Three Reminders for Writers

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“…why did I have to keep learning this same thing over and over?”

~Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

In writing, and in life, we sometimes have to revisit or relearn things we once knew. My writing friends and I often speak of needing to reread some of our favorite writing books. Names that often come up are Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird, Judy Bridges’ Shut Up! and Write, Stephen King’s On Writing, Sandra Scofield’sThe Scene Book. Sometimes, we just need to dive back in and see what sticks this time around; which leads us to…

Reminder #1: Reviewing can be inspiring, encouraging and instructive.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to be in the right places at the right times to offer two writing friends some comments that seemed to help each of them. One, working on an epilogue for a memoir, handed me the epilogue to read. She felt that something wasn’t quite right, but she couldn’t put her finger on the problem. As it happened, I could. I immediately saw that moving three short paragraphs from mid-memoir to the beginning and then tweaking two transitions, would create a much more cohesive piece. Then, later in the day, I bumped into a friend I’d met at the Tin House Conference in 2010. We chatted online about her struggles getting going with her novel idea. By back-and-forthing and sharing, I think I helped her realize she may have been “over-thinking” her process, instead of writing. She complained of being woefully slow with her first drafts, so I suggested she try, for one week, to double her word count. She seemed excited to try it. I don’t know if it will work for her, but I hope so! And, that leads us to….

Reminder #2: Don’t be afraid to ask other writers for suggestions. It’s up to you if you follow them or not, but sometimes, they can offer what you need to hear.

December has always been a difficult time for me to sustain consistency with my writing. My days feel more chopped up with Christmas to do lists — shopping, decorating the house (which in my case also involves de-cluttering in a BIG way), writing cards, etc. And, all of that is in addition to the normal pushes and pulls of daily life. I know people who can work full-time jobs and get all that done, and still write, but, I am not one of them. So, I’ve learned to let December be a time for shorter writing chunks for me, and, more time on submitting whenever possible. If I am not able to devote solid times to revising my novel, I’m disappointed, but not stuck. There are other things I can do in shorter chunks. For example, in the chapter I’m now revising, I have one character who feels a little flat. I will be making lists (see an older post on using lists) of character attributes and brainstorming more details to help give this character more spark. When the day comes that I can carve out an extended period of time just for the novel, I will have ideas to review before I begin. Short writing times are not wasted time — leading to….

Reminder #3: Be flexible, kind and patient with yourself. Doing nothing is not a good idea, but doing a little is just fine when that’s all you can manage.

So, in the spirit of “reminders,” I leave you with The Earls and Remember Then:

Hopefully, these reminders sparked something for you. Are there things that could help you in your writing that you sometimes forget? What reminders work for you?

Happy #writing all!

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Writer’s Notebook(s) – IDEAS

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Using the term “the writer’s notebook” implies there’s one such magical thing and one way to properly keep such a magical thing. Wrong. I would argue that for most writers, one thing works sometimes, one thing another time, and you need to find what works for you — and, don’t be afraid to switch it up when you need to. The photo above shows different methods I’ve used: post-its for quick jots of ideas, notecards, mini-purse size notebooks, cell phone when I’ve been without a working pen and left myself a message to jot down later, composition notebooks, spirals, journals, three-ring binders. Don’t think I use all these all the time. I don’t. But, at different points, I have.

For me, the most common and frequent uses of writer’s notebooks fall into categories that fit neatly with the acronym: IDEAS.

I=Inspiration

This notebook would be considered by purists to be the traditional “writer’s notebook,” and purists would keep a volume continually updated with notes, lists, snippets of overheard conversation, photos, post cards, tickets, magazine clips, names, etc. — everything and anything from daily life that might inspire and inform future writing. I agree this is a fabulous idea, and I will tell you, it’s not effective for me. I’m not that organized and feel constrained by the pressure of updating and pasting and categories. I keep smaller purse-size notebooks where I jot ideas, lists, names, etc. I don’t do photos, clippings, etc. I rarely move the ideas into a bigger notebook, but I keep a basket of the small ones and will occasionally thumb them for ideas. This works fine for me. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird describes her use of index cards for keeping track of ideas. And, for me, the importance of recording these moments when I first began doing so related to a comment by Lamott, “You start seeing everything as material.” That’s what the Inspiration notebook is for. Find a method you can use, and use it. Or not. Maybe you have a perfect memory and no need for writing things down. I don’t. I need those scrawls.

