Three Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Non-Fiction Writers

game of thrones reading writing

This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.

The list of categories we can choose reading material from is endless. Yet, as busy people, we often choose to read in the genre we write in and forget that all writers can learn from reading outside their genre.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of letting my non-fiction reading slide this year as I work on my freelance writing and editing business. I miss reading novels, but never seem to make the time to fit them into my schedule.

That is until my son introduced me to the Game of Thrones television series. I rarely read fantasy fiction, and I never watch it on TV. But I am enthralled by Game of Thrones. So much so that I bought all of the novels.

It didn’t take me long to realize that writers can adapt George RR Martin’s techniques for non-fiction writing.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Understand your characters.

All non-fiction writing has a human at its core. Whether you’re writing a technical manual, a scientific treatise, a book of history, or a self-help article, everything is written by and for humans. The sooner you understand that, the better your writing will be.

However, for some genres this is even more important. Biographies, case studies, and memoir come immediately to mind.

Martin’s characters reflect humanity. They are incredibly complex, almost always contradictory, and are motivated by a range of rationales.

The people you discuss in your writing are the same. That means you need to hone your interview skills in order to access this complexity.

What aren’t they saying? How do past actions contradict or support their current words? What are their motivations?

I’m not suggesting that you dig up dirt on the people you write about. But you need to remember that, like Martin’s characters, people are rarely easy. That means that you need to take the time to try to understand them. Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters. His response is classic: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”

What does this mean for you? No matter how difficult the interview or your personal feelings about a subject, you are dealing with people. None of us are easy, so take that into account.

2. Setting matters.

Have you ever read a feature article about a place and walked away disappointed? When Martin writes about his kingdom, readers can form a mental picture of dark castles, rich, walled cities and a wall of ice separating the North from the Seven Kingdoms.

You need to learn to convey this same detail in your non-fiction writing. Don’t leave your reader unable to form a mental image of the nature reserve, museum, or cultural event you are writing about.

That means it isn’t enough to say the lake water is blue. Rather, say “the clouds cause the water to change from blue green to steel grey, while the wind creates patterns of ripples across the water.” Details help your reader to see what you see.

Can you imagine the ice wall in the northern kingdom described as a barrier to separate the wild lands from the Seven Kingdoms? That doesn’t provide much of a mental picture, does it? But Martin’s ice-wall is 700 feet tall, 300 miles long, and infused with magic. It has abandoned forts built along its length and dominates the surrounding geography. It is forbidding and frightening and necessary.

When you build this level of detail into your descriptions, you provide your reader with a richer experience and draw them deeper into your writing.

3. The plot has to make sense.

It doesn’t matter if your story starts at the middle or the end. By the time the reader finishes the whole article, they have to understand the chain of events.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But think about the plot turns that Game of Throne takes. I can generally guess the ending of a show before the halfway point. Yet, I am constantly amazed by the plot twists that evolve. Not only that, but the twists are realistic because they reflect the characters and setting that Martin has worked into his story.

But you aren’t writing fiction, so none of this matters right? Wrong. Real life takes just as many twists and turns as a novel. It’s just as full of unintended consequences. As a writer, you need to be able to follow the various threads, sort them into a semblance of order and cut the ones that will clutter and confuse the story.

You always need to keep the facts straight so your reader can get an understanding of the events that you are writing about – no matter how complicated they are.

I’m thrilled that I was introduced to the rich tapestry that is a George RR Martin novel. It has been an excellent reminder to rekindle my love of fiction.

So expand your reading, go back to the wonderful world of well-written novels and incorporate the techniques of good fiction writing into non-fiction writing.

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Rhonda Kronyk is the editor and co-author of Releasing the Words: Writers on Writing, an e-book helping writers take control of writer’s block. As a die-hard word-nerd, she explores everything word related including writing, editing, and reading.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Douglas Brown.

An Introduction to the Commonplace Book

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

I recently stumbled on the idea of the commonplace book via Ryan Holiday of Thought Catalog‘s post, “How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book.” That post lead me to search Twitter for the popularity of the idea which lead me to two books by Richard Katzev: A Commonplace Book Primer and A Literary Collage: Annotating My Commonplace Book. As is the way of the internet, that led me  to Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book and by that time my head was swirling with the idea of  starting one of my own.

