Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Careful what you’re calling writer’s block, because we believe what we think.

Here's my writing block, given to me by a friend many years ago.  It is the only block that I allow within twenty miles of my desk.  Let me tell you why.

Positive affirmations help all of us get through hard times.  It is part of the mental game of life.  We become our sideline coach, telling ourselves, you can do this, when we face an unusual challenge.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we talk ourselves into believing we can overcome an obstacle or complete a task.  This reinforcement often functions under the radar, because we do it so frequently that we don’t actually hear the words in our head.  But if we didn’t believe we could brush our teeth in the morning or get ourselves out the door to an appointment, we wouldn’t.

But negative reinforcement is just as powerful a motivator, though much more subtle.  Take writer’s block.  Well, don’t take it if you can avoid it, but think about, for a minute, what happens to your mental self-coaching when your writing practice hits a snag.  The slowdown can take a variety of forms.  You suddenly notice it has been several days since you’ve written a word.  Or, you sit down at your writing nook and can’t come up with an idea.  Then, most likely, you find your head full of accusations and threats—what’s the matter with you, thinking you can write?  If you were a real writer you would (fill in the blanks).  If you don’t get something written today, that’s it.  You better give up your dream of writing your book.  And then the killer of all creative energy rises up from a dank swamp and says, bingo, you have writer’s block. 

Guess what happens when you get into this mindset?  We believe what we think.  If we think we have writer’s block, sure enough, we won’t write a word.  

Tom Jenks, a writing teacher of mine and now the co-publisher of, once said to me that when he sits down to write, he faces all of his shortcomings.  I think that is a universal experience at some time or other for all writers.  We are trying to make something out of nothing, not an easy task.  And, when you do get words on the page, how do you know they are the right ones, that anyone else will thrill to them the way you do?  As much as we want to write, need to write, we can get the cold sweats because a corner of our mind believes we aren’t up to the task.  Our shortcomings loom too large to see our strengths.  We can’t get the words to work their way through that wall of doubt, so we decide we have writer’s block.  And when we tell our brain we have writer’s block, it snaps to attention and believes you.  It doesn’t produce a word. 

I'm not diminishing the terrors that can arise when we set our hearts on becoming a writer and then our inner life shuts down. How do I know this?  Because, I've spent hours, days, months afraid of the writing process, afraid of what it will tell me about myself--that I'm not good enough, that I'm on the road to failure.  And so I stop writing.  I’ll say I don’t have time to write, or some other excuse.  But I’m running away from the thing I love because I don’t want to face my shortcomings.  As I have written in other posts, this was my reason for becoming a daily writer--so I would no longer fall into that trough.

Remember, though, doubt is not writer’s block.  Fear of the blank page is not writer’s block.  A temporary brain freeze that shuts down your creative energy for a bit isn’t writer’s block.  Not the deadly paralysis we think of when we hear the term.  Unless we tell ourselves it is.  

I've learned that when I am in the grip of a writing slump, I must analyze my feelings in that moment.  Try it.  Ask yourself to identify the feeling underneath the belief about writing block.  It is more likely that you are experiencing fear, doubt, and exhaustion, possibly even boredom.  Because writing block is not a feeling, it is a belief. 

Our inner life flips back and forth between thoughts and feelings.  An oversimplification, I know.  But it works in this regard. It is easier to change a belief, such as, I have writing block, if we don't confuse it with an emotion.  Thoughts and beliefs will bend to logic.  If you think you have writing block, pick an object around you and just briefly describe it.  List the color, the shape, your opinion of it.  Just do two or three sentences.  If you had writing block, you couldn’t do that.  So there is the lie in writing block.  It sort of doesn’t exist.  

But if you identify the feelings as you think you have writing block, you will probably come with something much more real, such as, I'm afraid to write.  I've had my writing rejected and I am filled with self doubt.   These are states of being you and all the rest of us have lived with all of our lives in different circumstances.  And in order to function in the world, we have come up with strategies to confront and overcome these feelings.  We give ourselves a break to relax.  We talk to a trusted friend.  We encourage ourselves in some way. 

To my mind, though, the best way to overcome an attack of failure of confidence is some compassion.  Instead of saying I have writer’s block and I can’t do this, try this.  “I’m attempting something hard, challenging and some self doubt is part of the job.  I’ve done other hard things in my life, and I can do this.”   Trust me, there are days when I do this on an hourly basis.  Eventually, though, I get myself to a better place.  For the time being, that is, because we flip back and forth between emotional state.  Or, at least I do.

I tell myself what Hemingway told himself when his work frightened him.  “I wrote a good sentence yesterday and I will write a good sentence tomorrow.  I can write a good sentence today.”  If he could talk himself down from a writing block, I think we all can.

Please drop me a note in the comment box below and share what helps you get through a writing slump.  Good luck everyone. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Of all the difficult tasks that await the writer, understanding voice may claim the prize as the most elusive element of fiction.  It is the one that makes a story memorable.  How do you define voice?  No two writers describe it the same way.  I think that is because, unlike transitions, point of view and other elements of fiction that can be learned, parsed and practiced, voice comes from deep in the psyche of the writer, as impossible to explain, manage or bend to our will as our creative vision.  To me, voice is not something I consciously choose, but rather it is the song that arises with the story, the rhythms and intent of the storyteller (we have many inside us) that delivers the story to me.

People think voice is diction, dialect, the sound of the characters speaking.  To me it is not.  Those things are manipulated by the narrator to hold the reader’s interest, controlled as best I can (note, the writer is not the narrator of the story, but a character), to do justice to my story.  But the voice lifts all that up so that my plot, characters, setting, narrator become story.  Perhaps you can see that I am having my own difficulties conveying voice.  It is everything you read about when a writer talks about voice, because that is his or her experience of voice, a unique attribute of each story.

