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Make it messy

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There are two bits of advice about writing that I return to time and time again when I am feeling stuck with my work.

The first: “Write drunk, edit sober.” This saying is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that master of brevity and flourish-free language.

And the second: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” This piece of advice is from Natalie Goldberg in the classic Bird by Bird.

Both of these insights speak to me, because I have a tendency to clam up before I really get going. Maybe you have this tendency too. I am often so caught up in the desire to tell a great story, to dazzle my readers with wit and charm, to surprise them with something unique, that I find it hard to get going. The pressure gets to me, and hello writer’s block. I get stuck striving for perfection and elegance right out of the gate, instead of doing the actual work of writing.

Writing a “shitty first draft” (Goldberg’s term) and writing drunk are not excuses for me to churn out bad, careless work. But it does mean that I have the freedom to write the raw material of the story that I need to write, without the fear of judgment. No-one will see my first draft except me. I have to remind myself to simply get the story on paper, in all its beautiful, terrible, first-glimpse glory—and then shape it into something that someone else might want to read.

Don’t worry about perfection or form or style or commas. Produce the beginnings of something that excites you. Write fast and sloppy. Let your characters do whatever they want. Use simple language and un-fussy descriptions. And write every day or as often as you can manage it, until you have a lovely messy first draft in your hands. Save the polish until later.

Writing is hard. Getting started is harder. Allow yourself the freedom to churn something out, poke around in the mess, and see if you can create something shiny and beautiful from it.

Give it away now

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In a previous blog post, I talked about my tendency to hoard my ideas.

I have a similar tendency with pieces of writing that I have developed to a stage where they have some potential.

Just last week, I had been working on a poem that I thought was promising. I revised it and got it into reasonably good shape, but I never felt like it was at that stage where I could consider it finished and submit it. The ending felt slightly off, and I wasn’t satisfied with the rhythm. It was so close to completion—but I couldn’t let it go. So I abandoned it and moved onto another project.

When I stumbled on the poem the other night, I realized I might never feel 100% happy with it. So, instead of closing the file and saying I would deal with it another time, I committed to finishing it and submitting it by the end of the night. I gave myself until 10:00pm before I had to “give it away” and submit it to a journal.

It worked. And it gave me the motivation to solve the niggling problem that I couldn’t quite fix before. After playing with the form for an hour, I was inspired to turn it into a flash-fiction story. It was an “a-ha!” moment that gave me the push to finish it and send it out on submission.

Will it be accepted? Maybe. But in the meantime, I can move on to my next project, satisfied that I had finished something, and that I had done what I could.

What’s preventing you from sending your writing out into the world?

  • Fear of rejection. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told no.
  • Fear of not being perfect. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told that my writing is not good enough.
  • Fear of running out of ideas. “If I never submit it, I’ll always have this idea to fall back on.

We writers must learn to let go of these fears. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we can’t allow these thoughts to keep us from finishing our work and sharing it with potential readers. Giving your writing away is a habit that can be picked up over time. And you might even find it energizing. My own experience with calling something “done” and submitting it has given me the motivation to do it again, with another almost-finished piece.

This same intent—of not keeping your writing to yourself—is expressed in a quote by Bill Moyers I found a few days ago:

You must never think that your most recent idea is your best or your last. You must be willing to keep searching your imagination and intuition for new versions of that idea.

Be generous with your writing. Don’t keep it to yourself. Finish it, and give it away.

Maria

Lather, rinse, write, repeat

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I get my best ideas in the shower.

I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s the repetitive routine of my morning suds-session that frees up my left brain. Could be that the shower is one of the few places I can’t wear my glasses, and I’m not distracted by the world around me. Or maybe the soothing lavender smell of my new body wash leads my mind to far-off places.

It’s backed up by science. One study showed that 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower.

Whatever it is, I wish I could bottle it and use it whenever I needed it.

Some people get their inspiration being active. One friend of mine gets magnificent ideas whenever she goes for a run. Honestly, when I’m running, I’m concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I wish it were not so—I’d love to be brilliant whilst burning calories. (Although this study by Stanford University suggests that maybe I should try walking.)

