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.

Monday, May 27, 2024

For Memorial Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

John McCrae


Monday, May 20, 2024

The Writer's Spirit Animal - the Cicada

Up here in my little spot of the Midwest, it is cicada season. Every seventeen years (or thirteen for different breeds), about a bajillion bugs creep out from their little homes underneath old trees and undergrowth, molt off their old skins, feed for a little bit, then screech continuously for the few weeks that is their mating season. For those of you who have not heard this screeching noise, it's fairly tame as far as bug noises go. However, when 1,000,000 of them decide to harmonize in a nearby forest, or a few thousand camp out and have a singalong in the neighbor's backyard, it is memorable. When we first moved out here when I was very young, I experienced my first cicada uprising. It was like the entire forest preserve was shaking with an invisible force of life. It was fascinating and just a little scary.

Now, many decades later, I have grown used to the shrieking little fellows, and I have even related to them to a degree. I don't necessarily follow their habits - I have long since given up sitting on my porch, shrieking aloud to attract females - but I have found a certain connection with them. Whether it's their red eyes or their very dry skin, something between the cicadas and me felt similar. It took a while to finally make the connection, but indeed I figured it out. That one common thread we must have was staring me in the face: Cicadas are obviously writers.

Now, at this point science can neither confirm nor refute the writing habits of the seventeen-year cicada, given the time-intensive nature of such studies. However, my less-than-scientific methods see the commonality between the two. You see, much like a cicada, a dedicated writer will spend most of their time in deep, silent thought. A hibernation of the body while the mind silently races about, putting together their latest masterpiece. If not for the human demands of regular calories and nutrition, a real writer would likely sit dormant for long spans of time, dust settling on them, moss growing high on their northern side as they contemplated their story.

And then, in a shriek of activity, the writer bursts forth with a flurry of activity. They become alive with activity - frantically writing, editing, workshopping pieces, getting feedback from everyone, all with that constant sound of them talking about their latest work. During this active streak, the writer rarely does anything but drink coffee, type, and occasionally let out a screech of triumph when a particular phrase or scene really works. Every writer knows this sound, and when they hear another writer make that noise, they nod their head in proud agreement.

And then, without anyone noticing it, the writer will finally fall silent again. The writing binge will be over, a new set of thoughts filling their mind as their body goes into that dormant state. Their coffee grows cold in the mug, the sheets of written copy sit there unedited, and it's back into hibernation as their mind churns about, going entering the next cycle of creation.

Maybe this is stretching it. Maybe I am a little more active than a cicada, and my writing cycles are a little faster than seventeen years. But as I hear them outside, screeching up a storm, I know they are in a very active state of mind, doing what nature demands of them. I nod my head in agreement, then get back to writing.       

Monday, May 13, 2024

Why Do Writing Prompts?

The simplest exercise for any writer; the push-up of the writing community is the writing prompt. Someone rattles off a word, topic, question, or otherwise meaningless sentence and you spend the next eight minutes writing about it. Has anyone ever written the perfect bit of prose from this exercise? Never. Has that eight-minute endeavor brought home a Pulitzer? Doubt it. And yet, just like a push-up, we do these to build up our writing muscles because they usually don't get that kind of exercise in the regular world.

If I asked you to tell me why you are on this journey called writing, you would probably lean back, think for a second, and offer a simple answer. "It brings me a joy I can't find anywhere else," "I like exploring the creative world inside my head," or "I want to be rich." (I genuinely hope it is not the last one.) I might follow up with a few more questions, you would offer answers, and we would have a conversation. No big surprise there - we do this every day. However, if I ask you to spend eight minutes writing about just why you are on this journey of writing, your answer magically changes. You not only answer the question, but you explain it. You think about how the other side of the conversation would go, and answer those points in one long narrative. Or maybe you answer the prompt by offering an example that crystallizes your feelings and gives the reader an entire experience. Maybe it comes to you in poem form, and you express yourself through metered rhyme. Most of these options would never occur organically during a standard conversation, but when it's a prompt, suddenly we find ourselves exercising.

My original approach to writing prompts went somewhere along the lines of "Ugh!!!!" I couldn't see the point of writing something that had no other purpose other than to make me work for eight minutes. Believe it or not, I felt the same way about push-ups and running laps in the gym. I was going literally nowhere, doing something I very rarely do under normal conditions, and killing precious time when I could actually be playing volleyball or whatever the day's sport was. Well, as it turned out, I made a discovery later in life. First, running a few laps before playing volleyball is a great way to stretch your legs so you don't pull your hamstring in the second game (learned that the hard way). Second, if you run a few laps regularly, you will have much more endurance to play more volleyball in the long run. And most importantly, you spend very little time actually playing volleyball and a lot more time just trying to stay in volleyball shape, and that's what the laps are for.

So even though my epic projects get their time, they do not get as much time as I like. I go to my workshops, talk about writing, review and critique other writers' works, and tend to the rest of my life - then I write. So, yes, those writing prompts help me get fit and ready for those times when I can go on a nice writing binge and get a few chapters knocked out. And while I don't know what the writer's equivalent is to pulling a hamstring, I can assure you I don't do that either.