The voice in my stories changes with each tale, because each story, I hope, is different and unique with its own singular voice.  Once the voice comes to me, and I believe it comes unconsciously, then I must stay tuned to that frequency as I write. But getting those sound waves to reach my consciousness?  That requires listening to my story as it comes to me.  Sometimes I wait between each line that I write to hear the story coming through its voice, rather than just as text coming from my brain.  That is one of the beauties of writing every day, thevoice rising up from the depths finds it channel, its opening and I can connect with it more easily.  It is not flailing away against closed doors.

Above all, voice is authentic.  I don’t strain to achieve voice, for it is the voice I hear in my head when my story is speaking to me.  It may come with the first line I write, or emerge slowly over several drafts.  I can think through a character, a plot, but I feel as though voice is delivered to me with the words.  I know that I must go deep inside and allow it to come to me. 

It may take many drafts before the right voice for the story appears, but when it does, you know it, your reader will know. 

For another take on voice, read Susan Cushman’s post about her recent stay at a writer’s conference. 

See if you can distinguish the voice in your stories.  That in itself is a writer’s meditation.  Please let me know in the comments your experience with voice.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How easy is it for you to promote yourself?

Please help me research a book on self-promotion.  I would so appreciate it if you would answer the following questions in the comment section below.  This questionnaire is highly unscientific and you may leave an anonymous answer and I will not identify you in any way.  However, your experience would be so very helpful to me.  I am not looking for promotional tips, as they are all over the internet.  I am looking for the presence or absence of blocks to putting yourself out there.  Many thanks in advance.

1.  Male ____   Female _______

2.  Please describe in a word or two whether you are an entrepreneur, artisan, practitioner needing to acquire clients, business owner, other?  To what degree does your success depend on promoting yourself?

3.  On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the most difficult, 10 being the absence of difficulty, rate the ease you feel in putting yourself out there on a day to day basis and saying, I have what you need, hire me, buy from me, listen to me.

4.  If you feel blocked when it comes to promoting yourself, do you have any sense of the origin of the block:  you never received encouragement as a child, your culture and/or social environment frowns on women speaking up for themselves, you are an introvert, you are afraid of rejection, you find it embarrassing, other?

5.  If you feel comfortable promoting yourself, do you have any sense of where this ease originated in you: I've never thought of it, just easy to do, I've always received encouragement and support for my endeavors; I'm an extrovert; it just makes sense.

6.  If promoting yourself is difficult, what helps you do it:  Nothing-I can't do it, therapy, a mentor, I hire someone to do it for me, other.

7.  On a scale of 1-10, please rate your confidence in your abilities and talent, one being no confidence, 10 being abundant confidence.

8.  If you would like to, I'd appreciate your amplifying what it is like for you to promote yourself.

Many, many thanks.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Five Fatal Feedback Mistakes

1.    You don’t ask for feedback.

Breathes there a writer so humble that he or she does not believe, at least for a nanosecond, that the piece of prose inching out of the printer is not ready for its New Yorker acceptance letter without first showing it to a Trusted Advisor and asking, “What do you think?”

I caution you that, unless you have a solid collection of literary awards smartly lined up on your mantle, you must not indulge this deranged line of thinking.  Even the most decorated NYT best seller list authors thank their editors, among others, in their Acknowledgements for saving their manuscripts from fatal flaws.  Lesson:  Even the greats need help. 

Always ask a critical but compassionate reader to first point out the strengths of your manuscript (a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down), and next the less than stellar prose.  This can prevent an editor from slamming the virtual door in your face and forever associating your name with one dimensional characters, mixed metaphors or some other writing trap that a little (or a lot) perceptive feedback might have corrected.

If you find asking for feedback humbling, do it anyway and then make an appointment with your therapist.

2.     You receive feedback but don’t pay attention to it.

I’ve read that Philip Roth sends his manuscripts to four or five friends for review.  They make comments, which he always ignores, and sends the book off to his editor just the way he wrote it.   Now such literary lights have earned the right to march to their own drummer.  But those of us who run to our writing groups waving the latest draft of a story and make notes all over the pages as our readers make comments, then promptly throw those notes away and say to ourselves, what do they know—well, what was it Mark Twain said, those who can read but don’t are not better off than those that can’t, or something like that. 

It is hard to hear criticism of a piece you love like your own flesh and blood.  It is maddening to realize that a spot on suggestion to tighten a paragraph requires rewriting of the whole damn chapter.  But do you want to be like the architect on a project I once saw who had placed the gate to a circular stairwell opposite the steps?  I’ll never forget the owner of the property bellowing, didn’t he ask anyone to review the plans? 

Bottom line:  when your brain is telling you the story is perfect the way it is, don't believe everything you think.

3.     You ask for feedback from the wrong people.

Don’t ask a science fiction writer to review a chapter in your YA novel.  Don’t show your cookbook draft to a poet.  Don’t email your latest short story to your friend who just received a blistering rejection letter.  Don't ask someone who can't even write a grocery list for advice on point of view.  And NEVER ask the guy who wants to bed you right then for his opinion on your newest poem—even when the guy is your husband.

Always pick readers you trust, who understand what you are trying to say/accomplish in your writing and who respect your efforts even when they question a method or two.  This is especially important on days when you just can't read another word of your own writing without someone telling you whether it is worthy.  Resist the urge to show your pages to a stranger on the street, take a deep breath and wait for your Trusted Advisor to pick up the phone.

4.     You ask for feedback when what you need is unconditional love.

As a dear friend used to say, some days the bear gets you and some days the bear gets you.  If it’s a day when the manuscript is too new, the fear of rejection is too great, the sense of overwhelm at the requirements of a publishable piece of prose threatens to crush you, or you will confuse feedback with rejection, then by all means, show your poem to the guy who wants to bed you.  He’ll say this is the best thing I’ve ever read and your words will live to face an honest critique another day.

But when your confidence is in the gutter, don’t ask the writer who flourishes her red pen like a rapier with spot on comments to take a look.  Ask your mother instead, or anyone who will say, this is wonderful.  How do you do it? 

Writing is a mind game.  Do whatever is necessary to help your fragile writer’s ego (we all have one) to survive.

