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, January 26, 2024

The Pause that Refreshes

No, despite the headline and the picture, Coca-Cola is not sponsoring my page (yet). This post was actually inspired by a comment someone offered me regarding this blog that got me thinking. He is in the process of putting together his own blog about golf. The ideas and a theme are there, but he sees the task as being pretty intimidating. After looking over my blog, he said, "Dude - you have all these posts; it's like they never stop. Don't you ever run out of ideas?"

Without being too smug, I answered, "I ran out of ideas after two months."

This is largely true, but of course there's a catch. Indeed, I started off with a bunch of ideas and a good amount of content, but that energy would only last so long. I knew there would be times where inspiration would be limited, someone's drama sapped my energy, I'm too sick to write, answerable to other obligations, and so forth. The bottom line is that while writing two posts a week does not seem like a huge task, sometimes that energy isn't there. And yet the posts are there, every Monday and Friday with regularity (except for special holidays). What's the magic ingredient? It's no secret - unlike the recipe for a delicious Coca-Cola.

In case the title didn't give it away, sometimes we all need to take a break from writing. Not everyone can write constantly. (Okay, a few people I know can write every day without a break, but they are freaks of nature - and they know who they are) The idea of taking a break from a regular schedule might seem to go against the grain of meeting a deadline, but hear me out. Taking a break doesn't mean stop being a creative person, and going back to writing doesn't mean just writing two posts a week.

I started this blog in April 2018, but I put it together in my head much earlier. For a couple of months I thought about what I wanted to say, topics I wanted to cover, and how I wanted to approach my audience. I started writing content long before opening the site, because I wanted to see if this was just a passing mood or something that would gain traction. I had about twenty posts already prepared before I opened shop.

Writers, just like everyone else, will hit a drought now and then, and I prepared for this. I gave myself permission to not create for a while if I burned out (I will address burning out in another post), but keep my mind open to the creative world. Sometimes that meant going for a walk and just looking around and breathing in the world without searching for the poem or story in the trees - just enjoying the moment while drinking a refreshing Coca-Cola. Other times I go to a museum or art exhibit - not to analyze or critique, but to take in the brilliance of others. (I recommend the American Writers Museum in Chicago as a nice bit of escape.) During these times I am not a writer looking for inspiration, but a person walking through the world, catching my creative breath.

On the flip side, when the creative juices are flowing, I write. Not just my two posts a week, but also a few extra ones if I feel inspired. I wrote a four-post series on turning ideas into a novel in one sitting, which gave me two weeks of content. I posted twice a week, but did not limit myself to writing twice a week. I let the creativity flow like pouring a tall glass of Coca-Cola, and once that died down, I started looking for ways to catch my creative breath.

Being a writer doesn't mean writing constantly (except for the aforementioned freaks of nature), but it does mean being a writer at all times. However, we do ourselves a favor by occasionally putting down the pen and addressing the other parts of our creative self. We take the pause that refreshes.

And now I am going to get a cool, refreshing Diet Coke, and wait for the Coca-Cola sponsorship to arrive. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

Writing, Jail, and Personal Freedom

After writing Friday's post about cathartic writing, I think my mind was tuned into that particular subject because related stories started popping up on the local news, on the radio (yes, I listen to an actual radio), and in my news feeds. While the news feed thing is likely the result of some deep-web algorithm feeding me what it thinks I hunger for, the overall theme was that the subject matter was very much out there. And one particular topic caught my mind that I thought I would share in this post: Programs that get prisoners to become writers.

I am sure we all have our pre-conceived idea of what a prisoner is like. Maybe we have a few different images: the white-collar criminal, the troubled soul, the incorrigible thug. Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of brands of prisoner, and there seems to be a common thread throughout. Getting prisoners to write about their experiences has a cathartic effect on them.

Now, does it really matter if a prisoner sentenced to life without chance of parole for a crime they obviously committed gets a chance to write? In my opinion, that's not the point. The lifer has their own situation that I won't get into. The part that struck me as interesting is that with a lot of these inmate writing programs, the facilitators discovered that these prisoners not only had a lot to say, but experienced an immense benefit from the end result of writing, which is being heard. That is a very overlooked part of the entire writing process, and well worth looking into a little deeper.

When writers create something, be it fiction, a life story, an opinion, or whatever, they are broadcasting a part of their self into the world. Even in writing a fictitious story, a writer is showing the world a piece of their creative self. And when those written words are read and they affect another person, when they are acknowledged and responded to, the writer feels real. They feel heard and understood. And the interesting part with these prison writers is that they seem to have a common desire to be understood. To clarify, this is not the same as the urge to plead innocent to whatever crimes they committed. This is just a chance to be seen as another person with their gifts and flaws, with their uniqueness for better or worse. Many of these inmates never had that experience until they began writing, and it gave them a chance to feel acknowledged by something or someone else other than a jury of their peers.

