves in some way. They are alchemists—transmuting metaphorical base metal into gold.
We readers experience that transformation with them. There’s a tension in watching a character transform. The wise reader often knows exactly what the character needs to do, but it takes the character much longer to figure it out, since they are the ones doing the transforming. That tension sustains attention, and when a reader’s attention is sustained, the reader is much more likely to share the emotions of the main character. (All this is according to Psychology Today.)
And—wait for it—if the reader shares deep emotion with the character, they are more likely to mimic that emotion later in their own lives. Which is why reading truly is transformational, baby. And, I submit—why writing is transformational as well. Because I believe that we writers transform as we write our characters’ transformations as well. As the ancients used to say, as above, so below. Transformation in one area of life is always echoed in another. And if that isn’t deep inner magic, I don’t know what is.
But how do we make this magic happen?
You’ve heard it a million times before, but I’ll repeat it. Give your characters something they desire desperately—and then make it really difficult for them to get it. This is the simplest of story-writing advice, and putting it into practice is incredibly hard.
I think this is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, most of us have been trained not to go after what we want with everything we’ve got. And so we settle. We settle for a good enough life, a good enough marriage, a good enough career. But the characters we love to read about don’t settle. They go after what they want with a vengeance. And get pushed down, knocked about, and pressed to the ground in the process. Because so many of us don’t have experience doing that, it is hard to write about.
And second, we don’t like to torture our characters. I don’t know about you, but I fall in love with my characters, all of them, even the despicable ones. And then I want to make their lives easy and simple and sweet. However, sigh, easy and simple and sweet does not create deep inner magic. Or any kind of magic.
So, give your characters a fierce desire and huge obstacles to achieving it and watch the magic happen in your character, your reader, and yourself.
Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson. This novel is the star of my October reading. I’ve heard how marvelous it is for years, but only just now got around to reading it. Ursula Todd is born, then dies, and is born again. Throughout the book you read her different lives. I don’t know how Atkinson made it work, but she did. Not a quick read, but worth it.
Nantucket Wedding, by Nancy Thayer. I’ve been reading Thayer’s books since I was a young woman with small children, an eon ago, and she is still at it. She’s traditionally been one of my favorites but I’m finding this one predictable and a bit boring. Yet still, I persist.
10% Happier, by Dan Harris. After an on-air panic attack, the he ABC News anchor started searching for answers to his anxiety. He writes a funny and engaging book about his journey through self-help. Ultimately, he lands on, wait for it, meditation. So of course he’s near and dear to my heart!
Make Something Good Today by Erin and Ben Napier. In one of my free writes I had an idea for a story about a couple similar to this one and then I saw this book at the library, so I brought it home. The book exists for no other reason than that this cute couple has a TV show.
Oscar’s Oasis, Justin Time Go, The Cat in the Hat, Story Bots, and many more kids shows. Please don’t make me do a run-down of each of them for you.
Don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already. I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.
I have it. You do too. But the funny thing is, most of the time I look at you and think you don’t have it. And you most likely look at me and feel the same.
But every human being on the planet, except for maybe Queen Elizabeth or Elon Musk or Gwyneth Paltrow, has it. And it is a scourge.
It is the scourge of not-enoughness.
It manifests in many different ways. Such as, my writing is not enough, my talent is not enough, my body is not enough, my brain is not enough. I’m not smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, famous enough. I don’t have enough money time or talent. There’s not enough, not enough, not enough.
Name your favorite not-enough scourge and someone else shares it. Which is scant comfort when you’re trying to deal with your own not-enough crap.
But deal with it you must. Because otherwise it will eat holes inside you that turn into yawning black chasms of depression, disgust and all the other dire emotions. And you won’t get a lick of writing done.
Myriad are the ways in which we can battle our not-enoughness. Like meditating, exercising, eating right, reading a lot (but not the internet and definitely not social media), doing all the things we know are good for us and doing them regularly.
But the best way I know to battle not-enoughness is to write.
I feel enough when I’m doing my writing, period. Whether it is terrible (as first drafts are), or wonderful, whether the words flow like magic from a wand or they stay stubbornly locked inside me until I force them out, I feel enough when I have written something. Anything. I may go back to not-enoughness when I finish, but for the brief shining moments when I’m writing I can keep it at bay.
And then everything is enough. It is not only enough, the world is brimming with life and energy and vitality and good cheer and hopefulness and I am in love with it.
So that’s the best reason I can think of to pick up your pen.
