Found Time: 5 Tips to Find Time for Writing (and Reading)

You might be familiar with the term “found time,” which refers to time that unexpectedly opens up in our schedules–when a flight is delayed, when an appointment is canceled, when we miraculously finish the to-do’s on our list before we thought we would. Because one of the greatest obstacles to writing (and for me, to reading) seems to be finding time for it, it’s imperative that we A) find time and B) use found time to its fullest potential. While we’re all always incredibly busy, we might have more found time in our schedules than we realize, and we can use this time to support our literary lives, even with the rest of life seems to be getting in the way.

Make the Most of Mealtimes

If you find yourself eating a meal unaccompanied, write or read while you eat. You have to sit down and be still anyway–you can’t clean the house or go for a run while you eat–so it’s a great time to get out your laptop, journal, diary, or book and write or read. Plus, it makes you eat more slowly, which I’ve read is good for your health.

Be Prepared

In order to use found time, you have to be prepared to use found time. If time opens up in your day, but you don’t have the tools you need to use it (your book, pen, notebook, laptop–whatever), you’re going to be hard-pressed to be productive. For this reason, bring a notebook and writing utensil or your latest read with you everywhere. Then, when unexpected time arises, you can use it to write or read.

Use the Bathroom

Read or write when you use the bathroom. It might sound crass and it’s probably not hygienic, but it works. No one is going to bother you while you’re in there and, as with eating, you’re sitting down and being still, anyway. Take advantage of the time! What else are you gonna do with it (I mean, besides a No. 1 or a No. 2)?

Go to Bed

Or at least say you’re going to bed. Then, spend 15 to 30 minutes writing or reading before you turn out the lights for the night.

Keep a List Handy

For writing, make a list of topics, experiences, ideas, or memories you know you want to write about. That way, when you end up with a little unexpected time, you won’t have to waste any of it wondering what to write about–you can just pull out your list and pick from it.

While our lives are inevitably busy and sometimes chaotic, little pockets of time unexpectedly open up in our schedules now and again. When they do, be ready to use them to nurture your love of writing and reading!

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9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eight percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

11 Ways to Nurture Your Writing

As writers, we like to tell stories. Unfortunately, some of the most frequent stories we tell ourselves are probably about how we don’t have time to write. Or how we’re stuck in a rut, the dreaded writer’s block having taken hold. Or we’re no good at writing. Or we don’t have any ideas worth writing about. The list of stories about why we’re not writing–even though we love to write–is a long one. But these aren’t the stories we have to tell ourselves, and they’re certainly not very fun stories to write (or read). Even when you’re busier than busy, battling writer’s block (or letting it win), feeling insecure, or facing a seeming dearth of ideas, there are lots of things you can do to maintain your cherished identity as a writer, and flex your writing muscles.

Story No. 1: I Don’t Have Time

Once upon a time there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me!). She brought home hours of papers to grade almost every night, trained for half marathons, cared for her dogs, managed her household, volunteered once a week at a local no-kill animal shelter, and worked part-time at a local YMCA to supplement her income. You might imagine that Mrs. Creasey found little time for her writing, and you’d be right; it felt like a leisure activity for which she simply did not have the time–but she wished she did. Despite being so busy, Mrs. Creasey often missed writing, and lamented the months that would pass between even her diary entries. Truly, it was shameful. Fortunately, Mrs. Creasey eventually realized there were lots of ways she could carve out time to make writing a priority, and she still does–to this day.

Get your MFA or MALS

When I realized I was no longer making time for my writing, and how much I ached to do so, I decided the best way to make it a priority in my schedule was to get my graduate degree. If I had money wrapped up in it, and homework to do–I would make time. And I did. Earning my graduate degree in creative writing forced me to make time for writing in my busy life–and I was happy to do so. My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me. As an added bonus, my income slightly increased once I completed the degree.

My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me.

Take a Class or Workshop

If earning your degree seems too big a commitment, you might consider something a bit less demanding, like a single class or a workshop, which can yield some of the same benefits. Participating in a class or workshop provides you with a structure in which to write. If your daily schedule seems to make carving out writing time difficult, taking a class or workshop gives you the peace of mind of knowing that on Tuesday nights from 7:00-9:00 (or whenever your class/workshop takes place), you will be able to dedicate two (or however many) glorious hours to your craft.

IMG-4268
Last week, my friend Renee, who lives in Alaksa, spent some time in Richmond. On the final evening of her visit, we participated in a two-hour Life in 10 Minutes writing workshop.

Some of my favorite workshops in the Richmond area have been Life in 10 Minutes, the novel-writing class in which I am currently enrolled at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and James River Writers Master Classes and Writing Shows.

