It would be so easy to say that the life of a writer is made up of many ups and downs. Such as finishing a challenging piece of writing, seeing it rejected, possibly many times, before—if we’re lucky—having it accepted or winning a prize. But the truth is there are so many other little things in between.
Suppose, in the case of a good writing friend, you meet a huge deadline you set for yourself. Or maybe a famous writer that you just followed on Twitter follows you back! And then there’s the moment you finally settle on the perfect word for what you’re trying to say. “For your born writer,” says Catherine Drinker Bowen, “nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
Small victories are important but so are the small roadblocks. Suppose you can’t find a book that you just know is in your library, but you stumble on another one you know you need to read. Then there’s having an essay you worked on for months get rejected. It’s crushing at first, but if it compels you to work a little harder on a troublesome paragraph, that decline can turn into a boon.
All of these little steps –good, bad, or serendipitous—are part of the same thing: momentum. And this is the life force of a writer. Momentum is also the energy of being alive. It starts with the decision to get out of bed in the morning. To keep that date with your writing desk. To go on a walk with your husband to see the blooms on the quince tree. And then finding a bird’s nest lodged in the branches.
Momentum is much more than forward movement. It is hope. And this is something we can all use a little more of right now.
All writers suffer from the occasional bout of writer’s block. It’s our common demon, our scourge, and sometimes it even feels like a curse. But I’m here to help! In honor of our nation’s birthday, I challenge you to push through that impasse into the blue sky of freedom. Ahh!
Liberate yourself from writer’s block by trying one (or more) of these handy tips:
1. Stop! An empty page is where all good stories start. But if you find yourself paralyzed by writer’s block, just stop. Don’t force yourself to write. You won’t like the result, and you may even, ahem, start to hate the work and beat yourself up. Before this happens, walk away. In fact, forbid yourself from writing for the next 12 hours. When I take a forced break, I end up missing it so badly that I often sneak back before my self-imposed suspension is over! The late Toni Morrison offered these wise words: “I tell my students there is such a thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and they should respect it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now.”
2. Regress. Try to recover that same state of mind that sparked your imagination at the outset. When I struggled with a recent essay, I found myself flipping through a 1859 beekeeping treatise that inspired me in the beginning. The author and his charming prose reminded me of why I wanted to write this essay. If you reach an impasse, think back to the original inspiration for your idea—whether it was written by someone else or words from your journal. Stepping back into the past may actually help you go forward.
3. Read. If you’re working on a novel, pick up a nonfiction book. If you’re working on a nonfiction book, try reading a poem or short story. I actually have a shelf of reference books on everything from sailing to sewing that I’ll thumb through when I reach a concrete wall. It’s very liberating to read Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs when I’m working on something very different. Transporting myself mentally to a lavender field soothes my spirit and rejuvenates my writing mind.
4. Impose a Deadline. This sounds harsh I know, but nothing concentrates your mind like a looming deadline. If you’re floundering on a loose-ended project, get out the calendar and give yourself an official “due date.” Writer Jodi Picoult puts it more bluntly. “I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it – when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.”
5. Say Adios to thePerfectionist! Quash that inner critic who tells you that every word must be flawless. Let your writing flow without interruption. If necessary, start with the main idea and express it in baby words. This is what I do. There’s plenty of time to come back later and smooth it out. Jennifer Egan says it better. “I haven’t had writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly.”
Another way to conquer writer’s block is to read through the vast list of markets actively seeking your work. In fact, without your contributions, these magazines, websites and other publications would face a “publishing block”! Help them out—and crush your own deadlock—by using one of these dynamic listings as a springboard for your imagination.
Good luck with your writing this month, and here’s hoping that your July simply sparkles, with both inspiration and productivity.
Now that we’re at the end of May, we’ve officially entered summer. Hallelujah! The days are longer than ever, which means our yards and gardens are getting a full dose of sunshine. Our honeybees dance for joy this time of year, and it’s so much fun to watch those little workers fly out every day and bring in nectar for the hive from all the flowers in bloom.
Our bee family has at least 10,000 members and every single one performs a crucial role for the colony—from foragers to guards to nurse maids to royal attendants. And then there’s the queen, whose sole job is to lay those precious eggs that keep the colony chugging along. Nonetheless, her work would be useless without the battalion of workers by her side.
As the markets columnist for the esteemed writing community, WOW! Women on Writing, in October, I wrote an article on the value of feedback from other writers. So I ask, do you have a writing group or “colony” that celebrates and encourages you? If not, this post is for you because I’m providing four tips on how to find one. But even if you do already belong to a colony of your own, peradventure my advice may help you meet even more writing partners. You can never have too many.
