Writing Events

Top Takeaways from the Writer’s Loft, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote part one in this series on things I learned at the Writer's Loft last weekend, and you can read that post right here.  In it, I talked about the presentations by Jimmy Carl Harris and Kory Wells.

Today it is time to turn attention to Richard Goodman's workshop, "5 Things to Learn About Writing in 90 Minutes."  (I also wrote about Richard's book in this blog post before I left Portland.) This was a great workshop that was really inspiring to me–as was his book.  Here are my top takeaways from it:

  1. "If you can focus, you can move the world."  Richard says that focus requires time alone and I tend to agree, though sometimes I can get in the zone writing when I'm in a crowded coffee shop.
  2. Always go for the exact meaning of the word you are using.  Richard talks a lot about finding le mot Juste, about checking the etymology of a word, and about looking up the definition of the word, even when you think you know it.  Because, you probably don't.  And the true definition can be a delightful surprise.
  3. To make yourself appealing as a narrator, share a fault.  (Some of the most entertaining pieces of the day came out of this exercise.)
  4. "At least 40% of really good writing is written by the reader."  Gotta admit, I'm still pondering this one. 
  5. Titles are under-rated.  They are where the book actually begins, how the essence of the book is communicated.
  6. The music of prose is the sound a writer makes on the page.

So, there you have it, good advice all.

Next up is a brief rundown of a talk by David Pierce.  Brief because he came at the end of the day and I was again, doing admin stuff.  However, it will be brief but powerful, I promise!

Top Takeaways from the Writer’s Loft, Part One

The Writer's Loft orientation weekend is over and here's a news flash for you:

I survived.

Actually, I thrived.

It was a wonderful, informative and inspiring weekend for writers, if a bit exhausting.  I've been laying somewhat low processing what I heard so that I can share it with you.   Turns out I heard a lot, and that was even with me missing some of the presentations while running around doing admin stuff.

So I'm doing the posts in three parts.  Here we go.


Jimmy Carl Harris started us off with a presentation on structure in short story.  Jimmy Carl is a former Marine, and great with structure.  But I didn't get to sit in much on this workshop, alas.  It was the start of the weekend, and Terry and I had things to do.  However, I do have one great takeaway quote for you:

"There are good stories.  There are safe stories.  There are no good safe stories."

Nifty, huh?  And very true, too.

After lunch, it was my turn.  I did a workshop on Writing Abundance: the Seven Practices of the Prolific and Prosperous Writer, which you can read more about on the Writing Abundance page.  At the Friday night reception, our wonderful student Alberta Tolbert graduated, yay! except we'll miss her.  Except we know she'll be around because all our loyal alumni come around as much as possible.  That night also, Kory Wells read her poetry, accompanied by her daughter Kelsey, who played the banjo.  Great show.  More about Kory in a minute.  Finally, Richard Goodman read from his book, French Dirt, and his soon-to-be-published New York Memoir.  More about him in the next post.

Saturday Morning

Okay, so here's the deal.  First thing Saturday morning, I did a Q and A with Richard Goodman about his books and writing.  It was awesome, and I mean that in the full sense of the word.  All I had to do was toss Richard the merest tidbit of a question and he was off and running.  Very inspiring.  I recorded the whole thing on my new digital voice recorder and planned to post it on this blog and also offer it to Richard for him to put on his website.

Alas, it was not to be.  You'll never in a million years guess why.

Because the dog ate my recorder.  Yes, indeed, it is true.  I'm housesitting at my home away from home, my dear friends' Sue and Walt's house and their newish dog, Gugi, a rescue from Emmylou Harris's pet rescue operation, ate my recorder.  She is such a sweetheart I couldn't even get mad at her.  I keep waiting for her to regurgitate some words of wisdom, but that hasn't happened yet.

So even though I don't have Richard on tape for you, I do have some nuggets from Kory Wells' talk on social media.  Kory is one of those rare birds who seems to be equally right-brained and left-brained.  She is at home in the techy world, which is where she works during the day, and an accomplished poet as well, with a fairly new volume of poems out called Heaven Was the Moon.  The perfect choice to demystify social media for writers.