I’ve heard of writers who free their minds through cooking or baking. For me, that’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t have the skill necessary to whip up a killer guacamole and a surprising plot twist at the same time. Can you say ka-blooie?

I suppose I could try meditation, which is recommended to boost creativity at work. I could get into the deep breathing, the soft Enya-inspired music, and a scented candle or two…ha! Give me 60 seconds of that and I’m off to dreamland. Meditation may not be the best path to inspiration for the perpetually sleep-deprived.

So my solution is to hop in the shower. Making a slippery trail from bathroom to desk, I race to record those fleeting moments when I come up with something precious.

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Make mine a loofah.

What about you? How do you find inspiration?

Maria

Adapted from my original post on the Restless Writers blog, August 28, 2009. Photo by Depositphotos.

The magic of making it new

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“The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” Anaïs Nin

One of the great joys of being a writer is to look at the world from a fresh perspective; to take in an everyday scene and make it new.

Take a look around. Reflect on the moments in your day. What richness surrounds you! A story emerges from every corner. A woman orders coffee at her local java joint. A man opens his front door after a long day at work. Someone picks up the wrong package at the post office. A company lays off half its workforce. A family in your town wins the lottery.

You get to take these everyday moments and interactions, and with your words, reveal something astonishing or disturbing or hopeful. Something that moves your reader. Something that is true.

Keep your senses open as you go through your day, and take note as those familiar scenes unfold. Take one that catches your attention, but change it. Swap the characters. Shift the setting. Explode the ending. Make it new.

That’s when the magic happens.

Maria

The river of words

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Some days, the words come easily.

It can happen when I am indexing a textbook, critiquing a story, or working on my own writing. I am the grizzly bear in the river, plucking words like salmon as they hurtle past. They come fast and furious, and I must rush to catch as many as I can. The challenge is to not let the meatiest ones slip past un-scooped.

Other days, I am the salmon swimming up the river. I strain against the pressure of the work, the weight of the text, the burden of expectations. I try to find the path of least resistance. Each surge forward is a herculean effort, but somehow I make headway against the flow.

I have come to value both kinds of days. The former shows me the joy of what it’s like when the going is easy, and the latter teaches me that I can persevere even when it’s not.

Grizzly bear or salmon—which one are you today?

Maria

Conquering distraction

A huge pile of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink and on the co

Dirty dishes are my kryptonite.

After moving to a new home in a new city across the country, we didn’t have a dishwashing machine right away. I grumbled a bit, but took on the mantle of Dishwasher-in-Chief. Despite the chapped hands and time spent elbow-deep in sudsy water, I found hand-washing the dishes to be extremely meditative. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and helped me start or finish my day on a squeaky-clean note.

It also came in handy as an excuse not to write. How easy it was to turn to the sink instead of my work in progress! But the dishes have to get done, I thought. I’ll write when they’re all done.

I should have been glad when the dishwasher was finally installed, right? I was, but I found myself mindlessly puttering in the kitchen once the dishwasher had been filled or emptied, as if I was looking for more dishes to do.

I had duped myself into thinking that doing the dishes—or doing anything, in fact—was more pressing than writing. Despite thinking I was a pretty disciplined person, I had slipped up and let my distractions get the better of me. I had a minor a-ha moment, shook my head, and powered up my laptop.

There are still some days where I think I would much rather clean out the cat’s litterbox (gross!) than write. Some days, I tell myself that it is absolutely critical that I use the Magic Eraser on those baseboard scuff-marks right away. As a writer, I am not proud of those days. As a regular human person, I am still vulnerable to them.

So how do I conquer those distractions? Here’s what I try to do:

I show up. I kept telling myself that I was “writing in my head” while I was doing all those dishes. But I wasn’t writing! It was only after I got my butt in my chair that I was able to ignore the pull of that particular distraction and puts one word after another.

I identify what I what to accomplish. I identify a word-count goal, a scene, an outline, or a character study—whatever I think I can reasonably accomplish in the time I have set aside.