Take a class! There is where I’ve met nearly all of my writing buddies; in fact, a class led to one of my current groups, one that we call the “Mem-Warriors.” We met during a WOW class on memoir almost two years ago, and I can’t imagine my life without them.
Hang out online. Sign up for NaNoWriMo. There’s a link to “Community” on this supportive and inspirational online community and you can search for writing groups by region. You can also follow fellow writers on Twitter or Instagram. Authors of all genres are known to use these platforms as well to solicit members.
Ask around. Pick your local librarian’s brain for suggestions. My local writing group, Randolph Writers, actually meets at the library and this is how I learned about them. And if you happen to be a member of a national or state writing organization, reach out to them for suggestions.
Create your own! That’s right. Put the word out to friends and family members that you’re founding a writing group. You can also Tweet about it or post a notice at your library. All it takes is finding one other like-minded “worker bee” and presto! You now have a new colony of your own.
Whatever you do, keepreading. The authors you discover in your journey will also become your writing sisters and they will be with you always. In the meantime, I wish you all success with your writing this month.
Technology makes submitting for publication easier than ever. At the same time, as more and more writers offer their work, competition for space has never been fiercer. But take heart. In this class, we’ll cover the art behind successful submissions and how to move from the “slush” pile to the pile editors rush to accept. We’ll discuss how to find the best fit for your writing, tips on putting your best foot forward, and a little secret to boost the number of marketable pieces in your portfolio. We’ll also discuss the nuts and bolts of submission: cover letters, biographies, tracking and more, such as how to stay motivated as you cast those precious pearls out into the world.
Interested? Join me on Tuesday, February 23 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. for a special online 90-minute Zoom workshop hosted by our friends at Charlotte Lit.
Cost: $30 members ($25 early bird rate); $35 non-members
Writing during these strange and scary times is challenging, to say the least. In the current state of the world, it seems a little selfish to be concentrating on writing essays, (and its ultimate goal, my memoir). At the same time, taking a deeper look at my personal experiences as refracted by what’s going on in the world gives my work both perspective and depth. It becomes more meaningful.
The long-form personal essay is rewarding to write, but it’s also exhausting. Fortunately, I’m balancing this work with other projects, such as planning my upcoming Flash Fiction Workshop for the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out via Zoom on Saturday, July 18, planning an online Humor Writing workshop for Central Carolina Community College, and, one of my favorite activities, writing poetry.
What I love about writing poetry is that it allows you to take a step back and capture a single moment in your life. There’s no pressure to overthink things or write for pages and pages. You simply jot down the words as they come to you — my little “field notes” are all over the house — and later arrange them in poetic form.
For the month of July, O. Henry magazine kindly published Buster Gets a Bath, which represents one of my more recent poems. Please note that if you were expecting a loftier thought, I apologize. 🙂 Sometimes, like Buster, in the post-bath whirl captured above, you just have to give yourself over to the delicious moment. In his case, he’s just grateful to have survived the bath.
As you continue in your own writing journey, I hope you remember to capture those little moments, reflect briefly on them, and write about them. Yes, it’s a quick fix, it’s instant gratification, but you may find that you’ve just seized a piece of eternity. As they say, the days are long, but the years are short.
I’ve set a goal of writing two new poems each day on an old typewriter, and I have to say, it’s very refreshing to just clack away and not worry about typos or grammatical lapses. The kind of things best left to my inner critic, who takes an extended coffee break during these times.
Additionally, I’m taking a training course on the technicalities of teaching online classes, something I’d like to try in the future. As much as I adore leading in-person classes at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, these times cry out for a new way for people to learn from the safety of their homes. And I’m all for that. It might be a stretch for me, but as I’ve learned by experimenting with my typewriters, it’s always good to branch out in some way.
Please stay safe (and sane), and of course, keep telling your story!
If we must be home bound during any month of the year, I’m grateful that it’s April. Not just because the dogwoods are in bloom, not just because our baby spinach is unfurling, and not just because our new bees are settling in and falling more in love with their queen every day….
I’m also grateful to be home for National Poetry Month. A friend is sending me a new poem to read every day, and even in this time of COVID-19 inspiration abounds along Whale Tail Road.
At Whale Tail, the dogwoods tremble with nascent blooms on the cusp of unfurling. For me, especially now, in the face of coronavirus news that has gone from sobering to frightening, these trees symbolize hope and faith. Even as the Black Plague devastated Europe in the 14th century, the “whipple-trees” (as dogwoods were known back then) continued to bloom, reminding us that there is a greater power at work in the world.