5.     You ask for feedback from too many people.

You can’t get enough.  Of people saying your prose is deathless, your protagonist is memorable.  Maybe you can’t get enough of someone just reading your work.  So you ask reader, after reader, after reader to take a look.  And you end up with too much feedback to process, conflicting opinions (you can’t please all the people all the time), you lose track of the notes of readers who get your work and whose comments help you to ratchet it up a notch.

Be careful and selective in your requests for feedback and follow the advice of someone who helps you open up the story you are trying to tell over someone asking you to write a different story.  And stop there!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What am I willing to do for my writing?

Too often I have flailed around in my commitment to writing because I was looking at it as a burden.  Yes, I had this writing project I wanted to finish, or, I had this idea that I wanted to be a writer.  I’d find it easy to push ahead for a while, until I ran out of time or I couldn’t think of what happened next in the story.  Or, worse, I’d get some feedback that I had a serious problem with the plot or a character and had to rethink some chapters.  Then I’d find myself resenting my story, or doubting myself or in some way.  I’d be angry at writing for demanding so much of me, usually something I couldn’t deliver, such as a talent just a notch greater than what I possessed.

Over time I was able to make a consistent commitment to writing and develop a daily practice.  But it wasn’t always easy to turn on my computer in the morning rather than read the paper before going to work.  Yet, somehow my desire to write overcame my resistance.  But my recent post about The Twelve Steps To A Writing Practice ( made me think about what we need to have in place in order to commit to something as challenging as writing.  While I don’t practice a twelve step program, I believe I hit upon one of the cornerstones of such programs:  willingness.  I’ve had to be willing to do what was necessary to bring my manuscript to completion.   When I had a book contract, of course, it went without saying that I would go the distance for the book.  But I don’t have a contract for my novel, or my blog, or any other writing I do.  At least, not yet.  So I have to find the willingness within myself to get the work done. 

To me, willingness comes before everything else.  I have to be willing to spend the time, learn the craft, work with myself to overcome my shortcomings, whether they are in my mind in the form of doubt or negative thinking, or in my endurance for pain.  I have to have the willingness to develop the necessary discipline to move my writing along, to fill in the holes in my mastery of the craft, and I have to have especially the willingness to sit in front of a blank page until the words come. 

And, somehow I have been able to do that, develop the willingness, but it has often been a fight.  When the words weren’t flowing, my writing was a burden, something I had to wrestle with.  But as I’ve mulled over the steps to establishing a writing practice, I now see that fight in the same light as resenting my child because she needed feeding or changing or loving.  It isn’t the manuscript’s fault I have to figure out how to tighten the opening (which is my current challenge).  

It isn’t the fault of my desire to write that I have to say no to TV or internet browsing or a meet up with friends in order to carve out time to write.  It isn’t my story that is to blame for not yet having the insights and skill to bring it to fruition.  I have chosen to write and that choice comes with certain requirements and responsibilities.  I can approach them with grown up willingness or adolescent  resentment.  I can say, damn, I don‘t have enough time.  Or, what will writing teach me in the fifteen minutes I have to give it today?  Willingness helps get the job done.  I’ve claimed for years that writing is my spiritual discipline because it teaches me about myself.  It helps me be a grown up.  If I’m willing.   

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Permission Slip

Dear Universe,

_________________ (insert your name) has my permission to spend _______ hours each day/week (circle one) on the creative project of his or choice.  Please do not interfere with bearer’s creative process by asking irrelevant questions such as, Is this any good?  Will it make money?  Do you have something important to say?  What about dinner?  After all, who gave you permission to butt in on someone else’s life?


The Daily Writing Coach

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Twelve Step Program to a Daily Writing Practice

Okay, so a Twelve Step Program for writers isn't the most original idea on the web.  There are others, some funny, some even less clever than mine.  But as I got to thinking about this idea, I think it has some usefulness.  It can provide a focus and I am a firm believer in communicating with your muse.  It took me a long time to understand this concept, steeped as it is in poetic mystery.  Years ago it seemed the benevolent muse was the province of the male artist, but then I began to notice that certain people set off a spark in me.  When I was around them, ideas burgeoned, energy and enthusiasm fueled my writing.  I've long been inspired by music and sometimes a particular piece will attach itself to my work.  Sometimes when I get bogged down in my Irish novel, certain traditional songs will bring it back to life.  Rituals work for writers, sometimes rooms or views seem to lift us out of a torpor and get us working again.  Your muse is whatever inspires you, encourages you.  As a sandtray coach, I believe in the power of images to stir up the psyche.  Today, my muse is a treasure chest full of inspiration, belief in myself and energy.   Feel free to use this image or find your own Muse to help you do the thing you want to do.  Write.  Use these twelve ideas to keep you tethered to your writing space, your creativity, your muse.

Twelve Step Program to a Daily Writing Practice:
It works if you work it; anything works if you work it

1.     Admit you are powerless over inertia; that your writing life has become unmanageable

2.     Accept that a consistent writing practice of at least 15 minutes a day can restore you to sanity

3.     Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of your Muse as you understand her/him for at least 15 minutes a day

4.     Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of your negative and damaging writing beliefs

5.     Admit to your Muse, to yourself and to another human being the exact nature of your negative approach to your writing life

6.     Become entirely ready to have your Muse remove all these thinking and behavioral defects

7.     Humbly ask the Muse to remove your shortcomings, for at least 15 minutes a day

8.     Make a list of all characters and writing projects you have ignored, abandoned, harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all

9.     Make direct amends to such entities wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (don’t fix what ain’t broke)

10.  Continue to take personal inventory and when you are wrong promptly admit it (never hurts, whether or not you are a writer)

11.  Seek through communion with your Muse and your writing support community to improve your conscious contact with your Muse as you understand her for a minimum of 15 minutes a day, praying only for knowledge of her/his will for you and the power to carry that out

12.  Having had a creative awakening as the result of these steps, try to carry this message of daily writing to other suffering and blocked writers, and to practice these principles in all your creative endeavors.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Meditations on The Writing Practice: The Mind Game

Like golf, writing is a mind game.  Each day you have to talk yourself down from procrastination in all its beguiling forms:  cleaning the refrigerator, emailing long-lost friends you don’t really care about . . . I’ve been known to exercise just to put off writing.  Why is it so hard to write that first sentence every day?  Because once you have one sentence down, others follow and you’re off and running, more or less.  I can tell you that the answer isn’t in figuring it out.  Not that you shouldn’t try to understand your reluctance to do the thing you love most.  It’s just that while you are navel gazing, you could be writing.  Navel gazing, sitting and worrying about why you can’t write is not an exercise in self-knowledge when you do it instead of writing.  Write a line or two and then worry about why it is so hard.