I’ve been keeping something akin to a commonplace book in notebooks and online for a few years, but I’ve never implemented a comprehsneive system. I type up or write up notes on the books I read, I write in the margins, and sometimes I compile my thoughts into blog posts. But, nothing mandatory or systematic. Without a system I still have to rely on memory to uncover the right notebook when I want to revisit a passage.

Katzev describes his process, and I think it’s a good introduction to the idea:

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way. When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and its source if it is from a periodical. At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

Ryan Holiday describes his, very different, process:

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

I’m not sure which method is superior. With a project like this it’s best to make it your own. That’ll make it more likely to stick. Steal what you like from the practitioners that came before you. There are a many examples available online.

To Katzev, one of the key components of the commonplace book is the transcription of long passages from the books you’ve read. This kind of work is tedious. There are shortcuts. Katzev would argue that the shortcuts take away from the overall intent of keeping a commonplace book–which is to force some form of muscle memory to interact with the words. This visceral interaction is key for some.

If you prefer the shortcut and read with a Kindle you could easily use the Kindle: Your Highlights function to remove the need for tedious transcription. (You will need to log in to your Amazon.com account to access this feature.) Highlight with your Kindle as you read and the highlights automatically appear. From Kindle: Your Highlights you can copy and paste to your application of preference. This frees up time for you to annotate the passages you’ve read. This method has the added advantage of allowing you to use Kindle’s “Daily Review” function to review your highlighted passages and annotations as if they the passages were printed on notecards.

Katzev also discusses the value of annotating your commonplace book. Your thoughts, as you read a particular passage, are valuable to you, to your loved ones, and for your writing. The annotations can serve as source material for articles or blog posts or as a kind of diary of the remembrances invoked by your reading.

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more reading.

Emerson, in his Journals, July 1836, compared the activity to making your own bible. His take was, if you collect all the words and sentences that mean something to you, you are performing an activity that will provide a reference for future use, a book you could pull out when you needed an answer or to be uplifted. I believe it would make a fine keepsake to pass on to descendants, but there’s no harm in deciding to keep it private.

Some keepers of commonplace books, including John Locke in the 17th century, create systems to categorize and organize the passages they’ve noted. Storing your entries electronically would certainly make that task either easier or unnecessary because of the search functions available in tools like Evernote and on Amazon. The balancing act is to keep the system simple enough that you’re not discouraged from using it.

There are no hard rules when it comes to what to include in a commonplace book, basically, you note what interests you. And, isn’t that the question we ask constantly as we read anyway? “What resonates with me?” or “What in this book is consistent with my experience?”

As Katzev points out, reading is a passive activity unless we do something about that. By putting a pen in our hand or by doing something like keeping a commonplace book we turn reading into active reading. Active interaction aids our memories. The commonplace book becomes a tool we can use to refresh our minds–to recall important sentences and words.

A commonplace book could become a sort of reading memoir. There’s no doubt that the passages we pay attention to and take time to record must say something about who we are or who we’d like to be. Imagine having access to a commonplace book your grandfather consistently used.

As Alain de Botton has said more eloquently,

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader of his own self of what the books says is proof it its veracity.

A commonplace book gives you the tool to re-read yourself and Chris Ciolli has talked about the value of re-reading here before. It can be a tool to analyze and track your own evolution. As you age, your thoughts about certain passages will change and in that change you can experience your changing self.

My suggestion: Just start with what seems natural. I intend to evolve my commonplace book entries into a better system in 2014.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to become a better reader and, hopefully, a better person.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part Two

writing is hard work

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons. In case you missed it, here’s part one.

Part Two: Make Room For Writing

Writing is hard work. It’s so hard, I spend hours avoiding it. Sitting in front of a computer screen creates anxiety, so instead of composing words I play mindless games. Simple games to put me into a no-write zone until the Muse arrives.

But she hasn’t been showing up lately.

It’s all about time management, isn’t it? Some call it rhythm and settle into a routine. Some see it as rigidity and chafe against the perceived reins. It’s a mixed bag.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My love for writing began when I started a journal. Someone gave me a diary when I was 11 years old. I didn’t write every day, but often enough to record my impressions of life as an introspective fifth-grader. The entries were initially cautious. I was either unable to write about more complex feelings, or I was guarded about revealing emotions I didn’t know how to handle.

There wasn’t a lot of time to write, so the entries were brief. Much of my time was taken up with endless household chores. There was school and homework and housework.

