Writing is labor

When we think of labor, we often think about unions and steamfitters and autoworkers and construction crews. What about writers?

Writing is labor, too.

Sitting down to write an essay or fiction story or poem or annual report or academic grant may not require you to wear steel-toed boots and get your hands dirty, but there are many forms of labor.

Writing is intellectual labor. Paying attention to your world, tapping into your experiences and memories, researching an unfamiliar culture or practice, thinking about how this sentence can be turned and changed and altered until it sounds like the sweetest tuning fork – that is labor.

Writing is emotional labor. Crafting a story or essay about a personal experience requires feeling that moment all over again, tears and anger and laughter and all. Writing can be cathartic, but the emotions drawn up from the deep well often set us back, makes us think and reconsider, and might even prevent the words from coming to the surface.

Writing is imaginative labor. Imagining a place or a person that doesn’t exist requires a great deal of creativity. Imagining that place or person that doesn’t exist and being able to render that place and person as realistic is an even greater feat. Our imaginations work hard to re-create scenes from the past where the details are now fuzzy – we must imagine them into clarity while being honest and truthful in their representation. We imagine ideas coming to life in tactile form, spinning out of our brains and through our fingertips onto the page or screen. We imagine. And it is exhausting and exhilarating and time-consuming.

And unlike these other, more tangible and visible, forms of labor? Writing is labor that never, ever stops. We don’t work from 6 – 2 or 9 – 5 five days a week. We writers mull ideas over as we watch mindless reality TV, gaze at the garden with a cup of coffee cooling in our hands, and sit in traffic on the way to work. A writer’s mind never stops, never shuts off, never quiets. It is always seeking, thinking, searching, connecting.

That is the beauty and curse of being a writer. Our labor is a 24/7 operation, but we thrive on those flashes of insight that come from the constant hum of ideas rolling around in our imaginations as they collide with daily experiences seen and observed. We love that moment of startling clarity when we know just the right words to use in that scene or ending.

Writers labor, and deserve to be paid for this labor that brings the world fresh stories, new ideas, and original insights.

Taming the grammar beast

Writers and academics and linguists and regular folks argue incessantly about grammar – what IS proper grammar? Is it really necessary to follow stringent “standard American English” grammatical rules when writing? The myriad answers you receive to these questions can be frustrating, daunting, and confusing. Because there is no one answer.

Here’s my take on grammar for anyone who wants to be a published writer:

Make sure your sentences are clear and clean. No typos, no misspelled words, appropriate punctuation for your purpose.

But HAVE a purpose. When considering how a character in your story should sound, or how a particular passage should visually look on the page, think about what you want to accomplish and why. Why should that character sound like a caricature of Paula Deen? Is that really necessary? Why does this person speak only in slang? Why did you not use any commas or periods? What effect were you going for by using no paragraph breaks, no conjunctions, and no apostrophes? If there is no good reason for the choices that you make in your writing, then default to what most people would consider “proper” grammar.

The important thing is to create clear prose. Clarity = good writing. And there’s no getting around that. If it isn’t clear, your reader will not understand what your story is about, and you will lose an editor’s attention faster than a yellow jacket fleeing poison spray.

Consider your audience and compose for them. Beyond that, I suggest ignoring the hundreds of opinions on the issue. Write, write clearly, and write for a specific audience. Don’t let the grammar beast block your path.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory (8/27/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory

Think about a place in your life where you experienced some kind of hurt, whether it was physical or psychological or emotional. The place where this hurt occurred holds powerful stories of your experience. You may need to close your eyes and really meditate on what this place looked like, sounded like, smelled like, felt like. Allow yourself to fully feel all of the sensations, and once your mind is overloaded with sensory details, start writing. It doesn’t matter how you begin or where in the space or moment you start, all the matters is that you start writing. Write until all of the sensory details and actions and conversations and landscape descriptions are down.

Now save it and step away. Don’t read what you just wrote right away. Talk a walk. Fix yourself a cup of coffee. Go outside and breathe in the fresh air. You have just relived a landscape memory and you may still feel the effects. New ideas may sprout out of this foundation, or perhaps just expanded ideas based on what you just wrote. When you are ready and feel suitably refreshed, return to your words and read what you wrote.

See what happens. You might be surprised.

 

 

Try something new

As today is the first day of the semester at my university, and I will be meeting my first class of students this afternoon, I wanted to honor the idea of the new – new semester, new season, new students, new challenges – with a brief post about trying something new in your writing.

If you’re like most writers, you spend a lot of time composing words in Times New Roman 12-point font in sentence and paragraph (or stanza) form on 8.5 x 11 pages of paper (or digital versions of the printed page). The lines of text on the page look like the lines I’m typing here. Horizontal, moving from left to right, lengthy blocks followed by more lengthy blocks of text.

When is the last time you played with how your text LOOKS on the page? Not just a different size or font type, but how the words are structured on the page. Say you’re musing about that time when your boyfriend proposed

in

front

of

a

waterfall?

What if you played with s p a c i n g and visual appeal?