Regard writing as important as any life or death activity, such as feeding your children, and you will get to it.  But like mealtime, you don’t have to serve a ten course banquet to get the job done.  Sometimes a snack is all that’s needed to tide your beloved over until the dinner bell rings.  A line or two of prose, five minutes of description and you’re done.  A few of these morsels every day, and you can find yourself building up your tolerance until you find you can complete a paragraph a day, a page or four. 

If you don’t feed your offspring every day, you know what will happen.  And if you don’t write your lines every day you starve as well.  In time your spirit withers, your confidence crumbles, recriminations rob you of the sense of fulfillment that comes from saying, I did my writing today.  Even if you just get a few words down, you nourish yourself.  And then do it again tomorrow.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Top Ten Essential Self-Editing Tips

Writers can break every style rule if it is with intent and furthers the manuscript.  But nothing screams newbie like a flood of adverbs and every sentence beginning with a gerund.  These tips won’t guarantee publication, but be warned, ignoring them will have any mag worthy of your adoration dragging your submission into the trash icon.  Before you send your work out into the cruel world of publishing, make sure you clothe it in well-edited garb.  I recommend you read your final draft ten times if you are a beginning writer, once for each of these checks.  You will probably find other errors to correct as you do, so much the better.  If this seems like too much trouble (first lesson for would be writers: it is damn hard work), check any article or story in The New Yorker, New York Times or other publication holding high standards and see how many times their writers ignore these tips. 

  1. Watch out for passive voice. It creeps up on the best of us.  Remember the rule:  Use “Do not use passive voice,” instead of “Passive voice should not be used.” 
  2. Ration those adverbs, the ly word,s and if you use them, treat them as though they will bite you.  (Notice I didn’t say use them sparingly!)  When you force yourself to give up writer’s shorthand, you strengthen your prose.
  3. Check your use of had, as in I had called him after I had put my dinner in the microwave last night and he had called me back before I had gone to bed.   For this one, drop the had as soon as you establish past tense.  “I had called him after I put my dinner in the microwave last night and he called me back before I went to bed.”
  4. Ditch non-specific adjectives such as wonderful, beautiful, amazing and terrific, unless they are in dialogue and reveal character, e.g., someone who says everything is wonderful as a way of demonstrating she blinds herself to unhappy realities.   A beautiful sunset to you might be ordinary to me.  Rather, let the reader see what is beautiful. The setting sun threw a mantle of orange and red over the horizon.  Or some such.  Specificity is the writer’s best friend. 
  5. Read for word repetition.  Never use the same word twice in a sentence, and don’t allow it to show up more than twice in the same paragraph, once if it is a short paragraph.  The OED lists almost 172,000 words in the English language.  Find an alternative.
  6. Check that you don’t say the same thing two or three different ways.  If you do, pick the one you like best and delete the others.  A note to writers who find it hard to delete a favorite sentence.  Use it someplace else or realize that if you can write something that good once, you can do it again another time.
  7. Tighten your prose by using sentences with the fewest words possible and words with the fewest letters.  Think about this:  is it more important to show off your vocabulary or hold onto your reader?
  8. Check your characters’ names.  Don’t have them beginning with the same letter or your reader will get confused.
  9. Rein in those gerunds, especially at the beginning of a paragraph.  Running down the street, she tripped on a tree branch slows down the action, whereas putting the action first, She tripped on a tree branch . . .gets the blood racing.
  10. Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation.  Don’t confuse your reader with a misplaced or absent punctuation mark.  Read Eats Shoots Leaves if you need a refresher.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Margin Notes: Every Last One, Ellen Goodman

I certainly can’t teach Ellen Goodman anything about making a story and characters come to life.  I made many notes to myself as I began Every Last One.  I admired her sharp characterizations and brilliant descriptions that conjure up protagonist Mary Beth’s house and allow the gardens she tends to bloom before me.  Her vivid writing makes it hard to resist the pull of her characters and story.  That’s the way it’s done, I found myself saying time and again in Goodman's melancholy portrait of an American family. But, of course, writers who win Pulitzer Prizes and end up on the best-seller lists have these skills.  They know how to animate their characters and draw us into their settings.   But other techniques she employed had me wondering, specifically about flashbacks.

Three Kinds of Flashbacks

One of my tough writing lessons came early when, figuratively, I had my knuckles cracked with a ruler every time I resorted to flashbacks at the expense of moving the story forward.  I came to realize that flashbacks can be an easy short hand when you don’t want to delve into an episode in detail that is not central to your story but does ground a scene in some way.  Let’s say a character appears late for an important meeting and you spend a line or two mentioning a storm that held up traffic, or some such.  Storm drama is not important here, but you have to account for her being late.  So you start in present time.  “She opened the door and stood on the threshold drenched from the storm that delayed her arrival (maybe some more description for dramatic effect,)” then immediately jump forward to present time in the story.  “She closed the door and said, “Am I too late?”  For purposes of my point, we assume the writer chooses not to use another device, such as dialogue to explain the late hour.  So the movement is:  Present time; quick flashback, present time again and moving forward.  Done and done. 