I was a dreamy child with unreasonable expectations. The fact that I had many interests and a very short attention span meant that even when I did have personal time, I didn’t know what to do with it. If I couldn’t finish a project in one sitting, I abandoned it. Or did a poor job because I’d lost interest long before it was finished. I had the attention span of a gnat.

While the first entries in my diary were brief, they became longer as I neared puberty. One-entry-per-day diaries were replaced by black-and-white composition books. I wrote page after introspective page through high school and college. I wrote feverishly when I was depressed, which was often, or euphoric, which was brief and short-lived but no less intense.

I wrote poetry as well. It was my outlet for expressing love, hate, fear, pain, sorrow, addiction and revenge. I’d grab a notebook and pen and spend hours searching for the perfect words, rhymes and rhythms that reflected the powerful emotions I was experiencing.

I loved these moments of inspiration, these interruptions from daily life. They were my power in a world in which I often felt powerless.

To this day I find it very hard to undertake any task that can’t be completed either in one sitting or by devoting several days of undivided attention to it. Not surprisingly, this single-mindedness results in the neglect of daily chores.

Which then sets me up for guilt. Old habits die hard.

Rhythm is not my strong suit. I’m envious of people who can dedicate several hours to a project, then switch to something else, then after an hour go on to another task, then take up the effort again the next day without losing momentum. I struggle with bringing my attention back from its dream-like wandering. Projects that begin with so much hope and enthusiasm often get orphaned.

I resent routine, even when I’ve created it. I don’t like having to do repetitive things, things like brushing my teeth or making my bed or cooking a meal or working out. I remember a professor in college who told the class he jogged daily for exercise. He said he had been doing it for more than twenty years. My admiration turned to astonishment, however, when he announced he hated every minute of it. Why did he do it if he hated it? Why not find another form of exercise?

Is it possible to love what you choose? More to the point, is it possible to choose to love something you have to do, anyway?

I find the idea of writing feels more satisfying than actual writing. Ideas rattle around in my head, and they are especially exciting when I’m nowhere near a computer. Scenarios play themselves out like a movie reel while I’m doing the dishes or sweeping the floor or driving. Potential is more exciting than reality.  I love the warm glow, the ironic certainty of thoughts that have yet to be defined.

I tell myself I’ll remember these flights of fancy and write them down shortly. But I don’t. When I finally sit down to write, these thoughts, ever ephemeral, degenerate into incoherence. I might capture one fleeting thought while the others wither in the telling.

The bottom line is that I need to write in order to feel whole. I need to write even though I struggle with time that seems to accelerate with each passing year, crushing the day’s hours into infinitesimal increments. I need to write even though the thoughts I put down are far less noble than they appear at first blush. I need to write even though I don’t know who will be reading my words. I need to write because only I can say what I have to say.

At this point I’d like to reveal that I have discovered the secret to time management and am churning out hundreds of words each day, but the truth is that I still struggle with a short attention span. Some days I might write 1,000 words. Some days I don’t write at all.

What I can say is this: I just try to show up. I don’t wait for the Muse to come calling.

Some hours, some days, some weeks are better than others. I continue to wrestle with the inexplicable urge to run from that which I love, but I dedicate myself to becoming more awake each day. Each day I struggle so that my ordinary words may one day be extraordinary.

I may not write the way you write. I may not be consistent with my time in a predictable rhythm, but in the long run I do write regularly. I’ve learned to accept my limitations, and I’ve even relinquished guilt for not being perfect.

I may not be a prolific writer, but I am a writer.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Desi.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part One

writing child writer

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons.

Part One: The Essence of Being a Writer

In the third season of the overwhelmingly popular drawing room saga Downton Abbey, the imprisoned Mr. Bates receives a packet of letters from his beloved wife, Anna. She, in turn, receives a packet of letters from her husband. The last scene in this episode shows them, side by side, each totally absorbed in reading the other’s words. The camera juxtaposes the two images as if they were next to each other. It’s a breathtaking moment.

This is the power of words. Human beings are born to communicate, to make connections. Words give us the means to reflect and interpret the world around us, and to share this world with others. We use words to bring thoughts to life on the page, and the page comes to life in the hand.

In the days before electronic communication, or even the typewriter, one wrote with a pen, one letter at a time, each letter blooming into a word, each word shaping the structure of a sentence. How you wrote, and what you wrote about, were uniquely your own.

But you wrote.

