My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

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The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

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Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

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Why You Should Join Writing Groups and Organizations

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.

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My mom, me, my friend, Ashley, and my dad enjoy lunch at The Market at Grelen after the PSOV awards ceremony and poetry reading.

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

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Ashley and I outside the Double Tree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, with our Excellence-in-Craft award plaques.

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.

Through a James River Writers newsletter, I learned about Cafe Zata, which is going to make an excellent outdoor venue for a dog-friendly book signing and reading coming up in May.

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.

 

Take a Hike! (Or a Walk… Or a Run…) And Then Write

I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.

“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.

We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).

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Jack, Sadie, and I enjoy a November morning walk on the shores of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the scene that inspired my essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to be released April 9.

I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.

I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was

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Sadie enjoys the boardwalk at Henricus Historical Park one morning this fall.

inspired by and tells the tale of a morning walk with my dogs. My essay, “The Mountains are Calling” describes, in part, a hike in Montana. My piece, “The moon was late to the party” also centers on a walk. While out walking or running, I have met countless interesting neighbors about whom I have written articles for The Villages News. I’ve even written longform articles about the benefits of walking your dog and how to maximize the advantages of your dog walk. Many of the descriptions of nature in my poetry, manuscripts, essays, and short stories come from scenes I witnessed or thoughts I had while out walking, hiking, or running.

Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the

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Jack finds his stride on an early morning walk in Callao, Virginia.

problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.

This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningNow, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.

“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.

Reflecting on the Start of 2019

I love the idea of New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes I set them; sometimes I don’t–but the idea of a fresh, new start and setting goals for the new year appeals to me. Despite my love of a good goal, this January, I didn’t begin the year with any specific goals in mind, other than to revise my manuscript and hopefully send it off to an agent by April. Now that we are coming to the end of the first month of the year, I have taken a little time to reflect on what I have achieved, even without a particular list of goals in mind.

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While setting goals is important, equally important is taking time to reflect on what we have achieved. I snapped this photo in the Northern Neck of Virginia during a walk with my dogs, Jack and Sadie, in January 2015. They, along with the scene above, to which they led me on our walk, inspired an essay that will appear in an upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul.

The First Achievements of 2019

  1. My first published piece of 2019  ran in The Village News on January 2 (also my birthday!).

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    My first published piece of 2019 ran on my birthday.
  2. A few days later, on January 7, a short piece I wrote called “How to Eat Dark Chocolate: A Lesson in Living” was posted on Lifein10Minutes.com.
  3. Around January 15, I learned my short personal essay “The Reward” had made it to the final selection round of pieces to be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog. About a week later, I got unofficial word it will be included, and I can expect my official notification sometime next week. This particular achievement is actually the indirect result of a  resolution I made in 2017 to submit pieces to publications on a (somewhat) regular basis.
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    My dogs, Jack (left) and Sadie (right), pictured here on a boardwalk through the James River Wetlands near Pony Pasture Rapids last week, are the inspiration (and subject) of my short essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to come out in April 2019.

    4. Last night, January 30, I co-chaired the first of the James River Writers 2019 Writing ShowsBalancing Writing and Life: Inspiration and Practical Strategies.

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    Kristen Green (left), author of New York Times bestselling Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County acted as the moderator for last night’s first 2019 Writing Show. Our panelists were writer and MFA student Rachel Beanland (center) and writer, blogger, and photographer Marc Cheatham (right).

    5. I also took time this month to read my manuscript through as a one whole piece for the first time, addressing issues as I found them (I am sure there are more to find, and another–probably multiple other–read-throughs are in my future). In addition, last week I submitted a short story to a literary magazine, and am in the process of reading through a writer friend’s middle grade novel manuscript.

All in all, I’d say it’s been a strong start. Now: to keep the momentum going. Maybe I should set some goals…

  1. Finish revising my manuscript
  2. Write a query and synopsis for my manuscript (I am sure writing the manuscript itself will prove a less arduous endeavor!)
  3. Send my manuscript to an agent, preferably before the end of April
  4. Continue to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show
  5. Continue writing for The Village News
  6. Take at least one writing class or workshop in 2019
  7. Submit to publications as opportunities arise
  8. Continue to maintain this blog
  9. Continue my involvement as Board Member and Collegiate Contest Chair for  Virginia Outdoor Writers Association.

