How Embracing “Rest” Helps Us “Work” Better

Today, as I observed the tender new shoots of grass emerging from red clay, I was reminded of the day I sowed the seed. Two weeks ago, I experienced one of the most productive days of my working life as a full-time writer. Not only did I rewrite the troublesome ending of a long-form essay, I drafted a completely new flash creative nonfiction piece, and I reviewed a short essay by a friend. Knowing the next day would bring rain, I also planted a patch of new grass and later, journeyed to the grocery store for a week’s worth of essentials.

How in the world did I manage to accomplish so much writing while doing so much else? I’ve devoted entire days to writing before and didn’t accomplish even half that much! What I remember most about that day was how I felt as I worked. Never have I felt such brio, such vigor and passion for my writing. It wasn’t until I started reading “Rest” by Alexander Soojung-Kim Pang that I understood why.

Here’s what was different about that day:

1) I got an early start. Rising early in the morning and getting to work first thing was a practice of the most accomplished writers, says Soojung-Kim Pang, from Anthony Trollope to Edna O’Brien.

2) I limited my writing time. I knew I needed to plant grass before the rain, so I had only two hours to write. Therefore, instead of scrolling through email and Twitter, I had to set to work immediately. As Soojung-Kim Pang says, this focused concentration is also something that distinguishes the masters, especially Olympic athletes.

3) I engaged in sustained physical activity. Planting grass and working in the yard for a few hours wasn’t heavy labor, but it gave my active mind a “rest” and let my subconscious mind noodle around the revision questions on my mind. The powerful connection between physical activity and mental exertions is long supported by scientific research, says Soojung-Kim Payne.

4) I returned to my writing later that afternoon excited and motivated. There was no drudgery this time, as my earlier sustained effort rewarded me with something worth coming back to. I accomplished all of the writing tasks on my list!

5) I slept soundly that night. Although this wasn’t one of my goals for the day itself, a side benefit was how I slept that night. Because of the combination of mental concentration AND physical exertions, I slept better than I had in a long time. This rest, in turn, helped me write better the next day.

In a nutshell, and this was before I read “Rest,” I had accidentally engaged in all of the activities recommended by the author. I “layered” periods of work and rest, detached myself from distractions and when I did work, whether it was sowing grass seed or writing, I immersed myself fully in my work. Now that I’ve discovered this wonderful book, I’m learning even more about how this “accidental discovery” can improve my writing as well as my life. For one thing, the grass is much greener over here!

“A life that focuses on what matters most,” concludes Soojung-Kim Payne, “makes time for rest, and declines distractions may look simple on the outside but from the inside it is rich and fulfilling….Deliberate rest helps you live a good life.”

Clacking Away in the COVID-19 Quarantine….

Typos? No problem! Just keep writing…..(Pictured: A 1957 Smith-Corona Electric Portable typewriter)

How are you spending your time these days? If you’re like me, you’re alternating between enjoying brief moments in the sun and trying to write your way through this pandemic.

Today, a terrific advocacy group dedicated to redefining narratives around disability, mental health, and chronic illness kindly published “How a Writer with Multiple Sclerosis Finds Unexpected Gratitude with an Antique Typewriter,” which is my story of how I’m using the extra time to find new ways to think, and hopefully improve my writing.

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.

In other news, I was recently honored to be asked to write a monthly marketing column for Women on Writing, my favorite writing community. This column is focused on writing inspiration and market listings for writers of all genres, from poetry to fiction to memoir. The newsletter is free, and if you’d like to start receiving it, you can easily subscribe by entering your email address into the box on the right at the top of the website.

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!

A Writer’s Guide to Managing COVID-19

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. 🙂

Biscuits Help Each Other Rise!

biscuit1On 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.

And if you missed Saturday’s workshop, no fear, I’ll be offering an extended version of the same one (with even more writing time and new markets for publications!) at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro on April 25.

Remember, I am rooting for you. Because, okay, last time, I promise. Biscuits help each other rise. 😊

 

Welcome to the 12 Stages of Editing

pencil-1891732_1920Love. You love every word of your new essay. It’s just perfect. Only a fool wouldn’t fall in love with it. Then you realize you’re 1,500 words over the limit for the contest you want to enter.