The trap that flashback holds for us, though, is that in referring to an earlier event, we can become engrossed the past.  Our heroine arrives late from the storm that delayed her arrival, and then we give the details of the storm, the flooding river, the rescue attempts, the dog wandering the storm-tossed river bank.  Interesting, but this doesn’t advance the story and the reader is left either wondering what the storm has to do with anything, or, having become so engrossed in the storm, is confused when the present story reappears, wondering which is the real story.  In another back story technique that Percy Lubbock calls regression and retardation, this is done for a specific effect, but I'm not going to discuss that here.    

Goodman uses flashback in a third way.  She starts a new paragraph at some point in time after the ending of the scene in the previous paragraph.  Fair enough.  But then she quickly jumps back to fill in what happened in between, information that, unlike the storm in the previous example, is quite relevant.  Why, I asked myself, did she not start with the fill-in since it was important to the story and she gives most of it anyway, then move forward to the event that opened the chapter?  I don’t know the answer, but the effect for me was two-fold.  First, she gave away the punchline, so to speak, by telling me what happened, and then going back to the drama that led to the episode she started with (it is even cumbersome to describe).  Throughout the book there was this two steps forward and three steps back movement that I found jarring.  I think it is a question of starting at the beginning.  Not starting in the middle and going back to the beginning, which you can do once, maybe twice, and then no more.

In addition, by jumping back and forward in time, she skimmed along the surface of the story, rather than revealing the depth of joy or suffering the characters were experiencing.  This is what I mean by flashback that can be shorthand.  I’m not going to give away Goodman’s story, so I’ll make something up that might approximate her approach. 

Let’s say the character wakes up in the hospital and the nurse puts her new baby in her arms.  (We’ve been waiting for this event and we're expecting to move forward as she experiences motherhood for the first time.)  Then the new mother reflects on the drive to the hospital, which we saw in the previous paragraph.  All we get is,  “She refuses to think about her husband telling her about his affair.”  What affair?  This is the first we're hearing of this.  How can she brush that from her mind?  When the father walks in the door to meet his new infant, the meeting with the mother is frosty.  No wonder, but we need to know more.  We are told the essential information, but not how it resonates on the character (this has happened in the past we are not shown--that's the shorthand).  If, much later the writer mentions in a telling fashion (as Goodman does) the scene in the car with the big revelation, the ride to the hospital, some of the labor, her finally holding the baby knowing what she knows about the father, she's already had the meeting with the father, so this information doesn't have the same impact it would have had if we had experienced with her in real time hearing the news on the way to the hospital and all that followed.  How much better we would know the character, empathize with her, and him, for that matter, depending on their story, if we went through that experience with them instead of being told after the fact.  How much tension the reader would feel when the father walks into the room to greet his new child.

In Goodman’s book, I found the moving back and forth with tidbits to fill in the story, not only distracting, but it kept Mary Beth at a remove.  We see her reflecting or recounting on some important events in the story, rather than go through them with her.  We don’t feel her pain.  I know we can’t give every moment of a character’s life, and we often have to skip along and leave some events to the reader’s imagination, but we shouldn’t short change the reader on the ones that matter.

What I took away from the book:  Handling time and backstory is difficult, but we run the risk of alientating the reader to some degree when we mishandle it and use it too often.  Flashback can be an easier way to tell a story, but overdone, it is at some cost to the reader.  So I made a note to watch how I handle flashbacks in my own work in an attempt to keep it from distracting and diluting my story. 

Despite my problems with flashback, I also discovered once again in Goodman's book the power of sharply drawn scenes that reveal characters, such as those with the children.  I learned that if you let the reader get to know your characters in their ordinary moments, free of trauma, he or she will care more deeply about them when life is cruel to them.  As a teacher of mine once said, “If you want me to care about a character’s death, make me care about their life.”

 I also found myself grieving with this family because Goodman's portrayal of loss had touched some of my own unacknowledged griefs.  Some personal loss came to the surface for me to examine.  And despite the flaws I found in this book, that is its true gift.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A lesson in the writer's craft from paper dolls

Isabella DeBorchegrave takes a page from the writer's handbook with her paper recreations of famous clothes and costumes from the Medici's to Fortuny to Coco Chanel.  The exhibit, Pulp Fashion, at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, suspends the viewer's disbelief with astonishing brilliance.  Even as you examine up close, or as close as the guards will allow, the hand-painted, life size paper creations, it is hard to believe you are not looking at cut velvet, lace, bejeweled ribbon and silk. You step into a fantasy of opulence and style, art and wealth, power and seduction as you walk around the legendary gowns and court finery worn by mannequins that seemed to have stepped out of the paintings of Botticelli and the Renaissance masters.  Towards the end of the exhibit, when I was able to catch my breath and think about the work with some distance, it struck me that this experience is exactly the task set by the writer who must create a world on paper, but with words instead of paint.  But what is it that allows the writer to make the universe of her characters or his experience so vivid and real that the reader's mind is not continually saying, this is only a story, this is not real, these are only paper dolls?  Why do we inhabit the characters lives and build such a close relationship with them that we feel their joy and grief as if it were our own?  I'm thinking of Agee's A Death in the Family, which I read five years after my own father died unexpectedly of a heart attack while traveling to the village in Ireland where he was born.  The day I got the news I actually felt something inside of me pull me away from the awful reality so that I could not feel it, went numb for awhile before tears could come.  But years later, as I read about Agee's fictional father, and his family's shock and grief, their struggle to understand the accident that changed everything in their lives forever, I found myself weeping, the shock of that death as searing as the shock of my father's.  It was Agee's courageous use of his imagination that allowed me to suspend my disbelief, my critical mind and revisit that place inside where a hard stone of grief waited to come alive and be experienced as it could not years earlier.  But what did Agee do that allowed some of my grief to finally melt away as I mingled my feelings with those of Agee's characters?  How exactly did he suspend my disbelief?  He had talent and intelligence to be sure.  He worked at his craft.  We all do.  But there is something else, something he shares with DeBorchgrave and other artists that build fantastical worlds for us.  It is the thing that astonished me the most about DeBorchegrave’s work, the unfettered imagination and the courage to follow where it leads, which is into the heart of the work.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

