Writing About Writing: Five Noteworthy Stories and Poems

writing about writing

This is an essay by Erika Dreifus.

A funny thing happened as I immersed myself in the study and practice of writing: I found myself appreciating stories and poems about writing—works in which central characters are writers or central themes or actions involve aspects of craft, process, or business of writing—more and more. I say that this is “a funny thing” because the more I hear from other writers, the more it seems that I’m in a decided minority in my enjoyment of these works.

Take the perspective articulated by Roxane Gay, a noted writer and editor whose views on writing and publishing are always worth thinking about:

“This may well become an annual announcement but writers, you must, for the love of all that is holy, stop writing stories where the main characters are writers. I understand the appeal. You are, perhaps, writing what you know. You’re writers so you’re creating stories around the experience of being a writer. In recent memory we have read stories about writers hoping to be published, excited to have been published, writers who have entered contests and won contests. You have written stories about happy writers and miserable writers and lonely writers and desperate writers. Sometimes your writers have sex and it is awkward. Very often they drink, smoke, or use illegal substances. Some of these stories about writers have been satirical (but not) like when you pretend to be kidding but really you’re serious.”

Trust me, many others share this view. Evidently, a contingent of readers (and editors) don’t necessarily want to see more stories written by eager emerging auteurs about this particular obsession. But perhaps the cohort can concede that some truly wonderful literary creations already exist for us to read and think about. Especially if we’re writers, or writers-in-training, some of these stories and poems may inspire us. Some may amuse us. Some may actually make us (more than) a bit uncomfortable. Some may make us think more carefully about what it really means to be a writer in the first place.

Here are five brief works—three short stories and two poems—that are among my favorites when it comes to “writing about writing.” All of them are available to read online.

  • “Electric Wizard,”by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Published in The Atlantic in 1998, “Electric Wizard” presents us with a poetry teacher in the aftermath of the suicide of one of her young workshop students—and the parents of that student who seek to know what he had been writing for the class.
  • “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned this Cliche?” by Lorrie Moore. Included in Moore’s first short-story collection, Self-Help (as “How to Become a Writer”), this story is oft-anthologized and cited.
  • “How to Tell a Story,” by Margo Rabb. Originally published in Zoetrope in 1999, this story introduces us to a narrator, Anna, who is a third-semester student “in the Master of Fine Arts program at Southwestern University.”
  • “Workshop,” by Billy Collins, is a poem that continues to throw light (of a sort) onto that very strange animal—the writing workshop.
  • “Digging,” by Seamus Heaney (who passed away in 2013), also comes from the world of poetry. But it takes a much more solemn approach to the work of writing—and to the place of writing in the larger world.

What do you think about fiction and poetry “about” writers and/or writing? Any favorites (whether available online or not) that you might recommend?

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Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) lives in New York City, where she writes poetry and prose and reads as much as she possibly can. Follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

Discovering My Passion & Talent Through Writing

finding passion in writing

This is an essay by Ashley Kabajani.

The Question That Helped Me

Being the last born in a huge family of seven (six girls and one boy), it is not easy when your older siblings all have found their purpose, gifts and talents. See, I come from a family of strong, established go-getters, and I always seemed like I was trying to follow in someone’s footsteps but never finding my own path.

It all began when a friend of mine, who admires my siblings, gave me a call to ask me the strangest, yet most life-defining call. She asked me how I felt about being the last born when all my sisters and brothers are very successful in their own right. My mind started racing, and I gave her a long essay-type answer about advantages and disadvantages. It seemed simple but for some strange reason, it had me pondering and meditating for days on end.

The Little Girl Who Craved Information

I grew up in a small mining and farming town called Kadoma in Zimbabwe. My mother tongue being Shona, I was not articulate in English until I was in school. My siblings made fun of me all the time whenever I pronounced something wrong.

