Category Archives: Write

Practice. Practice. Practice.

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Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Practice. Practice. Practice. If you want to write, you have to make like a Nike commercial and “just do it.”

I write almost every day; most of it is work-related, but I probably average about about 1,500 words. I write mostly about stewardship, discipleship, and faith. Some days I craft articles or draft profiles. Other days I write sermons and blog posts. Once a week I write a reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary. Social media posts are a regular complement to the longer pieces. When I have the opportunity and luxury of choice I write poetry and dabble with fiction. Other writers are far more prolific than I am–and decidedly more disciplined, too. Still I write because it’s part of who I am.

When I don’t write I become cranky, slightly out-of-sorts, a bit moody. It’s the same as with physical exercise. Our bodies need to be active, to move, to stretch, to be strengthened. The same applies for our writing muscles and creativity: Use it, or you just might lose it.

What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on. — C. S. Lewis

Here’s the thing: writing requires regular, everyday effort. I don’t know of anyone who simply sat down, faced a blank screen or clean sheet of paper and wrote a best-selling novel or a Broadway-bound play on the first go. So I’m grateful for C. S. Lewis’ reminder that every word written carries one further on, and I agree with him that craft matters, that every effort should be keen and thoughtful. Whether it’s fiction or poetry or feature articles or even a letter to a friend (perhaps particularly a letter to a friend), it’s a worthy effort and deserves to be treated as such.

This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. — Brenda Ueland

It is easy to become discouraged. Some days it seems that no words will come or that those that do spit themselves out are facile or nonsensical. On those days, remember this quote from pioneering writer and free spirit Brenda Ueland in her book If you Want to Write (Greywolf Press). In fact, she felt so strongly that everyone has something important to say that she titled a chapter in the book with those words. If you are not familiar with Ueland or this book, by all means read it.

Don’t be discouraged dear fellow writer. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and keep those words coming. Read good prose and poetry. See excellent plays. Listen to good music. But most of all, WRITE. Every day. Yes. Every day.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts and strategies for hammering out those words. Please share your wisdom in the comment section. Thanks!

Photo: Ramiro Ramirez, Creative Commons. Thanks!

 

 

A Poem a Day Helps the Words to Play

Note: If you’re a writer of prose (fiction, non-fiction, or both) this post is particularly directed at you. If you are a poet, enjoy the vote of appreciation for the wonderful work you do with words and images.

Want to polish your prose, dust off your diction, and give wings to your words? If you do, then read a poem every day. If possible, commit to write one every day or at least every week.

Why poetry to improve your prose? It’s simple. Poetry is like condensed soup. The poet packs more meaning into each word than the average prose writer does in an entire sentence or paragraph. For the poet every word is a gem that must be polished, cared for, and shown in its best light.

Reading and writing poetry will help the prose writer reduce verbosity, heighten meaning, and maximize metaphor and imagery. Integrating poetry into your daily discipline will help your words sing with renewed freshness and light.

What does it look like to integrate poetry into your daily prose routine?

1) Sign up to have a poem delivered each day to your inbox. Here are a few to consider.

  • Poetry Daily  (features a daily poem, poet, and poetry journal)
  • Poets.org (from the Academy of American Poets)

2) Lay hands on a good book about poetry and writing poetry. More importantly, put it to use! Three books to use as starting points are:

Most importantly, take every opportunity to hear poetry read aloud or performed. If you don’t have access to local outlets for poetry readings, you’ll find plenty of good YouTube videos. Hearing poetry allows it so seep into your skin and weave its way into your creative heart. The more your hear, read, and write, the stronger and more vivid your prose is likely to become. Now, go play with words! Make art. Spread beauty. Have fun.

P.S.: What about you? What are your favorite ways to incorporate poetry into your daily life? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo by chillihead used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

 

 

 

Burn, Baby, Burn

Enough of these phrases, conceit and metaphors,
I want burning, burning, burning.
–Rumi

Am I writing from my head or from my heart?

From reason or from intuition?

From my rational, need-to-make-a-living mind or from my place of greatest, deepest passion?

Do you ask yourself these questions? If not, you should. Call it checking your creative temperature. If you find your head and reason responding more loudly than your heart and soul, chances are the difference is showing in your writing, too.

Beginning writing students often tell me they can’t find any approach to a particular topic, saying “Nothing about it interests me,” or “I don’t know anything about that.” They allow a temporary lack of inquisitiveness and curiosity threaten to stifle creativity. They let fear of failure and inadequacy build fences between them and their words.

I believe that if you look hard enough and long enough at almost any topic and you’ll find something about it to pique your interest. If you observe, listen, taste, and feel your way around a subject, you WILL find entry into the world of that particular story or song or character.