Here are my takeaways:

  • You control the conversation online and you get to brand yourself.  Because of this, it is vital to pay attention to the profiles you set up on various social media, and the keywords you use.
  • Learn what people are saying about you online by signing up for Google alerts.  I used to do this; got tired of the volume of emails and un-signed up.   Let me make it clear that the volume of emails came from poorly defined search words rather than the fact that a lot of people are talking about me.  At any rate, yesterday I signed up again and it has already paid off.  I've discovered mentions of myself that I otherwise would not know about.
  • Find keywords to use to bring people to your site or blog by checking which words come up when you Google yourself.
  • Many connections can be made through "charming notes."  This is a concept Carolyn See promotes in her book, "Making a Literary Life."  She urges writers to write notes (notes, not emails) to people they admire.  Furthermore, she says to write one note a day.  Arrrhhgggg!  But I think we can pull this practice into the new decade and go for emails, don't you?  Kory told a story about how she found the artist for the cover of her book through a charming email.  So that works for me.

I'm currently trying to learn as much as possible about social media, and Kory's presentation was really helpful.

Tomorrow (or as soon as I have time to write another post) I'll cover tidbits from Richard Goodman's lecture, "5 Things to Learn About Writing in 90 Minutes."

The Writing Life: It’s Raining in Nashville

When it rains in Nashville, the heavens open in a biblical manner.  If you happen to be caught outside in it, you are soaked to the bone instantly.  Often the rain is accompanied by scary bursts of thunder and lightning.

Perhaps the thunder and lightning is scary to me because I experience it so rarely back home in Portland.  There, the rain is gentle yet persistent.  It is gentle enough that Portlanders scorn umbrellas and really, you can get along fine most rainy days without one. 

Not in Nashville. 

Yet I don't own an umbrella and it certainly never occurs to me to pack one, seeing as how I never use one in Portland.  And let me just say that my fall back position of all-purpose shawl held over my head is a lame attempt to shield myself from the rain.  And so I've been soaked several times now.

But Nashville has other delights and so I forgive it the rain this week.

I arrived last Friday afternoon to take part in Path and Pen, a spiritual writing conference.  What a great weekend.  I presented my Writing Abundance workshop on Saturday morning, and all of us had a blast.  Truly the reason the workshop went so well was because of my wonderful participants.  I got to spend quite a bit of time with the amazing Rabbi Rami Shapiro and also to attend the Greater Bethel AME church on Sunday morning, at the invitation of Kim Johnson, program director at Scarritt Bennett.  I made some good new friends, including fellow faculty members Kent Ira Groff and Dr Sybril Bennett.  Best of all, they've asked me to come back in December to be the writer in residence for Room to Write. What is Room to Write?  It is a two-day writing retreat.  All you have to do is show up and write.  Your room will be ready for you and all meals provided.  If you need advice or motivation or support, I'll be on hand to provide it.  Check it out, it's going to be wonderful.

I've been house-sitting in Nashville this week, spending time with friends, and putting the final touches on the fall orientation weekend at The Writer's Loft.  There's still time to join, either the full semester or the one-day workshops on Friday which are open to the public.  Join us for workshops from poet Bill Brown, CNF writer David Pierce, and fiction writer Terry Price.

Oh, and my friend from Portland, Mayanna is arriving tomorrow, as well as Linda Busby Parker from Alabama and Betsy Woods from Louisiana.  We're going to have a great time and learn lots about writing.

But in the meantime, I think its raining again….

All Modern Contest Continues

A quick note–I want to let everyone know that the All Modern contest, originally slated to end tomorrow, has been extended over the Labor Day Weekend.   My contact at the site is on vacation.  This is good news for him and good news for you as well, because it means more time for you to enter!

Entering is a no-brainer, there's no skill involved, you don't even have to write much.  All you have to do is post a comment on the original post, which you can access here.

The prize is an awesome desk accessory, which I myself covet (no big surprise since I chose it), a picture of which you can see on the contest post.

The winner will be chosen in a random drawing from all those who have posted a comment on the original contest post.

You don't even have to write anything brilliant, just say hi.  Or you can be brilliant if you prefer.  I do like brilliance.

Just remember that the comment has to go on the original post in order to count.

The Dream World

"Imagination is sacred and divine–I trust it implicitly."

So said Andre Dubus III at his Wordstock reading last weekend.  Dubus, best known for House of Sand and Fog, read from his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, which was inspired by the Florida sojourns of the 9-11 hijackers.  After he read from the book, Dubus talked about writing the book.  He quoted Flannery O'Connor, who said, "writing is waiting," to make the point that even when you are staring at the computer monitor, you are writing.  And then he ripped off this line: "You are summoning, almost like a prayer to an angel, the imagination to give you something."

After hearing that line, I was ready to go buy every book the man ever wrote.  He went on the say that if you summon the imagination regularly it will reward you with things to write about.  Someone in the audience asked him how difficult it was to get inside the head of one of the September 11 hijackers, and he told how he resisted and resisted it, that he had no interest in making one of them a viewpoint character.  But then the novel seemed to sputter and fall flat and he was in danger of losing it completely.  He realized that he had to make one of the hijackers a viewpoint character, so he sat and did nothing but read books about the Middle East for five months.

