It’s been a busy week. I launched a new research project, got a new computer and had all my data migrated from my old computer to the new, taught my classes, attended a colleague’s book reading, and mentored students. And, those are just the things I can remember in the moment! Although I kept up both my daily academic and creative writing counts during the week, by the time Friday arrived, I really did not feel like writing. You might have a day like that from time to time, too.
The part of me that would rather not do my daily writing said things like: “It’s Friday. You deserve a day off. You’re tired. You have to clean your office.” You know, the usual.
It also went into existential territory, including “What does it matter anyway?”
I have a list of things to try (or remember) when a strong and persistent feeling hits that makes it difficult to write. I went to it on Friday. Maybe you have such a list, too. Here’s mine:
1. Stay put and write. Even writing one sentence can be the momentum that pulls you forward.
2. Remember the quote by author Barbara Sher, “Moods are very short, projects are very long.” The ‘not feeling in the writing mood’ will dissipate pretty quickly by actually writing.
3. Remember writing is not what I ‘have to do’ but what I ‘get to do’.
4. Small amounts of daily writing moves work forward. There are people who have finished books and got them published by writing as little as 100 to 250 words a day.
5. Remember that when I get my writing done, I stop having to pay the “worry tax”. The “worry tax,” is the mental tax you’re paying when you keep thinking about writing but don’t make any concrete plans to write. The worry tax is a joy killer.
6. Order a book about the craft of writing that I’ve been wanting for some time. Then start writing.
7. Take a few minutes to read interviews with writers. The site www.talkingwriting.com has wonderful interviews with writers including Connie Willis, Robert Olen Butler and Susie Bright.
8. Exercise and then come back to writing.
9. Switch gears and genres. I like to have multiple writing projects that I can move between when I get stuck on a particular one. Usually playing around a few minutes on whatever I deem the most fun project in my life, at the moment, can coax me into a good writing mood.
10. Take a break from the computer and write for a few minutes in my journal: “What I really want to say about X is…”
What’s your favorite way to coax yourself back into writing when you’re in one of those ‘not wanting to write’ moods?
Tip 6: Make a literary pilgrimage
I decided to use a recent visit by my godsons as motivation to make a literary pilgrimage to visit the town of Edenton, NC where Harriet Ann Jacobs lived and made her escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. I read about her remarkable life in college and have been fascinated with her story ever since.
A literary pilgrimage can take many forms. It can mean a visit to a deceased writer’s home or estate, or a walk about their favorite town or city, exploring places that were important to them. It can be refreshing to take a break from your writing routine and connect with a writer that you admire by visiting places that shaped them.
Not all literary pilgrimages are arduous, but this one had elements of difficulty. My partner Tim and I were going to begin our trip with our godsons (visiting from Minnesota), by first going to Edenton and then ending up on Ocracoke Island. When I initially called the Historic Edenton Visitor Center to arrange a tour, I discovered that they would be closed on the first leg of our trip. And, I also discovered that only certain docents conducted the Harriet Jacobs tour and work on certain days. So we rearranged our trip so that we could get there later in the week, thus ending our sightseeing in Edenton before heading home. A few days into the trip, I called a second time to arrange a tour.
During this call, the person explained that the main ‘Harriet Jacobs docent’ was out on vacation, but perhaps another person who occasionally did the tour could fill in. But, the person on the phone sounded skeptical that this other docent was going to be available. She said that there were materials available for a self-guided tour. I thought OK, we’ll just show up and do the self-guided tour. Not ideal, but doable.
The afternoon we arrived in Edenton, we were tired and it was already close to 90 degrees. This the last leg of our trip after watching wild ponies in Ocracoke, seeing the Lost Colony play in Roanoke, and feeling the exuberance of invention at the Wright Brothers’ exhibit in Kitty Hawk. It also looked as if it was going to rain which made me doubt everyone’s willingness to do a self-guided tour.
We were in luck, however, for when we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were met by an older woman named ‘Miss Carolyn’ (a native of Edenton), and she graciously walked with us and gave us a thorough 90 minute tour. Although not the primary docent on Harriet Jacob, she was a great resource and and enthusiastic guide.
