All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Writing Resolutions for 2023

I can proudly say that I have been through all of life's main stages in celebrating the arrival of the New Year: Desperately trying to stay up until 12 pm, finally being able to reach the big moment at midnight, celebrating the New Year's arrival without being sober, wondering if I need to stay up until 12 pm, and then just deciding to go to sleep. I haven't done these phases in any particular order and I have backtracked several times, but that's the point - discovering what options you are capable of, then deciding which one is appropriate. As long as several options are available to me, I can do whatever I want.

However, there's another tradition that goes a little differently - New Year's resolutions. Some people make them like they are issuing formal press releases, others quietly consider a few necessary life changes, and some people like me make promises to myself about what I want to differently. Of course, none of these methods have any formal accountability and are even joked about as being readily broken before Valentine's Day, so most people don't take much stock in them. However, I do, and in that regard, I am offering up my resolutions as a writer and why I think they are reasonable goals that anyone can (and should) try.

  1. I want to write more. No surprise here - every writer should have this on their list of things to push forward. The exception here is that I will not promise to write the Great American Novel in 2023 or even start that project. All I want to do is know that I create more. The effects of that will naturally spill down.
  2. Whenever I read something, I will write something. I want to try and create more, and nothing should be more inspiring than first taking in some words and ideas. Therefore, any time I read something more than a recipe for kung pao chicken, I will take that energy and put it through the creativity mill. This should, of course, also help me with the first resolution as well.
  3. Lastly, I want to get more people reading and critiquing my work. Whether it involves joining another workshop, finding a couple more people willing to give me input, or including writing segments within my blog posts, I want more feedback. This shouldn't be too difficult, and could take many forms, but it's up to me to find the proper methods or venues. And yes, if this means I find a way to start up my pre-COVID writing workshop, then so be it. 

These are simple things and I hope you can pick one or two to include on your list of writing resolutions. You are the only person who will be able to hold you accountable, so choose wisely, then start writing.

Lastly, I will be taking the New Year's weekend and following Monday off, so my next post will be Friday, January 6th, 2023. Happy New Year to all, and may the coming year be something worth writing about.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Writing Prompt Result!

As promised, I took on the challenge presented in my last post. For those who prefer a quick recap rather than reading the entirety of my last entry, it was a simple writing exercise: To write about a holiday memory, focusing on the most minute, intimate detail possible. The idea was to keep away from the broad thoughts about the holidays that can easily overwhelm the spirit of the piece, and hone in on one specific point in order to comb out all the other things and tell one precise story. And, on that note:

Five Letters

I can't tell you if I was five or six years old at the time. For that matter, most of the details from that particular Christmas morning are just a haze of collective holiday experience. All of the usual features were in play, but the one thing that stuck in my memory was the label on the first gift I opened. As I held the festively wrapped box in my hands, I read the label. It said, simply, "To: James. From: Santa." This was no different than the labels on most of my other gifts, and the same thing from past Christmases. However, this time, something connected. At that point, I saw the handwriting (disregarding the fact that it had an uncanny resemblance to my mother's very exacting cursive), and realized that somewhere, at some point, Santa Claus had taken a little time during his schedule to write his name next to mine. He wanted me to know that he, Santa Claus himself, personally chose this gift for me. 

It was a moment of connection for me that was hard to explain with my childish mind. I had only met the big guy a few times, and it's not like we talked a lot. I just told him about things I wanted and how I was kind of a good kid, and somehow, he remembered all that and acted upon it. And, not only did he act upon it, but he personally signed it. Santa. He autographed it himself, to let me know it was from him. He wasn't here to see my expression or anything, but he left his mark and now I saw it. And for the first time, I think I made the connection that for whatever gifts I received and the joy I felt, someone was on the other end of that gift, enjoying the act of giving it to me. That changed Christmas for me in some way, and though it took a while for it to really become part of my persona, I think on that day, seeing that name and knowing I was on someone else's mind on that day, I grew up just a little.

There you have it - a focus piece, discussing the sum of the holidays (as I feel about them) from the perspective of the name on the gift label. Such a piece leaves out almost every aspect of my life save for that one point, yet I would wager it describes a part of me more intimately than any other narrative might accomplish. I hope this exercise inspires you to do the same.

Holiday obligations must be attended to, and those will go well beyond December 25th. My next post will be on December 30th, assuming the Christmas celebrating doesn't go horribly wrong. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2022

A Holiday Writing Prompt

Like most families in my area when I was a child, Christmas was a pretty big thing. We got off of school for a couple of weeks, a good snow came down, the fat guy left us a bunch of presents - the usual events. I could write about any of those memories and tell an enjoyable little story  about the holidays. However, I decided that's not what a good writing exercise is about. An exercise should really try and bring out something along with building those writing muscles.