Get Some Freelance Gigs

It’s amazing what you can find time for if you’re getting paid to do it and you love to do it. One way to make yourself make time for writing is to find a way to get paid for it. Check out platforms like Contently, subscribe to (and read) the Freedom with Writing e-mails, contact your local newspapers, network with other writers, take a class on freelance writing… There are lots of ways to make a little (or a lot of) money with your writing.

Story No. 2: I have Writer’s Block

In a land far, far away, there was a writer who couldn’t write. She had ideas–lots of them, but putting them into words–turning them into stories or poems or books–was a task that seemed impossible. She begged her muse to help her, but her muse seemed to have been on vacation for a long time. A very, very long time. Eventually, she realized that she was going to have to write–muse or no muse. And she tried some of the tactics below.

Journal

One way to write even when your muse seems to have deserted you is to keep a diary or journal. Don’t burden your entries with purpose or expectation–just write about your thoughts, feelings, or day.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference can have a way of summoning your muse right back from wherever she has been hiding. Some of the most inspiring events I have attended include those put on by the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the James River Writers Annual Conference.

Read

Reading can prove an extremely effective way to inspire ideas–so read your books (and write in them). One place to start is this blog post about books every writer should read.

Story No. 3: I’m not a Good Writer

Once upon a time there was a woman named Jane Doe (I know–not very original). She used to write, but over the years, the practice had simply slipped from her routine, and though she sometimes thought about picking it back up, she didn’t really think she was that good at it, anyway. She had taken some writing classes in college, but mostly, her classmates and instructors focused on how she could improve, and while that was helpful, it also made her feel like maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a writer after all.  Nowadays, her writing was confined to e-mails and memos at work. But a small part of her still missed writing–stories and poems and personal essays. If only she were good at it…

Make Creative Friends

Making creative friends is a great way to nurture your own creativity. Fellow creatives can support you, point out what’s good in your work, and give you feedback to inspire your progress. You can also share your work with each other. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you is a surefire way to make yourself feel more valid in your craft.

There are lots of ways to find creative friends. Consider joining a writing group such as Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, Poetry Society of Virginia, James River Writers, or a critique group. Taking writing classes or workshops is another great way to meet fellow writers.

Take a Risk

Another way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a “good writer” is to submit your work to journals, contests, and publications. Admittedly, this practice also opens you up to significant risk, but it gets your name out there and helps you feel validated. Plus, the recognition you earn when a piece is published or wins an award is rewarding, to say the least. And even if you meet with rejection at first (or often), I find that having work out there gives me hope. The more pieces I send out to publications, the higher their chances of finding a publication home (in my mind, anyway). I like the feeling of my work floating around out there. I like the anticipation. The fact that I have writing to send out means, at least, I am writing.

Story No. 4: I don’t have any Good Ideas

Once upon a time, there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me again!), who had a sticker on her classroom door so she would see it every single morning when she unlocked the door to go to work. It read: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” (Sylvia Plath). Mrs. Creasey loved this quote–for her students and for herself. Another of her favorites? “It’s not what you write about, but how you write it.” Both of these quotes hold true for anyone who wants to write. You can write–you have the ideas. You just have to, ya know, do it.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

Observe

If you seem to be suffering from a dearth of ideas, take a notebook with you everywhere and write things down. Write anything and everything down. All your observations are fodder for future pieces.  Notate your observations in nature, things you hear or overhear, ideas you have, questions you have, names you like…

Story No. 5: No One Wants to Read What I Write, Anyway

Once upon a time, there was a writer who loved to write, and who wrote all the time–but who often felt discouraged because he was certain that despite his best efforts, no one actually wanted to read what he wrote–even if it was really, really good. It seemed no one cared. And besides–writing isn’t like a painting or a photograph or a sculpture, easy to display and share. It requires some effort on the reader’s part, some willingness to invest time, energy, and thought in the piece. Who was going to do that when they could simply watch TV, play games on their smart phone, go to the movies, or do any number of easier activities?

Start a Blog

One way to combat the sense that no one is interested in your writing is to start a blog. At least a few people will read it, and that’s nice. Plus, maintaining a blog can help hold you accountable to your writing. Knowing you have even a small audience who might be waiting for your next post can be motivation to write the next post. Besides, it feels empowering and validating to have an online presence, albeit a small one.

Use Social Media

Using social media outlets such as Facebook or Instagram can help grow your audience for your blog–or any other writing you do. Just be careful not to allow your social media accounts to steal time away from your actual writing.