If today was the last day of your life

Not that it is important to anyone else, but I am filled with remorse today.  I've said this blog is not about my personal life, but I'm realizing as I write these posts that you cannot separate your personal life from your writing life, realized it for the umpteenth time.  I got news that a friend of mine lost a friend (I did not know) on a snorkling vacation.  Freak accident.  So, of course, I thought and felt many things, grief for my friend at the top of the list.  This morning I thought about lost time.  It is on the minds of people my age, fellow septuagenarians who live with one eye on the clock and the other on a to do list it would take several lifetimes to complete.  But I am losing my unfettered writing time.  I must devote myself to other, practical concerns.  And now I am looking wistfully at all those hours and days I frittered away thinking they would never end.  How could I, at my age, believe life goes on forever and I can always do it tomorrow, it being my novel.   I think it was a Buddhist who said live your life as if today was the last day.   Because who knows?  It just might be.  Write now, Helen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trusting the process

Irony has come knocking on my door.  I wake up these days feeling as though all my planets are in all the wrong houses, my bad karma is coming back to haunt me (as well as some old, feckless choices), and my Stress-O-Meter is zinging off the charts.  I have to make resolutions to get dressed before 5 pm, remind myself that I don’t live in Japan or Darfur right now and my problems are nothing compared to ______________’s (and no doubt anyone within reading distance of this post).  A friend who knows me well, but not the recent minutia of my life, sent me, quite out of the blue, a poem by Billy Collins called Give Me A Break!  I raised my fists and wailed, yes.  Give me a break!  Such is the depth of my self-pity these days.

Now, I hate blogs that catalog bad days and indulge in handwringing over trivial annoyances, as though Starbucks running out of a favorite bagel or something is worth writing or reading about.  However, I have a reason for giving you a peek into my current malaise, reluctant though I am to make this blog too personal (the details are not important, wouldn’t even make a mediocre soap opera script).  I am known to go around haranguing writer friends to just sit down and get words on the page every day despite how you feel or how cramped your schedule.  Just do it was my motto before Nike peeked over my shoulder and stole it, at least about writing.  Today, though, the gods heard about this blog, I guess, and my posts purporting to have the cure for writer’s block and other literary crises.  They laughed and rubbed their hands together with evil glee.  Oh, they said, she thinks writing is easy when you feel like your plunging down into the molten, sulfuric center of the earth.  Well let’s see how easily she brushes this off and gets down to work.  And so, today, after completing an editing job for a client, the universe saw fit to give me a task as heart-rending and anxiety-laced as any I can think of.  It took most of the day and all my creative and emotional energy, but I finished it. Now it was time to write.  So, out of habit, I opened a new page in Word.  And I sat there in a state of mental paralysis. 

Now I know what it is like to face a blank page waiting for inspiration, the false starts, trips to the refrigerator, obsessive checking for email until an idea kicks in.  But this was different.  I was in the grip of a terrible anxiety that seemed to erase the program my brain uses to write.  There was nothing, it was worse than nothing.  It was fear, carried over I’m sure from the difficult day I’d had dealing with a thorny, painful problem.  I always feel inadequate trying to describe states of pain, physical or emotional.  So I’ll just say, that it was a terrifying, end-of-the-world state of mind.  I did the only thing I knew when I sit down to write, and that is to write. 

And then instead of trying to be clever or uplifting, I started writing the truth of the moment and this post began to flow.

Now if you think the punchline is some bragging about how I beat down writer’s block, I am missing the mark on the correct attitude for this piece.  What I felt was enormous relief and gratitude.  I didn’t, don’t, feel that I won anything, as I can when I am distracted and restless and I just force myself to get over it and get down to work.  That’s me winning over me and my weaknesses.  But today, I felt I was given a gift.  Maybe I had passed a test by the powers that be and they rewarded me with a gush of words, though if that’s the case, couldn’t they have made them of a slightly higher quality?  More likely, it is something along the lines of my neurons kicking in because they recognized my pattern of sitting in front of a computer screen with fingers on the keyboard, and set the synapses in motion that release the words.  I don’t know how to explain the transition from a moment of terror to a moment of release.  My great relief is that it still works.  The thing I have come to trust did not fail me. 

This post is hardly my best writing.  But it is on the page and not stuck in some morbid corner of my psyche that will strike me down with guilt tomorrow because I could not write today.  The thing that gives me the courage to write this blog is my faith in the process.  A long time ago I attended a conference given by a spiritual guru, a very funny guy who taught meditation and compassion.  One of the participants said, “I know all the things you know.  Why are you sitting up there and I’m at your feet.”  The man laughed and said, “The only difference between us is that I trust the process.  You’re still fighting with it.”  It made a lot of sense to me.  I’ve learned that if I write every day, or open myself in some awkward way to having words come through me, no matter what, the process will take over and something, however, feeble, emerges through my fog of discontent and worry.   Then, I can take that feeble material and allow my conscious, analytical brain to revise it, reshape, give it form.  That’s writing.  But if I don’t allow it to come through, if I don’t trust what I know, then I’m at the mercy of my feelings, my fears, my doubts.  And who knows when I’d get back to this blog.  That may not be a problem for you, but it would dismantle all that I work so hard to build up on days when it is easy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Time of My Life