What effect might that have on your story?

 

As I try to remind my students when we start experimenting with visual form, if you’re going to go for it, go all the way. No half-ass attempts here. If playing with the way the words look on the page makes sense for your story. . .if adding that visual element will strengthen and improve the impact of your piece, then you must try it. You can always go back to the safe zone.

F

R

E

E

YOURSELF

FROM

THE

SAFE CONSTRUCTION

 

AND

Try something new. You might be very surprised at the result.

:)

You’re not (revising) alone

The revision process for any writing is daunting, especially when done alone. So don’t remain alone! Join or create a writing group with two friends or colleagues. It doesn’t matter if you all prefer different genres and styles and subject matter. The important aspects of a writing group are support, encouragement, and revision suggestions.

Last month, I gave my writing group a piece that I’ve been revising and submitting to literary journals for almost two years. They had never seen it before because I wrote and revised it alone. And in that solo capacity, I got the piece to the point where I was receiving golden ticket rejections (see my earlier post about positive rejections for more on this), but felt I could go no further. So I sent it to my friends and asked for their help. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had worked with it so often that I felt I must be missing something obvious. And I knew the ending still wasn’t right.

We met at a great neighborhood deli for a late breakfast before we jumped in to discussing our pieces. They had each sent a piece to the group, so we spent time discussing revision and expansion ideas for each one over the course of two hours. When they got to mine, I listened, took notes, and asked for clarification. I was thrilled and relieved when they showed me things I couldn’t see, and when they helped me brainstorm tangible options for the ending. When I sat down to revise the piece, I could just feel how right their advice was, and it took a few hours because revision is hard even when you know what has to be done. When I sent it back to them for a quick once-over to make sure I had achieved what we discussed, both responded enthusiastically that I had done the necessary work and the  piece was much stronger. This built my confidence and I sent it off to another journal for consideration, confident that it really is now just a matter of time until some editor says yes.

If it wasn’t for my writing group, I would still be mulling over the potential problems with that piece. Thanks to their insights, suggestions, and ideas, I moved much more quickly into a “completed essay” that is now more competitive.

The idea that writers work alone is only partially true. Perhaps the original writing is composed in a solitary state, but the revisions taste much better in a group.

Create your own writing group (no more than three people total) and meet once a month to discuss ideas, focus on fixing a broken story, or to create goals. You won’t be sorry! :)

 

Midweek Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition (8/20/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition

Write a true narrative in the form of a list beginning with a series of identical phrases. Each section should be connected to the others and each statement should be a sentence. It can be a super short sentence, or a long and involved one, or something in between. But write the sentences in this order with each sentence on its own line:

I wish (3 separate sentences)
I remember (3 separate sentences)
I should (be) (3 separate sentences) – the phrase can be I should or I should be, but whichever you choose, be consistent
I am (3 separate sentences)
I will (3 separate sentences)

The goal of this prompt is to reinforce the power of collage and repetition. You could think of this as a narrative poem, or a list poem. Very often, poetry and creative nonfiction can go hand in hand. This prompt should help you to see and feel that. You could have a current writing project or story in mind so that you are re-creating it in this form, or you could just start afresh with wherever these phrases lead you. When I do this exercise with my students, I’m always blown away by the results. Give it a try. You might be surprised.

 

Demystifying “a good fit”

The phrase “a good fit” is often deployed in rejection letters and is rarely expanded upon, leaving the recipient wondering WHY the piece wasn’t a good fit for that publication at that moment in time.

If you’re like me, you don’t care what the reason is, you just know that the editor wasn’t interested for some reason and it’s time to move on and find someone who is interested. Try, try again without stopping.

However, I know from being a professor and workshop leader that most writers, especially new writers, aren’t like me at all. Most writers want to know why. If for no other reason than to improve the piece for the next place.

Ah, disappointment. Those answers are rarely available, which leaves writers flailing in the dark, paralyzed by uncertainty. No concrete reason was given, no specific feedback or advice proclaimed, so this “good fit” statement must just mean my story sucks and I’m a terrible writer and I should just quit.

No, no, no!

If your mind gravitates toward such thoughts, stop that! :)

A good fit could be code for “we hate your story,” but I’ve come to believe that’s really not the case in most instances. Think about it. Why even say that if they really hate your work? Why make the effort? Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I doubt a very busy editor is going to expend one precious second giving you ANY explanation unless she just doesn’t think the story fits in with the other stories that her team has accepted for the next four issues. And beyond that, if they DO hate your work, why would you care? There are journals aplenty to choose from. Go find another.

Consider, too, that perhaps the editors received ten pieces that deal with the exact same subject matter and they just prefer one over the other nine. And yours is in the nine group. Doesn’t mean your story sucks, just means someone else wrote about the subject in a way that struck that editor’s fancy more strongly than yours did.

