In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.
Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.
My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.
I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?
Netflix and Chill
Anne with an E
One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).
You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.
Those of you who follow us on Instagram or know us personally probably already know: Our pack of four lost an integral member a week and a half ago, leaving behind three grieving members. I am not ready to write about it yet, at least not in any sort of meaningful, comprehensive way, though I have been writing about it in a very personal, rather disjointed way in my diary just about every day. I am still processing. (If processing this is even possible, which I am not yet convinced it is.)
What follows is a narrative essay I wrote about Jack in 2011, when I was about halfway through my graduate degree in creative writing and Jack had been part of our family for close to four years.
I should mention that since this writing, we learned Jack was actually closer to two years old when he joined our pack, as opposed to the not-yet-a-year detail mentioned in the essay below. He was roughly 14 when we said goodbye last week.
Lucky Dog: A New Leash on Life
It is 4 o’clock in the morning. November. Just starting to get cold outside. Feels like the middle of the night. Yesterday, my husband brought home a new dog. We already have one. A little beagle. Sadie. She likes to sleep later than 4 o’clock in the morning. But this new dog, Jack — he doesn’t know any better. He bounds up, wide awake, as soon as he hears me stir. I open the bedroom door to step out into the hallway that leads to the family room. Jack bounds out ahead of me. He stops in the center of room. Looks at me. I look at him. He is a cockeyed sort of dog. One of his eyes has a brown spot around it. The other eye gazes out at the world through short white hair. His nose is crooked. His back is crooked; he stands in a sort of “C” shape most of the time, looking a little like a cocktail shrimp on a plate. One of his ears stands straight up when he’s listening; the other one flops over no matter what. Just as I begin to think how endearing this inherent asymmetry is, he suddenly bends down slightly, bracing himself. I wonder what he is doing. Then he begins to pee. A lot of pee. Right there on the family room carpet, in the middle of the floor. It is four in the freaking morning. I don’t know how to potty train a dog.
I clap my hands. He looks at me blankly. Cocks his head slightly, wondering, probably, why I am applauding his piss. I clap harder. Maybe the noise will startle him into not peeing. Maybe it will distract him.
“No!” I say. “No!” As if a dog that just last week was a wild dog picked up by the dog catcher in the foothills of New York has any idea what the word “no” means.
He continues to pee on the carpet. I swoop down upon him mid-stream, scoop him up into my arms, and rush him to the back door. I set him down outside. He has stopped peeing, but I can tell by the way he is sniffing around he isn’t actually finished. I follow him around the yard for a while. It is not fenced. Jack makes a break for it. Down the driveway. Down the road. I am chasing him in my pajamas in the dark in the cold. Luckily, he is distracted by something he smells in the bushes of my neighbor’s yard. He stops to sniff. He lifts his leg. Pees some more. I wonder if this adventure is going to make me late for work.
“Good boy,” I say, hoping I am reinforcing the concept of pissing outside and not the concept of running away. When he is done, I pick him up and carry him back home.
It took Jack a while to learn that he was now, actually, home. We had to teach him how to sleep under the covers with us at night. That he didn’t need to be afraid of towels or of walking across bridges. How to take a treat from our hands without taking one or two of our fingers with it. How to pee outside, and that the fact that the family room was outside the bedroom did not qualify it as outside. How to walk on a leash, and that while he was out for a walk on his leash, he no longer had to eat road kill and trash off the street to survive (we are still working on that). He even knows how to smile now, though he won’t on command – only when he is genuinely happy. When Jack first came home, he had a lot to learn. So did I.
Jack’s smiling face
Jack smiles at me on Christmas day
Jack poses and smiles with his daddy
A few days before Jack came home, my husband Matty and I had an argument about whether or not we should add a second dog to our household. We were just starting out in our careers and were pretty poor (some things never change). And dog supplies can be costly. A second dog would mean buying double the food, double the treats, and paying double the vet bills. Today, three years later, I am Jack’s human of choice and whenever he feels jealous, Matty likes to remind Jack, “Mommy didn’t even want you, buddy. Remember who brought you home. Daddy had to fight Mommy to bring you home. You’re lucky Daddy won.” While this isn’t entirely true (it was never that I didn’t want Jack), I am glad that though he tries, cocking his head from one side to the other and lifting his mismatched ears (we call the ear that never lifts up his “broken ear”), Jack cannot understand what Matty is saying. There are, however, many words and phrases Jack can now understand. This is a list of them: sit, stay, wait, leave it (selectively), down, doggy practice, ride, walk, dinner, breakfast, dessert, treat, up, jump, here, Jack, daddy, mommy, who’s here?, hungry, and outside.