I did think about suggesting an exercise where the objective is to write about the least holiday-like thing about this holiday season. Perhaps something about the rampant consumerism during a time that's supposed to be about giving and such. There's probably a story about a bad holiday memory floating around somewhere, but let's face it - where's the fun in that? A holiday writing exercise should not be all Grinchy. It needs to stir up the feelings we hold close and dear to our hearts. If you decide to write about your worst Christmas experience, that's your right to do so. I had something different in mind.

As I said earlier, I have plenty of good Christmas memories from my distant childhood, and any one of them could become a story. However, I decided that the more interesting exercise would be to intensify the focus. Instead of writing about that one Christmas where you got the great gift, or when some holiday magic just happened to make everything special, I thought a great exercise would be to write about one item, one moment, one detail from way back when and let it be the center of all my feelings and discussion. The more isolated and detailed, the better. 

What does that all mean? Well, simply put, I know plenty of people who have a real connection to the ritual of setting up the Christmas tree on whatever night happens to be the right one. That might make a good story, but try looking for the emotion in hanging up one particular ornament, or putting the angel/star/light on the top of the tree. Capture one instance, and write about everything that the moment meant. Think of the first moment you connected with the importance of the Hanukkah candles, or felt something special about the holidays. Isolate one moment - an important, valuable holiday event, then write about it. It can be receiving a card from a relative and being moved by the words, or just staring at a candy cane in front of the gingerbread house and feeling something more than wanting to eat it. Try applying that kind of focus - the pleasure of the simple moment - into your writing, and see what happens.

Full disclosure: This is a nice way to write poems. I promised that I wouldn't push poetry on the unwilling, but I am just mentioning that good poems are often meditations upon one shining moment.

On that note, I will leave you to your holiday merriment. I just hope that you give a try at creating something that you find both special and meaningful. I will be doing this exercise and the fruits of my labor will be my Friday post. See you then.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Gifts From and For Writers

Yes, Christmas is fast approaching, and with it, more blog posts about how writers can take advantage of the holiday season. I promise, there will only be one or two more of these (and maybe one poetry post), but I hope they inspire ideas that will last well into the New Year (or at least last longer than your New Year’s resolutions).

Back in the old days, it was a tradition on one side of our family to commemorate special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, graduations, etc. with the gift of books. Usually, these books would be inscribed with a nice message and perhaps the date and occasion for the book exchange. In turn, the recipient would take a little time to read this book, and the two people could then discuss it and bond over it. And, of course, the book became a family heirloom.

I recently inherited some of the family books, and I can’t help but feeling somehow connected to the family members who exchanged these. I’ve never met any of these people – these were books exchanged between great-grand-relatives and their nieces and nephews back in the 19th century. However, to look at a collection of Dickens or Longfellow and see my great-grand-uncle’s name and greeting inside along with his best Christmas wishes brings me a little closer. And then, of course, I feel the urge to read these books; to take in the exact words my ancestors did from the very books they once held. It is truly a legacy worth holding on to.

This, of course, gets me thinking about the gifts I give to family members. Usually, to those who appreciate reading, I give them a copy of any works where I have been published. This allows me to (along with the shameless self-promotion) share a piece of myself with those close to me, develop a bond with them of shared words, and give them something that can be handed down the family tree so someday, someone will see the byline and inscription of great-grand-uncle James, and connect with me across the arc of time.

All this leads to a simple idea: Give people books for a little stocking stuffer. It doesn’t even have to be your work, it just has to be something that you can relate to and think they would be interested in. Sharing the gift of words gives the two of you a chance to connect. Maybe they read it, maybe they don’t. The point is that a nice book and a meaningful inscription can turn a simple book into a family heirloom. And, hopefully, it makes for a happy holiday as well. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Another Thing About "That Time of the Year"

Indeed, it is that time of the year again. In this particular case, however, I am referring to the end of the year when my annual gym membership comes due. Yes, along with the usual shopping, family gatherings, and trying to remember who was naughty and nice, I also re-up my gym membership for another year. It's annoying and poorly timed, but it gives me a chance to remind myself just what that membership is all about.

I'll be honest - I could go to the gym more than I usually do. It's just one mile from my house, so I really don't have an excuse for not going every day. However, that would be a little obsessive, and I do have a life, so a daily trip to the gym is not in the cards. On the flipside, I am not one of those people who has a membership that they never use but constantly renew as part of some wishful thinking that this will be the year they start going (you know who you are). Rather, I go with the better bet, which is two to three times a week, planning what I need and what I will do, all in the name of self-improvement.

