The Practice of Creativity

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.

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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?

 

Becky Thompson has been an inspiration to many. She is an award-winning writer, professor, yoga instructor, and activist. She has spent the last twenty years traveling across the world researching, teaching, and writing on issues of social and racial inequality. An academic by training, she has written on a wide variety of topics that include eating disorders, HIV/AIDS, parenting a multi-ethnic family, and global activism. Her books are infused with creativity, scholarly rigor and meaningful engagement. They are magic carpet rides for the mind, body and spirit. She has also been a pedagogical pioneer in investigating and incorporating a wide range of contemplative practices in the classroom (including yoga, mindfulness, walking meditation, etc.). She uses the power of these practices to create a collective, intelligent and vulnerable space for students and teachers to engage deeply with difficult topics.

I count myself fortunate that I attended one of her contemplative pedagogy workshops, many years ago, while she was a visiting professor at Duke University. That made a deep impact on me though it would be years before I would muster up the courage to incorporate what I learned from Becky into my own teaching practice.

More recently, we’ve realized that we have overlapping interests in many areas, including yoga and social justice.

So, when I discovered that Becky has a new book that brings together narratives of social justice, yoga, trauma and healing, I couldn’t wait to find out more. Her latest book is Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for those Healing from Trauma (North Atlantic Books), and it promises to be groundbreaking.

Thompson’s other books include Zero is the Whole I Fall into at Night (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2011); When the Center is on Fire (co-authored with Diane Harriford, University of Texas Press, 2008); Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Disapora (co-edited with Randall Horton and Michael Hunter, Third World Press, 2007); A Promise and A Way of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Mothering without a Compass (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Thompson’s work has also been featured in multiple journals such as Harvard Review, Feminist Studies, Gender & SocietyWarpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas, Amandla, Illuminations, and Margie.

Currently, Becky is Chair and Professor of Sociology at Simmons College in Boston, MA.

Becky sees her yoga practice as the foundation upon which her writing, teaching, poetry, and activism can flourish.

It’s is my distinct pleasure to welcome Becky Thompson to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

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-Tell us about your new book Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma. What sparked your interest in writing this book? 

My initial motivation came from an early teacher training I was participating in where I realized that many of the participants were whispering—in the halls, after sessions—about the depressions, loss, sexual abuse, and accidents they had experienced. But they did not feel okay about “coming out” about these traumas. It was as if yoga was in one corner and trauma was in another with no meeting place in between. During that training, I also dissociated on my yoga mat one Sunday morning which surprised me and led me to co-lead a workshop on trauma for the other yogis. That initial push was coupled by the inspiration I was getting from people who started to talk with me about their own stories of using yoga to help heal from racism, sexual abuse, incarceration, accidents, addictions, illnesses, great loss, war, etc.

While I can point to a moment when I officially started writing Survivors, in many ways I have been working my way up to this book for years. In some ways, Survivors is an answer to my first book, A Hunger So Wide and So Deep since Survivors offers stories of people living in the land of healthy solutions, who are finding embodiment that trauma had formerly stolen. The book follows A Promise and a Way of Life since it seeks to offer examples of antiracist activism currently taking place in yoga communities. Although I didn’t know this consciously when I started Survivors, I now know that I needed the last twenty years of writing, living, healing, and activism to get prepared for Survivors. For example, this book is a lot about the process of manufacturing joy. I didn’t know I even needed more joy ten or twenty years ago. And I never would have been able to put so much of my own story of trauma into a book before. That took some real coaxing and guidance this time around.

Survivors is an intellectual book in that I incorporate trauma theory, neuroscience and yoga philosophy. And it is an experiential book in that it starts and ends with the body—its pleasures and pain. Two decades ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the community ties I needed to reach out to and find Joanne Wyckoff, who became my agent. And I wouldn’t have had the guts to include a bunch of photos of “unconventional” collective poses (that we have created together in my years of teaching yoga in an eclectic range of communities) in the book’s glossary. I can’t wait to hear what readers think and feel about all of this.

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-In the book, you explore the unique strengths and needs of trauma survivors. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve discovered while working with trauma survivors?

One key lesson for me was learning that trauma survivors are special—subversive angels on the road to healing. There is a tendency when we hear the word “trauma” to back away. To pass the tissues. The word sounds heavy, intense. In fact, many trauma survivors have special characteristics. We tend to be highly intuitive and ingenious—we have had to be to survive. Trauma survivors tend to throw their weight behind the underdog, are willing to question authority, and take risks. Trauma survivors often come early to yoga classes and stay late. They know that their lives depends upon healing. We are the ones with the wiggles, who cry during savasana, who get up and try again.

-You have been thinking a lot about the connection between yoga and social justice activism. How can they inform each other?

Embedded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the “Native American Code of Ethics” (which are both guides for understanding yoga philosophy) are commitments for healing ourselves and our communities. It turns out that trauma survivors are often at the forefront of liberation struggles. Coming to terms with your life being turned upside down often provides motivation to try to turn the world right side up again. I am thinking for example of Lisa Houston, a Scottish woman whose story is in Survivors, who took her yoga mat with her in her work with refugees at the border of Thailand and Burma. I am thinking about Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist man on death row in California who used his body to interrupt a stabbing in San Quentin. His years sitting on his meditation cushion guided him to do this. Survivors is full of stories by people who see activism as key to being human.

