Know that you have talent, are original, and have something important to say. - Brenda Ueland

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Up and at 'em

I’m working on a novel, my second one. I’ve been circling the project all summer, with a plan in mind to start when school started back. This was my plan for two reasons. One, my son would be back in school, making things much quieter the three days a week I’m at home. And two, back to school time feels like time for new beginnings.

Until then, I prepared. I sketched out an outline. I filled in that outline. I wrote ideas for scenes. I wrote out descriptions of characters, even the minor ones, their middle names and favorite gift they got from Santa Claus.

I set a goal of 1,300 words a day, five days a week. I met or exceeded that goal for a whole week.

Writing those 1,300 words was how I started my day. I didn’t read blogs or look at Facebook until I’d gotten in that word count. I found myself thinking things like, “When you want to write, you find a way.” and “There’s no such thing as no such time. Make the time.”

I must have been practicing my speech for writer’s conferences.

I went merrily on my way with my 1,300 words a day right up until the point when the real world interfered. My son was home sick one day, I spent a day out of town at a doctor’s appointment, another day out of town with my mother, a Saturday spent enjoying time with my brother and his wife. Tons of homework to help my son with every afternoon, cooking dinner, commitments at church. You know…life. Suddenly, I didn’t have the time.

And kind of wanted to shake that smug girl with her smug writer’s conferences thoughts.

Over the last week and a half I may have written a combined 2,600. Maybe more, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like I have. It feels like the world is on roller skates and I’m standing still, wanting to jump in and roller skate, too, but can’t get my bearings to even get started.

Friday morning while doing some longhand writing I realized that I’d fallen back to an old sensibility, that mindset of all or nothing.

Since I didn’t have a block of time available to write 1,300 words, I didn’t write any. That is crazy talk.

Today promises to be busy, as does pretty much every day for the two next week, possibly two weeks. I can write something to carry the story forward, even if it moves only a small amount. If it’s just 500 words. Or 100 words. It’s something, and every little bit counts.

The main thing is keeping that forward momentum. I’m doubly thankful now that I did the legwork this summer of outlines and character sketches. They make it much easier to dive in here and there as I can.

School is in full swing and I don’t get a pass for doing nothing. Just keep plugging away.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Literary Hero

On my bookcase is a shelf dedicated to my favorite books, the luscious reads that took me away, the ones I was sorry to see come to an end. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is on that shelf.

Patchett has a new one out and I can't wait to read it. Little about it is the typical kind of book I enjoy, but neither was Bel Canto.

You've probably heard she is opening a bookstore. She may be my hero.

What's interesting about this interview is her writing process; she breaks that rule we've probably all heard to write every day. It reminds me that everyone has a different set of guidelines that work for her. That reassures, while surely being obvious. We're all different so naturally different ways of writing and practicing work for us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Like Nike

For weeks, I have been meaning to post about the book signing where Andre Dubus, III read from his memoir, Townie. I had to leave early so I didn’t get to meet him but after listening to him answer questions and talk about writing and his background, I felt like I knew him.

The book was incredible. Dubus was, for lack of a zingier word, nice. He seemed like a genuine person, the kind you’d enjoy hanging out with. I wanted to write the post about him, about his book.

Why haven’t I? I wrote down a few notes during the reading but the notes weren’t “good enough.” I didn’t know what to say. My idea wasn’t “good enough.”

This is an example of perfect being the enemy of the good. I wanted the idea, not to mention the execution, to be brilliant and meaningful right out of the gate. If it wasn’t, then what was the use of trying, right?

It’s an easy mentality to get into and a hard one to get out of.

In the spirit of busting through, the jumble of notes I took:

Every time you write what is true, every time, you get closer to writing what you didn’t know. (He was quoting Grace Paley. I think what he said was that the when you write true, you discover things that you didn’t know that you knew.)

Truth is the only thing that transfers a feeling from one heart to another.

Writing is bridging the distance from one person to another.

About his memoir of growing up in Massachusetts mill town:

I love that town. I love that I’m from there.

Next time, I won’t slink around for two months because my notes and my idea wasn’t good enough. I’ll take a deep breath and just do it.

Isn’t that what writing is always like?

Monday, April 25, 2011


It's a talent I've honed and polished for years, although I don't use it much anymore: Excuses for not writing.

I've got a million of 'em. They're well thought out and reasoned; they don't sound like excuses. They sound like really good reasons why I couldn't write.