The brief story about Harriet Jacobs goes as follows: Although they were enslaved, the Jacobs family had a great deal of relative freedom in the small town of Edenton. Her father was an accomplished carpenter, her grandmother, a well-known cook. After her mother’s death, Harriet went to live in the home of her owner Margaret Horniblow; Margaret taught her how to sew and read. It was assumed by Harriet and her family that Horniblow would emancipate her. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Harriet and her younger brother found themselves in the home of Mr. Norcom (there seems to be some historical evidence that Mr. Norcom somehow interfered with Horniblow’s wishes and/or will). Mr. Norcum became obsessed with young Harriet and made many sexual advances on her. At the time it was common that enslaved women were often sexually brutalized by any white man that lived on the plantation (or off).
After dealing with this terrible situation for several years and trying other remedies (including beginning a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried, powerful white lawyer and future US Congressman), Harriet ran away and went into hiding. She first hid in the homes of friends, in nearby ‘Snaky Swamp’ and later in the home of her grandmother Molly. Harriet hid in her grandmother’s small attic above a storeroom for six years and eleven months. Norcom continued to search for her and briefly jailed her children (children from the liaison with Sawyer), her brother and an aunt hoping to flush her out. She successfully escaped in 1842 and made a life in New York. Norcom and other members of his family continued to search for her.
She was able to buy her children’s freedom and became prominent in the abolition movement. She completed Incidents in 1858. She had bad luck initially as two book publishers who acquired the book both went out of business before it came to print.
Harriet purchased the plates of her book and had it printed in 1861. This endeavor I imagine cost a small fortune. I had forgotten that self-publishing options were often a route for disenfranchised people to make their voices heard. She published it originally under a pseudonym as to protect the living members of her family still in slavery.
We were able to visit the church that Harriet and her family attended, the jail where her family members were imprisoned and the harbor where she escaped as part of the Underground Railroad.
We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in.
She was able to sit up, but could not stand up. She had a small peep hole to look out of and the entire area was about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high. Her grandmother would bring her food and occasionally she could come down, but the majority of the time was spent there. I can’t imagine the ways in which Harriet had to keep her mind occupied. Amazing.
My eldest godson Andrew, who is 14, had read the book last year for class, so he knew many of of the details. It was so nice to share a piece of history with them.
The power of the word is remarkable and and has often been used to fight injustice. I felt truly moved walking around Edenton and thinking about Harriet. If any of her family members’ graves had been marked, I would have left something on them as an offering, but unfortunately that was not the case. I have only scratched the surface in recounting the highlights of the life of Harriet Jacobs. For more, read Incidents in Life of a Slave Girl, and visit this site.
I’d love to hear if you’ve gone on a literary pilgrimage or are planning one.
This week, I’m sharing some recent posts and articles that I’ve found interesting and provocative. They, of course, have to do with my twin passions- writing and creativity. Enjoy!
250 words vs. 500 words a day
So, I’ve been writing quite a bit about the Magic Spreadsheet and the transformational effects of writing 250 words a day. Speculative fiction writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a slightly different take on what target word count works and shares his wisdom on the power of writing 500 words a day. He’s on a streak of writing 373 consecutive days straight (!) and gives excellent tips about how to keep going. I love his idea of having an “emergency scene” as a stash for the times he needs it the most. Check out his post ‘How I Kept a 373-DayProductivity Streak Unbroken’.
Do you need a writing app?
I’m a professor and the semester has started. I know that I will have to adapt my creative writing schedule to accommodate being back in the classroom and juggling various research projects. At this time of year, I’m always open to anything that will help keep me on track. I have discovered the world of writing apps! And, it is quite a world. These writing apps can help you with story structure, organization of files, and idea generation. Below are two excellent posts on writing apps. You might want to try one out to add to your writer’s toolkit.
Diversity in publishing is an important topic. NPR did a story this week looking at the Twitter activism of a group of writers (#WeNeedDiverseBooks), that began as a conversation to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The NPR story delves deeply into the structural issues that contribute to the lack of diversity in most aspects of the publishing industry. It’s a sobering piece.