This has been a crazy week. Besides the usual round of appointments and teaching commitments (which I love), my daughter had hand surgery after slicing a tendon and a couple of nerves in her thumb. Thus, I’ve been tending small children even more than usual. I know, you’ve probably had a crazy week, too. And even if you haven’t, there’s the constant onslaught of news to contend with.
It’s enough to make you run screaming and vow you’ll never write another work again. (Or paint another picture. Or plant another garden. Or knit another stitch.) Because who can write when life events are making you feel so very un-creative? So distracted and un-focused?
It’s so easy to go into overwhelm and decide it’s just too hard to write. Sure, you have a few minutes here and there to put pen to paper, but what’s the point? What difference do a few paltry minutes make? And so you don’t do it and then you just give up. You forget who you are at your core, and who you want to be, and you just go along the path of least resistance.
But I submit to you that taking those few precious minutes—or longer—is what will save you. And maybe the world, too. Because it is your writing that will ground you and center you and remind you of who you are through the darkest of times.
I adore my grandchildren beyond all reason, but this week as I changed diapers and made mac and cheese and picked up toys and coaxed a three-year-old to take a nap (which went about as well as you might expect), I forgot my creative self. Which I believe is my true self.
Except I picked up my pen and wrote for fifteen minutes every day. And then I remembered. That simple practice brought me back to myself and made it infinitely easier to hobble down the block after a toddler on the loose. And, make no mistake about it, writing is a practice, one that gets easier with every fifteen-minute spring you devote to it. A practice that makes it easier to commit to how you want to show up in the world, whether you observe from the safety of your office or go march to express your opinions. A practice that may some day bloom into a finished novel or memoir or garden or painting or sweater. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. The sheer act of doing it is what’s important. Because that is what will steady you for whatever comes your way.
So no matter what is going on in your life, please don’t give up on your creative practice. You need to, I need you to, and the world does, too.
Sometimes at night I sit in front of the TV and I don’t have the energy to watch anything more than a thirty-minute sitcom, or a singing reality show, which I can digest in small bites and turn off when I get bored. Because the mental effort of engaging with a longer story takes too much effort.
Watching a story takes effort.
Sometimes I get in bed at night and read one page before my book falls out of my hands and clatters to the floor. It’s not even that I don’t like the book—it’s just that I’m tired and want to go to sleep.
Reading a story takes effort.
Sometimes I don’t think I have it in me to write. It is so much easier to consume words rather than create them myself. So off I go to wander aimlessly around the internet, which mostly involves sort-of, kind-of word consuming.
Writing a story takes effort.
Here’s the moral: anything to do with story takes effort. Studies show that you use more of your brain when listening to a story, and I surmise that the same holds true for reading a story and writing one as well. The more tension in a story, the more you’ll pay attention, the more you pay attention, the more you’ll feel the emotion of the characters in the story, and the more you feel the emotion, the more likely you’ll be to mimic the behavior of the characters in the story afterwards. Which kind of goes to show why everything to do with story takes such effort. It’s almost as if we’re living it ourselves as we watch, read, or write a story.
Because story changes us. Never forget that you wield that power as you write. I don’t know about you but knowing that motivates me to write. It motivates me to open the computer on days I don’t feel like it, to spend the time it takes to get a story onto the page. To make the effort. Because I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability to change a person’s life with the words you write. Can you?
And so, truly, story is worth the effort.
Here’s a related prompt for you:
The story begins when….
(Remember, just use the prompt as a starting point. And you don’t have to take it literally.)
And if you would like to study story through the lens of the five senses, consider coming to Astoria, Oregon, for a winter workshop! We’ll be offering a week-long writing workshop in fun, funky and eclectic Astoria, Oregon, the first week in February. Great seafood, fun shops, a week devoted to writing and writerly camaraderie. We’re so excited, and we’ve already had several sign-ups. Space is limited, so check it out soon! You can read all about it here.
If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that not all techniques work for every writer. Not only that, but what works for one writer one time may not work the next time. The system you use to write your novel the first time out just doesn’t fit the next time out. The way you wrote your article, following a template you thought you’d always use, suddenly doesn’t work. Or any of a million variations on those themes.
And yet, if you’re anything like me, you might keep trying to do things the old, tried and true way. Because it worked once, so why shouldn’t it work again? (Because the muse is a mysterious and fickle creature, that’s why, but we forget this.) And you may also be as resistant to change as I am. But recently I’ve had an experience that is earth-shattering in its importance.
Ready for it?
I’m no longer exclusively writing my novel chronologically.