It has been said that speech shapes thought. As babies we imitated the language of those around us, and the words we learned echoed in our souls and reflected meaning. Dog! Cat! Tree! We learned the essence of these expressions before we grasped, through thought, what it meant to be a dog or a cat or a tree.

As artists, and especially writers, we long to recapture the enthusiasm of childhood, creating wings for our words, releasing them to soar and reflect the life within them. Speech is never more alive than it is at the threshold of thought.

We all create with words, spoken or written. We write stories and essays in school. Some of us keep a journal or a blog. We write business letters. And while we may have exchanged the computer screen for pen and paper, we express our emotions through personal letters.

Everyone writes.

For some, writing is redemption. We sculpt ordinary words until they shine, putting out into the universe something that has never existed before, tales that can delight or entertain or inform. Regardless of our individual circumstances, we can create worlds that are beyond what is personal. In the process of writing we discover that our stories are true because they reflect a universe in which we are inexplicably linked to every thing and every one around us. We make imperishable connections.

Somewhere in the unseen world there are words with our name on them, imprisoned like the fairy tale princess, waiting to be released. It is our task to discover them and share them with the world in which we live.

No one else can do this for us.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marin.

Write Your Way Back – Writing Through Grief

writing through grief

This essay was written by Judy Haughton-James.

“When life stops you in your tracks, write your way back!”

That has been my mantra since facing loss and grief over a period of 3 years, loss that included the death of an identical twin sister and a brother.

Writer’s block is an experience that many writers encounter, but you have to be determined to overcome it. Yes, you have been accustomed to seeing the words flow and long articles being written. That does not mean that writing has to stop.

Get any book that you can write in and consider it your journal and start writing. What you write will not be under the scrutiny of an editor, so your entries can take any shape or form – long, short, poems, essays, letters, you name it. In other words, there is no right or wrong way to journal. Furthermore you can write any time you wish to.

As a matter of fact, you could be in for a surprise when you find yourself accomplishing writing tasks you never dreamt of. I found myself in that situation as I started writing poetry.

A particular poem titled “You My twin, lives on through me” proved to be such a lift of my spirit. I was pleased that in turn some twinless twins told me how much it helped them in their grief. So you are going through a therapeutic process while keeping the writing juices flowing.

The confidence will come back and then all the material you have gathered will help you to write articles and blog posts. As a blogger, it is important to write posts regularly, and it is the material from this journal that will keep your blog up-to-date.

On this journey, you will not only focus on your negative experiences but explore the good times, hobbies and interests you shared with your departed loved ones. This will now widen your audience to people who have never walked your path. Right there, you are catering to a special niche yet gaining traffic from unexpected sources.

An additional bonus is that all the material in your journal and blog posts can come in handy in making you an author someday. Do you have any doubt about that?

Well, research will show many journals have become bestsellers. “The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)” is one such example. For a period of 2 years, she recorded in a diary her experiences while hiding from Nazis during World War II. This was not only a bestseller, her story made its way into films, movies, theatrical productions and an opera.

So come out of your shell and fight back! Once a writer, always a writer. Use this special talent to overcome life’s hard knocks.

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Judy Haughton-James is a Jamaican freelance writer who holds an Honours Diploma from the London School of Journalism.  She has had articles published in local publications including The Daily Gleaner and international publications including Twins Magazine and Grief Digest. You can find her blog here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Joel Montes.

The Caveats of Writing What You Know

write what you know

This essay written by Wayman Stewart.

Fiction writers are constantly searching for inspiration. There are times when, as a writer, your creative energy might feel dried up, elusive, inaccessible. In these times, many writers turn to a familiar old mantra for comfort: write what you know.

It basically means that your personal experiences are the richest sources of your creativity as a writer and that you should channel them into your stories.

Many writers follow this mantra with an almost religious fervor, while some writers might harbor a certain disdainful, detached attitude toward “autobiographical fiction”. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron. How can you experience the full breadth of your imagination if you remain focused on your own life and experiences?

To these writers, roman a clef writing (which is when a writer creates a fictional story that is based on their own life, with changed character names and some embellishments here and there) is self-absorbed and self-dramatizing.

Those on this side of the fence do have a point. Relying too much on your own personal experiences can limit, block, or even deaden the imagination. After all, everyone’s only lived so much, no matter how old they are or how dramatic their life may have been. Because of this, using yourself has the main focus of your creative process can also become extremely repetitive and downright dull, if taken too far.