From the age of 8, I discovered a secret world where I could escape that boring little place, and it was reading. My father made all of us join the local library, which was not free by the way, but he was amazed at my massive appetite for information. I remember my friends were choosing books with pictures and big letters, but I wasn’t interested. I discovered Roald Dahl and never looked back. I read all the Nancy Drew series, the Goosebumps series, the Sweet Valley High series. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, even encyclopaedias, student companions and even newspapers. You name it, I read it.

From Reading To Writing

Before long, my written and spoken English improved, I was excelling in my studies and was always in the school quiz team, which included general knowledge, spelling and other topics. In high school, I was a bit lost. All the comparisons started from teachers who had taught my siblings or those who became teachers and were in school with them.

Life dragged on. I never really knew what I wanted to do. My sisters wanted me to become a doctor, my parents joined the bandwagon. I was lost. Everyone was busy with their lives and force-shaping mine. I continued to drift through life’s challenges and had journals for almost every defining moment and reading to escape my reality.

When my father lost the battle to anaemia, I was 15 years old. Crying didn’t help. I decided to write a letter to God, and I just poured it out on paper. I didn’t think as I wrote. I wrote about how I felt and asked God why this happened. Even though there was no answer, I felt at peace.

Decoding The World With Words

This trend continued, even when my mother passed away too. I just wrote it out and cried through the pain. From my first heartache, to my major heartbreak, to my prayer requests and even dreams, hopes and goals. I wrote more than I read as I began to experience the pain, pleasure, disappointments, accomplishments, joys, sorrows and just every other ideology I had that was shattered by life. I was living this life and things were happening, and all those defining moments were shaping and forming my character and writing skills.

I continued reading up on everything and everyone. I made sure I was a member of the library everywhere I went. I was not only escaping but learning. Soon the internet made reading more interesting. All this wealth of knowledge out there, and I could easily access it. I would read the news, read about medicine, new developments, read and see the world from my own home.

In the midst of all this searching and learning, someone asked me to start blogging after picking up one of my very full journals, full of pictures, notes, prayers and letters. I still haven’t come around to do it, though I write every day. Not too sure to who but I just write. In all this scribbling and reading, I seemed uncertain about one thing – my talent. Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I just a wife, mother, sister and friend?

The Epiphany

I got married at 25, had a baby at 26. He is now a gorgeous 1 year old little man. Though I lived most of my young life (all of 17 years) in Zimbabwe, I followed my sisters who had previously relocated to South Africa. I met my Namibian husband while studying in Capetown.

I moved to Namibia after we got married and hadn’t been able to find a decent job, so we lived on one income for so long. I think I sent a hundred job applications every week, but to no avail as more than half of the Namibian population’s unemployed.

Out of frustration and pure drive of finding my calling, passion and talent, I asked myself, “What is it that I can do with my hands that I can contribute to the world?”

Then I remembered how my research topics and assignments in university easily got distinctions. The answer was simple. I can write, but how do you make writing something resourceful?

An idea came to my mind and I started my administrative services business recently, and I offered my services to various businesses and individuals. Before I knew it people were asking me to help them write company reports, including CEO statements, speeches and other administrative jargon.

Words Are Powerful

At this point, something in me clicked. That’s my talent and my passion, and I had been doing it gladly without getting anything out of it. But now, I actually get incentives. But even if they were removed, I’d still be writing anyway. This is it! Looking back, I see where it stemmed from. It started with reading books as that curious, information-craving young girl to that lost young lady who used words as a way of decoding and escaping from her world.

If there is any advice I would offer anyone, it’s to find joy in reading in this technological generation. Even the gadgets should be channels to use to read, search for knowledge and connect with the world using words. Words shaped who I am today. And at the age of 27, I may be a late bloomer, but I certainly have blossomed and no longer will you find me questioning who I am.

Both reading and writing have proved to be more than just words. They provide therapy, entertainment, knowledge, information and can even paint a picture without using drawings or photographs.

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Ashley Kabajani is a wife, mother, sister and businesswoman from Namibia. When she’s not writing about business, she enjoys writing about topics that drive and inspire her and encourage others.

Photo: Some rights reserved by matryosha.