As we struggle to cope with what this pandemic means for our daily lives and future, it’s more important than ever that we writers dive deep into our souls and pull out insights that can help ourselves and others cope and heal.
1. Keep writing! We are so fortunate that the nature of our work – which requires its own form of self-isolation – means we can do it without worrying about making others sick. In fact, you could argue that it is nothing less than our job as writers to do our very best to lift each other up. And we don’t need computers. A pen and paper are just fine.
2. Send your words out into the world. There are so many ways to do this. There are countless markets advertised through the N.C. Writer’s Network, Submittable and Freedom with Writing (three of my favorite sources) seeking your work right now. And they need your words more than ever. Even if you don’t formally submit, you can still update your blog, text a poem, or mail a letter to a friend, just as I did today.
3. Read, read, read. I’m currently reading (and re-reading!) my favorite essays from America’s Best Essays series and online essays posted through Memoir Monday). I’m also savoring poetry – Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver and the lighter work of Billy Collins are currently helping me cope. Reading is sustenance, every bit as powerful as food and water.
4. Stay connected with each other. Being solitary by nature, we writers naturally limit social events, but this crisis makes our few gatherings all the more precious. I have a number of traditional workshops listed on my Events page that are on hold right now, out of necessity. But this doesn’t mean we can’t convene through phone, postal mail, email and other online connections such as social media. By the way, I’m investigating the possibility of offering online classes in the future. As a student, I’m a big fan of these classes myself, so it makes sense to explore this option.
5. Try this writing prompt. Having trouble finding something to write about? Choose the smallest thing in your life that brings you joy right now. Is it the ladybug you saw this morning climbing up the deck chair? Is it last summer’s Gerbera daisies that somehow survived the winter and are now emerging from the pot? Maybe it’s the sight of your dog sunning himself on the porch…. in short, write about whatever it is that makes you happy right now! You might have more blessings than you know. 🙂
I love poetry for many reasons, but what I love most is how poetry can elevate the “ordinary” into something quite sublime. In fact, the most profound poems often come from everyday life—hearing the wood thrush, growing apples, or just the act of slipping on your favorite old shoes.
If you agree, and would like to learn more, please join us on Friday, February 14, 2020 at 9:30 a.m. until noon for a special workshop at the Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro. What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day!
We’ll study poems by Ted Kooser, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, beloved local favorite Ruth Moose and more. Then, using wild new prompts, including our surroundings in the stimulating atmosphere of the Joyful Jewel, you’ll have a chance to pen at least three new poems of your own. You’re also guaranteed to leave with an inventory of ideas for many more!
So bring your favorite writing gear and get ready to fall in love (again and again!) with poetry.
Where: The Joyful Jewel in Pittsboro, N.C., at 44-A Hillsboro Street, Pittsboro, NC 27312.
Cost: $35. To register, visit The Joyful Jewel in person or call (919) 883-2775.
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of spending my morning with an enthusiastic and especially curious group of women writers at Charlotte Lit. What a vibrant organization! I can’t say enough about the leadership and students at Charlotte Lit. They have built an enviable powerhouse of writing, and are truly dedicated to helping each other succeed.
The topic of our discussion was how to share your writing with the world. While self-publishing continues to be a vital force in the writing world, no question, I believe it’s still worthwhile to submit your writing for publication by others–whether to contests, commercial or literary magazines.
Why? First, you’ll get to know so many other wonderful people, whether at public readings or just by getting to know them by reading their work. You’ll also meet talented editors, who will happily help your shape your work and promote your writing. And among all your new writing friends (at Charlotte Lit and beyond), you can help each other. As Martha Stewart once said, quoting another baker whose name escapes me, the reason we put biscuits together in a pan is because they help each other rise.
Second, and equally important, is that when you write for publications and contests, you also grow as a writer. Yes, you have to be brave enough to stand the occasional rejection, but you can learn so much about yourself and the wider world of writing, that it’s well worth it. The motivation to improve will invariably result in acceptances, I promise, and by sharing your words and experiences with the world, you’ll expand your community that much more. And, ahem, at the risk of repeating myself too much, we know that biscuits help each other rise, right? 🙂
Have you submitted yet? If you haven’t, give yourself a New Year’s goal of submitting one piece of writing at least once every month in 2020. And remember, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Never give up. Because that is just the place and time where the tide will turn.”
In the meantime, I encourage you to lean on each other for help and accountability. Choose a “submission buddy” and check in with that person regularly just to make sure you’re meeting your goals, if nothing else. Share your writing with each other and ask for suggestions on where you might submit your work. Most importantly, celebrate each other’s successes.