Writers, like all other artists, should feed off of the human condition. Human nature should be your primary inspiration, which is something that you, as the writer, are a part of.

This means you can use yourself in the work. But no writer should use themselves as the absolute center of their creative process. This total self-involvement will stand in the way of the empathy and observation of other individuals that all great writers must possess.

When a writer’s ego (i.e., their self) is too involved in the work, it can also make it difficult to achieve the objectivity that a writer needs in order to mold their story to greatness.

When you are dissecting a character that you identify with too much, then you will feel as if you are dissecting and judging yourself. This clouds your judgment, making you see this character and his or her experiences in whatever light in which you see yourself (and none of us can ever see ourselves with true objectivity).

However, a writer should not avoid putting their life into their work, either. In many ways, they can’t. It happens on an unconscious level. While you might not have intentionally set out to write a story about yourself, if you really look closely, you can observe bits and pieces of your own self and experiences in the characters you create and the stories you tell.

As a fiction writer myself, this has happened to me on a regular basis. What I write is usually a reflection of something occurring in my life at the time and I often don’t even realize this.

Creativity does come from the unconscious and our imagination is anything but objective. It is completely subjective, containing all of our fears, insecurities, and traumas, as well as our greatest hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

Without meaning to, we infuse our characters with our own strengths and weaknesses.

We place them in situations that reflect our deepest fantasies as well as our worst nightmares. It is by doing this that we develop our empathy as writers. We then realize how universal these qualities are. These people we give life to on paper are us. Their pain is our pain and their joy is our joy.

I think this is probably the true meaning of “write what you know.” Not limiting ourselves by creating from our own selves or life experiences. We use these things to expand ourselves, creating characters and stories that may appear different from us and things we’ve been through but are anything but.

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Wayman Stewart is a freelance writer. He is a former contributor to the men’s lifestyle website The Global Playbook. Wayman is also a creative writer and actor. He writes screenplays and stage plays in his spare time and has plans to self-produce his latest one.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen – Vidalia_11

About Time

time to daydream for writing

This essay was written by Elizabeth Simons. 

My best ideas come through daydreams.

They come when I’m doing something else, and seldom appear when I’m sitting in front of my computer.

Don’t get me wrong. I write things down. Usually at sporting events. Or concerts. Or honky-tonk bars. But when I haul out the scraps of paper the words seem stale, as if the thoughts had run out of air. “Cute blond chick with fetching dimple sips margarita and flirts with handsome cowboy” becomes a puzzle. Where was that going? A tale about the young lady? The cowboy? The Margarita?

Great ideas come when I’m driving, washing dishes, or doing laundry. They float around in thought balloons as I do my daily tasks. I have every intention of writing them down. I even have a daydream about that: I’m in front of the computer as brilliant ideas bloom on the screen. I’m confident and productive, and my concentration is never broken by telemarketers.

Unfortunately, the daydreams and ideas dissolve the minute I sit down to write. The great idea that came while brushing my teeth turned out to be a very ordinary thought with no redeeming value.

So how does an organizationally challenged person like me bring these daydreams into existence?

In her book “Making a Literary Life,” Carolyn See exhorts me to write a thousand words daily—roughly three double-spaced pages five days a week, every week—without fail.  Implying, I suppose, that the act of writing brings ideas to birth.

That’s all well and good, but what about if you’re a perfectionist?  I shape every word in every sentence, fitting each syllable into a finely tuned matrix of prose that will reflect the brilliant thought I had several hours ago at the grocery store.

A thousand words? Impossible! A more facile writer could knock those out in less than two hours and still have time left over to play tennis with her agent. Me? I’d be slurping coffee at 4:00, eyes glazed, staring at four bedraggled paragraphs and wondering where the time went. A glance at the clock tells me I need to make dinner. Afterward, while loading the dishwasher, I’m flooded with creative ideas.

Ah, the burden of chores!  How do successful authors write such vast quantities and still have a life? They have to eat and sleep and brush their teeth, too, but do they have to clean the house? Do laundry? Go to the grocery store?

As I dig through the freezer for pork chops I wonder if J. K. Rowling ever had to tear herself away from the computer to fix dinner.

Would I be more organized and productive if I had a cook and a maid and a laundry service? Or would I just spend more time walking around the house sharpening pencils and daydreaming about the novel I’m about to write featuring the dissolute cowboy who seduced the blond girl with frozen margaritas, no salt?