The Pros and Cons of Distraction Free Writing

distraction free writing

This essay was written by Joel Okimoto. (No affiliate links were used.)

The words “distraction free writing” often get banded around these days when it comes to professional writing, or writing for a living. A simple space where you can write what you want without all the “useless” features of Microsoft Word (for instance).

You’ve probably even heard of a few applications which offer it too. Does iWriter and OmmWriter sound familiar to you? But what actually is distraction free writing and is it right for you?

Distraction free writing applications are basically simple tools which offer the ability to write what you want, and nothing else. They offer you a page to type on, and that’s pretty much it. No clipart, no inserting of tables or graphs or anything like that. Now to some of you that may sound like a dream, but to others it may sound more like a nightmare (personally I love distraction free writing applications, I use iWriter. I find it frees me up to write about anything I want with ease).

Pros of Distraction Free Tools

You procrastinate less. Think about it: no distraction = no time wasted. They help you get what you want done as quickly and as peacefully as possible. There is no need to worry about using the right font or the right font size. It is decided for you. I find this useful, because it lets me get on with what I want to do without worrying about all the annoying settings and preferences.

They are peaceful. I know many people who do not like to write in Microsoft Word (as an example) because they find it “ugly,” among other reasons. This is not a problem with distraction free tools. They are so minimal they don’t even have enough features to look ugly. They are simply a white screen (or sometimes black) and that’s about it. They might have a few settings at the top, but it doesn’t really go further than that.

Cons of Distraction Free Tools

No pictures. This is a real problem if you like to write blog posts or add images to your novels. I’ve tried writing blog articles in distraction free tools and it can be a real pain (I actually think WordPress is the best place for writing for blogs). Some people see something like no images as a deal breaker for these tools, and for them they may be right. The rule of thumb is: if you use pictures a lot don’t go distraction free. All it will give you is a headache.

They are “missing” features. That’s how some people see it anyway. Not being able to change the font, make things bold or add links can drive some crazy.

When I first made the switch from Word to iWriter it was strange. I kept trying to find ways around the rules, ways to change the font size, ways to add links. It wasn’t until I started to understand what it was really for that I found peace with it.

Nevertheless it can be a nuisance to use them. And if you find yourself using other tools than your keyboard when writing, distraction free will not work for you.

So there you have it, the pros and cons. Now it’s time to make your own mind up on the matter. I think using things like this is really a matter of opinion and a matter of what you primarily write. If you are someone who usually writes for a blog site or a magazine agency this sort of thing probably won’t work for you. But if you are a simple novel writer or storyteller this could be the sort of thing you are looking for.

On regards to what distraction free writing application you should use: I would suggest that if you are a Mac user you give iWriter a shot. I use it for just about everything, I find it a godsend. It also has  iPhone and iPad versions which all sync together painlessly, making for a well focused and intuitive workflow. If you are a Windows user I would suggest you give Q10 a try. It is a simple freeware app that offers you everything you would want and expect in a distraction free application, and a little more too.

There are many more distraction free applications for you to try out and you shouldn’t just take my word for it. You should give a few of them a go. In my opinion they will really change the way you write and make you much more efficient.

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Joel Okimoto is a freelance writer and a huge fan of tech.

So You Want to Be a Writer

become a writer

This is an essay by Helen Woodward.

The moment you hint at wanting to be a writer, people will tell you that you write fantastic letters and that you should write a book!

Now there’s a thought. How many pages are in a book? Five to six hundred, give or take a couple. Do you write humorous or serious stuff? Maybe a “how to” pocket-sized piece of wonder or just a bloody good yarn.

After all, if you’re going to write with the idea of strangers reading your work, then it has to either teach them something, make them laugh, cry or put them into shock with revelations you think nobody has ever thought of since the first word was chipped into a stone.

Just how do you get started?

Have a look at Henry Schoenheimer’s “Expressive English”: “A great American humorous writer, Stephen Leacock, was once asked whether writing was a difficult art. ‘Oh, no, he replied, writing isn’t difficult at all. You just take a pen and put down whatever occurs to you, of course,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘the occurring, now that can be difficult.” 