My sister-in-law is the one who essentially saved Jack’s life. She was working as a vet in the hills of New York when the dog catcher brought him in to be spayed and get his shots before going on to the pound. Jack was a little, emaciated, big-eyed wild dog that had been living off acorns (which to this day he carries home and drops on our deck after autumn walks) and dead things. He wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t let such a sweet dog go to the pound and, lucky for Jack, told the dog catcher she would keep him. Jack spent the next several months living between the vet’s office and a crate at my sister-in-law’s house while she tried to find a suitable home for him.
During that time, Jack learned very little. The problem was this: The first thing Jack did when he got to my sister-in-law’s house was climb to the top of the stairs, squat down, and poop. She already had a black lab, two cats, a husband, and a toddler. She didn’t have the time or energy to potty-train her son and Jack. Thus, Jack was relegated to a plastic dog crate – the travel kind with nothing but a caged front and little holes in the side that usually spell out something like “DOG TAXI” and serve as ventilation. There he stayed, except for a couple potty breaks a day, while home after home fell through for one reason or another. Then one November day, Matty drove up to New York. When he came home, Jack came with him.
It wasn’t long before we knew something was wrong with Jack. I came home from work one day and, as usual, Jack and Sadie came running to the door to greet me, Sadie howling and barking and Jack wagging not just his tail, but his entire body — wriggling around the way a worm does when a curious child pokes at it with a stick. Then, suddenly, Jacky’s little eyes were stone and his body, stiff. He tottered for a moment, back and forth, and then, he tipped over. Sadie sometimes had seizures, and while this episode wasn’t quite the same, I thought maybe it was a seizure. I did like I do for Sadie. Knelt down beside Jack, rested his head on my lap, talked quietly to him. After a minute or two, he stood up, shook it off, and went about the rest of his doggy day. I didn’t think much of it. But then it started to happen more and more frequently. Sometimes multiple times a day. Jack quit eating. Quit playing with Sadie. Eventually wouldn’t leave the bedroom at all. Matty and I had to carry him to the backyard to go potty and carry him back in again when he was done. We frequented the vet’s office, setting appointments for every two months for over a year. No one knew what was wrong with Jack. They put him on meds that made him vomit. They took him off. They put him on meds that would work for a few months, and then lose their effectiveness. We drove to the vet over and over again. Each time, Jack would curl up in the passenger seat, a look of heartbreaking resignation in his puppy eyes. I would stroke his back with my free hand as I drove, praying and praying and praying.
Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.
After maybe five or six months, the vet told me Jack may need to see a canine cardiologist. That his red blood cell count was low and perhaps there was something amiss with the valves in his heart, as well. After paying several hundred more dollars in vet bills, I got in the car with Jack and drove quietly home. About halfway there, I called my husband. Told him the grim news. As we talked, I looked down at Jack now and then. When he was awake, he would look up at me out from under his sleepy eyelids. So much trust in those eyes. He had implicit faith in me. I couldn’t imagine a world without Jack in it. I was prepared to do anything to keep him here. I would spend any amount of money, go to the vet every day if I had to.
But that wasn’t working. Months and months and still not working. Still the tipping over. Still the lack of appetite. Still the gums in his mouth too white – indicative of anemia. Still the sadness. I prayed. I prayed every day for Jack. I prayed with Jack. I read him pieces of the Bible while I stroked his velvety, mismatched ears. I held him always in my thoughts.
Then, he got better. For several days, I came home and waited for him to tip over. No more tipping over. After a week or two, I learned to stop expecting it. I started taking him on short walks with Sadie again. He regained his energy. He was more playful. He was eating. I took him to the vet for one more regular, two-month check-up.
“Jack,” the vet said after checking his gums, taking his temperature, listening to his heart, “you are a mystery. And you are one lucky dog.” She took him off the meds. Before long, Jack could join Sadie and me on our regular, longer walks. It was as if nothing had ever been wrong. The vets still don’t know whatever was.