I set priorities. If I have three things to work on, I prioritize them in a way that works for me. And I don’t beat myself up if I don’t finish everything on the list. That just leaves me with a starting-point for the next day.

I recognize my fears and barriers. Something is making it awfully easy for me to focus on household chores, instead of my writing. It’s important that I take a moment to reflect on what is keeping me from writing the next sentence, the next scene, or the words, “The End.” I acknowledge how powerful those barriers might feel. But I know that my impulse to write is just as powerful.

The dirty dishes, the neglected laundry, the dusty windows, the gross litterbox—these things will never go away.

But time will. More quickly than we can imagine.

What will you regret more at the end of the day? That you didn’t finish the dishes? Or that you didn’t write the story that only you can tell?

Write first. The dishes will still be there when you’re done.

Maria

Photo from Depositphotos.

1 comment on “Confessions of an Idea Hoarder”

Confessions of an Idea Hoarder

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Imagine running out of ideas for your writing. It’s the stuff of nightmares. You sit down at your computer or pick up your pen, ready to leap into a new story, and there’s…nothing. The well has run dry. The spark has been extinguished. The horror, the horror!

I have plenty of challenges when it comes to my own writing, but running out of ideas isn’t one of them. My problem is usually the opposite. I have plenty of ideas. My idea cup overfloweth. Every day I get at least one new idea, if not more. I have ideas tucked into notebooks, written on the backs of phone bills, jotted quickly into Evernote or a draft text. I have ideas that I never got around to writing down, but they’re assembled in the central idea-hub of my brain, hoping to be plucked from the crowd and turned into something amazing.

It doesn’t seem like much of a problem, right? Isn’t it better to have too many ideas instead of none?

Generally, yes. But I hoard my ideas. That idea-hub in my brain? It’s jam-packed, and I’m not sure how much more I can cram in there. My ideas are spilling out all over the place. If I’m not careful, I’ll trip over a pile of ideas while trying to do something important, like cross the street or remember my sister’s phone number.

I don’t want to throw any of my ideas out—what if I lose my best idea ever? What if I need that idea again someday, when the ideas flow more slowly?

At the same time, I’d like to get rid of some of those ideas that—let’s face it—are just not going to work out. I’d like to free up some of my brain to focus on the ideas that I can craft into good stories.

Spring seems like a good time to give my idea-hub a thorough cleaning. I have decided to take the same approach I would take to spring-cleaning my closet: take everything and lay it all out to have a good look, and then divide all the things into four piles (or files, in this case): KEEP, REPURPOSE, DONATE, or TOSS.

Want to join me? Here’s how you can think about what goes in these piles:

  • KEEP: This pile is for those bright, precious, and meaningful ideas that you know will make great stories some day. They have longevity, impact, and potential. Keep these ideas in a file or notebook close at hand. Finish whatever it is that’s keeping you from pouncing on any one of them right now, or make the time to pick one and write it into being. Make a promise to yourself that you will focus on these beautiful ideas, one at a time.
  • REPURPOSE: You might come across ideas that area really not very good, but, when you take a closer look, you will see they have the kernel of something usable. It could be a word, a phrase, or a feeling it evokes—whatever it is, you can use that tidbit. You might also be able to re-work the idea into a different piece, like a poem instead of a novel, or a blog post or a drabble. Stash these ideas away, and see if you can work it into another piece later.
  • DONATE: Could someone else use that idea you don’t care for anymore? Give it away! Share it as a prompt on social media. Use it as an exercise for your writing group. Suggest it as an option for a fellow writer’s WIP. Be a good literary citizen, and support your fellow writers.
  • TOSS: Even the best ideas lose their luster over time. Maybe they are so dated that they are no longer workable. Maybe you came up with these ideas at a different time in your life, and now they make you cringe. You really don’t want your grand-kids to find these ideas in a dusty box in the attic after you are gone. So get rid of them. Delete, erase, bury, rub out, strike-through, burn. Make a ritual out of it, if you like, giving a small prayer of gratitude to your muse for giving you that whacked-out idea in the first place. And then get back to those good ideas.