After much deliberation, you put something down on paper and you think, “That’s not bad. I might run that past someone.” Family and friends gush all over you expressing how wonderful you are and, even if your work is appalling, you are heavily encouraged to write a novel. And because of that encouragement you actually think this is a possibility.

You begin work without delay on The Novel, the theme of which you feel has to be dramatic and complicated. Maybe a psychopathic degenerate with no morals can be at the core of your gruesome tale. You throw in the odd line of dialogue so people will be under the impression that you know what you are doing and before you can say, “oops dropped my pen” you’ve written ninety pages of surreal narrative, which you believe will knock people’s socks off.

With a sudden lack of genius, your brain won’t function, not another gory thought comes to your overworked mind. You decide to have a break for a few days; six months later all thoughts of The Novel are forgotten.

The next time you feel the urge to be creative you try your hand at poetry. Little rhyming ditties roll forth on the page and you truly believe you have found your forte in the wonderful world of writing. Six months later, with several large drawers full of poems that nobody wants and your head turning all your thoughts into a rhythmic pattern of witticisms, a straight jacket is the obvious next step.

You need an idea or at least a reader-grabbing first line. In “Working With Words,” E.A. Southwell writes, “Just as a film director with his camera-men can be all powerful, making us see what he sees, so you, when you pick up your pen may take shots for your reader to see; but first you must find something that you really like looking at. For instance, on a blazing midsummer day a cool looking spot is a welcome sight.”

You realize that if ever passion and talent are to be turned into a marketable product then immediate assistance is vital. Learning becomes important and necessary. It’s time to do a course. You are put to the test – and how! You find that your skills are not as good as you first imagined, and you become aware of your inept knowledge of the subject and the importance of getting it right.

“Thirty-nine rewrites are several more than most writers will want or be fully able to attempt, but you should count on revising your work up to half a dozen times before you consider it finished.” – from “How To Get Happily Published”

A solid training regime, although sometimes difficult, opens up many possibilities.

Sweating bullets, you do your utmost to impress, handing in assignments on time all the while thinking, it’s a walk in the park. Until through the correction process you are told that some areas of your grammar skills are incompetent. This causes feelings of inadequacy, and you work harder to meet the tutor’s expectations wondering if they will ever see your brilliance shining through the rubble.

Finally you seem to be doing better and, in fact, you are. Words are being strung together and the sentences are logical. Fiction is a low point for you, however, and once again you trudge down the familiar road of doubt.

The learning process becomes a huge challenge, but you’re in there fighting.

Your latest assignment is returned and you have earned yourself a merit. You are humbled to the core and that low confidence gets a much-needed lift, but mostly you have a strong feeling of hope. Someone did like your work. Someone you don’t know personally. Someone who is not worried about upsetting your delicate ego.

This is exactly what you needed but you also realize there are a lot of cracks in this pavement. So you set about filling them in by tackling them one at a time. The longer you study and do astutely reading of other people’s work, the better your own work becomes.

“You will not get far if you ‘skim’ as many people do, through an article in a newspaper or illustrated periodical. Give it all the attention you can muster; from the first word to the last.” – from “Comprehension and Precis”

In addition to your formal studies, you read all you can about writing and indeed writers. Reference books such as “This Business of Writing” by Raymond Flower become as important to you as your dictionary. You research and plan meticulously gathering useful information. Stockpiling is very necessary.

You discover that fiction comes easier to mind when it is colored here and there with a generous helping of fact. Flower said, “Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was inspired by his sister’s true-life experience of a lost love, which eventually drove her into mental decline.”

This is the kind of fact that makes the transition to fiction a little easier. When you have written all you can, keep writing and eventually you will see a style emerge that is unmistakably you.

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Helen Woodward is an Australian mother of five and has been writing for twenty years. She has a novel in the publishing process and various published articles.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Photosteve

Spotlight on Productivity: Is it Feasible to Write Daily?

writing daily

This essay was written by Gugu Nyoni.

