I've done a lot of soul-searching in the last few months...brief hiatuses from social media, countless books read, and a great deal of quiet reflection. I'm having a bit of an identity crisis, as many people tend to do once they start approaching the age of 30 (or 40, 50, 60...).
I'm a writer. My blog, resume, and LinkedIn page say so. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean I'm required to keep up this blog? Does it mean that I'm supposed to be laboring to write the Next Great American Novel? Does it mean that I should care about any of this?
My research, which is not backed by any scientific or professional resources, tells me no.
My life is mine to design. Every aspect of it, including my activities and how I fill my very precious time, are totally up to me. There are no rules here, and certainly no one is enforcing them if there are.
Therefore, how I define myself is up to me too.
I've taken a few months off because, quite frankly, I was trying to decide if this was still worth it. Did I really need to be a writer outside of my full-time editing job? So I spent three months without writing to see if my soul still craved it the way it used to.
And after the first month, I realized that I need writing.
Like many introverts, I am buried in my head most of the time. I have thoughts and ideas that I don't know how to express unless it's through writing. During this time of quiet, it felt as if something was hiding inside of me that didn't know how to express itself. I shushed it and asked it for patience—maybe in a while I would let it come out. When the desire returned.
Today it did. I woke up, ready to resume my new Saturday routine of reading a book, drinking coffee, and watching questionable Food Network chefs on TV. But something pulled me to the computer and opened up a blank Word document, and then the words fell out. I looked and saw my heart on the keyboard, bleeding and pumping.
So yes, I'm a writer. I'm a writer in the respect that I will always need writing like a human needs air to breathe, or a bird needs wind to soar. I'm a writer because, without it, I'm left gasping for words in the corner, waiting for someone to pull them out of me.
Hi, friends. It’s been a while.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed (at least those of you still out there), it’s been almost a month since I posted anything. Yes, I'm still alive. No, I'm not in trouble. I’ve been enjoying a break from creativity.
This seems counterintuitive, especially how I’ve preached the benefits of daily writing and constantly pushing yourself. But let’s be honest—life gets in the way sometimes. I would love to say that I’m a virtual fountain of ideas, ready to strike whenever an idea pops into my head.
Were that the case, I’d have written (and sold) SO many books by now. Man, think of all the money! Although I’d love to live in this rich fantasy world where all my student loans are paid off, I’m driven around by a driver daily, and I have one of these in my dining room, the truth is that I’m just another person.
I’m a human being with a full-time job, a husband, a dog always wanting snuggles, and a mind that gets weary. Surely you know the feeling.
So what does any of this have to do with today’s Truth of Writing lesson?
The lesson here is incredibly simple--recognize when you aren’t coming up with anything worthwhile and give yourself some time to breathe.
About a month ago, I struggled to come up with new topics for the blog. All of my poetic impulses started to dim. Posting a new entry, which usually brings me so much joy, started to feel like another thing I had to check off my list.
My creative wells ran dry, and I knew the only way to refill them was to step away.
The greatest gift you can give to yourself is an understanding of your limitations.
It’s no use beating yourself up if writer’s block knocks at your door; it happens to everyone. But if the usual methods of daily writing, creative writing prompts, and reading don’t do anything to reignite the spark, it’s time to take a break.
In my three-ish weeks off, I read some fantastic books (including this one). I spent time trying to figure out what Future Me looks like and what I want to do with my days (update: still unresolved). I traveled to one of my favorite places on earth and dined with people I love.
You can impose so many rules on yourself and try so hard, but if it’s not working, try a reset.
So here I am, nearly a month later, not any wiser, but ready to bring you fresh content and things to read. Let’s start again.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you.” – Anne Lamott
A moment of honesty here, friends: I had no desire to write this blog post last night. I heard the call of my bed, so sweet and wonderful after a long day. I saw the housework piling up around me. I was buried under the weight of all the things I should have done instead of this.
And yet, I wrote it—with heavy eyelids and messy house, I walked to my keyboard once again.