Life is fascinating. Humans are amazing and frustrating and complex. The world is beautiful, ugly, dark and light. You, dear writer, are gifted with an ability to see, to tell truth, to craft story from air and dust. So get to it. Don’t tell me (or yourself!) that you can’t kindle your words and images from the tiniest spark.

Sure, you may be able to write cogent, precise, and even elegant prose. But I want fire. I want to hear your heart sing and read the music of your words. I want to immerse myself in your story–be it real or fiction. Give me truth either way. Make me burn with you. Ignite my curiosity and stoke my energy. Help me see between, around, and through your words.

Go now. Dig deeply into your place of passion and fire. Take any kernel of reality or fantasy and set yourself on creative fire. Don’t tell me you can’t. Do not rely on your head and your reason; they may only disappoint and stifle you. They will tell you 1,000 reasons you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t. Go now. Create a conflagration. Tell me. Show me. Make fireworks of those words. Burn, baby, burn.

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The Curious Case of the Missing “T”

Not too long ago I sent a news release to the local newspaper about a Girl Scout in our parish who completed a meditation garden on church property as her Silver Award project. I try to be conscious of the fact that small town papers are notoriously understaffed and will usually print something that is decently written and provides solid information and quotes. Photographs are almost always welcome, especially if they show action instead of a posed shot with people lined up like smiling bowling pins. Anything the submitter of the news release can do to make life easier for the editor is a good thing and enhances one’s chance of seeing a story in print.

I was delighted to see a week later that the paper had printed our story in its entirety with minimal editing–photo included. It looked like every “i” was dotted and “t” crossed. But wait! Surely not! Oh, yes. The omission of one lower case letter “t” in the headline had changed our lovely m-e-d-i-t-a-t-i-o-n garden into a m-e-d-i-a-t-i-o-n garden.

Most people probably never even caught the error. Our eyes and brain cover a multitude of proofing sins. Yet all it took was the careless omission of one letter to change the meaning of an entire headline. It was an error that eluded the spell checker and the copy editor, and truthfully it almost eluded my own eagle editing eye.

So what’s the point? Proof. Proof. Proof some more. Never assume that spell check has your back. Find the best strategies for proofing your work word by word. I prefer to read from the end to the beginning one word at a time when copy editing. I also find it helpful to read aloud when hunting for mistakes and grammatical errors.

Mistakes happen. Some are more costly than others. Minimizing the potential for careless errors through diligent proof reading is crucial–whether you are a copy editor at a small town newspaper, a staff editor at a major publishing house, or a blogger. Make the most of your words and treat them with care. Oh, and don’t let random letters go missing.

I suppose one could participate in mediation in a meditation garden. The only question that comes to mind is this one: could the result be silent mediation or lively meditation? Perhaps we’ll never know. That may be just as well.

(Photo by Looking Glass used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!)

But I Don’t Wanna . . .

Ever felt like this? Have you ever sat down at your desk to write and been struck by a mental thunderbolt of the “me no wanna” variety? Most of us have, I suppose. The question is what should one do in response.

Basically you have two choices: to write or not to write. There are advantages and disadvantages to each decision. Only you can decide what works for you.

If you choose to growl, grumble, and get on with it, you will end up with words on a page, even if they only resemble something like this:

I do not want to write today.
I do not want to write today.
I do not want to write today.

If you are lucky and your muse is helpful, you will transcend the doldrums and produce some weighty and/or wonderful words–perhaps mediocre ones will even suffice.

On the other hand, if you decide to put down your pen or put your computer to sleep you may get some much needed time to recharge your creative batteries. You could:

  • Take a walk along the lake shore. (If there’s no lake shore nearby, you’ll just have to improvise; after all, you are a writer and creative thinker.)
  • Eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without so much as one minute shred of guilt.
  • Go take a nap in your hammock or lawn chair or bed. Heck, the floor will do in a pinch.
  • Check out a movie at a nearby theatre. If it’s hot and you have no air-conditioning, this could be an excellent choice. Do yourself a favor and choose an Indie film like Moonrise Kingdom.
  • Dance in your underwear to ridiculous music. Laugh out loud. Chase the dog or cat around the house. Play the drums on pots and pans in the kitchen with Benny Goodman’s big band playing “Sing Sing Sing” in the background. Do something completely out of character but completely legal.

Whichever path you choose on a “no wanna” kind of day, trust it is the right one for the present moment. If you do decide to walk away for just one day, that’s o.k. Sometimes a break is the only option for your creative and mental health. Just be sure to sit back down tomorrow and get back to the business and passion of your craft. You are, after all, a writer. And writers write.

Photo by Valentin Ottone used under Creative Commond License. Thanks!

Break Down the Blocks

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” — Maya Angelou

Oh yeah. We’ve all been there. Blank screen. Pristine, unmarked page. No words. Writer’s block can strike anyone at any time in any place. This malady has a particular fondness for creeping up whenever a deadline looms or you have a nice block of dedicated time for work.