Hate. You hate your essay now. As you read over it, seeking places to cut, you realize it’s not very good at all. Is there anything worth keeping?

Accept. It’s what you’ve got, and there’s no time to write anything new. Or is there?

Start. Watch the cat scramble up the bank and into the woods. She is on the prowl this morning, looking for adventure. Maybe you should start something new.

Accept. Realize you have no energy to start anew. Go back and re-read your essay. It’s the best you’ve got, so work with it.

Prune. You won’t actually cut anything. You’ll just trim, as gently as you prune a bonsai tree. A few words here and a few words there.

Resolve. You will NOT cut the most precious part of the essay. Yes, even if they say that all writers eventually “murder their darlings.” Well, that’s for other people to do. Their darlings are not as precious as your darlings.

Doubt. Or are they?

Cut. Not just prune. You have no choice. Realize that you have to slay those darlings in cold blood. And you better do it right now before you change your mind. Leave that “undo” key alone!

Hate. Your essay isn’t the same at all. It’s terrible. So you put it away. You can’t bear to read it again without those darlings.

Accept. A few days later, bring back your essay, newly shorn of the darlings. Read it again. Realize, gulp, that it may actually be better without the darlings. Leaner, concise, and to the point. What were you thinking?

Love. The world may not love it, but you do. And that’s all that matters. Lick your paws and move on. New ideas are just around the corner….

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Your Calendar for the Creative Writing Expo on November 14!

Join us for the First Annual Creative Writing Expo!

Thursday, November 14, 2019, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Central Carolina Community College, Pittsboro
Building 42, Multi-Purpose Room

writingDo you dream of seeing your writing appear in print one day?

Would you like to learn more about the one and only Creative Writing Certificate offered by Central Carolina Community College?

If so, please join us on November 14!

INSPIRATION * FUN * FELLOWSHIP

    • 6:30 – 7:15 p.m. – FREE Workshop on the Flash Essay. Due to the popularity of memoir, the short-form (or flash) essay is popping up everywhere. Instructor Ashley Memory, whose work has appeared in O. Henry, Women on Writing, Romantic Homes, Raleigh News and Observer and more, will share what you need to know to pen your own short essays, including THE ONE TIP no serious writer can afford to miss!
    • 7:15 – 8 p.m. – Meet our champion, CCCC Associate Dean Felicia Crittenden and our instructors, hear success stories of current students, and learn about our Spring 2020 Course Offerings, including how you can earn the Creative Writing Certificate!
    • 8 – 8:30 p.m. – Enjoy refreshments and spend one-on-one time with instructors and students. Door Prizes! 🎁

 

The Expo is free and open to the public. Pre-registration is not required, but we encourage you to RSVP by calling the Continuing Education Office at 919-545-8044.

“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing; it can change your life.” – Tobias Wolff

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Wobbling the World at Charlotte Lit

charlotte litIf you felt the world wobble on Saturday, October 12, you may have felt the reverberation of laughter, tears, even the tiny buzz of collective endorphins circling the table at the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, Inc. (or Charlotte Lit).

This was the third time I’ve had the pleasure of leading a workshop on flash essays, (previously at Central Carolina Community College and the Joyful Jewel, both in Pittsboro) and Saturday brought a special delight. The cheerful space at Charlotte Lit (a former school), the hospitality of our hosts, and the enthusiasm of the writers who attended brought a vibrant energy that continues to inspire me in my own work.

But it doesn’t end there! On January 4, 2020, the momentum continues, as we explore the submission of our writing (whether essays, poetry, or fiction) to contests and publications. There are still a few spaces left, so I hope you join us and learn more about how to Share Your Writing With the World.

Nothing makes me happier than being around other writers and encouraging them to find their voices. I’m currently polishing up a busy spring schedule of other events, so please continue to visit my Events page for the very latest.