Dubus quoted Mike Nichols, saying that the charge of the storyteller is to share what it is really like to be in the midst of whatever is happening.  In character-driven fiction, you want to establish empathy for the characters, not sympathy.  As a writer, you do this to the point that there is no other.  What you do in writing is to go beyond knowledge of the other to totally be the other.

Interestingly, this is true in fiction, as well as in many other arenas of writing. When you write a press release, there's a certain tone and style that you emulate.  In a much more superficial way, you're becoming the other–the PR pro who knows what will grab attention.  A blog post sounds different than a web page and an article in a newspaper is dissimilar in tone to a piece in the New Yorker.   In each instance the trick for the writer is to figure out the trops and do them.  Be the other.

I was discussing this with Mary-Suzanne yesterday in terms of ghostwriting.  How does a writer get out of their own skin and into the skin of the person who is supposedly writing the book?  Here are some tips (which are applicable to every kind of writing imaginable):

1.  Get Over Yourself.  Clear the gunk out.  Do it however you like, but I think the best way is to write a bunch of crap down on paper.  Set a timer and write out all the petty judgments and grievances and even all the things that are making you happy.  (You may get some ideas along the way, though that is not the point of this.  As an added benefit, you may also improve your mental health along the way.

2.  Enter the Dream World.  Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, center yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself calm and zen and relaxed.  Listen to music if you need to. 

3.  Start to Observe.  Pull an image of the person you are melding with into your brain.  What do they look like, smell like, sound like, feel like?   Be aware that in making these observations you are still on the outside looking in.

4.  Become the Other.  Now, go a step farther and sink deeper into the character.  Instead of observing the character, imagine yourself actually going into her head.  What does the world look like from inside her viewpoint?  Where is she sitting?  What is the view outside her window?  What does she do when she first gets up in the morning?

5.  Trust Your Imagination.  Remember, as Dubus says, it is sacred and divine.    All you are really doing in this exercise is imagining life through another person's eyes.   And, honestly, what could be more important than bridging the gaps between us?

Top 5 Ways to Prepare for Nanowrimo

I'm not going to do Nanowrimo this year, because I need to focus on the final rewrite (yeah, right, how many times have I said that) of my current novel.  But I'm a huge fan of it and had a blast doing it several years ago, when I "won" by the way.

(In case you live on Mars, Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a project which encourages people all across the globe to write a "novel" of 50,000 words over the month of November.)

But since preparing for Nanowrimo is much like preparing to write any big project, I thought I'd post some tips.  Here we go:

1.  Set a page or word goal.  I figured to win Nanowrimo I would be safe if I wrote 2,000 words a day.  This allowed for acts of god and trips to LA, when I couldn't write every day.  If you aren't doing Nanowrimo,  you might want to set a page goal.  Three pages a day is good.  Doesn't sound like much but if you write three pages a day at the end of a month you have 90 pages, which is 1/3 of a novel. (God, this is such good advice, why don't I follow it?  Because it is much harder to set a specific page or word goal when you are rewriting–some changes are simple, some lead to many other changes forward and back.  Okay, I feel better.)

2.  Get it done first thing.  I like to get up first thing in the morning and write.  If I get going on the novel first, everything else falls into place.  If I decide to work on some other project, like those pesky ones that pay bills, I'll never get back to the novel.  When I did Nanowrimo, my deal with myself was that I couldn't go to bed until I had my word count done.   If I didn't finish in the morning, I had to keep going back to it until I did.  On the other hand, I know that there are people like my friend Tony who prefers to write from 8 PM to 1 AM. Huh.  A different opinion than mine, imagine that.

3.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.  C'mon, you've still got three days.  That's plenty of time.  Nanowrimo rules say you can do as much preparation as you want–as long as you don't write word one until November 1st.  Make lists of plot points, decide on character motivations, figure out what your characters want and what will stand in their way.  Choose locations and make notes about them.  Think about where your characters live and what they wear. What do they do on an ordinary day?  By preparing to write your novel in this way, you are also prepping your subconscious for what is to come–and trust me, those 2,000 words a day will come much easier.

4.  Tell family and friends to go jump in a lake.  No, perhaps it is a bit too cold for that, so tell them to take a hike.  Or rent every season of Friends, or the entire set of the Lord of the Rings and lock themselves in the TV room.  Or perhaps this is the time to tell your wife to finally read Anna Karenina.  The point is to (kindly) get rid of them.  Let them know you'll need time, space and energy to complete this goal that is important to you.