Fortunately, writer’s block is rarely terminal and almost never fatal. One simply needs to have a few tools to break down the blocks. Next time you face the relenting blank screen or page try one or more of the techniques I usually find helpful:

  • Just walk away. Get up and leave the room. I like to take a walk around the neighborhood or spend a little time in the garden. If the weather’s rotten, get a cup of coffee or other favorite beverage and savor the flavor. Usually after 15-30 minutes I can go back to my work refreshed and with my creativity unclogged.
  • Press on. Just start typing (or get that pen/pencil scribbling). It doesn’t have to be about anything in particular; in fact, I often end up with a combo rant/lament about my inability to put anything coherent on paper. This can go on for several hundred words, but I find that the sustained act of writing and seeing words on paper usually helps me find a way to break through and an idea I can use.
  • Read someone else’s words. Pull your favorite classic fiction or poet off the shelf and read a passage that is meaningful to you. I am fond of Robert Frost, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver in such situations. Shakespeare is another favorite for kick-starting my creativity.
  • Do something else creative for 30 minutes or so. Do you enjoy painting, knitting, woodwork, music, or dance? If so, turn to another creative endeavor to help unblock your mind and soul. A little diversion can make all the difference.
  • When all else fails, I turn to chocolate or a trip to my favorite local coffeehouse. Sometimes a change of atmosphere, a good cup ‘o joe, and something decadently chocolate will turn things around. Beware the caloric impact of this option.

Find the techniques that work best for you and take heart. You’re in good company. Even the best of the best hit the wall sometimes, but they don’t give up. The words come. Or, as William Stafford said, “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

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MAKE IT A HABIT

Writing is habit forming. At least it should be. If you really want to write, make the effort to write every day. Put ink to paper or fingers to keyboard and spit out some words.

What you write doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or prize-winning, but it does have to show up on screen or page. The aim is to make your writing as natural and necessary as breathing, a necessary and needful part of your daily life.

How Many Words?

I’m not one to put forth a lot of hard and fast rules in answer to this question. Read a dozen books about writing and you’ll get at least half a dozen answers. Stephen King aims for 2,000 words per day (apx. 10 pages). I’m happy with a minimum of 500 and delighted with 2,000. If you need a number, grab one and go with it. If you don’t, simply make sure to write until you are satisfied or until your daily schedule dictates your company is needed elsewhere.

The more you write the easier it should be to up the word count. That said, some folks are simply slower or faster at the work of writing. Don’t force it; just do it.

When?

The answer to this question is as unique as you are. My best writing is usually done between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fly very well in real adult life. I’m slowly working my way into afternoon writing. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those chipper morning folks who rise with the chickens and don’t need a pot of coffee to unclog the neural pathways. Find your best time, and if it is at all possible given the demands of your life, make that your regular time for writing.

Where?

My  writing desk is a wooden folding TV tray just big enough for my laptop and water bottle or mug. I sit on a Gaiam exercise ball chair. My “desk” sits right beside the bedroom radiator in a corner. An unused center table leaf serves as a shelf on which I keep essential books, printer paper, and other related items. It’s not ideal, but due to our current home space usage, it’s my space and it works. Find something that works for you–simple or elaborate, elegant or shabby chic–and claim it as your writing world.

Why?

Do you really have to ask that question? Because you have to? Because you enjoy pain and suffering? Because you love words? Because it brings you pleasure unlike anything else? Because you’re a little bit crazy? Because . . . (you fill in the blank)? Only you can answer that silly question, and if you really have to ask it, maybe you better try crocheting or golf instead.

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Where did the pit beef sit?

PIT BEEF SAT.

Last summer these three words graced the side of our local bar/restaurant, emblazoned on a shiny vinyl sign for all to see. This establishment does a good business, serves above average fare, hosts live music on weekends, and pours plenty of cold brew. Unfortunately, signage is not one of their strengths, and this sign leaves the writer with several questions.

Just where did that pit beef sit? Did it prefer an inside table or a place on the porch? A more apt question might be whether pit beef sits at all? Did it once “sit” but sits no longer?

Yes, I know. What the sign maker meant was that on Saturday the restaurant serves pit beef. Perhaps there was a word limit? Likely they were going for readability and figured abbreviating the day of the week was a satisfactory compromise.

It’s just a sign, right? Well, yes and no. This simple sign is a good reminder of the power of words. Clarity, grace, correct grammar, and good punctuation matter–even in something as simple as a sign on side of a tiny local establishment. Folks notice what we say and how we say it. All it takes is one tiny inartfully placed period to muddle a meaning or give snarky writers like me a cheap laugh.