All nonsense, of course. If you want to write, you figure out a way to.

Distractions beckon from all corners. In my office right now, I have a stack of three great new books to read.

My bookshelves "need" tidying and sorting; the categories have gotten mingled.

The shelf of books about promoting and marketing writing makes me squirrelly and impatient, reminding me that I don't have a book to promote and market.

Colson Whitehead, whose Twitter feed often makes me laugh out loud, has a great no-excuses article about distractions.

Anne Lamott weighs in, too.

I love both their articles and the fact that if you want to write, just do it. We are all good enough, right here, right now, to write.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reading + Writing: Love Match

Most every writer when asked for advice has two recommendations right away:

1) Write, and
2) Read.

Professional, experienced writers mention how many aspring writers don’t read, which they don’t understand. I don’t either. It blows my mind. If I didn’t love to read so much I wouldn’t want to write. It wouldn't occur to me to write. I’m certain of it.

It hit home the other day just how powerful and beneficial the simple act of reading good stuff can be.

I read From Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik last week. I love Gopnik's writing. It’s the kind that does what for me is so difficult and so admirable: take a universal concept and put it into fresh, accessible terms that makes readers like me swoon.

Too often when I read a particularly well-written passage and I am frankly envious. Discourgaged. Because that was so good and will I ever write that well?

This wasn’t like that. This inspired.

"...anticipating six o'clock when I begin, as one almost always does, no matter what one is cooking, by chopping onions.

The beautiful part of cooking lies in the repetition, living the same participles, day after day, planning, shopping, chopping, roasting, eating, and then vowing, always, never again to start on something so ambitious again…until the dawn rises, with another dream of something else. (Hunger, I always find, plays a very small role in it at all.)


The sublime moment of cooking, though, is really the moment when nature becomes culture, stuff becomes things. It is the moment when the red onions have been chopped and the bacon has been sliced into lardons and the chestnuts have been peeled and they are all mijoteing together in the pot, and then – a specific moment –the colors begin to change, and the smells gather together just at the level of your nose."

That made me want to write. Made me want to cook, too, but it made me want to write.

It stirred something in my mind and I made a connection - I could practically hear the click, just as it sounds when I fasten my seatbelt - and I was off, typing as fast as I could to get it down.

It's almost too good to be true that one of my favorite things - reading - can also help inform my writing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Funny: Knowing Isn't the Same Thing as Doing

How many times have we heard that thinking about writing isn't writing? Talking about writing isn't writing. Planning to write isn't writing. Meaning to write isn't writing. Wanting to write isn't writing.

I know this. Still, I'm gathering thoughts and ideas for another novel. I've been thinking about the characters, digging deeper so I can know them better. I've been noodling over the plot, the turning points, and the key scenes.

But what I hadn't so much doing had been...writing it.

Maybe most writers need a little fallow time to nourish the creative soil. I think I do, but I also know that a little downtime can creep toward procrastination, which after too long, can feel paralyzing, like I can't write.

Last week I dug in and actually began, you know: WRITING the novel, rather than jotting down notes for scenes and ideas about where the characters live and why her mother is like that. Stitching up the characters' backstory, knowing which corner store they visit and why, and that in 4th grade she stole a book from the school library, all that's important for the author to know. For me, the tempation is to dwell in all that minutiae, all that planning and getting-ready-to.

Reading Elizabeth Gilbert's piece on writing helped spur me on.

I had to dig in and do it. Now I've started, and it's exhilarating and scary at the same time. Isn't it always?

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Sunday afternoon we drove through midtown Memphis, down Poplar Avenue that dips in and out of neighborhoods. I looked down each residential street we passed. I thought how every one of those houses has a hundred stories and I want to know them all.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Planting the seeds

Great piece at the Gotham Writers Workshop web site by Alexandra Steele about finding ideas for stories and sowing those ideas.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Revel in it

This weekend I painted a picture, a big off-centered flower. Each time I walk in the kitchen and see the painting, I get a little lift. The canvas has an energy to it - the bright colors and how they swoop.

I loved listening to the instructor, Celeste Zepponi, talk about creativity and art. She had this contentment and energy about her, like she is living the life she’s always wanted.

My favorite creative types, whether they are writers, sculptors, dancers, or songwriters, are those who see themselves as an artist and treat it as a privilege. Creating is serious because it’s wondrous and full of joy.