D – Dumping

This is not a necessary step for all writers, but it is for this writer’s sanity. My “dumping” notebooks are my daily morning pages, my blah, blah, blahs, my venting and my rejoicing. These pages are for my eyes only and my mental health, only. I need them as much as I need my morning coffee. (See an earlier entry on Julia Cameron’s morning pages.)

E- Exploring

Before discovering the convenient IDEAS acronym, I referred to this notebook as my diving notebook. In this notebook, I do writing prompts and if a story or chapter idea is embryonic, I begin drafts here, before moving to my laptop. (See Promptiful for suggestions for writing prompts.)

A – Accountability

This notebook is for writers who are submitting, engaged in the business side of writing. Here, ideally, you track submissions, rejections, acceptances, but you also keep notes of literary journals that seem to fit with your style of writing. If you have a novel that you are seeking representation for, you will have a section regarding agents as well. Again, this is a notebook that I don’t use. My method is to track my submissions to literary journals on Duotrope and my agents on sheets of notebook paper thumb-tacked to a bulletin board. (See – it’s a matter of finding what works for you, and using it.)

S – Specific Notebook for a longer work

It can be very helpful when working on a novel, to keep a spiral notebook with you at all times, related only to the novel. So, if you’re out and about and suddenly, a scene you’ve been struggling with or a character you couldn’t quite envision before becomes clear, you get it down in that notebook — with a big scrawl across the top of the page, identifying the scene or character. As you work on a longer piece, you begin to live and breathe with your characters, this specific notebook helps you save moments that may enhance your draft.

Hopefully, this post has given you some thoughts for what types of writer’s notebooks might work for you. If you use different methods that might be helpful for others, please do add a comment. Try something new if you feel its time.

As always, happy #writing all. (For those of you who may follow my blog as well, sorry, this is up on both sites. 🙂 )

Mothers & Marmees & Moms, Oh My!

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Mother’s Day is here, bringing back memories of my sister and I and an Easy-Bake Oven cake presented to my mother, in bed, with purple Kool-aid. She smiled and choked it all down – we laugh about it still. Have you ever considered that it’s likely your mother heard your first laugh? And, your laughter is likely something your mother loved to hear. Her child’s laughter fills a mother’s heart with joy more easily than anything else.  As a mom of grown young men, I miss my boys laughing together at the dinner table (it helped that I raised a couple of characters, rather comedic characters).

I’ve been thinking about literary mothers, too and the two who affected me most as a child are Marmee, Mrs. March from Little Women and Caroline Ingalls (before the television show) from the Little House books. To me, they both were amazing — full of love and very “teacherly” in a non-threatening way. I adored them. They were strong women, living in times and situations that required strength, but strength tempered with unconditional love created something else altogether for me — the ideal mom.

In my life, I’ve been fortunate to spring from strong women. This family snapshot from my uncle’s wedding in 1965, shows me as the unhappy flower girl. (I was ill with a bladder infection and pouting a lot, partly because even though I was almost five, my mother insisted I had to wear rubber pants. She was right, of course, but I was far too old for rubber pants in my little mind – and, quite upset.) I love this picture for so many reasons — my Grandma, in the fur coat (mother of the groom) looks happy, proud and gently concerned about me. My mother shares my great-grandmother’s expression, bursting with pride. Also, my baby brother is barely visible as a tiny bump under my mother’s sailor dress. The hats are so 1965 for mass. My great-grandmother lived the mythic American story, arriving through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. She outlived three of her daughters. My grandmother raised her family under difficult conditions after a divorce, at a time when divorces were scandalous. My father died when my mother was thirty-nine, leaving her with two daughters in college and a teenaged son. Life wasn’t easy for these hard-working women, but they channeled Winston Churchill, never gave up, and taught by example about what perseverance means.

In this writer’s opinion, perseverance is the key word for writers. Those who stick with it will continue to write despite rejections, lack of responses from agents, loneliness, etc. And, when the downs feel overwhelming, it can help to find a new thing to help you continue when the writing life gets hard. I often recall Anne LaMott in Bird by Bird speaking of her writing as a gift. I consider my writing a gift to my fore-mothers. I appreciate their examples of perseverance – whatever life hands you – and especially, the love and importance of family. For Mother’s Day this year, I will reflect on the love and lessons from my mother, her mother and her grandmother. I will hope that by next Mother’s Day, I’ll be able to show my mother more progress in my writing.

Do you sometimes write and think of your writing as a gift? How did your fore-mothers influence you and your writing? If you are a mom, Happy Mother’s Day. I know you had a mom, so I hope you have lovely, laugh-filled thoughts to dwell on this Mother’s Day.

Happy #writing!

(Note: this post first appeared at Finding Meaning with Words.)