I see hours in the day as markers for things I need to accomplish. I’m unable to sort out the things I love to do from the things I don’t love to do, so I end up categorizing writing as another tick on my to-do list. When I finally do get around to it, I treat writing as if it was just another chore, hurrying through it so I can get to the next item on the list. The joy of creation dissolves like a daydream.

Why do I engage in this kind of literary self-sabotage? Some of it comes from an ingrained sense of duty that tells me I’m not worthy to breathe if I don’t finish the dishes. But most of it comes from fear. Fear of completion, because an unformed idea has potential. It can be anything. A finished work is . . . finished. It sits there, inviting criticism.

So there it is. I see I’ve now written myself into a corner. In the words of Lady Macbeth, it’s time to “screw my courage to the sticking place.” Prioritize that to-do list with “write 1,000 words” at the top. Take the risk of turning possibility into reality, then introduce that reality to a wider readership. If I don’t do anything I won’t fail. But I won’t succeed, either.

So I have to produce more work.

Which means I need to stop beating time to death and relax. There is time for everything.

It’s about time to invite the daydreams to stay.

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 Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by epSos.de

Andropause for Thought: Writing to Relieve a Mid-Life Crisis

andropause mid-life crisis writing

This essay was written by Christian Green.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

You see, I’m trying to be a successful writer, but keeping the news to myself during this precarious early phase, so I won’t look too foolish should I fall flat on my face.  Sure, there have been plenty of acceptances. In fact, for two months now I’ve been making a living as a full time freelance writer, having been laid off from my manufacturing job last March.

The Beginning of a Crisis

I’m bursting with pride and an almost overwhelming need to tell the world all about it, but this urge is currently offset by a superstitious dread that such a display of hubris could make the whole delicate structure collapse.

There I was, five years ago, easing into a comfortable middle-age, yet feeling restless and vaguely dissatisfied. There was a nagging suspicion that I was not doing what I should be doing.

The disconcerting realization gradually dawned that what I was experiencing was the legendary male mid-life crisis. The phenomenon for which some wag coined the term, ‘the andropause’.

I proceeded with caution. I’d heard of men reaching this difficult age. Suddenly realizing that the clock is ticking, many panic and start to indulge in reckless or simply embarrassing behavior as they vainly try to recapture a long-lost youth to prove they are still virile and dynamic. Such attempts often seem to consist of chasing after girls young enough to be their daughters, or dressing in wildly inappropriate teen fashions, or acquiring a Honda Fireblade and hurtling off to become another road traffic accident statistic.

Fortunately, my crisis didn’t seem to be advising me unwisely. To my great relief I concluded that I was being nudged in a more responsible and creative direction. The direction that led to my unfulfilled ambition to be a writer. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed writing. Over the years my efforts had appeared in various amateur publications but, held back by a lack of confidence, I’d never tried to climb higher. As the years passed my vague longings had been placed firmly in the background by life and all its attendant responsibilities and distractions.

The Beginning of a New Career

Then, a few years ago, I wrote and submitted an article to a semi-pro journal devoted to my favorite writer. The piece was published and I was paid. It felt good, and something long dormant awoke, yawned and stretched in the dusty recesses of my mind.

I realized I wanted to build upon this unexpected success but didn’t know how. I felt gauche and naïve, lacking any clear idea of how to develop and present my work. With impeccable timing it was then that I happened across a flyer listing a new course at a local college: Professional Writing. It seemed that a benevolent fate was giving me a little shove in the right direction. The prospectus intrigued me and I signed up.

I’d realized that my restlessness wasn’t necessarily about a yearning to write. I was doing that already for my own amusement. No, it was about wanting to be a writer.

To produce work good enough to be accepted and published and to get paid for it. I didn’t want to write for the trunk, hoping for posthumous recognition as a genius. I wished to succeed while still breathing. I wanted the satisfaction of learning a skill, to enjoy applying that skill, and to make money out of it; a secondary income which might, if I was sufficiently hard-working and fortunate, become a primary income. A heady prospect indeed.

I plunged right in, and found to my delight that the course suited me well. It was completely practical, offering an unpretentious nuts-and-bolts approach to getting published. The aspiring writer was given the tools to do the job; how he chose to apply those tools was then solely up to him. Before the course ended I began to place my work.

I found that writing for publication rather than for myself reinforced some general life lessons; patience, reliability, self-discipline, organization, analytical thinking, objectivity.