Hopefully these tips will help you clear out some idea-junk, so you can focus on the ideas you can really work with.

Have fun with your spring cleaning—and your writing!

Maria

Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

Filtering out the no(i)se

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Did you know that you can always see your nose?

Made you look! Or rather, made you notice.

Your nose is always smack-dab in the middle of your field of vision, but your brain chooses to ignore it most of the time. (You can learn about the phenomenon here.) That’s because it’s expected sensory information. Your brain doesn’t need to register your nose (unless something’s going on with it, like maybe there’s a butterfly perched on it) so your brain filters it out in order to be more efficient. After all, your brain can’t be expected to actively report on absolutely everything it comes across all the time. And you don’t want it to. You want your brain to clue you in to the important stuff, like the sign-post you’re about to walk into, the twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, or the fact that your duck a l’orange is burning to a crisp.

This ability–called unconscious selective attention–means your brain can safely ignore unnecessary inputs so it can handle the important stuff.

(Interested in this concept? Read more here. The invisible gorilla experiment is also pretty cool.)

Unconscious selective attention can help you focus on your writing efforts. Most writers need quiet, calm spaces in which to work, and those spaces are increasingly hard to come by. But this is when your brain gives you a helping hand. You’ll be able to edit out unimportant background noises that might be preventing you from concentrating, like the chatter in your local coffee-shop or the lawnmower outside your window. It also means you aren’t distracted by the colour of the rug, or the hum of the HVAC system, or the fact that you’re wearing slippers.

But you might want to think differently about selective attention in your writing, particularly if you’re writing fiction. This is one place where you want to consciously select the information your reader should notice. It’s your job to point out that background information when it will enhance your writing.

When does this make sense?

  • When you want to make a description of your setting richer. What kinds of sounds percolate through the scene? Is there a unique quality to the light, or a scent to the air? Bring some of that sensory flavour to the foreground.
  • When you want to build suspense. A ticking clock. The lack of birdsong. A hum in the air. The sun slowly going down. Adding these barely noticeable layers to your scene will give your readers a sense that something is about to happen.
  • When you want to slow the pace down. Is your character taking a moment to reflect on a decision or remember the past? Take note of the small gestures and non-critical elements to give the scene a meditative quality.

Take a moment to notice the things that your brain is helping you ignore for efficiency’s sake.

Maria

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

Cookin’ with gas

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Considering the “four burners” theory and the trade-offs of success

James Clear, a writer and thought-leader on human behaviour and productivity, recently wrote about the “four burners” theory. This theory proposes that your life is made up of four quadrants, like four burners on a stove. Those four quadrants are family, friends, health, and work.

The four burners theory maintains that if you want to be successful, you can’t have all four burners going at once. You have to cut one off. Further, if you want to be even more successful, you’ll have to cut off two.

Clear confesses that, at first, he wanted to find workarounds, so he could keep all four burners going and still be successful. For example, combining burners—such as friends and health, or health and work—but he eventually comes to terms with what the theory is telling him about choice:

“Essentially, we are forced to choose. Would you rather live a life that is unbalanced, but high-performing in a certain area? Or would you rather live a life that is balanced, but never maximizes your potential in a given quadrant?”

This article made sense to me, and got me thinking about issues around work-life balance—especially for creative types—and the choices we all have to make about what aspects of our life we need to focus on.

Work-life balance shouldn’t be the goal.

We are not bottomless wells of energy. We can only spend so much of our attention and energy and focus on at a time, and can’t keep up all aspects of our life on “full gas.” That way lies stress, resentment, and eventually burnout. But as Clear notes, aiming for balance might mean that you aren’t excelling in any one area.

Ideally, we should strive to put the right amount of energy towards the specific quadrants of our lives where we want to excel, when it makes sense—but it can’t happen all the time. You can’t give everything equal power—sometimes, certain parts of your life will take priority, and you will have to focus on them with as much attention as needed, for as long as needed.

Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell maintains that there is no work-life balance. For Howatt, it’s all about blending your time. He says, “Most of us don’t live in two separate worlds where at work we focus only on work and at home we focus only on home.”