The well-known Buddhist Silva Boorstein has said that the longer she has practiced yoga and meditation, the more zealous she has become about social activism. This is a very good sign for yoga communities since practicing yoga certainly does not exempt us from enabling racism, sexism and elitism in our midst. We can’t just “om” ourselves into multiracial, global communities. Long-term yoga can help us listen more deeply and undo inequalities.

-You’ve written many different kinds of books (i.e. scholarly, creative, etc.), and across many types of genres (e.g. poetry, essay, narrative).  Who inspires you? Who are some of the writers that you continually mine for technique, style, or phrasing?

Joy Harjo remains one of the writers/activists/musicians whose work keeps me up at night. Her book, A Map to the Next World, has been the one book I have taken with me on my plane flights. Pure magic and talent in that book. Rolf Gates’ book Meditations from the Mat was the model for Survivors and the one I read to my grandmother in the last years of her life. I was thrilled when he consented to write the foreword for Survivors. Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga and Matthew Sanford’s Waking are both yoga books I teach in my doctoral education and social theory classes. I like that cross-pollenization. I still think that Edwidge Dandicat’s Breath Eyes Memory is among the finest novels on sexual abuse, colonization and healing.   Dandicat also writes outstanding essays.

This Bridge Called my Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga gave me (and so many others) the intersectional analysis (attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, language, nation) that forms the theoretical foundation for Survivors (and my other justice books). That book combines many genres—poetry, creative nonfiction, essays. June Jordan, Dorothy Allison, Sonia Sanchez, and Jacqueline Woodson are marvelous models for me. Poetry and literature remain my company when I am lonely, worried, or trying to understand how to respond (or get quiet) in the face of much insanity around us.

Music also gives me much guidance: India.Arie, Angelique Kidjo, Sweet Honey, Bobby McFerrin, Snatum Kaur, Patti LaBelle and many others. Music makes so many invisible links that we need to write across genres—the improvisation in fiction, the steadiness of prose, the surprise in poetry. When I was finishing Survivors, the editor advised that I not include a music list in the appendix since people’s taste in music is so variable. But I couldn’t bear leaving out music and so I ended up labeling that section “idiosyncratic music list” and tucked it in after the “suggested further reading” in an appendix.

-If you could invite three living yoga teachers to a dinner party that you’re hosting, who would you invite and why?

I would love to have Angela Farmer (who teaches in Greece, is 76, and has been guiding us to go inside to find safety for 40 years), Angela Davis (who isn’t officially a yoga teacher but is a yogi), and Nikki Myers (founder of the innovative yoga and recovery model Y12sr) together. I would cook for days—wasabi tofu, grilled asparagus, sweet potatoes, Lundberg rice, homemade hummus, and divine salad. Mango and sticky rice for dessert. I would fantasize about the playlist for the dinner for weeks. Michele and Keval Kaur and Diane Harriford would need to come too. Life is short. I gotta figure out how to make this possible.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Honor the muse no matter what she needs. If she needs to write while you are driving, pull over. If she wakes you up in the night, thank her. If she is shy or angry, she has good reason. For prose writing, expressing the ideas first as poems helps to keep the language lyrical. Writing after doing an intense yoga practice can bring us into a deeper register. Talking about the writing process is erotic, in the Audre Lorde, expansive sense of the word. Yoga is big like that too.

I am attaching a poem I recently wrote for Sonia Sanchez—long time meditator, poet, and dancer for justice—since the poem resonates with some of the questions you have asked. Thank you Michele, for your generosity and creativity.

She be

for Sonia Sanchez

 She be
Tupac in the summertime

She be
we tumble in the fall

She be
writing on the fast train

She be
writing honey slow

She be
listen, she say listen

She be
rhyming with Coltrane

She be
singing us some praise songs

She be
a chandelier of sound

She be
traveling with ashe ashe

She be
prancing with her sons

She be
channeling tenacity

She be
heart sing heart sing heart sing song

She be
circling her audience

She be
can’t wait, can’t wait for love

She be she be she bow she shy she shake   she cry   she glow   she slide
She fly   she be   she be   she be   she be

 

Becky Thompson has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including grants from the NEH, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Association for University Women, the Ford Foundation, Political Research Associates and the Gustavus Myers Award for Outstanding Books on Human Rights in North America.

Becky is a senior level yoga teacher (YRT-500) and teaches yoga at conferences, workshops, in college classes, and community centers internationally and nationally.

Find out more about her and how to purchase Survivors on the Yoga Mat here

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.

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We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in.

The property of the Visitor Center has created a replica of Molly’s attic where Harriet hid. IMG_9976

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.

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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.

‘The Best Apps for Any Kind of Writing

’12 Best iPad Writing Apps and Other Tools’

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

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!