I know in the long run, this is just a blog; it isn’t a matter of life and death if I don’t finish this post. But as much as I hope you’re all waiting for my next entry with bated breath, my perseverance isn’t for you.
It’s for me.
You see, one of the greatest Truths of Writing, and one I need to remind myself of often, is the importance of developing a consistent writing habit.
As my sage author on habits and happiness, Gretchen Rubin, once said:
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
The regular act of writing, even just a few sentences, is so incredibly important for advancing the technical abilities and creative thinking of writers. It prevents your brain getting rusty. It challenges you to think of new topics and ways to craft stories.
I’ve found that in months where I consistently scribble down a few things every day, I have a much easier time of accomplishing my writing goals.
But besides the benefits of greasing those creative cogs and keeping you motivated, writing frequently is beneficial for my mental health and anxiety.
I know they’re just words. But if you fall into any of the following categories, I’m willing to bet that someone else’s written words have affected your life--
If you’re here, you know what I mean.
Writing is tremendously cathartic. When I have a rough day and need a stress reliever, I turn to my pen and paper. When I’m crushed under the enormity of the thoughts bouncing around my head, stringing words together helps calm down the buzzing. When I need to work out my life, writing is always there to give me a hug and say, “It’s okay. Let’s figure this out together.”
Writing is my crutch when I’ve sprained my soul and my cheerleader when I’m down.
What we as writers do may not be important to everyone, but it is to us. All I can do is shout into the void and hope that someone is listening.
I’ve learned along the way that, if your blog sucks, people won’t want to read it.
Unfortunately, this is true for all types of writing. You can have all the motivation, inspiration, and great ideas in the world, but if you don’t structure your piece in a way that entrances your audience right away, good luck getting them to finish it.
Sure, you’ll want to write short stories/books/poems with your audience in mind. But what about cover letters? Blog posts? Resumes?
How do we write and make sure readers aren’t bored by the second line?
1. Make your opening line pack a punch.
If your piece doesn’t grab your reader right away, you might as well as goodbye to them now. Think about writing a cover letter—how many applications are actually original and non-formulaic? Start out with a quote or a fact that you find interesting and relates to the position at hand. Deviate from the norm and you’re sure to find your submission closer to the top of the pile.
For creative writing, craft an opening line that is a statement. Usually something short and sweet, instead of some lengthy description, is the way to go. If you hook them in right away, your chances of success are much higher.
2. Edit out the boring details.
I’ve discussed the importance of editing before, but here it is again: make sure you edit any extras that don’t advance your plot/letter/etc. You can talk at length about the brilliant color of your main character’s tulips, but if it doesn’t help your story (or exist as symbolism you’ve crafted), then all you’ll do is bore your audience. Edit, edit, edit.
3. Consider your audience—think like a reader.
Put yourself in the audience’s shoes when writing. If you’re applying for a job as an animal handler in the circus, but your résumé only discusses your circus experience as a ride operator, you might want to reframe how your résumé is written.
Similarly, if you’re writing a creative piece that’s supposed to appeal to the Stephen King horror crowd, maybe leave out the flowery descriptions of your character’s love life. Get to the good stuff.
4. Write in your own voice.
Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
By all means, write your grand Elizabethan epic in a British accent. But if you haven’t immersed yourself in the culture, the history, and the experience of that time frame, you might end up looking like a fraud. Write what is true to you, in your own voice, and your piece will feel more authentic.
5. Make the ending worthwhile.
Echoing the sentiments of item #1, make the ending worth reading. If you’ve done your job correctly, your readers will be sad that your piece is almost over. Make them hurt even more with a devastatingly crafted ending line.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of this, but by following the five tips above, I’ve found great success in attracting and securing readers, and hopefully provoking some thought along the way. And that, my friends, is what matters to a writer.
About a month ago, I wrote about the importance of inspiration. Today, we focus on its twin sister—motivation.
Ah, that flighty little thing. You might have a great idea, but unless you possess the dedication and drive to move forward with it, it will sit, collecting dust in your drawer along with all of your gym membership that you pledged to use faithfully.