Writer's prompt: What was the moment that made you want to pursue writing? Eight minutes, and... go!       

Friday, May 10, 2024

Time and Place

It's been a rough week for me, very rough indeed. I pushed myself to do my distance cycling (though by the end, I am not sure whether my bicycle or my knees were groaning the loudest). I also put in some quality treadmill time, took care of some household chores, finished up some business stuff, and prepared for Saturday's Writing Workshop (2:30 - 4:30 p.m., Park Forest library, for those who are interested). Right now I need find something relaxing to do.

By relaxing, I mean editing my latest work.

"How is that relaxing?" you might ask, and you wouldn't be alone in that sentiment. However, for everything we get into, we need to know the best way to react to it and the best way to take advantage of it. When I have been through a lot of physically demanding stuff along with stressful activities, I guarantee that the best place for my mind to settle into is the meticulous job of doing a line-edit or busily proofreading a manuscript (of which I have three to get through). During that process, I put my sore body into a comfortable position and let the critical, intellectual part of my mind take over. Sometimes I even have a metronome ticking in the background at 60 cycles per minute to match my usual resting heart rate (yes, there are plenty of apps for that). The point is, it works for me at that moment.

To further that point, as writers, we need to know what activities, outside factors, and other influences bring us into a place where we are ready to write. This could be a totally different set of factors than those that prepare our minds for editing, or just reading, or doing literally anything else. We need to maintain a certain self-awareness where we can monitor ourselves and realize, "You know, I do my best writing when I wake up," or, "My attention is the sharpest on a full stomach," or whatever. This way we target our senses and our moods to make the best out of a situation we're in.

You know my editing mindset already. Well, my best writing mindset is any time I am sitting in front of my laptop (that has become a physical cue worthy of Pavlov's dog), in some sort of public setting, with general noise in the background - but not too loud. It's better when I have been awake for a little bit, and preferably after having thought about personal things (I think that opens the creative doors for me). Once I have those elements around me, I just go into writing mode. Using just those little signs, I wrote an entire manuscript on my daily train ride.

Here's an experiment: Figure out what your best and worst situations for writing, reading, and for editing are (chances are they're all different moods). Then, for the next few weeks, when you find yourself in the ideal situation for writing, do some writing. Write literally anything - just start working that part of your brain. When the situation is best for reading, do that - focus on it and commit to it. And when the time is write to edit, well, hopefully you will be able to edit all that stuff you did during the writing phase.

Give yourself a month of doing that, then review the results. Look at what you've created, and examine how you feel about it. Hopefully, you will be in the first stages of forming some good writing habits, and you will be using them to the best of your abilities.       

Monday, May 6, 2024

A Little Comment About Modifiers

Instead of me rambling for a few paragraphs before getting to the point, let's just jump right into this while the subject is fresh. I deliberately used the word "little" in the title to make a point, and it's about modifiers. Specifically, what do they offer and when do we really need to use them? There are definitely occasions where modifiers are necessary - how will the reader know if a character is tall, dark, and handsome if you don't say it? - but we tend to use them more than we need to, and our writing pays the price.

Take the title of this piece: "A Little Comment About Modifiers." In this title, "Little" is the modifier, and it makes the title sound all quaint and homey. However, what does this actually provide the reader? By merely looking at the screen, you can tell that this commentary is about the usual length of my comments, so there's nothing really little about it. So, by calling it little, the only thing I am really accomplishing is a sort of trivialization of a commentary that I am actually proud of. One might say I am belittling it - pun intended.

Is this nit-picking? Sort of. We often use words such as these in standard conversation, putting an inflection on them so that whoever is listening gets the point. Often this comes with no shortage of sarcasm. "Why don't I like black olives? Let me give you a little hint - I'm allergic to them!" In this spoken-word example, little is far from referring to something small, but rather understating something that is actually very important. In this case, I openly endorse using a modifier in this manner.

However, most people don't do this, and it gets thrown around without concern, all to the detriment of our poor readers.

"I was a little mad." "We were sort of lost." "She was kind of tall." In these examples, using a modifier takes a simple point-of-fact comment, and actually makes it less interesting. A reader wants to read about someone being mad, not a little mad. How different is being lost from sort of lost? Kind of tall is kind of boring. Each of these sentences has a wonderful opportunity to bring forth some real creativity and make the lines pop, but instead they become weaker for their modifier. Whenever you find yourself using a weak modifier like, a little, kind of, sort of, or similar words, use the opportunity to write a few lines that really show off your writing. Here's what I did with the examples at the beginning of the sentence.

"I was mad. Not foaming-at-the-mouth, red-in-the-face, take-a-swing-at-anything mad, but pretty damn far from happy."

"We were lost. It felt like if we just backtracked a few intersections and took one left instead of a right, we'd be on our way, but we didn't know which right turn was the wrong one."

"She was tall. Her height let her stand just above any crowd, enough to make eye contact with her from across the room"

That's all it takes, and the reader gets a little more engaged rather than a little more bored. So, give this a little try on your next piece, and see if it makes a little difference.