Move around and get creative!
I had the distinct pleasure of conducting a creativity workshop this week for local United Way leaders. They were a lively audience. One of the participants, Chris Holleman sent me his blog post about the importance of moving to stimulate creativity (especially in the workplace). Thanks Chris!
Posted August 11, 2014on:
I admit it—I’m crushing hard. Two months ago, I wrote about a free motivational tool called ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ developed by Tony Pisculli. This is one of the most helpful writing ideas I’ve come across in a long time and I can’t speak highly enough of it.
Here is a link to my first post that goes into detail about the Magic Spreadsheet, its origins and how to find the links to join.
Since I’ve become such a fan, I thought I’d report back about why I think the ‘MS’ is so great and what it’s has been like to use it.
Recap: The ‘MS’ is a fun way to get past the twin challenges of motivation and momentum regarding writing. The commitment is to write 250 words every day (you can always do more) and to enter your word count into a public Google spreadsheet. The program keeps track of your daily word count (like magic). And, you get awarded points and levels along the way for consistency and higher word counts. The points and levels add a cool element of ‘gamification’ to the Magic Spreadsheet. And, if you write 250 words a day, in a year you’ll have a draft of a book.
Motivation: It can be very hard to stay motivated to write, especially when working on long projects. Think about the chapter, report, or essay you are trying to finish right now. It’s hard to get up the motivation to tackle something so big. But, writing 250 words a day feels very easy to sustain. Most of us can muster up the motivation to write 1-2 paragraphs that will take about 15-20 minutes. If you do more, that’s great. But if you don’t, at least you’ve got your 250 words done for the day and you’ve moved some project along.
Momentum: Momentum is such an important component in a writer’s life. It makes the difference between finished projects and unfinished ones. How does one develop momentum? It’s much easier if you are consistent, which means writing frequently.
Walter Mosley in his essay, ‘For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day’* makes this point with care: “Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.”
The MS helps to strengthen your momentum.
When you get too far away from a project (days, weeks or even years), it’s harder and harder to muster the motivation to pick up where you left off. Once you fall out of a writing rhythm, it becomes harder and harder to recapture the momentum that you once had. I also find that steady momentum helps keep those pesky inner critics at bay. They see you doing the work and shut up (or at least pester you about other things).
More: I love the ritual that I have gotten into in using the MS. When I’m done with my words, I go and log them in to the MS. This act now completes my writing ritual. I also enjoy looking at other people who are on my page (each page or tab has hundreds of people). Although I don’t know them, by occasionally scrolling down through their entries, it reinforces a feeling that we are all in this crazy writing business together. Everyone has challenges getting motivated and sustaining momentum. I feel less lonely looking at all the other people attempting their 250 words a day like me. And, I’ve even looked up some the writers to find out more about them.
I decided to use the Magic Spreadsheet to track my creative work only. Some people are using it to track their dissertations, academic articles, etc., and the MS works well for that, too. I also knew I wanted to work on multiple projects. Many people use the spreadsheet just for new writing or moving forward on a first draft of a novel, memoir, etc.
My 7-days a week, 250+ words practice has generated:
-One essay submission
-One poem that I had in draft form for two years
-A new short prose poem. I wrote this the same day I revised the other poem.
-Three columns for the Chapel Hill News
-Revisions on 4 short stories
-A conclusion to a story that I was having trouble with for several months
-Several blog posts (including this one)
-Two 3 page synopses of possible novels that I’m auditioning for in preparation for NaNoWriMo
-6 character sketches for one of the above possible novels
-Drafting and outlining for my old unfinished novel
-30,000 words in 65 days
Some of these pieces might have written because of standing deadlines, but most would not have been written without the nudge of the Magic Spreadsheet. And, much of the work has felt effortless.
I’m a believer. I’m a convert. I’m in love with the MS. Try it. It just might change your writing life.
*You can find Mosely’s essay in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (2001).
What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.
Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.
I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.
Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.
I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.
2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.
3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.
4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.
5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.
The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.
I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.
Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.
Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.