 

A Thank-You Letter to My Writing Class

In January of this year, I began participating in a 10-month novel-writing class at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Our last class meeting took place last Wednesday. Today, not going to class will feel a little strange. It’s weird–to not go somewhere you’ve been going once a week–every week–for almost a year. The commute to class, the class itself, the commute home–all became a sort of ritual, a routine. More than that, it was how I knew it was Wednesday.

Last week, both my husband and my mom asked me how I felt about the impending end of my writing class. A little sad, really–but also ready. The experience more than served its purpose. I wrote the rough draft of a manuscript of which I wouldn’t have written even three chapters without the class, which provided me with the space, structure, discipline, tools, support, and motivation to do what I needed to do: Write.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are the reason I can say I have completed the rough drafts of not one, but two, manuscripts. You are the reason I can say I found the discipline and motivation to sit down and write. You believed in me, so I believed in myself.

In November 2016, inspired by NaNoWriMo, I wrote less than 1000 words before other priorities took precedence and my motivation to finish fizzled. The passage I share here was all I had completed of the manuscript until I started the novel-writing class in January 2018. Now, two years later, that passage has been butchered, redistributed, and repurposed in various ways, in what has matured into a 70,000-word manuscript for a novel–one that never would have been written had it not been for my instructor and classmates at VisArts. And so, then, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I have to say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are the reason I can say I have completed the rough drafts of not one, but two, manuscripts. You are the reason I can say I found the discipline and motivation to sit down and write. You believed in me, so I believed in myself.

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At the close of our year-long novel-writing class, our writing instructor brought in a cake his wife baked to celebrate our efforts and success.

But I didn’t just finish my manuscript (as if that weren’t enough!). I also met some really talented, supportive writers, one of whom invited me to work with her as co-chair for the James River Writers 2019 Writing Show, an opportunity that means soon, I am going to meet even more exceptional writers. And editors. And agents. And publishers. And and and. I also learned all kinds of valuable information and tools, ranging from obligatory scenes (So helpful! Our instructor is a genius.) to best bad choices. I also got to eat some delectable homemade cake baked by our instructor’s wife, and read a book I never would’ve: Salt to the Sea, by Rupta Septey. Basically, I got more out of this class than I ever imagined I would, from a finished rough draft, to improved writing skills, to deeper insights on writing and reading–and then some cake.

Though the end of our class was bittersweet (sweet because, you know–cake), I certainly have no regrets. I completed a manuscript (albeit rough). I met inspiring, creative people. I learned a ton. I get to continue working with one of my fellow writers going forward into the new year. I read a book. I ate cake. And now I’ll take a step back from the piece I just (pseudo) finished (piece being of writing, not of cake; I finished my entire piece of cake…), and start trying to revise (again) my first manuscript, which needs some serious TLC after being neglected during the writing of the one I just finished.

Writing a novel isn’t a piece of cake, but eating a piece of cake with classmates in celebration of having written one–that’s pretty sweet.

 

 

Gift Ideas for Pet Parents and Literature Lovers

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, but in my neck of the woods, some houses are already donning festive Christmas lights, and I’ve seen at least one fully decorated Christmas tree in a picture window, lit from trunk to tip. As Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday sail in on the heels of a Thanksgiving not yet arrived, our thoughts begin (already!) to turn to holiday shopping. What to get for that avid reader or writer on your list? What to get for that dog mom or dog dad who already has it all? Well, you’ve come to the right place, because I have an idea for both of them, and both ideas support small business, retreat from consumerism, and feature handcrafted goods.

The Literature Lover

My first idea involves helping you enjoy 20% off your purchase at Literary Book Gifts. All you have to do is use the promo code MindtheDogWritingBlog20 and you’ll get 20% off your purchase. There’s no minimum purchase, and it doesn’t expire! At Literary Book Gifts, you can find men’s and women’s T-shirts and tote bags featuring designs inspired by great works of literature.

Literary Book Gifts is a small business with a big mission: Sparking a love for literature.

Literary Book Gifts is run by Melissa Chan, the company’s owner and sole employee. Her background is in graphic design, but in an informal interview, she told me she loves “literature because it is always there for you, through good times and bad. The stories in the books are the biggest inspiration for the company. The designs are meant to act as a foundation for positive discussion about the books, ideas, and authors who wrote them. I hope that they will spur others to head over to the library and do some reading.”