Maybe someone pointed out this punctuation perplexity to the owner because a new sign is posted this summer:

BIKERS WELCOME

No period at all graces the new sign. There’s even a picture of a couple of motorcycles to clarify just what kind of bikers are welcome. Guess you Tour de France hopefuls better look for another place to wet your whistle.

Photos by Elvire.R. and Marcus Murphy used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

These are a few of my favorite things…

(Everybody sing now!)

ebooks and websites, some poems and a cool Nook.

music, In the Heights, and Yeats, Joyce, a good book.

Sondheim and Shakespeare, slow jazz and porch swings,

These are a few of my favorite things.

If the plot fails,

miss your deadline,

and you’re feeling blue

Just fire up your laptop and type ’til it’s fine

And then you will feel brand new!

With apologies to Oscar Hammerstein, of course! Seriously, as writers we need all the help and encouragement we can get. Sometimes this comes in the form of reading what other writers have to say about the craft. So here they are, my fab five short list of consistent favorites that withstand the test of time. Feel free to share your favorites, too!

All Around Favorite Writing Books–The Fab Five Short List

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Ueland first published this book in 1938. She was way ahead of her time, and had a wonderful sense of humor. She believed, and I agree, that “everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” If you need a pep talk to help undo the damage of folks who’ve tried to rain on your word parade, this is the book for you.

bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

O.K. I just like Anne Lamott. She has more guts, style, and quirky humor than ought to be legal in any one person. Beyond that, she speaks with an honest voice. and offers some true gems of advice and observation.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

If you read only book on writing this year and have not had the pleasure of reading King’s memoir, then by all means lay hands on a copy or download it to your e-reader or mobile device. However, whenever, and wherever you can–just get it and devour it. There’s a reason King is a successful writer (however one chooses to define that term); he can weave a fine story, clearly loves what he does, and is honest about the craft.  You’ll find the advice practical and unflinching, the prose lively and witty, and the overall effect satisfying and inspiring. Enough said. Read it or reread it and then read it again.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Whenever I want a lyrical shot in the arm to remind me why I do what I do, I revisit Dillard’s slim, elegant reflection. I’ve read the book many times over the years and taught it in many advanced high school English classes; each time is a different experience because I bring my current context and experiences to the encounter. The common thread is that each reading is rewarding and makes me glad I am called to write.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

This classic volume is a must read for anyone who writes, be it for school, work, pleasure, or vocation. It will do more for your writing style than almost anything else I can think of besides relentless practice. My very favorite gem from this book is found on page 35 of the third edition and involves my hometown newspapers and the unintended result of a poor hyphen choice. Check it out, you’re sure to have a chuckle (and if you think I need a semicolon to separate the two previous clauses see pages 6-7).

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Begin at the Beginning? Nah, just begin!

The screen looms large, gray and blank in front of your eyes. The undisturbed vastness of the lined tablet might as well be the smooth surface of a deep pond over which your pen is poised, just waiting for you to trouble the waters. How will you ever fill the space with thoughts, sentences, paragraphs–a cohesive whole? Why in the world did you ever imagine yourself a writer?

You may feel like you are utterly alone, but every writer I know experiences  some variation on this unsettling theme. You sit at your desk ready to begin that great American novel, that pensive poem, or that A+ academic essay. You sit. You sit and stare. You sit and think. You sit and surf the web. You get up and get coffee or tea or wine or water. You get up and walk around. You call your best friend. You may even get up and run the vacuum cleaner or wash the car. Still the empty screen or page waits and affords no escape.

Here’s the deal; if you want to write you have to do just that. Words must be put on paper or typed on the keyboard. I don’t care if you write “I have nothing to say; this is complete lunacy” 100 or 1000 times, the idea is to prime the pump, clean the pipes, and warm the imagination until the creativity starts to flow like honey.

Don’t worry if your words aren’t perfect. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t stop. Just write. Most of the time an idea will come, a seed will be sown, a story will appear as long as you persevere. There may only be one good sentence out of 500 words, but that sentence may be the gateway to an amazing story or a complex character, or the genesis of a twisting plot.

Our logical, linear brains suggest starting at the beginning, but I say–nah, just begin. Why not start with the image of crazy Uncle Leo pulling plastic bags out of his coat pockets and stuffing them full of treats from the dessert table at the community picnic. Let your words develop Uncle Leo’s character and explore why he feels the need to snitch some snacks for later.

If you’re working on an academic essay about preventing adult onset diabetes, simply start writing the questions you have about the topic. Then take your questions and start your research.

Regardless of the topic, the style, or mode of writing, one simple act will get you going. Just begin. Put your fingers to the keyboard or your pen to paper. It may be positively awful, but the more you write the easier it will become. You never know; that awful paragraph might be followed by a real gem.

What are your best tips for countering writer’s block?

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