5.  Treat yourself well.  Now, and for the entire month of November.  Go easy on the alcohol (I hate that part) and eat healthy, natural whole foods. Exercise regularly.  My favorite exercise is pushing myself away from the computer desk.  Kidding.  I love to walk, and walking is excellent for pondering plot points.  Do all the things that you know will create energy for yourself.  You need to be alert and full of energy to write those 2000 words a day during November. 

Here's the bonus tip:  HAVE FUN.  Nanowrimo is a blast, and I love that it gets people writing and also connecting in Nanowrimo meetings.  So enjoy it.  And keep me posted on your progress.  Good luck!

How to Learn to Write

Reading as a Writer

Last night Terry Price and I hosted a dinner for the new students entering the Loft, and, big surprise, the conversation was all about writing.

One of the things that Terry talked about was how, in the past, some of his students would complain that they didn’t have time to read, that trying to write took such a big chunk of their time that there was no time left for reading.

This is a shame.

Actually, it is more than a shame.  It is a crime.  Because, honestly?  If you are a writer, you should be reading.  There’s just no two ways about it.  Reading the kinds of books that you want to write immerses you in the tropes and techniques and traditions of that genre, whether that genre is the novel, or the short story, or creative non-fiction.  The only way to figure out where you want to go is to look at where others have gone before you.

MFA programs, particularly brief-residency MFA programs, are based on this very idea, and emphasize the value of writers reading to learn how to write.  We emphasize the same thing in the Loft.

Words In, Words Out

I have this theory that, when I’m writing a lot, I need to replenish those words.  Just as when you exercise a lot, you need to drink a lot of water to replenish what you’ve lost through sweat, so too, with writing, you must restock your words.

Some writers will tell you that if they don’t like to read whatever it is they are writing for fear that reading will somehow influence them.  Um, of course its going to influence you, because that is why we read.

Because you know better than to plagiarize, you are not going to copy an author word for word.  You’re just going to absorb the way that author writes, note how he uses dialogue, study how she writes description.  In this way you learn techniques you can apply to your own writing.

No Time to Read?

You make time to watch TV, don’t you?  You make time to surf the internet.  When you stop to think about it, you can probably think of several time-suckers that you can rid your life of.  Throw your TV out the window.  Will you really miss it?  You’ll have more time to write that way, too.


I started thinking about this post last night, when we were all at dinner, talking about writing and reading.  And thought more about it this morning, because I’m going to have a phone meeting with my new student, Jillyn, who is wonderful not the least of which because she is from Portland.  And then I read Basic Ways to Improve Your Writing (its the April 21st entry, scroll down a little to find it) on the blog of the Mad Hermit and that was the final piece.  (By the way, the Mad Hermit is doing some really interesting things in terms of marrying the technology of the internet with literature–video reviews and video readings of poetry and classics.  Really cool.)

So go read.  And write some, too.

Pay It Forward: Birthday Celebration

In the wonderful way that synchronicity often happens, today is my blog’s first birthday and I won a contest.  What do the two have to do with each other?  Well, the contest involves paying it forward.  Because I won something, it is now my duty (and pleasure) to pass on a prize as well.  And since it is my blog’s birthday, it seemed fitting to combine the two.

But first, let me tell you about what I won and where I won it from.  One day I discovered Too Cute Pugs and spent quite a bit of time there because it is the diary of pugs Pearl and Daisy and full of wonderful pug photos and pug banners and all things pug.  Since I am of the firm opinion that the world would be a better place if pugs ran it, or at least if everyone on the planet owned a pug, I was entranced.

Pugmama (Okay, her name is Sue) at Too Cute Pugs was running a Pay it Forward contest and all you had to do to win this adorable tote bag that she had painted was to leave a comment.  Since I was planning to leave a comment for her anyway, this was a wonderful thing.  And guess what?  I won!

And now it is my charge to continue to pay it forward and offer prizes on my blog.  Since I have absolutely no talent for anything besides writing (well, knitting, but I never finish anything so I’m not going to offer a half-finished scarf) all of my prizes are word related. So, are you ready?  Here we go:

The first three people to leave comments on this post will receive:

1.  A one-half hour coaching session to kick-start you in your writing.   We can talk about frustrations, fears, lack of time, goals,  how to establish a regular writing practice, whatever your little heart desires. I love coaching and helping to get people back on track with their writing.


2.  A manuscript critique of up to 20 pages of writing.   I also love reading and critiquing.  Fair warning: I’m not offering line editing here, but more big-picture type stuff, with thoughts on story and character and so forth.