I learned that, although effective communication is obviously important, the second most vital aspect of writing is marketing; presenting a professional plumage, and displaying to attract an editor. I also discovered, the painful way, why it’s not good practice to pester editors, even when I’m haunted by visions of my submissions yellowing in some dusty in-tray.

I learned to sever any emotional ties to a piece of work after submitting it. After all, you may have carefully raised and tended your flock, but once they’ve been packed off to the butcher their fate is out of your hands and all you can do is get on with raising the next litter.

I toughened up and gained the nerve to offer my work in the marketplace. The results were encouraging. Of the first sixteen unsolicited articles submitted, fifteen were accepted. On the back of these efforts I began to receive commissions. Often the wait for a response is long and frustrating, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m capable of producing work to the required standard. That’s a real confidence booster.

Each acceptance is like an injection of rocket fuel; I can’t wait to get to the next project. It’s addictive.

Looking back over the last few years, I can see that I’ve developed in both capability and outlook. I find that I’m seeing the world in a different way, paying more attention, noting details I might once have overlooked.

The Beginning of a New Future

So I’m forging something useful out of my mid-life crisis. It’s pushed me into attempting something fresh and challenging which can actually earn me a living. Fulfilling and profitable, it’s a useful crisis, a handy andropause. It’s given me a second wind at a time when it’s all too easy to flag.

Soon, when my still shaky business is on firmer ground, when I’ve picked up a few more clients, I’ll feel able to blow my trumpet about what I’m doing, heedless of any superstitious fears about jinxing the outcome. I’m too thrilled to keep it to myself much longer. It’s the excitement of possibilities. The broadening of horizons. The feeling that I’m only just beginning to see what I’m capable of.

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Christian Green is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of U.K. magazines and online.  He lives with his wife in picturesque Lincolnshire, England. Check out his website.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Isaac Torrontera

 

Is it Wise to Return to School as a Mature Student?

This is an essay by Ruth Kongaika.

After raising a family and watching as each of my children graduated from college, I resolved to get a diploma of my own. Straight out of high school, I secured a job that trained me in a skill, and one which I found enjoyable. Being the independent person that I am, I kept on working. My brother was in medical school, and I felt that I could not burden my parents with more expenses. I began taking one or two classes at a time at a nearby vocational school. Thirty years later, I finally got my bachelor’s degree in my fifties. What a jubilant day that was for me. Several of my grandchildren were there to watch me receive my diploma.

Who is considered a mature student?

Any one over the age of 25 is considered a mature student. Other similar terms that are used are nontraditional students, adult learners, or mature learners. Currently, the world’s oldest graduate was a Nola Ochs, a woman from Kansas, who graduated alongside her granddaughter.

Reasons for returning to school as a mature student.

Who would subject themselves willingly to homework, lectures and exams? Often individuals have taken time out from their education to have a family, see the world, serve in the military or a church mission, take care of ailing parents, or a myriad of other reasons. More recently, unexpected layoffs, and economical turmoil has forced more than a few individuals to give university a second look.

Other motives that may drive a person to return to school include: changing a career, personal ambitions, fulfillment of a dream, learning a new skill, improving an inborn talent, starting a business, or just learning to keep the cobwebs out by stimulating the mind.

One reason I wanted to get my degree was to be able to have intelligent conversations with my children. They were always telling me what they had learned in their university classes, and I often found it so interesting. My main reason for returning to school was to prove to myself that I could do it. I was a mediocre student in high school because I did not really apply myself. I knew I had it in me to get better grades. I also wanted to improve my knowledge and skills for personal and professional benefits.

Differences between regular and mature students

Perhaps the biggest difference in younger and more mature students today is their knowledge of the latest technology. I remember how apprehensive I was when I first started taking my courses. I taught myself how to use the computer, but was not sure if I was up to the level required to complete my assignments. Some classes required class discussions online, and I had to learn this skill.

At times I would not understand an abstract idea or not know how to use the appropriate technology, and would ask the student sitting next to me for help. Often they were willing to help me out, but a few of them changed seats the next time we met for class. I tried hard not to bother the younger set with my mental deficiencies, and would often save my questions for the professor.

I was older than many of my professors, but the majority of them were very polite, respectful and helpful. I think they knew I wasn’t there to play around, so they were generally eager to assist me.