Matty likes to say I am “at least 60% happier” because of Jack. He is convinced that since Jack came home, I am in general a cheerier person. I can’t really dispute this. Jack makes me smile more times a day than I otherwise would. He gets up with me every morning at 5 and romps around the house with a squeaky toy in his mouth, wide awake and energized – ready for the day. Without his shennanigans, I can safely say I would not be smiling at 5 every morning. But with Jack chasing me around the house wagging his tail and chomping on a toy, how can I not crack a grin? He looks at me with his goofy, cockeyed ears, and how can I help but smile? And one of my favorite feelings is Jack curled up against my stomach in bed every night. When I am away from home overnight, I get cold without his fuzzy warmth beside me and I miss him. When I return home, he is there – where he has been all along – waiting for me with love and joy and the ever-enduring faith that I was coming home all along. It just took me a little longer this time.
It is January. About 4 in the afternoon. A Friday. My mom and my brother’s dog Baxter, a furry husky/akita mix, meet Jack, Sadie, and me at the state park near my house for a late afternoon hike. The dogs have been cooped up all day while I was at work. Their energy and exuberance is evident in the way they spastically sniff and cry and tug at the ends of their leashes like they’ve never walked on a leash before. Sadie, in fact, jumped around my little car the entire ride here, hopping from window to window, seat to seat, front to back.
We walk, stopping now and then to let the dogs sniff and to listen to the quiet that is the woods on a cold Friday afternoon when most everyone is either still at work, or keeping warm inside. We talk about our days, the family, weekend plans. When we come to the old mill site, we cross over the bridge where once, Jack fell into the creek and I had to heft him back over the side of the bridge. We walk up a steep hill with trees to our left and a drop off down to the creek below to our right. As we round the corner to the boardwalk that will allow us passage through the wetlands that surround Beaver Lake, my mom says, “He really is lucky.”
“Who?” I say.
“Jack. He might not be around anymore if he hadn’t ended up with you guys. Whatever he had would’ve killed him.”
“Yeah,” I say, still unable to imagine a world without Jack.
After about an hour, we have walked the entirety of Beaver Lake Trail and it will soon be dark outside. Mom loads Baxter into her car and he curls up to rest on the back seat. I tell Sadie and Jack to “go for a ride” and they readily hop into my car. Mom and I hug goodbye and head home, she turning right at the park exit and I turning left. I smile as Sadie assumes her habitual position behind the headrests of my backseat where she can watch the road behind us peel away and stare at the drivers of the cars that follow us. At times, in my rearview mirror, I have seen such drivers wave at Sadie, even talk to her sometimes. They are always smiling. I look down at Jack, sitting up in the front seat like a little man, looking out the window. My whole heart smiles. That night after a late dinner, Matty stretches out in bed to my left. Sadie jumps up and pushes her way under the covers at his feet. A heartbeat later, Jack is standing at my side of the bed, looking up at me. I lift the covers up. He jumps up on the bed beside me, curls up at my belly button, sighs. I rub the space between his eyes. Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.
During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)
While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.
One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)
In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at
the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).
Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.
My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.
“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”
Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.
Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
Earlier this month, I posted a piece about what to consider when you prepare to submit your writing to literary magazines and/or writing contests. Now, let’s focus on considerations you should make depending on the type of writing you do.
Rules of Thumb
Before we break down what to do when submitting poetry versus prose, there are some general rules of thumb to follow for any genre. The following tips come to you from Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop she led in Richmond. She provided some really helpful advice.
Research your opportunities. Figure out what publications or contests are out there, and which might be the best fit for your work. After you’ve done that, tier your top choices and start high! When you applied to college, you likely applied to a dream school or a reach school, as well as several backup schools. When you submit your writing, you can use the same principle. First, submit to your absolute top choice contest or publication, but have some second and third choices in your back pocket.
Keep track of your submissions. Some publications allow simultaneous submissions. Some don’t. Even those who do will likely request that you let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. For these reasons, and others, it’s important to keep records of where you’ve sent your work, and whether or not it was accepted.
Decide on a budget for each piece. What are you willing to spend on submissions in total, and on each individual piece?
Compose a cover letter. Keep it short, and be specific to each publication or contest. If you’re submitting to a journal or magazine, you will also want to devote one or two sentences to explaining why your work is a good fit for the magazine.