And They Lived Happily Ever After…

While the above advice is nice, and can prove productive if you need a pick-me-up or a way back into writing after a hiatus or a blow to your confidence, the most important thing you can do for writing is actually write. It will be a struggle sometimes, but nothing worth doing is every easy (at least not all the time).

 

 

 

 

 

Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

The High Goal

Writing of her spiritual journey, Mary Baker Eddy explains that she “finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Her wise words can be applied not only to a spiritual search for salvation, but also to our writing goals. The guidance supplied in this quote can help us battle writer’s block, discouragement, rejection, and the temptation to quit, born of these ills.

My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur.

I find Mrs. Eddy’s words helpful whenever I feel myself succombing to the sense that my project isn’t worthwhile–no agent will want to represent it, no publisher will find it marketable, no reader will want to read it. We all face these insecurities. For me, they are as frequent as their opposites: I am writing the next Great Novel. It will become a best seller and a major motion picture. I have something valuable and worthwhile and unique to say. My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur. While it’s easy to keep writing when the latter thoughts fill my mind, perseverance in the face of such negative self-talk as the former thoughts proves a bit of a struggle.

But keeping Mrs. Eddy’s words in mind helps. For my writing, the “high goal” right now is seeing my novel published. The “high goal” is the satisfaction of knowing something I wrote is making people think and rethink, question and wonder, read and reread. The “high goal” is inspiring new ideas, even long after I’m gone. One current obstacle to this goal: My novel isn’t even finished. But step one is there: I have set the goal (and started writing the novel).

Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be.

Of course, setting a goal alone is no guarantee you’ll achieve it. We do have to take “footsteps in endeavoring to reach it.” I like to ask myself periodically what I have done for my writing recently–what have I done to support my high goal? Here are some possible answers:

  • written a chapter outline
  • enrolled in a novel-writing class
  • attended a conference
  • participated in a workshop
  • submitted poetry, stories, or essays to publications
  • written in my diary or journal
  • composed a blog post
  • read a book
  • asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
  • actually written a chapter of my manuscript
  • people watched
  • eavesdropped
  • taken inspiration from nature
  • listened to Podcasts or read articles relevant to my topic.

It can be easy to get bogged down in counting these steps, as Mrs. Eddy warns against. But when we find ourselves feeling buried by little things, it truly can be helpful to take a step back and remember the bigger picture, the higher goal. Instead of viewing revision as a chore, or dreading working on your project because you’re in the tight-fisted grip of writer’s block, remember that your “destination is desirable,” and the “expectation of good speeds our progress.” Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be. Remember that each revision, each belabored chapter rewrite, each late night writing and rewriting–they are all part of the process. Instead of dwelling on each difficulty, take pride in your progress. As long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going–as long as you keep the high goal always before your thoughts–each footstep takes you a little closer to where you want to be.

The Effect of Recent Success: More Drive

If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.

This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.

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I accept my award at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Annual Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.

On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.

Salem’s Indifferent Ox

I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days

as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,

until from the ground a wooden platform was raised

and the drumroll, through the village sounded.

Then they fetched me—how could I be involved

in this mysterious venture of theirs?

But I plod through the town, no question resolved,

Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.

The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps

with the people standing by in the crowd.

I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,

clinging to dignity, proud.

Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—

and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.

To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of

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I read my second-place poem at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Award Luncheon.

stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels;  I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books.  Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.

 

Five Prompts to Vanquish Writer’s Block

Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:

“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”

It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.

Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.

1. Unlived Lives

Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?

2. Dear Future Self

For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?

3. To-Do List

Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.

4. Another’s View of You

Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.

5. Names

Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?

 The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.

Happy writing!

Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Songs to Write to: Playlist

I recently realized that certain songs tend to get me in the mood–to write, that is. I decided to keep a list of these inspiring, creativity-inducing songs, and noticed a particular pattern: It seems I am most inspired by songs that include piano, and/or by mellow melodies rich with melancholy, and/or by heartbreaking lyrics I wish I had written myself. Here is my ever-lengthening Writing Playlist:

  1. Fine Frenzy, “Almost Lover”
  2. Coldplay, “The Scientist”
  3. Gary Jules, “Mad World”
  4. The entire soundtrack to the film Dances with Wolves
  5. Counting Crows, “Colorblind”
  6. Bob Dylan, “Boots of Spanish Leather”
  7. Adele, “Someone Like You”
  8. Ben Folds, “Fred Jones Part 2”
  9. Evanescence, “My Immortal”
  10. Rhett Miller, “Come Around”
  11. Straylight Run, “Existentialism on Prom Night”
  12. Dashboard Confessional, “So Long Sweet Summer”

What kind of music awakens your muse?