Just walking in and seeing all the youthful faces was trepidation in itself. Often the teacher would ask us to separate into small groups to discuss the topic at hand. I felt a little awkward, not wanting to push my elderly self into a group that may not appreciate my life experiences. Many of the youthful students were there because someone else wanted them in school, and they were more interested in the social aspects of college life.

In one of my classes I got quite perturbed at the childishness of some students. The same ones would come and sit in the back of the room, and talk and laugh the whole time. The professor didn’t kick them out (although I wish he had), and I couldn’t concentrate with that nonsense. I would turn around and look at them, hoping they would notice my frustration, but it didn’t seem to phase them.

I was always amused at the students that would put their heads down on their desks and go sound to sleep. The professors usually ignored them, since the students (or their parents) were the ones paying dearly for their naps.

At one point, I decided to take an online course, thinking that was the way to deal with the impish actions of my classmates. However, I soon discovered that it was harder without personal interaction with the professors.

So, maturity is definitely a big difference between regular and mature students. Thus, the name!

Disadvantages to being a mature student

Often the mature students have more obligations. They may have to balance work, family, and school, with multiple pressures from each. Late-night study sessions can take a toll on you when you have to get up and perform at your job the next morning. Babies and little children don’t really care that you are taking classes, because they think that they should be the center of your world. Even spouses need to get on board, otherwise they may feel neglected when you cannot be there because of scholarly obligations.

Unlike the younger students, there are not so many other mature students to interact with. It is advantageous if you can find one of your peers at school to befriend. They can better understand where you are at in life. One thing I did not appreciate was when my classmates called me “madam,” but I guess they could have called me much worse!

The physical aspects of an older student may affect learning. The inability to see, hear, move freely, and keep up with assignments may be impaired and affect learning. Cognitive impairment and personality disorders can also affect a mature student’s ability to perform in college.

My biggest challenge in going to school, as a mature student, was getting over my phobia of tests. I would fret and worry before a test, and get myself into such a state, that I could not recall the facts I had studied so hard. I would read, reread, and review my books and notes until I had it all down. Then I had to force myself to take a break before the test, to watch a show or listen to some music. I learned that taking a bike ride or walk also helped. Once I got to the testing center, I would take a deep breath and then begin the exam. The more I took tests, the better I got at it. Then, of course, I would reward myself afterward with an ice cream cone or chocolate.

Advantages to being a mature student

Today’s educational system offers much more for the mature student compared to a decade ago.

Flexible schedules are offered, which include evening classes on campus and online. Some universities let you take classes at your own pace, rather than expecting you to complete a fixed number of credits in a semester.

There are grants and scholarships available for nontraditional students, and some institutions will even consider your work experiences and professional qualifications towards your degree.

Some employers are willing to send their employees to school to benefit their business, and pay for tuition and books. Also, educational expenses can be used as a tax break.

Mature students are not as intimidated by the teacher, since they are often their peers. They have usually gained confidence in their former interactions with others.

Because of life experiences, a golden ager can put the class material into context better than an overconfident inexperienced person.

Older students have had time to figure out what they really want out of life, and can choose a field of study that they are passionate about.

Another advantage to going to school later in life is that you can ask your kids to help you with your homework.

Is it worth the struggle to return to school?

Even though it was difficult to take care of our children, be supportive of my husband, work, and go to school, I feel it was well worth all the sacrifices I may have made. It definitely was not easy being the senior citizen in the group. I felt I had to validate myself to the other students as well as my professor. The sense of achievement I felt after reaching my goal is immeasurable. It was so fun to see the adoring faces of my grandchildren as I accepted their leis and balloons on my graduation day.

So, is it wise to return to school as a mature student? It definitely is if you have not quenched your desire for knowledge and college is a good match for you. There is so much more in this beautiful world to learn.

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Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at: http://hawaiianart.ning.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Collin Harvey.

Don’t Forget to Create

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Give yourself a chance to use what you learn.

Don’t be fooled, books can be consumed in excess.

Read to converse with the great minds and absorb what they can teach you, but do not forget that your ultimate responsibility is to create something, not just consume.

You can create in a conversation by bringing a particular idea to the discussion. You can write a blog post to share what you learned. You can tweet and share with your friends. Write a book. Draw. Paint. Give a speech. Share a particularly creative reading with a book club.

You have a responsibility to remind people how smart they are and empower them through creation.  You will be able to do that because you have rehearsed with your books.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by fotologic