Of course, a number of these inmates used this opportunity to look back, in some cases with brutal honesty, at their own faults and shortcomings, at where they screwed up or took a wrong turn, or just listened to their darker angels one too many times. Obviously, nothing like writing can undo whatever crimes they committed, but if this exercise can bring a little clarity to their lives, then maybe some of them can break the cycle of being a habitual criminal. 

When creative types have no outlet to communicate who they are; to be seen and heard, then the whole world is very much a jail. However, that first act of creative expression, that statement to the world provides a creative freedom, even for those who never knew they were in prison.           

Friday, January 19, 2024

Cathartic Writing: Home is Where the Hatred Is

Don't be alarmed. I promise this post will not get as dark as the title might suggest. The main point I want to get at is writing about those things that we might not want to face up to; those things we consciously step around but under the surface they live rent-free in our souls. This might have similar tones to a post from last September, "Tough Writing," and this is not a coincidence. I believe that part of the power of writing is not just sharing a story or experience, but freeing yourself from the intrusiveness of some thoughts and memories. And I also believe that avoiding things can lead down a bad road. As Gil Scott-Heron wrote: 

Home is where the hatred is

Home is filled with pain and it

Might not be such a bad idea

If I never, never went home again

Stand as far away from me as you can

And ask me why

Hang on to your rosary beads

Close your eyes to watch me die

-- Gil Scott-Heron, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is"

One of the best pieces of writing I ever encountered in a workshop was from an author (who requested anonymity for this particular case) who wanted to share a story from her childhood in the Deep South. The story, "The Taste of Milk," was a wonderfully innocent, very immersive story of a six-year-old girl and her love of the fresh milk brought to the house every week. It very much gave a feel of her life back in the Fifties, the kind of home she lived in, and the way her family operated.

Then things got dark. Fast.

As I said, this post is not going to be dark, so let's just say that her story was quite shocking. More to the point, she had carried it around with her for sixty-plus years and it had weighed on her in many ways. And yes, it made the simple act of drinking milk a PTSD trigger. Then, when she turned seventy-something (one never says a lady's age), she finally gathered the courage to commit this story to paper then read it to the workshop. It was amazing, and part of what made it great is that she wrote it from the most honest and sincere place possible. She wrote it as a way of purging all the hatred and trauma from her system, and neutralizing it as a toxic memory. No longer would it live rent-free in her head, but rather she could process it into a helpful reminder of the things she's overcome during the many years since.

Most every writer I know (and most every person for that matter) has some unresolved issues lingering inside them. Some people manage them, some ignore them, some try to bury them alive under mounds of denial. However, writing offers that free-therapy process of confrontation in the safe space of a blank page. We can write down our darkest nightmare, look at it, then crumple it up and burn it if we so choose, or we can edit it, rewrite it, examine it, or whatever we want. When we turn a memory into something concrete like words, it loses some of its power, and we gain some control over it.

It's a scary game to play; writing out the stories that give us so much trouble. However, if you try it just once, you might feel just how power you have over them. And I hope it is for the better.   


Friday, January 12, 2024

Asking Ourselves About Our Writing

In a post I wrote some time ago, Caring About Our Stories, I mentioned how we need to ask ourselves “Why am I writing this?” As we develop the mechanics of the Process, we need to ask a more refined part of this question: “What is the purpose of this?”

With anything we write, that question should apply to every part. For any essay, screenplay, novel, or short story, we should be able to ask that question about something as broad as the entire work itself, or as narrow as a particular word we choose. The answer doesn’t have to be perfect, brilliant, or even insightful, but if the answer isn’t obvious, we need to ask ourselves if that part is necessary.

In an earlier post, And So Begins the Process, I offered the example of my working manuscript called Easier than the Truth. In that post I demonstrated how to take a one-line idea and turn it into the bones of a story. Now we can follow through with that technique and apply our question of purpose to make sure this story focuses on what is necessary and leaves out what isn’t.

There’s the story in front of me, and I ask, “What is the purpose of this story?” This should be a very simple, concise answer, at least in the author’s mind. For this novel, it is, “To show how someone broke away from a life of denial and faced the harsh realities of their life.” One sentence; simple and to-the-point. As we start asking this about smaller and smaller pieces, the answers might be a little more elaborate, but they are just as important.

Now we narrow the focus from the story to a particular section. In Chapter 12, our protagonist, Tom, is driving to work early, with his friend, Phil, who is trying to catch some sleep in the passenger seat. “What is the purpose of this chapter?” This is where Tom explains his plan to bring together his out-of-control life. Simple and to-the-point, but we can still narrow this question further.

The next question would be, “What is the purpose of Phil in the scene?” Phil is skeptical of Tom’s plan and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “What is the purpose of Phil trying to sleep instead of being wide awake?” It allows Phil to be dismissive rather than confrontational, thus allowing Tom’s plan to continue (plus Phil was up late). Again, it is… simple and to-the-point.

This can continue down to the individual words, but we won’t take it that far in this particular example. The point is that when we ask the right questions about our writing, the answers make our writing better. Then we can tell elaborate stories and explain complex ideas, yet our writing will be strong because it is simple and to-the-point. 