Celeste encouraged us – all beginners, all a tiny bit nervous - to think about how much fun it is putting paint on the canvas. Revel in the color and the brush strokes. Remember what it was like as a child to play.

I love that.

My painting is propped up in the windowsill in the kitchen. I like it. I keep thinking, “Maybe it's not Great Art, but … then I stop and think, “Who gets to say what is Great? Who gets to say what is Art?”

I associate that big, bold flower with all the good thoughts and feelings that came from the class, the reminder of how fun it is to be creative, that the fun is in the doing.

It's like the painting absorbed the happy energy and thoughts from the session. I love having that in our home.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why we do this

When I sit down to write I want to remember this: that it is fun. That writing is a joy. That the act of writing is the fun part. The outcome matters, sure it does. But it's the writing, that's the thing.

This blog post by writer Cheryl Ossola was a lovely reminder of that. She writes that we all need a sense of wonder to fuel the creative drive.

"If a sense of wonder is requisite to creativity, we need only make the choice to find it. The real work comes in clearing away the clutter, the self-doubt, the excellent arguments we all can make for staying our course, the negativity."

Please go read the post and be sure to click on the links within. They are excellent.

Isn't it something how the little nudge, the encouragement, just the little thing that feels like a present arrives when you need it? Love that.

Monday, February 14, 2011


In mid November, when I finished writing my novel I knew that by February I'd be enjoying editing and polishing it up. Making it shine.

But what I've realized that while writing writing writing, I didn't include a few things. Like tension. Or conflict. Or the story.

I've written the world's most boring 84,000+ words.

What needs to happen next is rewriting. Major rewriting. It would be more accurate to say throw the whole thing out and start over but that makes me want to do a face plant on my desk and stay that way for a very long time. Instead, massive, major rewrite.

I'm disappointed in myself, that I didn't do it better. Not that I didn't do it well but that I didn't even do it sorta okay.

It's hard overcoming that to dig in and do the work, more work on the same project.

So it was fortuitous and wonderful that last Friday was the day when my daily read was Elizabeth Gilbert on writing.

As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love).

I needed to hear that. My writing disappointed me but that's okay. That's how it may be. Keep going. Keep writing.

This is the precise reason I bookmark blog posts like that when I come across them. I hang on to them and re-read them. It's uncanny how often what I need to hear, what I need to be reminded of most, comes at the exact right time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Allow me

I keep meaning to post an introduction of sorts, then couldn't think of anything "good enough" to write. Sound familiar?

I collect blog posts about writing, about creativity, about doing it - writing. I bookmark them and schedule when to read them. I send myself a Google alert around 9:00 most mornings, to remind myself that it's the first Monday, time to read All for One, or it's the third Thursday and time for the post about How Serious Are You About Writing. That's what the links in the sidebar are about - posts and articles and essays I've come across that help; help me stay motivated, remind me that I am a writer, that give that gentle nudge to keep on.

A friend of mine, a close friend who is also a wonderful writer, big reader, and a great editor, suggested I think about starting a writing blog. Thanks, Camellia!

What are your favorite web sites and blog posts? Please check out the ones in the sidebar and let me know what you think.

Monday, February 7, 2011

If You Want to Write

12 pieces of advice from Brenda Ueland:

1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.

2. Know that it is good work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

3. Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.

4. Tackle anything you want to - novels, plays, anything.

5. Don't be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.

6. Don't fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past...Go on to the next. And fight against this tendency, which is much of it due not to splendid modesty, but a lack of self-respect. We are too ready not to stand by what we have said or done. Often it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly, "I know it is awful!" before anyone else does. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one's mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.

7. Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.

8. Don't think of yourself as an intestinal tract and a tangle of nerves in the skull, that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God and his messengers. Remember how wonderful you are, what a miracle!

9. If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their work. To them the ocean is only knee-deep.

10. When discouraged, remember what Van Gogh said: "If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working."

11. Don't be afraid of yourself when you write. Don't check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, for heaven's sake, be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you will probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don't care about it.

12. Don't always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. "I will not reason and compare," said William Blake; "my business is to create." Besides, since you are like no other being every created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.

This list hangs on the bulletin board by my desk. I try to read it every day.

Is there one of these that you particularly like?

They make me smile. #s 1, 2, 10, and 12 are my favorites. Then again: I like them all.