When you have it, motivation seems like the greatest thing in the world. I’ll often be zoning out during something important, dreaming of what I want to write, and suddenly, I get the itch to leave the room right away and work on it. Unfortunately, as I live in the real world, that’s rarely an option.
So the question remains, how do you stay motivated when the feeling is so fleeting?
Zig Ziglar, a Very Important Person of whom I have never heard, said the following about motivation--
“Of course, motivation is not permanent. But then, neither is bathing; but it is something you should do on a regular basis.”
And that’s the key to keeping yourself motivated, both when scribbling down words and when trying to be an adult in general--frequency.
Find ways that work for you and stick with it. Personally, I’m partial to quotes. If you look around my workspace, you’ll find sticky notes piled high with notes from some of my favorite authors, Very Important People, and fictional characters. Even if you look at my laptop and phone, you’ll often find quotes as the backgrounds. (See Exhibits A and B below.)
In case you were curious, here are some of my favorites:
Even though these words certainly won’t write my story for me (though I’d really appreciate it if they did), they give a nice kick when I’m feeling sluggish or need a little inspiration.
What’s important to remember is that you must find something that works for you. Keep inspirational pictures hanging around your writing space. Continually picture your book on every Barnes and Noble bookshelf. Minimize distractions while you are actively writing and try to focus.
Motivate and concentrate by whatever means necessary. Reapply, rinse, and repeat.
P.S. Tune in next week for another Truth of Writing, where I’ll throw out some tips to writing a blog post/poem/letter/to-do list worth reading. In the meantime, catch up on previous Truth of Writing Posts #1, #2, and #3.
Have any motivation tips you'd like to share? Connect with me!
There’s a formula I’d like you to remember. Grab some paper and a pen, if it suits you. You ready?
(Idea – Passion) x Tenacity = Insanity
If you’re not the mathematical type (join the club), the distilled version is this—if you have an idea for a story, no passion for said idea, but you’re dead-set on writing it, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.
Let’s say you’re interested in romantic novels, so you set out to write a great love story about John and Jane. You sit in front of that blank computer screen with the cursor incessantly blinking, but can’t compel John and Jane to share a hug or kiss. In your head, they won’t even look at each other. Maybe you keep daydreaming about how John moonlights as a serial killer and Jane is an undercover FBI agent trying to catch him in the act. Explosions and thrilling car chases race through your head—boom, pow! But this scenario doesn’t fit into your sunset-filled dream world, so you quickly stomp it out, because you’re writing about love. Your cursor continues to blink, slowly ushering you into madness. The problem?
You are telling the wrong story.
Without passion for your idea, you’re going to fail at writing about it.
So what do you do if you find yourself in this situation—a writer without a fire propelling you forward (or a car chasing you into the horizon)?
You start over.
Find something that does motivate you—an idea that you can’t wait to get home from a long day at the office and write about. Read books in the genres you love. Read books in genres you don’t love. People-watch and observe scenes from everyday life. Go to a museum and look for a painting at which you can’t stop staring. Listen to some Pavarotti. Absorb and consume everything until you know what lights your fire. You’re going to have to work for it.
I think Stephen King said it best in On Writing:
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level…You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you…but he’s got the inspiration…the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic.”
It’s your duty as a writer and creator to give life to things that motivate and excite you. Spend some time with your cigar-wielding muse and clean up after him. Learn his ways. And when it’s time for you to put pen to paper, you’ll feel it.
How do you inspire yourself in your writing or other aspects of your life? Tell me about it in the Comments section, on my Facebook page, or on Twitter!
In my first blog post, I briefly introduced my first Truth of Writing (in case you missed it, feel free to deviate for a moment and catch up here). This Truth of Writing is one of the more important ones, and I feel I didn't quite do it justice with only a small name-drop, so forgive me as we go backward in time and revisit Truth of Writing #1: Not Everyone Thinks You're as Great as You Do.
It's important to note, before going too far down the rabbit hole, that you should consider yourself a decent writer. Without at least a bit of self-confidence, your work will fail to launch even before you ignite the rockets. But there's a fine line to consider here---at what point does your own ego become a hindrance?