Almost every nascent writer would frown at the thought of sitting on their desk and getting creative and productive with their writing potential daily. This is largely because many budding writers are saddled with a hectic daily schedule prior to shifting to full time writing, making the thought of writing daily a remote possibility.

Before we get to the core principles that can place you on the track of productivity by ensuring you can churn out valuable content daily, we need to explore reasons why writers need to keep writing daily.

1. Your previous work gets malodorous (fetid).

Just the like in the economy of physiology wherein lack of exercise results in significant loss of energy and diminished optimality in body function, slacking off on your writing thrust will kill your momentum. On the other end, putting your head on the writing craft every single day will galvanize your writing acumen.

Writing acumen, skill and craft are not attributes that can be simply acquired theoretically in a library. Writing is born of a coterie of traits acquired naturally and gradually as you keep writing and reading. Prolific writers know that if you get into the rhythm of writing daily your mind will be writing in the background, in the forefront and even in your slumber.

2. You may lose track of your plot.

Fiction writers will concur that if you get distracted from your writing course it will not be easy picking up the loose ends and carrying the story forward. Anything that prevents you from getting quality time to cogitate and develop your writ in line with your outlined plot and story line is a distraction. A lot of time, thought and intellectual investment goes into quality writing.

If it is a novel, the characters need to toe the line of your plot, what they say and do should articulate your engendered meanings. The scenes, scenarios and chapters of your writ should cohere and flow. This cannot be easily achieved without working hard to keep your head in the craft every single day. How many times have you looked back at some of your unfinished work and thought to yourself, “only if I had completed this piece right then”?

3. Your sales will drop.

If you are making a living off writing, then you need to keep writing to promote your work. Distractions can steal important time and efforts required to get your work to the hands of your target readers. Those plying the cyber space with their written work know that competition in this terrain is just a click away. Once you cease to keep posting to promote your work and up your sales, you will soon slide from your position in the market. Keep writing and posting to create and sustain a profitable buzz about your work and never slack off.

4. You will lose traction with your fan base and followers.

Once you step into the limelight of the writing space, you inevitably garner followers and fans that find your work valuable and subsequently keep tabs on you. This becomes your platform that you should never abandon – more so if you have sponsors and peers succoring your writing career.

In the modern web age, you need to continually make yourself visible to your followers by participating actively in social networks, forums, chats as well as in person. If you neglect these seemingly trivial tasks to just that time of the year or month when you have ample time to do it you will inevitably kill your drive and the value and impact of your platform will diminish.

5. Your followers and your market will forget you.

The writing industry is volatile and as rapid as any other thriving industry. As the cliché goes, out of sight, out of mind.  You need to know that new books, blogs and various materials are published daily; meaning that without active daily participation in this industry, you simple do not exist.

But how possible is it to get into the habit and rhythm of writing daily? Writers normally have cluttered schedules, hence this question is not without a valid provenance.

One of the most important principles of ensuring you write daily is to start off with dedicating about 20 minutes to writing each day.

Find meaningful writing tasks that you can handle within this time slot without shacking up your daily schedule heavily yet. While on this; explore your normal daily schedules and identify activities you could eliminate or cut down on to ensure that your writing endeavor gets a good slot every day. Many successful writers had to give up something in place of writing. You will ultimately give up your 9-to-5 day job anywhere if your attempts pen out positively and you need more time for your writing career.

Let everyone around your living sphere know that you are taking your writing endeavor seriously so that they can leave you to it. This will also get you accountable to yourself for the time you have set aside to achieve something with your writing passion and potential.

If you have explored all these insights and principles and still find yourself stuck with your normal routine it could be that you have finalized your choices at the back of your head and writing has not yet taken top priority in your life. That is fine, but if you are keen to shift into a meaningful writing career, there is nowhere things can change and remain the same. Something has to go and gradually you will grow a promising writing career.

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Gugu Nyoni  is a writer, web programmer, pianist and dREAMAXESS blogaholic!

Photo: Some rights reserved by Charlie Barker

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