Let’s back up a bit. I’ve called myself a plotter (one who plans ahead) for years, but I’ve come to realize that I’m really more of a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of her pants). I like a loose outline so I have an idea where I’m going, but if I get too technical, I’ll get bored. Be that as it may, I’ve been a strict chronological writer with every novel I’ve written. I tell myself it’s because one scene has to flow naturally from another. I need to know what’s come before so I can figure out what to write in the future. Right?
But two classes I’ve taken are changing that. The first class I took last spring, and it was called Write Better Faster by R.L.Syme (highly recommended). The class takes the approach that we are all different (duh) so accordingly, different writing processes will work differently for each of us. I learned a lot from that class but my two biggest takeaways are that A. I am an external processor (which is why I like to talk out loud to myself) and B. I learn and create from the middle. Pantsers, unite! I really am one of you! And I can finally say goodbye to slavishly trying to fit my scenes into a precise order dictated by some structure expert who has probably never written a novel in his life.
Class #2 I’m in the middle of, and it is called the Devoted Writer, taught by Cynthia Morris. Cynthia emphasizes fun things like free writing (set a timer, and write without stopping) and mind mapping (a right-brained style of outlining), both of which I’ve used to varying degrees of success. But, I’m telling you, I have now drunk the Kool-aid big time. I’m a convert. I’m using mind mapping and free writing for everything I write, including this newsletter.
As I was working on my novel the other day, an idea for a new scene popped into my head. I duly made notes about it, as I do, but the feeling I needed to work on it would not go away. “But it’s not in order,” I cried. “Tough,” I answered back. “Do it anyway.” And so, I did. You might have felt the thunder rumbling and the earth shaking, so big a departure this was for me. It feels very freeing, and also a little scary. Lighting out for new territory!
So I’m starting to take a look at all the ways I do things, and try to keep myself open to new techniques and styles. And, by the way, doing the free writing is fast becoming a foundational practice for me. It feels like a way to keep me connected to myself and my writing in 15 simple minutes a day. And make no mistake about it, most of what I write in my free writes is crap, plain and simple. It’s the process that is so mind blowing and illuminating.
(I wrote a blog post that tells more about free writing at the start of the week. Check it out here.)
So please do tell—have you made any changes in the way you approach your writing lately? Leave a comment and tell me. I’d love to hear about it. I’m open to more new ideas!
As you might have guessed, I am home from France. Jet lag has not been terrible this time. We got home Tuesday evening and as I write this on Friday, I’m feeling pretty good. Which gives me time to dig into all the things that got put on hold while I was gone. And, boy, do things pile up.
I’ve got a ton of recommendations this month because I had a lot of time to read and also many confined hours on long flights in which to watch movies (which I’m usually bad at). But I did want to write a brief recap of the trip and encourage you to think about coming with next year. So here goes.
We landed in Paris on the last day of the month and spent an afternoon wandering about the neighborhood near the Gare De Lyon, which was surprisingly appealing. Also, getting a good dose of daylight helps with jet lag. After a pretty good night’s sleep, it was on to Perpignan via the fast train, which is comfy and relaxing. Dali called the Perpignan train station the center of the world, and while that seems a bit excessive, the city is growing on me. We stayed in the historic center, full of twisty streets and fun shops and a divine place to eat, Restaurant Le St. Jean. (In case you ever find yourself there, it is right next to the Cathedral St. Jean and you actually eat in a courtyard right next to the church.)
The next day it was on to Collioure, our location for the next three weeks. That included two weeks of writing workshops and one week of leisure in between. There is something so special about sinking into one place for an extended period of time. Even though I was working two weeks out of three, it is infinitely relaxing. On workshop weeks, we meet every morning from 9:30 to 12:30 (except on Sundays and Wednesdays, which are market days, so we meet at 10 in order to give everyone time to wander the stalls). Our teaching is a combination of mini-lectures on writing, discussion of assigned books (see below), writing exercises and prompts, and discussion of the assignments everyone has completed the night before. You may think that people don’t make much progress on their writing when billeted in paradise, but the opposite is actually true. Every year we see writers make huge leaps in their works in progress, get re-inspired, and write more than they thought they would—all while enjoying the hiking, shopping, eating and drinking of the region.
But three weeks does fly by—and last Saturday it was back to Paris, this time to stay in a lovely Airbnb in Montparnasse , my favorite neighborhood in the city. It rained like a mofo on Sunday afternoon but once the rain cleared, everyone emerged, and we were able to celebrate the hub’s birthday at a fun restaurant. The next day we played tourist and went to the top of the Arch de Triomphe (there was an elevator, thank god—my poor hip couldn’t have done the stairs). And then, sadly, the next day it was time to leave.