This blending concept resonated with me. After all, as much as I wind up working from home in evenings and on weekends, I am often “homing from work” during business hours. There is no clear and definite separation, thanks to technology and the changing expectations of the workplace.

Instead of finding some elusive sense of balance, Howatt recommends using the tools of awareness, accountability, and action to find the perfect blend across all the burners or quadrants of your life.

The perfect blend comes down to choice.

When I first read Clear’s article, I found myself hung up on the fact that the four burners model doesn’t accurately represent my life.

As someone who currently works full-time, runs a few small businesses, writes in the wee hours, and pursues a variety of other projects and initiatives, I find the “work” label too simplistic.

What’s more, I also volunteer. Is that work? Friends? Health?

Some people get great meaning and fulfillment out of their spirituality, and attend services and events related to their faith community. Where’s the burner for that?

But in the end, I realized I was missing the point. The specific burners don’t matter. What matters is that it’s ultimately up to me to decide where and when to apply my energy and focus, and to make peace with the fact that I can’t give my all to everything at once.

My stove might have six burners: family, friends, work, creating, health, and volunteering. Yours might be different. The thing to remember is that no matter what burners you have on your stove, you will have to choose which ones to ramp up and which ones to dial down.

For Clear, it’s all about trade-offs.  Am I okay with pulling back on my creative pursuits while I focus on my volunteer commitments? Can I give my partner less attention than my current business plan and still feel okay with it? If not, what strategies can I use to manage my burners more effectively?

And as Howatt says, we should strive for blending rather than balance, and stay tuned in to how we’re applying our energy.

What do you think about the four burners theory? Does the idea of work-life-etc. “blending” resonate with you? Can you use these concepts to move toward success and productivity?

Maria

Curiosity and creativity

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A good friend of mine is results-oriented to the extreme. He proceeds by tackling and completing tasks in a linear, structured way. He’s a writer too, and swears by detailed outlines, story-arc schematics, and rich character tables.

A few months ago, he confessed that he was dealing with writer’s block.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “I know exactly where my novel is going, and how my main character will overcome a critical internal conflict. I even have the final dramatic scene laid out in bullet points! But I can’t seem to get writing. I’ve set goals for myself, but all my deadlines have flown past—whoosh! It’s totally frustrating.”

I asked him if he’s ever tried a curiosity challenge.

A curiosity challenge is a technique I have used in the past to break out of a writing slump. I have used it when I’m on the verge of being burnt-out by my project, or when I need to re-kindle my passion for writing. I’ve also used it to generate prompts for writing exercises.

All that a curiosity challenge involves is reframing a goal statement into a curiosity question. It’s simple and powerful. Instead of setting a rigid word-count goal or deadline for yourself, try turning it into an experiment.

Frame your experiment with phrases like: “I’m curious if…” or “Is it possible to…” or “I wonder if…” or even “Wouldn’t it be cool to…”

Here are some examples:

Instead of saying this… …try this.
I have to wake up extra-early all week so I can meet my word-count goal. I’m curious if I can get up an hour early every day this week and wrote before my kids got up.
The only way I can make this submission deadline is if I write the whole thing this long weekend. Is it possible to write 10,000 words over one long weekend?
I have to focus on this chapter and finish it before I can move on with my novel. I wonder if I could write a scene from my main character’s dog’s perspective?
My revised chapter 1 is due to my writing group no later than April 1. Wouldn’t it be cool to share a revised draft of chapter 1 with my writing group next month?

This approach takes fear of failure out of the equation. If you’re anxious about not being able to achieve a writing goal, remove the anxiety by turning it into a game. If high pressure makes you heave, make it fun instead.

If you’re finding yourself stuck or blocked or bored, bring a sense of curiosity and wonder to your writing. Don’t plan; play. Be bold. Explore a possibility. Do something new just for the hell of it. Broaden your understanding of what you can achieve by just trying it.

Be ever-curious and challenge yourself to go beyond your normal routine. You’ll be surprised by how this simple approach can give your creativity a kick-start.

Drop me a line and let me know if this technique works for you!

Maria