Maybe you already see how this applies to writing, maybe not. The main takeaway of this is that like the gym, writing is something I could do whenever I wanted to, as much as I could, or as little as I cared to do - just like using my gym membership. Going to the gym, like writing, is all a process of self-investment. Nothing obliges us to write every day, or even once a week, month, or year, but ultimately we gain returns in proportion to the effort we put into it. If I spent an hour at the gym every day for the next year, vigorously exercising, I would no doubt be much better off than my usual routine. The same goes for writing, it's just more difficult to identify when you are really breaking through as a writer. 

So when that time of year comes along, both for the gym membership and for a personal inventory of my writing situation, I take a moment to determine what I want to get out of the next year in terms of this whole self-investment idea. I recognize rather quickly what I want out of the gym membership, so as long as that agrees with my life plan, it requires very little thought. Then, for my writing situation, I ask myself what I want to invest in the next year as a writer. Are there goals I want to reach, or some other achievement? Do I want to prep myself for NaNoWriMo? Is it time to publish my next book? Is it time to write another book? The personal inventory required in assessing my writing situation is far more complex than just paying for another year's gym membership, and the accountability is far more difficult as well.

When you do any of the things you do during this time of the year, give yourself a moment to assess what you want to do with your writing as well. Take a little time and look at your writing goals, and decide where you want to go with it. Consider that the gift to your inner writer - a one-year membership in dedicating yourself to writing. Then just go out there and meet that goal. 

Believe me, it's easier than going to the gym every other day.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Growing the Inner Writer

One of my favorite ways of thinking about my own journey as a writer is to think about those whom I met along the way. I've been lucky enough to meet a wealth of people who were destined to become writers. Unfortunately, it is also fair to say that a lot of them will never become good writers. While these people write consistently, try new things, and have the discipline to pursue the goal of being a writer through good times and bad, they are not willing to do the one thing required to be a good writer: They are not willing to get better.

This may sound like a bunch of wordplay and technicality, so let me expand a little. I started out as the best unpublished author around. I had written many things, and each one gave me an inner warmth from that sense of creating a perfect story. I had received compliments and so forth, so how could I not be great? Maybe I wasn't the best, but dammit, I was good.

That lovely fantasy came to a painful end when I attended my first workshop. Once I presented my first piece, these other writers had the nerve to tell me that - brace yourselves - it was not perfect. Worse yet, we were not talking about typos or missing a semicolon - this was some structurally flawed stuff. I used the passive voice. I shifted points of view. Characters did not have depth and dimension. For all intents and purposes, the review gave me a sense that I was NOT a good writer.

For beginning writers, this is where it all counts; the rubber hits the road at this very moment. At this point, a writer can get defensive, panic, insist that everyone else is wrong or doesn't get it, or any other excuse to save them from reassessing a situation, or they can become a better writer.

As difficult as criticism is, it's priceless because it informs us about what readers see, versus when the writer creates, and the reader is just as important as anyone else. As a beginning writer, we need to have an open mind, and take in as much as possible when it comes to criticism - as long as it is constructive. Most workshop members want to help each other become better, so it helps to listen.

The only caveat I offer is a simple reminder: When your mind is open, people try to pour a lot of crap into it. By this I mean it pays to make sure you don't just change your style to obey another writer. While most criticism is constructive, some of it is less helpful than others. Be careful of criticisms that have the following traits:

  • The soapbox critique - "I would've written it differently"
  • The empty critic - "I didn't like it"
  • The reverse discussion - "If I were you, I would've..."

The one thing that all constructive criticism has in common is that it is a discussion of styles, rules, and structures, not opinions. If someone doesn't like your work, that's their opinion. If someone can show how the structure can be shaped to make a better point, that's constructive. People can even start off with, "I felt...," but as long as it leads to a lesson, then you can build upon that. With that, you get better. Inevitably, this leads to being a good writer.

I can't say I am a great writer at this point. However, I say with all humility that by giving myself the opportunity to learn from my many mistakes, I am a better writer than I ever have been, and that's saying something.

Monday, December 5, 2022

A Note About Importance

During all the clean-up I referred to in my last post, I thought about a very big milestone in my life. Quite recently, I turned 20,000 days old. Yes, that's right - the big 20K. Odd thing, though. I didn't receive any cards, any congratulations, no flowers were sent to me and no big announcement in the local paper. It takes a little over 27 years to accumulate 10,000 days of existence, and I just did it twice - why was there no celebration?