But leaving is made easier by knowing I’ll be back next year. And even more than that, by knowing that my family awaited me back home. Along with good friends, my own comfy bed, my crazy fat cats, the even crazier family dog, and good plans for the fall—not to mention crisp autumn days. (Temps in Collioure were in the mid-80s, but the humidity was very, very high and the mosquitos were killer.)
So that’s my story about leaving and coming home. Oh, while there, I read over my novel one last time and fixed a couple inconsistencies. My agent is submitting it even as we speak I write. And I made some good progress on my next book. So, there was that, too.
We should now be back to regular weekly programming here. So, I’ll see you next week—but please do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve been up to. And see below for the links to September reading and watching, as well as a new feature, a weekly prompt or two!
We had such fun using prompts at the writing workshops in France, I thought I’d start a new series and give you a prompt thematically linked to the love letter’s topic each week. Here is this week’s effort:
Write about a time you hated leaving. Now write about a time you couldn’t wait to leave.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This was one of the books we assigned in our France workshops (the other being Educated, by Tara Westover, which I highly recommend). I had decidedly mixed feelings about this novel and can’t help but feel it is over-rated. We did have lively discussions about it, though!
Pardonable Lies, the third Maisie Dobbs mystery, by Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up #10 or #11, not sure which, of this series and liked it so much I’m reading them from the beginning.
The French Exit, by Patrick DeWitt. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Portland writer, so I won’t. But I will say this book was just not my cup of tea.
Two books by J.A. Jance, both in the Ali Reynolds series. A friend finished Deadly Stakesin Collioure and gave it to me to read. I enjoyed it, so I downloaded the first in the series, Edge of Evil. I’ll definitely read more.
Slain in Schiaparelli, the third Joanna Hayworth vintage clothing mystery, by my friend Angela Sanders. I love everything she writes, her capers and her kite mysteries written under the name Clover Tate, as well.
A Wrinkle in Time. This was my favorite book growing up—my sister and I read it a million times. But the movie was terrible, awful, wretched. I hated it.
The Post. Conversely, I loved this one. It tells the story of the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers, and how that turned the paper into the national publication it is today, as well as changing Katharine Graham from a D.C. socialite into a powerhouse publisher. Highly recommended.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Mr. Rogers documentary. Proof that Fred really was as nice as he appeared on TV. Wonderful.
Book Club. Pure fun. Loved it. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton. So good.
While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have suggestions on how to use lists in your writing. Please do make me happy and write while I’m gone!
Make lists! The best way to do this is to do it fast. Number a page from one to ten or twenty and go!
Drawing from your own life
1. Jobs you’ve had
6. Pet peeves
9. Favorite authors and their themes
11. Places you’ve lived or visited.
13. Your daily routine
14. Family members
15. Pets you’ve had
16. Names of streets you’ve lived on.
17. Items of clothing you’ve loved
18. Cars you’ve owned
20. Dreams you remember
21. Favorite movies, their themes
22. Favorite phrases, where did they come from?
23. Your most-used cliches
Now take a look at your lists. Do you see any themes emerging? Do all your passions and obsessions coalesce around one main idea with offshoots? Can you start to write about items on your list? For instance, under places you’ve lived, write what you like and don’t like about them. Start to cross-pollinate. If you want to write a piece of fiction, you could transpose your daily routine onto living in a different place.
What would your current life be like in a totally new environment? Even changing none of the details of your daily routine, in a new place it would be different. If you moved to a small mountain town in the winter, for instance, suddenly you’d have to build in time every morning to shovel the snow away from your car. Of if you moved to LA from a smaller city, the morning commute would be much different. If you moved from LA to the country, you’d suddenly free up tons of time you used to spend in the car.
What if you crossed the authors on your list and imagined them writing about another author’s themes? What if a very macho male author wrote about domestic issues? What kind of story would result? For non-fiction, what kind of essay could you write linking several contemporary authors and exploring their themes in terms of a current social issue?
Drawing from the World:
1. Places you’d love to go
2. Political issues that make you crazy
3. Social problems you’d like to solve
4. Politicians you love
5. Politicians you hate
6. Celebrities you love
7. Celebrities you hate
8. TV shows you love/hate
1. What you’d buy with a million dollars
2. What you’d take on a round the world journey
3. What three items you’d want with you on a dessert island
4. What people from your life you’d want with you on that island
5. Would you rather be too hot or too cold?
6. Other deep questions from childhood (like #5)
7. The first three things you’d do if you ruled the world
You can think of numerous other ways to cross-pollinate from your lists, and you can also think of other things to add to it. Write new ideas for lists as they occur to you. Keep going back to the lists and use them as the basis of a journal entry or a free-write. The thing about ideas is once you start cultivating them, they come fast and furious.