For most journals or contests, select three to five poems of various tones, lengths, and topics. Some journals and contests require a specific number of submissions, or cap the number of submission you may send, so be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully.
When you submit a batch of poetry, think of it as a whole, and organize your submission wisely, with your best work at the beginning. Think of your first poem as the hook that will get the reader’s attention, and entice her to read more.
Before submitting a short story to a contest or publication, make sure it features a strong beginning, or hook. A strong start is absolutely critical, as you’ll need to get and keep your reader’s attention. After all, she likely has a stack of other stories waiting for her time and focus. Ms. Isokawa suggests two effective ways to craft a strong start: Begin with action, or write with really strong voice.
When you submit a novel excerpt, your chosen piece should be able to stand alone. A flashback or decision scene might work well. You can also consider adapting an excerpt of your larger work by taking out references to parts the reader won’t get to read.
Should you be fortunate enough to find a publication home for your work or for your work to be honored with an award, be sure to thank the editors, and share the journal, publication, or contest on social media. They’re helping promote you; help promote them.
If your work is not accepted, you might still be lucky enough to get a rejection with feedback. If an editor is kind enough to provide any feedback at all, say thank you–don’t ask for more feedback.
If you ever resubmit to a publication that has previously rejected but offered feedback on your work, be sure to mention their note with your new or revised submission.
Don’t allow rejection to discourage you. Try again. Even the most celebrated writers have dealt with rejection, and many still do. To help combat the temptation to give up, always have a piece of writing “in waiting” or “on deck,” one you can send out to contests and publications as soon as its predecessor gets rejected.
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 succumbing 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:
asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
actually written a chapter of my manuscript
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.
When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.
“Are you writing in that book?”
I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.
“You can’t write in books!”
At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”
“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”
I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.
But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.
All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.
I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.
For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.
It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.
In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
If you enter the front door of my house, mount the stairs, and make a left, you will find yourself in the room my husband and I call “the office.” Despite its mundane name, the office serves a myriad of functions: It’s my husband’s video game room, our catch-all room, and my writing room. It even served a short stint as a guest room at one point.
Opposite a massive television that dominates an entire wall of the office, sits my heavy, wooden desk, its broad surface all but covered with magazines, books, candles, a few photographs and business cards, a mug full of pens, and my laptop. I was pretty proud of this little space–this tiny portion of the room that was mine–when we first set it up. For a while, I even started referring to the office solely as “my writing room.” Truth be told, though, my husband plays far more video games in there than I write articles, poems, essays, or stories. And so, gradually, the room has returned to its original name: the office (though maybe “gaming room” would be more appropriate).
I do write there occasionally. It’s a cozy, quiet spot–and it’s nice to have all my writing materials handy (if not 100% organized). I’ve found, though, that despite my loving the idea of a writing room, I’m a fairly migratory writer. I write at the kitchen table. I write at the table outside on our back deck (a lot). I write on the couch. I write perched on the edge of the brick hearth in front of our fireplace. I write sitting in a gravity-free chair beside the fire pit in our backyard. I write on rocks in the middle of the Jame River. I’ve even been known to write during a float session and in an inflatable, backyard pool. Each of these locations offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Each environment contributes to–or, in some cases, detracts from–the creative process in some way.
One of my favorite places to write is outside–anywhere outside. My back deck, my front porch, my hammock, the river, the beach… I find writing outside in the natural world offers a plethora of benefits. My mind is free to wander through the open space of fresh air, tangled tree branches, birds on the wing. Nature seems to help open up my creative pathways and free my imagination.
The advantages I find to writing outside are many. The natural world offers stimulation for all five senses, and often, unexpected inspiration. My essay, “Out Of Touch,” was inspired in large part by an experience just lounging on my hammock in the backyard. “The moon was late to the party” came of an experience I enjoyed on two consecutive nights of evening walks. I wrote a large portion of Goodbye for Now on my back deck.
The outdoors also offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination. Being at one with nature puts me in a meditative state that is more open to ideas than my usual, task-oriented mind.
Writing outside offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination.
In addition, if you’re falling victim to writer’s block, one way to overcome it is to step outside and observe nature. Focus on each sense individually, and describe, in detail, what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.
Some of my most original and pertinent lines, phrases, ideas, metaphors, and similes find me when I’m outside.