 

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Melissa Chan, owner of Literary Book Gifts, says, “Books are the biggest inspiration for the company. The designs are meant to act as a foundation for positive discussion about the books, ideas, and authors who wrote them. I hope that they will spur others to head over to the library and do some reading.”

Her company is based in Toronto, but her items ship from printers here in the US. All the shirts and tote bags are professionally printed, and, according to Chan, the shirts are made of “high-quality 100% cotton with some of the heathered colors having some polyester content.”

 

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If you’d like to support a small business with a big mission, as well as give a one-of-a-kind, practical, and personal gift to the writers or bibliophiles in your life, head over to Literary Book Gifts and use promo code MindtheDogWritingBlog20.

 

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The Pet Parent

Please excuse the shameless promotion of my awesome husband for the remainder of this post, but he is pretty talented (and a really dedicated dog dad), and he creates really beautiful stained glass artwork in a workshop in our backyard.

 

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His most recent creation is a hand-drawn and custom-made (by him!), hand-lettered (by me!) dog paw stained glass piece. You can order these in any color, and we can paint any dog name on the bone for you. The dog mom or dog dad in your life is sure to love this thoughtful, personalized, handmade gift. To order one (or several!), find us on Instagram: @creaseyscreationsva, or simply leave a comment on this post and I’ll be in touch!

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The dog lover in your life is sure to love this hand-drawn, handmade, personalized stained glass dog paw, designed and crafted by my husband in the workshop in our backyard.

 

 

 

 

James River Writers Annual Conference 2018: Coincidence? I Think Not.

I should’ve known everything was going to fall into place when, Friday morning, my dryer finished drying my clothes at the same instant I unlocked my back door to leave for the Master Classes I’d registered for as part of this year’s James River Writers Annual Conference. (I don’t like the washer or dryer running when I’m not home.)

Actually, my first sign that the universe is in harmony came about a week earlier. When I registered for the conference back in September, one of the two Master Classes I wanted to attend (like, really, really wanted to attend) was full. Just a few days before the conference, though, I got an e-mail informing me a space had opened up, my refund hadn’t yet been processed, and I could attend the class after all. It was perfectly serendipitous.

I attended both of the Master Classes I had hoped to attend on Friday, and went home, thinking no more about it.

And then Saturday happened.

“Write every day.”–Pavana Reddy

As with the Friday Master Class I had wanted to attend, every single literary agent with whom I had hoped to meet had been completely booked. My first stop upon arriving at the conference Saturday morning was the pitch table, where I wanted to add my name to a waiting list to pitch to an agent at some point during the weekend. I was hoping for a particular agent, but I was willing to meet with any agent who might have an opening, so long as I got to meet an agent and practice my pitch.

“Which agent’s waiting list do you want to be on?” the man behind the table asked me.

I hadn’t even finished saying her name before the woman behind me jumped to my side.

“Well this might help you out,” she said, and then turned to the man. “I’m actually here to cancel my 2:10 appointment with that same agent.”

And voila! Just like that, I had my spot.

“Get over the idea that other writers are your competition. All writers are your tribe.” —Laurie Gwen Shapiro

I should probably also mention that this particular agent was the same agent presenting at the Master Class that had originally been full, but in which a slot had seemingly magically opened up for me at the last minute. That was the same class during which I sat beside a man who happened to have the 2:00 appointment with the same agent with whom I had a 2:10 appointment the following day. When I sat down in the seat he had just vacated, I noticed he’d dropped something important. I picked it up, and what are the chances I would run into him in his car in the parking garage, pulling out of his spot at the exact instant I pulled past? I was able to get his attention and return his lost belonging.

To top it all off, driving home, I hit all but the last two lights on Broad Street, green. That. Never. Happens. In fact, it was the green-light experience on Broad Street that got me reflecting on all the other pleasant coincidences I’d experienced since the conference’s beginning the day before.

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That night, I experienced another coincidence, though this one belonged to someone else. My husband and I attended a good friend’s (also a writer) wedding, where we met the best man, whose name was Ryan. His girlfriend’s name? Also Ryan. What are the chances of that?

And that brings us to today.

Just as the dryer had finished its cycle right before I left for the day Friday, the eggs I was boiling on the stove top for my dogs (their staple treat isn’t Milkbones, but chunked up hardboiled eggs we call “egg bites”) this morning finished boiling at the exact instant that

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Jack and Sadie at  Pony Pasture Rapids in September, when the James River was cresting after Hurricane Florence.