Monday, January 8, 2024

Writing About the "Big" Things

Unless you've been in a cave deep in the heart of some tropical island, covering your ears and putting your phone on Airplane Mode, you know that today is the big game. Nope - not Super Sunday; bigger than that. Tonight is the College Football Playoff National Championship! The big battle everyone has been waiting for between Washington and Michigan is finally here, just hours away, and we all realize the world as we know it will slow to a halt so everyone can watch this epic battle and see which team will emerge triumphant. We've all been waiting for it - so here we go!

Wait - you haven't been waiting for it? You thought it was last week? You know people who don't even care about it? That's just... that's madness. How could anyone not care about this, the biggest college football game of the year? From everything I've heard and seen on every channel I watch (admittedly, mostly sports channels), this is huge! And you are more concerned about whether it will pre-empt a show you want to watch? Well, I'm at a loss for words.

Honestly, not so much. However, depending on who you are, tonight's game is a big thing - so big that you can only watch it on ESPN. And tonight, plenty of people will crowd around their TVs and watch the championship game of the latest professional sport (college football). Most people, however, won't, and couldn't care less. As a matter of fact, most big events where people get all excited about them are events where the majority doesn't care. I know people who use the weekend of Super Sunday to go skiing because it's usually not as crowded, and treat other "special event" days as just ways to get away from people. The long and short of it is, for any subject, most people don't care all that much. 

And that's when this becomes about writing. Too many times I have heard writers balk at creating a story, a poem, an essay because "it's not that important" or "not many people would be interested in it." With a nod to reality, they are right. Most people won't read it. It's not for everyone. However, none of that matters. Writing, or creating anything out of mere ideas, is a fascinating endeavor, and it is up to us, the creators of the piece, to make it "big" and "important." 

If we have some urge to create a story, there's something important about it to us. Some element of that story is big enough in our mind to have leaked out and onto our conscious world, and we picked up on that, even if only for the shortest of moments. Simply put, something excited us enough to want to get writing. If that point hits, it is our responsibility to make it be "the big thing." We need to find the importance in the story. Whatever brought it to our awareness, it is up to us to track down that little mote of inspiration and hold on tight to it.

I often point out that not every story will be a winner. Most of them will just be exercises in writing. However, if that exercise helps you dig inside and take the smallest of stories and make it feel big, then you've done something most creatives overlook. You've taken the simple and made it important. Maybe not as big as the College Football Playoff National Championship, but work on it; you'll get there.

And you'll realize college football isn't really that important.         

Friday, January 5, 2024

Binge Writing

Before we get down to the business of writing - Happy New Year (for those who follow the Gregorian calendar). I started off the New Year by actually finishing the project of my utility room I referred to in my post, Writing and the Rabbit Hole. I also wrapped up a book I was reading, started my beta-reading for a couple of manuscripts, visited some friends, and fashioned some PVC piping into a very serviceable drainage system. Oh - and I did some writing. Amidst all the chaos, clutter, and excitement of New Year's, I got in some writing.

Because I had to.

If there's one thing writing has taught me, it is that good habits take a long time to develop and about one holiday season to break. Despite our commitment to a process, if we give ourselves too much time away from them, they get broken faster than a New Year's resolution. So while I did all my holiday things and stuff, and ventured into a few new projects that will unquestionably overwhelm me, I cut out some time for writing. However, to account for my busy schedule, I decided to do the binge-writing method.

The binge-writing process is exactly what it sounds like. You give yourself a fixed amount of time - try 15 minutes to get a real feel for it - and just start writing something. Anything. Let the first idea that falls out of your brain land on the page then run with it. Don't try to be crafty if that prevents you from writing; just put down anything. If your thought is about a cat by your desk playing with a toy, go with that and just see where your brain runs. If an idea pops up that this time the toy starts fighting back, then go with that impulse. Is it the best one you can think of - probably not, but it's the first one, so run with the idea. Can the cat talk? Now it can - do some cat dialogue. Maybe the toy can as well. Write it down. Make it dark or funny or insightful or whatever you want it to be.

The important part of this entire exercise is to not labor yourself with the thinking part of the process and work on the creating part of the process. In some ways it's very much a life lesson. We can make a lot of plans and map things out and that works up to a point, then invariably things go off the rails and we have to improvise. Or, to put it in the words of the eminently quotable boxer, Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” At that point, we need to be quick on our feet or Evander Holyfield will knock us out. Binge writing exercises those reactionary muscles, that part of us that goes into action right after our plans fall apart. Now, if you go through your writing life and everything goes just as you planned it, well, good for you and I am more than a little jealous. However, most of us writers will find ourselves suddenly writing ourselves out of jams. That's when those writing muscles come in handy.

Feel free to binge now and then. Jump into the deep end of the writer's pool and struggle to stay afloat. In this case, you will never drown, and who knows - you might just learn something about your writing process.

(And for those who will IM me, I do know that Tyson's quote was based on the military adage, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” However, if I passed up a chance to use a Mike Tyson quote and he found out, I might really get punched in the face.)