There are, however, a few drawbacks (none of which outweigh the benefits, if you ask me). Kris Spisak, author of Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused, says she writes “outside a lot, but I can’t edit there if I’m in fine-tuning mode. The glare on my screen lets imperfections slip through undetected.” Sun glare on a laptop screen can indeed be pretty brutal sometimes, and outdoor situations are not always the most ergonomic. Plus, writing outside is obviously weather-dependent, so it’s not always a feasible option. Finally, sometimes I myself tend to get caught up in my surroundings, and end up doing more observing and appreciating than writing.
Writing in a Coffee Shop
Somehow, writing in a coffee shop has the effect of just magically making me feel like a bona-fide writer. I’m not sure why, exactly–but I feel legitimate when I write in a coffee shop. (Or itwould, I imagine, if I ever wrote in a coffee shop…) Another plus is the people watching you can manage in a bustling coffee shop can help inspire character ideas, and the conversations you can overhear can help inspire dialog.
A coffee shop sometimes offers fewer distractions than writing at home–or at least fewer opportunities for procrastination. You can’t get up and load your dishwasher, fold your laundry, take a nap, or mop your floors when you’re at the coffee shop. But you can write. And you might as well–because there’s not much else to do. Spisak admits that when she writes at home, “sometimes laundry calls; dishes need to be done; or family voices want to disturb my productivity. Those are the occasions I like to support local small businesses by buying their coffee. (Being a writer is a different type of entrepreneurship, after all. We need to support each other where we can.).”
“If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”
All that said, I myself rarely, if ever, write at a coffee shop, though a Starbucks sits at the main intersection just two miles from my front door. I once took a conference call there, and nearly a decade ago, I graded a stack of research papers there–but I can’t recall having ever actually written anything there.
The drawbacks to the coffee shop writing scene include the fact that, while you can’t get up and start doing chores or paying bills, other distractions exist–like chatting up the barista, talking with other customers, getting up to purchase another snack or drink, people watching more than writing, and the necessity to spend at least a little money. Spisak, however, sees the latter as something of a motivating benefit. “If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”
Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair
Who doesn’t like curling up with a good book (whether you’re reading it or writing it is beside the point) on a comfortable couch or chair? I mean, it’s comfy! So comfy, in fact, that you’re not likely to want to get up soon–so you’re likely to stay there a while and keep writing. Charlene Jimenez, a writing instructor and freelance writer, says she likes writing in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch because “it’s nice to physically relax when you’re working your creative writing muscles.
The main drawback for me? I sometimes get a little too comfortable and end up giving in to the urge to nap.
Writing in a Home Office
According to Jimenez, “The solitude of a home office is the best. I’m surrounded by all my novel notes. It feels like my own space, so I feel comfortable and productive there.” Spisak agrees that there’s something helpful about being surrounded by all your materials and ideas. “At my own desk, I’m surrounded by inspiration and all of the resources I usually need,” she says. “My desk at home is my usual writing habitat. When I have my own desk at home, there’s no excuse for not getting my writing down. It’s there. It’s waiting. I just need to enter my writing space to make it happen.”
Setting up a certain space designed just to help you write can help condition your mind and writing muscles. You know that when you enter that space, you write. Similarly, people know not to disturb you; you’re working.
One drawback, however, is that while a home office may help you focus, it may not be particularly stimulating or inspirational (or it may make writing feel like, well, work).
Writing on a Porch or Balcony
Jimenez wrote most of her NaNoWriMo novel on her back porch, where her husband had just hung some beautiful lights, making the space peaceful and inspirational. Spisak, too, has a balcony she calls her “warm-weather office,” explaining she enjoys “the fresh air during my work time. Something about a nice breeze and birdsong can be inspirational.” I’m with you there, ladies! I love the different perspective offered by an elevated porch or balcony. I can see more, and see it all differently, lending me new ideas, stimulation, and inspiration.
Potential drawbacks include possible distractions, such as people stopping by to chat, traffic sounds, and my own tendency to eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors or passersby…
Wherever you do most of your writing, I hope it offers the inspiration and motivation for your best work.
Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from
re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.
As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).
She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).
You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.
Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I love writing, and identify as a writer, finding new creative outlets is satisfying.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I identify as a writer, finding new creative outlet is fulfilling.
I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.
As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.
My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.