I was pulling their leashes from the laundry room so we could take our morning walk. By now, of course, I was used to the universe playing directly into my plans, so I smiled to myself and carried on with my morning.

A few hours later, I found myself back at the conference, with hundreds of other writers. Now, what is the likelihood (and don’t actually tell me, because the math would ruin the magic) that, in a popular plenary session, I would sit down and look up to see that three seats away from me sat a former student of mine? Or that the only other woman who got lost trying to find the restroom in an empty hallway of the Greater Richmond Convention Center would be the wife of a woodworker my husband is dying to take a workshop with, who we’d met at Makers Fest last weekend? Small world, huh?

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The James River Writers Annual Conference is held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

To top it all off, on my way home from the conference today, I turned on NPR. The Hidden Brain episode I heard promoted a few days ago, made a mental note to listen to, and then forgot the mental note, was airing. The topic? Coincidences.

(Don’t read too much into it.)

All that said, here are some pearls of wisdom from one of my favorite panels, Replenishing Your Creativity Toolkit.

On Writer’s Block

“Start writing bad things right away until you hit on something good. Write the bad idea and see what happens.” —Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

“If it [writing] was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it good.” —Moe Ferrara

“You don’t get inspiration, really. Your inspiration comes from your dedication. If there is a muse, it’s you.” —Pavana Reddy

“You write. You read. You let others read what you write. That’s what you can control. Keep swinging the bat. You have control over how many times you swing. Even if your batting average is low, if you keep swinging, you’re gonna hit something.” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

On Creative Space and Process

“You have to be nice to yourself because no one else is going to be. You can’t sit down and tell your brain, ‘Write now or else!'” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

“If you’re really excited about your ending, write it. It’s probably your beginning.” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

“Write every day. There is no inspiration. You are the muse.” –Pavana Reddy

And one more pearl of wisdom from another favorite panel, Think Like a Word Entrepreneur:

On Writing Community

“Get over the idea that other writers are your competition. All writers are your tribe.”—Laurie Gwen Shapiro

 

 

 

 

 

 

All You Need Is…Faith

Writing is an activity that, if one harbors aspirations of publishing, is fraught with rejection and disappointment. To be a writer is to cultivate and maintain a tough skin. Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home. So why do we keep trying? We keep writing, of course, because we love it or we are compelled to do it or both. But how do we maintain our enthusiasm about publishing anything, with the competition so stiff and the chances so low? The answer is simple: faith.

Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home.

Recently, I had three different faith-full experiences that I can draw on during my moments of self-doubt.

The first occurred at a friend’s house over the summer. One of my friends mentioned in passing that I was writing a novel, and her mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re writing a novel?” she said in awe.

Before I could answer, my other friend chimed in. “It’s gonna be so good,” he said, nodding and smiling where he sat on the couch.

That was all I needed–a vote of confidence from friends, even just in passing. Just writing about the memory, the experience of which lasted maybe fifteen seconds, produces a lasting sense of optimism.

“It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.”

Several weeks before the incident at my friend’s house, I shared the first few chapters of my novel with my grandparents, both avid readers. When they called me with their critique, full of constructive criticism, my grandpa said he thought the book could inspire a cult following. Of course, grandparents should always have encouraging words for their grandchildren, but his praise was so specific, and his criticisms so insightful, that I believed in his belief in me–and my writing.

Finally, several instances that have occurred over the last year in my writing class at VisArts have also buoyed my spirits and summoned my muse.

One evening, as the instructor provided feedback on my week’s submission, I noticed he was using phrases like “When you get an agent”–“when,” not “if.” I tend to quantify my aspirations about publishing with “if,” implying I know it might never happen. But to hear someone else–someone who teaches creative writing at the university level–talk about “when” my novel gets published, was extremely reaffirming.

If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?

Another week, my instructor said, “If I’m an agent, this is the chapter that makes me want your book.” In an even more recent class, our instructor gave the entire class this advice about finishing the first draft of our novels: “It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.” He’s right. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you? Still, it helps when others believe in you, too. Their belief buoys yours, whenever you start to have your doubts.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story. September 27 was Day One of that promise to myself. I wrote 940 words that night. I haven’t missed a day yet, and today will mark Day Twelve.

 

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!

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.