A classic bad fit would also indicate the writer failed to do her homework by reading a few issues of the publication. Very often, writers submit works to publications that are a terrible fit in content or style, but because they didn’t read the guidelines or review at least a few pieces in an issue, they missed that and now it’s the editor’s job to point that out. I guarantee those rejections also do not come with an invitation to submit more work. Editors like writers who pay attention, at the very least.

In the end, “a good fit,” could mean anything. Don’t let it stop you from submitting that piece elsewhere, or writing more. Doing your homework and investigating publications a little bit before submitting is a good way to avoid an instant rejection, but it’s certainly no guarantee. There are too many elements, too many moving parts and personalities and genre needs floating around the editorial board’s table.

Don’t take the “it’s just not a good fit” news to heart. Just take the punch, don’t spend too much time overthinking your work, and re-submit elsewhere right away. Rinse and repeat until your work finds a publishing home.

You can do this!

Releasing the Mental Brakes: Where Ideas Come From

One of the greatest challenges facing any writer is to create original, fresh, compelling prose. But where do these ideas come from?

Students often say they don’t know what to write about. Workshop attendees often sit quietly, staring at the blank page or at the wall across the room, willing inspiration to strike. Even when given writing prompts, people often feel paralyzed, unsure where and how to start.

Part of this hesitation arises out of fear – fear of sounding stupid, fear of looking foolish, fear of disappointing someone (or self), fear of one’s own memories and reality, and on and on. Fear in this situation is a powerful de-motivator that slams the brakes on the imagination before the garage door can even be opened. You may have experienced this feeling once or twice, even if you are a skilled and practiced writer.

One way to release those annoying mental brakes is to logically and practically think about where ideas come from in the first place. There is no magic pill, no silver bullet, no spoon. Instead of showering you with vague advice about how “ideas come from everywhere!”, I will instead give you three practical locations for ideas. These are not the only places where ideas may be found, but they are good places to start.

1. Family

Ah, family. We love them, we hate them. They support us and infuriate us. We want to spend the holidays with them and yet we want to throw them out windows a half an hour after we arrive because Dad started in on politics again and now he’s yelling and Mom’s cringing and cousin is crying…I guarantee you have the same situation, only with different players and actions. Is it tricky to write about family? Yes. No way around that. But they are also our most reliable and steadfast source of writing material. From that camping trip gone haywire when you were nine to the summer your brother almost drowned to the way your dad makes you feel when he puts you down. Everything that has ever happened to you in your family is fair game for writing. My favorite quote is from Anne Lamott (it’s on my office door!), and I share it with students and writer friends and workshop participants all the time: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” My students always laugh when I tell them this, but that also leads to deep discussion about why this is so true, especially for writers searching for those elusive ideas.

Is it easy? No. Is it comfortable? No. Will it always (ALWAYS) provide an endless and unfailing well of ideas? Yes.

2. Experience

Whether you built a shed with your own two blistered hands from scratch, or you taught someone how to read, or you had a baby, or you ate sushi for the first time last night, you have thousands of experiences. Students often complain that their experiences aren’t exciting. I tell them to go have more adventures. Try something new. Do something they’ve never done before. Attempt to overcome a fear. Travel someplace new. Meet a new person. Go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Do something. DO something. LIVE! As long as you aren’t a total hermit who has no friends and never goes anywhere, you have an abundance of experiences from which to pull really great story ideas. If you are a linear thinker, go back in time and pick a point on your personal timeline. Think about what was going on in your life at that time: who did you know, what did you enjoy, where did you learn, how did you get around? If you are a nonlinear thinker, think about something you enjoy doing, say cooking. Now think about all of the cooking moments in your life – the people who have taught you to cook, helped you to cook, ruined your cooking, and enjoyed your cooking. Think about when you first learned how to cook – who taught you? Think about the last thing you tried to cooked, but failed miserably. What went wrong? What will you do differently?

No matter what the experience, ideas are embedded there, waiting to be found. You just have to start thinking and looking.

3. Writing prompts.

I can imagine people rolling their eyes at this one, but hear me out. If the first two fail you (and they shouldn’t), or you just want to try something different and out of your comfort zone, try a writing prompt. Prompts are everywhere, from sites like mine to books and blogs and web sites and teachers and friends. Even news stories can be used as a prompt. Think about all of the news stories you read that seem to have some question or mystery underlying the situation: What leads someone to pick up a gun and shoot up a movie theater or gym or school? Why are women still represented as sexual objects in 21st century American advertising? How can anyone in the conflicted Middle East feel at ease with the constant wars? All you really need is a question. Start answering it. Yes, I know you aren’t an expert on Middle East politics, but do you really think you have to be to explore the question I posed? Of course not, because as you start to haltingly piece together an answer that sounds somewhat intelligent, your mind will start firing and making connections and suddenly, you’ll have a flash of insight about how uncomfortable you felt this one time when this person did this thing to you and it felt like a personal war and….see how that happens? And trust me, it happens frequently when you employ writing prompts.

The prompt may become secondary very quickly to what you end up writing. The story you want to tell is buried behind a wall of hesitance – you just need to find a way to open the door.

No go release those mental brakes – no excuses! :)

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