Do you find making lists helpful in your writing? Leave a comment!
In a phone call with one of my beloved clients this week, we discussed stories and how sometimes you have to grab the while they are white hot in your mind, and how sometimes you have to let them rest. I firmly believe that every story has its own time to be told. If a story isn’t ready to go out into the world, it’ll block you. And fight you until you either wrestle it to submission or set it aside.
Don’t feel guilty about the stories you set aside. (I have many of them.) They’ll come back around again when the time is right, either in your brain, or the world. Or maybe their essence will turn up in your novel, or the short story that just popped into your brain.
One of my favorite characters of all time is a sixty-year-old self-help writer named Earl Wilson. He started out in one of the stories that lies moldering on my computer but then leapt into being as I wrote The Bonne Chance Bakery. His books make an appearance in the novel I just sent to my agent. And I have an idea for a short story featuring him. That first story he appeared in wasn’t his, apparently. And sometimes you just have to go with weird stuff like this. No matter how hard we study them, stories are mysterious creatures.
So, don’t stress if your story isn’t quite working out. Maybe it is time to set it aside and trust that its time will come. And don’t ever, ever, throw anything away. Nothing is wasted in writing. You never know where that bit you deleted out of your WIP will appear again. Treat every element of your stories with respect and they’ll show you were they belong. Don’t take it all so seriously. Stories lie deep within you and sometimes it takes a while for them to wriggle their way out.
I have new stories coming to me, I’m quite sure, as I embark on a month in France next week. A scheduling note: while I won’t be posting my usual love letters every week in September, I will be sending out a newsletter. I’m assembled writing exercises and story starters each week, so you can get a ton of writing done while I’m gone.
Things to note:
— My dear friend Terry Price and I are offering the second part of our Spark to Story workshop. Don’t worry if you missed the first one, this one will work fine for you! They are related, but separate. The workshop is November 2nd and 3rd. Please check out more here . Registration is open!
–Join the Facebook group. Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!
In ten days I’ll board a plane to Paris (well, I’ve got to get to L.A. first). And I’m excited. Through some great, amazing stroke of good luck, this will be my second trip to France this year. (The first one was for a writing retreat, and this time is to teach.) I think, because it’s been only five months since I was last there, I’m anticipating my return trip with even more excitement.
But I’m also madly scrambling around, trying to get things done. As one does. But even the mad scrambling is tinged with excitement and anticipation. And that has me thinking about anticipation—and its usefulness. Because anticipating something you’re looking forward to can be as pleasurable as the event itself.
“Anticipation alerts all of the pleasure centers in the body and says wake up, which can create happy feelings,” says Stacy Kaiser, Editor-at-Large of Live Happy magazine, and a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “A lot of times people are afraid to anticipate because they don’t want to be disappointed, but I think they’re missing out on learning and moments of joy. (I snitched this quote from an article in Spirituality and Health Magazine.)
So that’s cool but think also how this applies to our writing. First reading (which is an integral part of writing). Think how you anticipate when you read. What’s going to happen next? Will the main character accomplish her goal? How will he overcome the obstacles in front of him? Doesn’t it all give you a pleasurable thrill? In a really good book, the anticipation is so exciting you can barely turn the pages fast enough.
And you can use this very human trait in your writing. As a matter of fact, you should. Anticipating in writing is sometimes called suspense and even if you are not writing a mystery or a thriller, you should have it in your novel. You want your reader to be desperate to find out what happens next.
Easy for me to spout off about, but how do you accomplish this? One word: conflict. The more the better. I know you know this. So do I. But it is one thing to know it and another to make sure your writing has enough of it. We fall in love with our characters and don’t want to make them suffer. But do it! The more conflict you heap on them, the better—you’ll make your readers so full of anticipation they won’t be able to put your book down.
Leave a comment and tell me what you are anticipating!
And, speaking of France, we had a last-minute cancellation for the workshop in Collioure, so there’s an open spot! C’mon, live adventurously and join us! A week in France, devoted to camaraderie, hiking, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating delicious fish and bread and cheese and drinking wine? Plus a transformational writing experience? Yes, please.
And don’t forget to join the Facebook group. Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!