I am in a rage against time today.  Time I waste, time that races by too quickly, time I misuse and time that demands too much of me.  Writers have a complicated relationship with time, but then maybe everyone does.  Yesterday was a lost day.  I need an MRI of my hip.  Nothing serious, probably just an attack of old age.  However, for someone with claustrophobia, a session on the rack is preferable to being trapped in an MRI machine for 45 minutes.  I took the prescribed tranquilizer and resigned myself to zoning out for a day because I can’t function on drugs of any kind.  I was woozy when the MRI goddess rolled me into the tube, but not asleep.  I had a little pillow over my eyes to help block out the confined space, but as I felt the sides brushing my arms, I panicked.  If you have claustrophobia, need I say more?  Under most circumstances, I am a strong person and I have confronted hard things in my life.  I have endurance and a certain resilience.  But when I read about earthquake victims, I have to talk myself down.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 shook me until my teeth rattled, so I make sure I live on bedrock.  But there are no guarantees in life and should I get trapped in an earthquake, I want to go straight to heaven or whatever awaits me.  I do not want to be the miracle survivor found under the rubble after several days.  So when I felt the sides of the MRI machine pressing against me, I had to restrain myself from screaming.  No joke.  The pill wasn’t working and I pushed the panic button Ms. Goddess had put in my hand and shouted GET ME OUT.  I was instantly in tears and embarrassed but so relieved when she pulled me back from the maw.  That should have been the end of it, but to understand the physical reaction to panic and phobias read Allen Shawn’s excellent, Wish I Could Have Been There.  On top of waiting for all the stress hormones to drain away and my blood pressure, pulse and panicky thoughts to return to normal (sometimes a 24 hour process), I was drugged.  And I was mad.  The pill didn’t help me, but it robbed me of a day I could have been doing other things.  I was a little high, foggy and useless until late in the evening when I started to wake up and wrote yesterday’s post.  It was more rambling and disjointed than I would like and I blame it on the meds. 

So this morning I’m angry about time.  I couldn’t help yesterday’s wasted day, but I started to think about what I had lost.  And I will never know what that is.  The creative process is 90% hard work and 10% mystery.  Why does an artistic sequence of words flow onto the page as easily as breath one day, and turn into a punishment the next?  I have a chapter to write that will close the first half of my novel, but I’ve been avoiding it.  Suppose fate had decided that yesterday I would have received one of those rare gifts from the gods, a seamless first draft, but instead of sitting at my computer with every pore open ready to receive the inspiration, it rained down on an empty chair while I was sleeping through a Netflix in the next room.  John Lennon said the creative process required that we just show up.  That is what developing a consistent writing practice is all about.  Being there to coax loose those words and ideas teasing us just below the surface.   So I’m frustrated with the Valium for not getting any writing done during yesterday’s fog of a day.  But what about all the days I forgot to write, or decided I would sleep in and missed a session before a day full of appointments, or just put it off because there is always tomorrow and the half finished story or novel isn’t going anywhere.  My days are numbered, as are yours.  And I don’t know what that number is.  Suppose it comes calling before I’ve finished my novel.  Who will I blame then?

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Sure Fire Cure for Writing Block

Before I give you my secret to curing writing block, I’m going to start out today’s post with a test.  There is no right answer but the truthful one.  On a scale of one to ten, how important is writing to you?  I’m not saying if you didn’t have to work how important would it be, or if you had all the time in the world, how important would it be?  Just right now, check in with your desire to write and give it a number. 

I start out all of my writing classes with this question.  I have never had anyone give me a number below seven and it is usually a nine or a ten.  I think this is a crucial piece of information, because if you have a passion in your life that ranks nine or ten in importance and you are not finding a way to pursue it, you are doing yourself great harm and robbing your life of a sense of fulfillment.  I’m not saying you have to quit your job or neglect your family or other responsibilities to pursue writing, but if it ranks high, you owe it to yourself to find a place for your creative life in your daily life.  When I decided some eighteen years ago to write fifteen minutes a day first thing in the morning, I knew that writing was a ten for me.  And I found that with that short burst of writing each day, I was able to make peace with going to an office and doing work that was not completely reflective of my essential nature.  Just fifteen minutes did that.  I’d print out what I wrote and revise it on the bus downtown.  For a long time that was my writing practice and for a long time it was enough.  Eventually, I wrote for longer periods, but even if I had kept it to fifteen minutes, it would have done something for me that nothing else could have, the sense that I was doing the thing I was born to do.   I didn’t have to show it to anybody.  I didn’t have to publish it.  I just had to do it.

So what is writing block?  Anything that prevents you from writing entirely, or from completing a piece of writing that is important to you.  If you want a sure cure for writing block, read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Or, let me distill that ancient wisdeom for you into two simple rules:  Know your enemy and know yourself.

The purpose of this blog is to explore the disciplined writing life.  But as yet, I haven’t really defined what I mean by that.  It is a given that to finish a piece of writing you must have a plan.  First, you must have a desire to write something.   Second, you must have a schedule for your writing sessions.  And third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the writing craft.  This is really all you need, and, if you stick to your plan, you will end up with a finished piece of writing, and you will have become a disciplined writer.  The subtext, of course, is that at some point resistance rears its ugly head.  It always does when we set out to do something that is difficult, and what could be more difficult than creating something out of nothing, facing the blank page.  Some part of us says no way because to write we have to dig deep, confront our insecurities, doubts and ignorance.  We don’t start out knowing the craft, for example, and learning it, much less mastering it, is in itself is a lifelong challenge.  At one time or another we say, enough.  I can’t do this.  The excuse could be I have a family, a job and don’t have time.  But the funny thing is, if we say time is the issue, we can find ourselves with two weeks vacation and nothing else to do and we still don’t write.  So maybe time isn’t the real issue.  The successful writer has to make a commitment to hunt down these agents of resistance, to find a way to overcome them, defeat them or even appease them so we can get back to writing.  That’s pretty much what Sun Tzu said two thousand years ago.  You need a strategy.  Oh, by the way, when I say successful writer, I’m not talking about critical or financial success, I mean basic, raw success, finishing what you started.  If you can’t type The End to a piece of writing, there can be no other success.