‘Walking Meetings and Creativity’

 

In late June, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop called ‘The First Draft is The Easy Part’ with author and coach Stuart Horwitz. I had already checked out his new book Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method and was planning on buying it as it looked like a unique approach to revising. When I arrived at the workshop, I was thrilled when I was handed a signed copy of his book that came as part of the registration packet. The workshop was packed and we were treated to a presentation that was informative, humorous and also included a live action short film. It wasn’t a typical workshop and Stuart’s book is not a typical one about writing. As a matter of fact, it’s not a craft book per se. It’s about structure and how to truly revise a manuscript instead of tinkering with it around its edges. I read the book in two days. His method has given me the courage to radically revise my first novel that I had put aside because of its ambitious nature (e.g. multiple person POVs, non-linear time sequences, over 200,000 words, etc.). His book offers a flexible method that enables a writer to uncover the flaws and strengths in their work as they revise. And, I’ve found that using his method, I’m actually having fun rethinking my sprawling novel.

Stuart Horwitz is the founder of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence and Boston. He has spent over fifteen years helping writers become published authors. His clients have reached the best-seller list in both fiction and non-fiction. Stuart brings a synthesis of academic theories of narrative structure and his hands-on experiences as an independent editor, book coach and ghostwriter to thinking about how to revise effectively.

Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best books about writing by The Writer magazine. I thought I’d invite Stuart to the Practice of Creativity to discover more about his unique take on writing. I’m delighted to welcome Stuart Horwitz to this blog.

 

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-Why did you write Blueprint Your Bestseller? What’s in store for readers?

I was teaching a class called “Blueprint Your Book,” in which I was trying to show my students how to structure a book-length work. One of my students came up to me after class and asked me, “Where is the book that tells me how to do all this?” Naively, I said, “I’ll buy three from the bookstore and then whichever two you don’t want, I’ll just return.” Well, needless to say, there wasn’t one there.

As for the second part of this question I would venture to say, the book presents a sane way of looking at plot/structure — through a method, not a formula. There may in fact be a deep structure that exists in our psyche that influences how we receive narrative. But we don’t get there through formulas, through exploiting how we think that structure operates ahead of time like all those Hollywood beat sheets — you know, start the love interest in minute 20, have the main character contemplate death in minute 80… Instead we use a method to discover how your work may be resonating with that deep structure and how you are approaching it originally.

Or maybe you just wanted me to say “it’s about revision.” Ha! It’s both.

-What is the ‘book architecture method’ and how did you discover it?

This wasn’t what I was going to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an angry young man novelist in Border’s “New Voices” program. Good thing that didn’t work out — for many reasons. I would be stuck in a person and Borders is closed.

The Book Architecture Method is a twenty-two step process for organizing and revising your manuscript. It has helped bestselling authors get from first draft to final draft.

I don’t know; this has always just been the person I am. I got a Father’s Day card from my 15 year-old that said, “Please don’t travel so much next year (from my book tour) — things are much more systematized when you’re here.” High praise!

-Most writers find revising longer pieces frustrating, unsatisfying, and often tinker around the edges indefinitely without tackling the most demanding elements of the revision. As a coach how do you help writers stay motivated through the tougher aspects of revision?

True, all of that. I think people try to get out of doing the analysis part that is the heavenly consort of the creative part. We like to say around the office, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” Well, we don’t really say it, but it is posted on the wall. Point being, if you actually spend some time between drafts in deep-ish analysis of what you have created, you can enjoy the heck out of the next draft as it returns you to the creative problem solving and immersion that many people think is more fun. But we have two halves of our brain for a reason.

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- You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, entrepreneur, an active workshop leader and instructor.  How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

I’m pretty bad at relaxing. I like to have a lot of priorities, including my wife and kids, my community, a stab at personal health, etc. and to immerse myself in all of them when I am doing that particular thing. Life tends to spread out wonderfully when we only do this one thing at a time, like talking to Michele. That’s the one and only thing I am doing right now.

-What’s the next project you’re working on?

Book Two! HOW PLOT WORKS: How Book Architecture Can Build Your Strongest Story Ever. If Book One was about organization and revision, in Book Two I promise to reveal the secret to understanding great narrative. I promise that if I can do that I will be done writing books on writing.

-What’s your best writing tip you’d like to share?

Writing is supposed to be a transformation of the self, first. That’s how you choose your subjects, your characters, your formats. That’s how you know how many drafts to engage in — if you are still transforming yourself, you keep going. If you are done getting what you needed personally from it, then you better clean it up in a hurry and get it out into the world, however that happens. That’s also the value of the work. People talk a lot of crap about why they write: they want to change the world; they want to make money, blah, blah. The primary reason is none of those. We want to see if we can do it, and we want to do something we can proud of. Then we have to let the work change us — surprise us and challenge us — that’s when it gets good. Otherwise we should just be doing crossword puzzles.

 

Stuart is an award-winning essayist and poet, who has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds two masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU,—and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism. He lives in Rhode Island. Visit his site to learn more.

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.

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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.

Results

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.

 

giraffe walrus cclllWhat do a giraffe, a walrus, and the short-story anthology Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing have in common?*

 

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.

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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