Ask any professional writer if they were immediately well-received and successful, and I bet they'd openly laugh and produce a sizable stack of rejection letters. Although it's been a long time since I've submitted anything for publication, I received more than my fair share. In hindsight, I wish I kept those letters instead of discarding them and burying the evidence as far underground as possible. I was an arrogant writer, scribbling massive odes to modernist American poets, all the while thinking my work rivaled theirs, which meant I would be published quickly---right? My pieces lacked my personal style and instead were nearly direct thematic copies of everything the Beats did, minus the fuel of black coffee and endless cigarettes. Somebody needed to put a stop to it. And nothing worked better than a publisher saying, “Thank you for submitting, but this isn't what we're looking for at this time.”
Being rejected and critiqued doesn't mean you're terrible or that you should call it quits before anyone else reads your drivel. It means you should take in the letter's contents and grow from it. If it wasn't right for that publisher, what could you do to make it more appealing to another? Having someone dislike your work teaches humility. Let's face it---you're probably not the next J.K. Rowling, and neither am I. But the sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be content with just being yourself.
On a more self-indulgent scale, let's relate this whole emotional cycle with the five stages of grief (because, let's face it, at the time you receive that first heavy rejection, it feels like your funeral). For me, it may have looked something like this:
Ray Bradbury once said, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” Acknowledging your flaws makes you a better writer. Sure, believe in yourself a little bit, but don't be disappointed when not everyone fights to make you their next big thing. Take your time, listen to critiques, accept that the road to success should never be easy, and that any goal worth achieving is worth the work.
If you have any advice for authors trying to get published, or have a few rejection stories under your belt, please share your wisdom in the Comments section or on my Facebook page!
(P.S. I'm still not entirely over the Cheetos stage, so if you have some of those you'd like to share, too, I'll always accept.)
Nobody sits down and writes a bestseller on the first try. To my knowledge, it's impossible to find a person, much less an experienced writer, who puts forth a grammatically correct, perfectly balanced, and shiny piece of literature at first chance. The genre doesn't matter---poem, book, short story, research paper, that dull statistical analysis you're writing for work---more likely than not, they'll all fail to impress when written the first time.
And that's okay.
I don't mean to be pessimistic; I only intend to stress the importance of rereading, rewriting, and editing. As a full-time Editor myself, I can't emphasize it enough.
(As Stephen King once said, “To write is human, to edit is divine.”)
Your first draft is your chance to get all of those ideas flying around in your head like anxious birds on paper. Release them. It doesn't matter where they fly at the moment; just let them out so they can stretch their wings. Type (or write) your thoughts and see where they take you. Right now, your grammatical skills or the amount of passivity in your sentences doesn't matter. Just write.
Now that you're sufficiently pleased with releasing those birds and they've calmed down a bit, it's time to get them in order and read what you've written. My process usually looks something like this:
You'll find that, not only will rereading/editing your work in multiple drafts make you a better writer, your piece often goes in an unexpected, and better, direction. To view an example, let's look at this poem I created for the purpose of this exercise.
First Draft (Free writing):
It definitely needs work. Let's move on to how it changed when steps 1 and 2 were applied.
Summary of revisions made: Capitalization where necessary, em dashes inserted when breaks between lines weren't full sentences, “within” the current removed since it was strange
Now that this is moderately presentable, it's time to really look at it.
Summary of revisions: “It's hard to know sometimes” section revised and moved to end of poem for emotional impact; "It's hard to know sometimes" changed to "I often wonder"; “Floating from river to ocean” added to tie in river theme; “then, too” added for clarification; “under the weight” removed since currents don't really have weight (do they??)
And the finished product...
I'm not touting this as the best poem ever written, but even this short piece shows editing works wonders. This blog post itself will undergo the same editing process before it's posted.
Returning to the original point: your first draft will likely need some work. But spend the time looking it over, revising it, and giving it a little love---and you may create something magical.
Writer, editor, and storyteller living in the Twin Cities.