Well, as it turns out, it seems that I am the only one who really cares about this. Given my mathematical background and penchant for numerological trivia, it is only natural that this particular milestone was important to me. However, nobody else had that same interest. Now, when I mention to my friends that their big 20K is coming up, they say things like, "Hey, that's kind of cool," or "I didn't realize that. Thanks!" However, in all likelihood, without my notification, their 20K would've come and gone without the slightest mention. Kind of sad to a numbers guy like me.

So, what is the importance of all this? Well, simply put, when we decide to write something, our biggest motivation is that it is a subject or topic that is important to us. Whether it is important to the rest of the world is not our immediate concern. First and foremost, we need to care about it enough to throw ourselves into the project with all of the passion it deserves. It needs to be something we want to write about and something where we feel a need to take the subject matter and create a piece of writing from that idea. 

Some people will naturally come up with the response, "Why write about it if nobody else cares about it?" Worrying about our audience response is an interesting exercise, but it's detrimental to our process. Just like the 20K celebration, there is the presumption that nobody cares about it because nobody talks about it. However, as I demonstrated, sometimes when something is brought to a person's attention, they see it for the interesting subject matter that it is. Yes, they could've lived a fine life never knowing about it, but learning that bit of trivia actually enriches them for a little bit. We can never know if this is going to happen with a piece we write, but it definitely won't happen if we never create that piece in the first place.

My current work in search of publication is about the legacy of an unsolved crime in a small, Midwestern town. Do people want to read about this? Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that I wanted to write it, so I went off and made a 98,000-word novel out of it. I also know that I would've done myself a grave injustice if I didn't write it because I wasn't sure about audience response. I wanted to do it, so I did. If there is anything to be learned from today's post, let it be that fact.

And on a closing note, a shameless bit of self-promotion. I have two short stories that were just published in an anthology entitled, "Travel and Adventure," and the book is available on Amazon for $8.99 + shipping/handling. I also designed the cover art, but that's neither here nor there. I hope you get a chance to read and enjoy my works, plus the writings of a dozen other local authors.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Writing Lost & Found

It is officially December, and one of my favorite traditions for this month is cleaning up all the little bits of this and that I have accumulated over the past year. During my days in the financial world, this usually meant ordering a recycling dumpster up to my office and hashing through several drawers worth of files to determine what was important enough to save for another year. Now life is a little easier. No dumpster in my office, no internal documents requiring shredding, just me, my cats, and a bunch of notes to sort through. So on that note, I will put out some of the ideas over the past 11 months that are worth mentioning but never became full comments.

  • Within the privacy of your own writing world, do weird stuff. See if a different font inspires you. Try a genre you have never touched or possibly never liked. If you are a typist such as me, write something with a pencil and paper, or a pen, or even a crayon. In part this gets us out of our comfort zone, and it allows us to play with ideas. If they never work out, nothing is lost except for a little time. If something is gained, you grow as a writer. It's Pascal's wager, but with writing. So be weird, and see what happens.
  • If you have an idea about something you want to put on the page, don't ask "Why?" Ask, "Why not?" Usually, the most resistance we feel as writers comes from inside, not outside. There are rarely outside forces making us stop writing, but our own little doubts and demons are always willing to challenge us and try to keep us away from doing things. As the saying goes, the biggest failure is not from something we attempted to do, but something we never tried to do. So put things on the page if only to learn from your failures.
  • Read. Read everything. Read anything. Read outside your interests. At the very least, try and read something on a regular basis, just to let other ideas fly through your mind. See how other people put their words together and admire just how they do it. Or, for that matter, criticize what they do. The important part is to take on a regular injection of new ideas.
  • Clear the clutter. This is something I mentally do on a regular basis just to get the distractions out of the way. Have you ever tried to write something but you can't help thinking about whether you've cleaned out the cats' litter box or if the mail has come yet? Not easy. Take a few moments now and then to sweep away the little things so you can focus on the task at hand.
  • Write a poem. I know, I say this way too much. However, it has its purpose in that trying to communicate an idea while following a rhyme and rhythm structure takes incredible focus. The more you write little poems, the more you strengthen your capacity to focus on one thought, one mood, one theme. 
The one last note that I will close with is to remember that being a writer isn't always about writing. It's often about challenging the world. It's about thinking; asking yourself what makes a sunset particularly beautiful or why certain shades of blue make you happy. There's a next level to everything, and writers try to discover this so they can include it in their stories. Think about these things when you are not writing, then let them come to life the next time you sit down and create things.

And on that note, I am going to clear the rest of the clutter from my office. And I might just rethink that dumpster idea this year.