As I said yesterday, the inner conflict we call writing block, that resistance, is unique to each of us.  The sure fire cure, then, is to locate the source of that resistance and resolve it.  There, that’s the sure fire cure.  Works every time.  Simple to be sure, but for some of us, it is easier to clean the garage.  Heck, it’s easier to dismantle the whole house and rebuild it from scratch.  And trust me, some people will do that rather than face the blank page.  I’m a knitter and unraveling a writing conflict is like tackling a hopelessly tangled skein of yarn.  Just when you think you have loosened the whole thing, you come to a stubborn knot that just won’t yield.  Some writing knots go back to childhood insecurities and even traumas.  They may be tangled up with other parts of our lives.  Stresses and strains surrounding jobs, finances, health and relationships can distract us from writing.  Unexpected windfalls, the thrill of falling in love can also make our writing life recede into the woodwork.  Sometimes the thought of getting back into writing after a long absence can seem so daunting that it is easier to just forget about and let the novel or poems moulder unfinished in the attic or on your zip drive.   An insensitive significant other or inappropriate writing mentor can say things that zap our confidence and convince us to give up. 

While this blog can’t help anyone resolve childhood conflicts or troubled relationships that may be getting in the way, I can off some suggestions that helped me to identify the issues that have at times paralyzed my writing.  I took a cue from The Art of War: know your enemy.  I figured once me resistance was out in the open, then I’d have a shot at beginning to dismantle it.  So I recommend that you start with step one:  Identify and name your enemy, the particular form your resistance takes.  Your gremlins may surprise you.  Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at naming some of them (for anyone who's paying attention, I said I would start today, but this post is going on too long).  But for now, if you’re having trouble with your writing practice, start thinking about behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that keep you from completing a piece of writing. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Shape Shifter Called Writer's Block

Jane Fonda played the young Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film, Julia.  In one shocking scene, working on her first play, she paces up and down in front of her typewriter seemingly in the grip of writer’s block.  Hellman's lover, the experienced, successful Dashiell Hammet, sits under a tree, as I recall, all centered poise and wisdom. We see Lillian’s growing angst as she smokes unfiltered cigarette after unfiltered cigarette, until in a fit of rage at the blank page, she throws her typewriter out the window, narrowly missing Dash I suppose.

Two things are wrong with this scene. First, no writer would throw a typewriter, or, these days, a computer, out the window. Dash might go flying head first, but not the Underwood. Second, any writer close enough to the typewriter to pitch it headlong already has a leg up on writer’s block.

But what is it, exactly, this famously paralyzing spell that imprisons the writer’s imagination? It appears in many guises. A Lillian Hellman type inability to string one word after another into a simple declarative sentence is the most famous. Yet I doubt many writers actually sit and stare at a blank page for hours, certainly not with the distraction of the internet close at hand.  I think there are two ways of looking at an inability to write:

1.  Everyone suffers from writer's block at some time or other.
2.  Nobody does.

You see, I don't think the term writer's block is very helpful, or useful.  Creative work both frees our essential nature, and can turn on us and put us in conflict with ourselves.  That conflict creates a gridlock of the mind, imagination, and will.  The good news is that, like gridlock, moving some of the pieces around, getting some trucks to back up, some taxis to take a side road, walking instead of driving for a day frees everything up.  Writing is nothing if not an exercise in self-discovery, and the path to freeing yourself from an inability to write as much, as often, and as easily as you would like, is to understand the beast you call writer’s block.  I suggest you ditch the term writer’s block and tell it like it is.  I know it by other names:  procrastination, fear and self doubt, overbooking my schedule, rewriting the same piece over and over because I’m afraid of new work, avoiding endings, inability to prioritize, making cleaning my refrigerator more important than my writing session, laziness, mismanagement of time, a talent for distraction, inability to put my needs and desires ahead of family and friends, and the most deadly of all, promising I’ll start tomorrow.

Writer’s block is just a catch-all term for the particular quirks of personality that we struggle with in every area of our lives but seem particularly glaring when it comes to writing.  Take any of my examples above and put a different tag line on them:  Dieting Block, Exercising Block, Punctuality Block, Organization Block, Self-Promotion Block, Cleaning the Garage Block, or whatever goal you have that gets sidelined by your particular gremlins, and you have writer’s block in a different guise.  Writer’s block is just you meeting you.  Or, in the interest of full disclosure, me meeting me.

My most important lesson about writing came not in a writing class or reading John Gardner's advice to novelists, but from looking at my reflection in the window of my writing room that overlooked the Mendocino Coast.  Days earlier I had made a commitment to myself to learn how to write fiction, and it terrified me.  By dumb luck I'd had a cookbook published.  I considered myself a cook but writing recipes wasn't "real writing," I told myself.  But of course, that experience opened up the writer in me and the desire to write something real, which to me meant a novel.  That desire dogged me until one day in Mendocino I had to face it down and say yes to writing.  All of a sudden, when writing became real to me, I had my first experience with writer's block.  I couldn't write a word.  Then came my epiphany in front of the window.  If my goal, desire, passion is to write, part of my process must be to confront in myself the traits that kneecap me and keep me from the thing I most want to do.  After all, if I had opened a restaurant and nobody came, I wouldn’t say, oh well, Business Block and give up.  I’d have to figure out or find someone who would help me figure out a way to draw in customers.  I saw writing in a new way.  For want of a better way of describing it, it became my spiritual discipline.  It was the lens through which I saw every aspect of myself, my strengths, weaknesses, and passions.  I ralized I must confront all of them, not just the blank page.  My revelation occurred thirty years ago and I face myself down every day.  It is a never-ending process, just like life.

My justification for this blog comes from the revelation I had way back in my Mendocino days, and what I've learned since them.  I pass my few insights on with the hope that they might save you a little time wrestling with whatever it is that gets in your way.  You'd come to all this on your own if you stay with it, but maybe something in this blog will keep you from giving up.  If you are not able to complete a piece of writing that you started, or can’t get yourself to your writing space to begin exploring something to work on, or always find yourself saying, I’d love to write but I just don’t have the time, bingo!  It's time for a plan and some writerly navel gazing.  I need to point out that confronting your obstacles to writing won’t make you a better writer or a published writer.  It will, however, make you a more consistent writer with finished product to show to a friend, a writing teacher, even a prospective editor.  Not confronting your writing gremlins, though, will keep you mired in the swamp of excuses and regrets. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to start.  I’ll give you a hint as to where I’ll begin.  Don’t EVER promise yourself you’ll start tomorrow.