PLEASE NOTE: Due to a pressing deadline, I will not be fulfilling these prizes until after April 15th.  But then I’m all yours, baby.

So leave those comments for me and I’ll post the winners whenever I feel like it all the prizes have been claimed.

Photo from FreeFoto.com.

More About the Writer’s Loft

I wrote about my new gig as co-director of the Writer’s Loft in Tennessee on Friday, and I thought it would be good to post a bit more about it.  For the record, its a great writing program, and has proven to fill a need.  Say you are a busy professional who’s always had the writing bug but been forced to put it aside for those nagging little needs like career and children.  But now you’re ready to get back to it–except you really don’t have time to attend a class once a week. 

The Loft model works great in such situations, because it is focused one-on-one program that you can do anytime–at 6 in the morning when you awaken, late at night when everyone else is asleep, or in those stolen moment at lunch or on a coffee break.  It has also proven to be a great boon to people who want to apply for a MFA program but need to get their skills up.  Or maybe you just love to write and would like to have someone look at your work and advise you on it.  The Loft is a flexible program that suits a variety of needs. 

Here is some more information on it, and if you are interested, email me for info on when the next program begins and prices and all that. 

The Writer’s Loft

The Writer’s Loft is a low-residency certificate in creative writing program offered by the Department of Continuing Education at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.    The cornerstone of the Loft is the student-mentor relationship, which offers the writer the chance to engage in focused, critical study of his or her work.  The program also features a weekend orientation with lectures and panels, periodic tele-seminars, and other opportunities to build community among writers. 

Currently, a Writer’s Loft certificate can be earned in 18 months if each semester is taken sequentially or longer if the writer decides to take breaks.   It is also possible to sign up for the course on a semester by semester basis, and the aspiring writer who does not want or need to earn a certificate may find this option appealing.  While most of our students are in the mid-Tennessee area, we will also be starting a component to serve those in other regions of the country.

The mission of the Loft is to develop the student’s maximum skills, style, and voice as a writer in a supportive, encouraging, and open environment.  The goal is for the student to become the best writer that he or she can be at this point in his or her development.  To this end, the course of study is set through meetings between mentor and student, in which the student’s goals and current level of achievement are considered. 


The Writer’s Loft functions as a low-residency program.  What does this mean?  It is an increasingly popular style of teaching writing, with many MFA programs offering a low-residency option.  In a low-residency program, the student attends courses on location several times throughout the year and then returns home to complete the rest of the course assignments.  This works particularly well for writing, because the best possible way to learn writing is to spend as much time as possible writing.  Writers learn by writing, not by sitting in classrooms listening to people talk about writing.  Yet because writing is generally done alone, writers also crave community.  Low-residency programs address this need and also telescope writing instruction into one or more highly focused days. 

The Loft at a Glance

•Weekend Orientation with workshops, panels and other learning opportunities

•Focused one on one instruction

•Most course work completed at home on your own schedule

• Opportunity to be a part of a thriving writing community

Excellent News

Well, the meeting about the ghostwriting may have been a terrible debacle but I did get some excellent news yesterday.

The writing certificate program I teach at in Nashville (actually it is part of the Continuing Education Department at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro) has, of late, been….how shall I say this delicately….well, it has of late been the poor orphan child of the department.  As in, totally ignored.

However, my fellow mentor Terry Price and I have long cast covetous eyes on the program, thinking if only we could get our hands on it, we could build it back up and make it into the writing program it deserves to be.

Well, folks, the time has come for us to quit casting and start acting because as of today, Terry and I are now the new Program Directors of the Loft. 

This is all new and it is so new that we don’t even have a website to point you to.  More information will follow as it develops–I’ll be putting up a page on this site to let you know all the details.  What it means is that from now on, except for existing students and online classes to be developed in the future, all my teaching will be through the Loft. 

For those of you in the Nashville area, we’ll be holding orientations and other local events.  But there will be a component for people who reside elsewhere (after all, I live in Oregon) which may include teleseminars and so forth.  Or, you might want to just have the option of working one on one with a mentor, which is a powerful way to learn and the heart of the Loft program.  This can be done no matter where you live.

Additionally, I’m now going to start taking advantage of the fact that I am a certified coach and focus attention on coaching writers.   What’s the difference between coaching writers and mentoring them?  I’ll be writing much more about this on my new coaching writing website, but for now think of it this way: if you like to write but have a lot of questions about how to write, you probably need a writing mentor or a writing class.  If you’ve been through all the classes and know your stuff pretty well, but can’t seem to find a way to get yourself to write, you need a writing coach. 

As always, email me if you are interested.  There will be much more information on both the Loft and the coaching to come.