And I’ll share a secret. Shhh….on March 7, I’m doing a brand new workshop at Central Carolina Community College on the most radical technique I’ve ever shared. (Hint: Ever wanted to write a complete short story in just one day?) You might just feel an earthquake with this one.

 

Do You Have a Story to Tell? Join us on September 21 for a Flash Essay Workshop!

writingDo you have a funny story you’ve been itching to put down on paper? What about a poignant memory of a first love? The history of a cherished family recipe that you’d like to share? Or did your dog do something that simply cracked you up?

Of course you have a story! Every human being is simply brimming with fascinating true-life tales, and yours is probably even better than the ones I just described. From “Tiny Love Stories” in The New York Times to the food essays in Saveur magazine to family memories in Carolina Country, there are more markets than ever that would love to publish your stories. And many of them will happily pay you for them. Or you could win a big prize!

From my writing experience, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have published essays in places such as Romantic Homes, The Raleigh News and Observer and most recently, in Women on Writing and Mental Papercuts, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to taking an anecdote and turning it into a marketable short-form (or flash) essay. It’s not enough to simply relate your story as it happened. Readers long for what’s known as a “takeaway” – a little nugget of wisdom or insight that they can apply to their own lives. And it’s not hard to mine your stories for this tiny gem; chances are, it’s been there all along!

If you’d like to learn more about how you can turn your life experiences into memorable and compelling flash essays, I hope you’ll join us at Central Carolina Community College on Saturday, September 21 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. We’ll read some of the best flash essays being published today, draft some of our own, and explore the various markets for publication.  Click here to register online or call 1-800-682-8353 (or 919-545-8044) to register over the phone.

As we always do when we gather at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, home of state’s only community college-centered Creative Writing Program, we’ll have a boatload of fun doing it.

Creative Writing Events Near You!

Are you wriwritingting short stories? How about creative nonfiction or true-life essays? And let’s not forget about the third leg of this literary stool — poetry! Are you ready to submit your work?

No matter what you’re writing, revising or preparing to submit, you’re bound to find a local special event that may help you in your creative endeavors, from readings to classes, talks, and more! And some events are free! By attending, you’ll also meet other like-minded writers who can help you in your journey. Writing is by nature a solitary act, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

As a special note, in addition to teaching a class at Central Carolina Community College this fall, I’m also honored to be presenting two workshops at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, Inc. later this fall and in January. I look forward to working with and meeting writers in the Charlotte metro area.

Hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, keep writing and delighting!

Click here to view the latest list of Upcoming Events.

Happy National Camera Day, Etc!

cravengraveIt’s June 29, and the National Day Calendar tells me it’s National Camera Day, National Almond Buttercrunch Day, and National Waffle Iron Day!

So how did we celebrate such momentous occasions? First, we took a little field trip  to scenic Concord Cemetery in Coleridge, N.C. This site has been on my history bucket list for some time, as I’m a descendant (through my mother, Margaret Jane Craven) of Peter Craven, one of the early settlers of Randolph County. He settled here in 1750, back when our county was still part of Orange County, and well before our nation’s independence.

Peter had six sons and his descendants are now scattered across the U.S., but many of the original family members, including my great-great-great-great-great grandfather Thomas Craven, Esquire, Peter Craven’s eldest son, are buried here. Both Peter and Thomas served in the Revolutionary War and became renowned for their pottery.  The bright sunshine, verdant hills, and blue sky made today a perfect day for snapping pictures, such as the one above memorializing our patriarch.

Later, at home, I remembered that it was also Almond Buttercrunch Day. Luckily, I happened to some chocolate-covered toffee cookies stowed away in the freezer.

cookie

Okay, the flavor wasn’t quite almond buttercrunch, but I figured it was close enough, right?

The only thing left to commemorate is National Waffle Iron Day, but I have to tell you that after just two cookies, I’m already full. I love waffles, so maybe I’ll get out the waffle iron later. These long summer days make anything possible.

By the way, the National Day Calendar is a terrific resource for writers (and anybody else who just wants another reason to be happy!).

So have a little fun, and I hope you celebrate your favorite special day with style…..