Archive | Writing

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Editing Your Writing

editing

editingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the main strands in my portfolio career is my work as writing coach. Which means that in addition to thinking a lot about the craft of writing, I’m also constantly proffering advice on how to edit.

Most people hate editing. Unlike writing, where you can and should let your ideas flow without judgment, editing is all about discipline. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases of the writing process best when he counselled: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit – a poem…a short story…heck, even an office memo – and need to find your mojo.

Here are five tips for editing your writing:

1.  Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that, if you can manage it, you should take even longer. The reason for waiting is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. That’s the only way to figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin. You may even surprise yourself. As a screenwriter friend once told me, “There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.”

2.  Find ways to make the material new. When you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. I particularly liked this piece of advice from American novelist Christina Baker Kline. Kline recommends that if you wish to jumpstart a revision for fiction, you write three new openings. In each opening, you start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. What a great idea!

3.  Trim excess words. We all know that editing requires cutting excess verbiage. But how to wield that axe is another story entirely. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. Boy, does that exercise help you to discover what you love most about your writing. Another good tip if you’re looking to be more concise comes from the Write to Done blog: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went through the intro of this blog and cut out loads of words that didn’t need to be there.

4.  Read your writing out loud. On the topic of reading your work aloud, David Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition, you can also hear whether you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. I’m sure it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5.  Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” What he means is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, and give short shrift to the “open door” phase. Here’s Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon:

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

Yikes. What works for you when you’re editing?

Image: Mistakes editing school via Needpix

Tips for Adulthood: How to Generate Ideas

creativity ideas

creativity ideasOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. But as Friday is the new Wednesday under lockdown, I’m posting some tips today.

It’s been awhile since I posted on creativity. But it’s one of those things that I think about all the time. I’m fascinated by how creative people relate to their work, how they structure their days, and how they access their creative “space.”

Because I offer workshops on creativity and writing, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to how and when I come up with ideas, whether for blog posts, short stories, or reported pieces. Like many people, a lot of my best ideas emerge when I’m doing something *other than* sitting at the computer typing.

So today, I’m sharing some techniques for coming up with ideas, with the hope that these may prove useful to others. While I focus on writing ideas, I’m sure these strategies are pertinent to other fields:

a. Exercise.  When I’m confused about an idea, not sure how to spin it or just wondering if there’s even a “there there,” it’s amazing how often exercise solves that problem. In the old days, I’d go for a run. Now (at least once quarantine lifts!), I go for a swim. I may not set off on my workout intending to think about a certain issue. But if there’s something kicking around the back of my mind, I often find that the combination of forward motion, exertion and fresh air allow everything to fall in place. A friend of mine who’s a novelist does the same thing with bike rides. He writes in the morning and takes long bike rides in the afternoon. By the next morning, he tells me, he’s got loads of fresh material. The trick is to rush inside right after the workout and jot down your ideas.

b. Take a Thinking Shower.  During my first few years in graduate school, we were required to take a series of exams in order to qualify in our chosen field of study. These were called “field exams” and in my department, at least, they consisted of a series of essays which you researched and wrote over the course of a weekend. Needless to say, none of us got much sleep during those weekends. But I did have one friend who always seemed to be in the shower when I’d phone up to see how she was getting on. “The shower?” I’d ask, wondering who could possibly bathe regularly when they had so little time to complete an exam. “It’s a thinking shower,” she’d explain. She found that burst of hot water on her face  enabled her to outline her essays. So I tried it. So should you. Scientists even have a name for the link between water and creativity: blue mind.

c. Figure out what’s distinctive about your perspective. This is a technique I’ve used quite a bit since moving overseas. I find that so much of what I think about various issues – whether it’s health care reform, therapy, or getting a driver’s license – has changed dramatically simply by virtue of living somewhere else. But you don’t need to change place to draw on this different viewpoint. Just this morning I was thinking about the current turmoil engulfing the United States over race relations. I realised that I was thinking about the emerging divides in and around the Republican party over using the military to quell protests through what I know as a political scientist, rather than as a citizen. And having that different perspective was informative and useful.

d. Reflect on the most striking thing someone has said to you in the last week.  When I’m trying to come up with ideas for blog posts, I sometimes think about the most unusual thing someone’s said to me in the past week. Often, that person is one of my children. “Why is God so famous?” my daughter once asked me when she was six. A friend of mine recently observed that people have begun engaging in “opposite behaviour” during lockdown – i.e., those who normally hate cooking have taken to Instagram to share their culinary triumphs, while avowed introverts are flocking to Zoom for virtual drinks. A stranger confessed that he selects which films to watch based solely on the appeal of the poster. (Whaaaa???) Whenever this happens, I grab my pen and scribble these comments down.

5. Go outside for a walk.  Here, the focus is less on exercise – though there is research supporting a link between walking and creativity – than it is about being an observant student of other people. Writer and long-time public radio host Garrison Keillor once wrote that “A long walk also brings you into contact with the world, which is basic journalism, which most writing is. It isn’t about you and your feelings, so much as about what people wear and how they talk. The superficial is never to be overlooked.” Simply put, when you go outside you notice things. I’ve been taking long walks around parts of my neighborhood I’ve never visited before. The other day, I discovered a street called “Harriet Tubman Way.” It happened to be one of the first days of the racial equality protests in America. I paused to stare at the sign for a moment. It resonated differently than it might have a month earlier. And that’s what it’s all about.

How do you generate new ideas? Share in the comments section.

Image: Idea Creativity Innovation via Pixabay

Three Steps to Becoming Your Future Self

future self

future selfAs the reality of an extended quarantine sets in across many corners of the world, we’re all discovering new ways to spend the extra time on our hands. Some of us have begun virtual volunteering. Others, like my neighbor, are tackling a spate of long-overdue DIY projects. For many, it’s a great time to catch up on books, TV shows and podcasts.

I believe it’s also a great time to check in your long-term, big picture goals. There’s nothing quite like a life-threatening global pandemic to remind yourself that only go round’ once. Or, as the title character in one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Music Man, puts it: “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’re left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”

But how do we begin to chip away at our big-ticket dreams? Let’s take it in stages.

Step One: Write Your Own Obituary

One technique I’ve found particularly effective  is to write my own obituary. That might sound scary and perhaps even off-putting. But hear me out.

You don’t actually write your obituary. You write two of them. The first is how you think your obituary will read when you die, and the second is how you’d like it to read.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll discover at least two versions of yourself lying in wait. The first is a perfectly acceptable continuation of your current trajectory. Still married…or finally divorced. Living in the same house…or with a remodelled kitchen. Running the company…or  living it up as a snowbird in a condo in Arizona. LINK

That’s all fine and dandy. But it’s the second obituary you really want to pay attention to. Because she’s the future self you’ve only dared to dream of. Which brings us to the step two.

Step Two: Envision Your Future Self

The second step is to go and visit that alternative, future self. I had occasion to do this recently with an old friend who’s also a life coach. He’d read a blog of mine where I talked about the importance of  “practicing my future self,” which for me meant spending more time writing every day. But he took it one step further. He invited me to do a short visualization exercise with him over Zoom in which I would actually meet her.

I thought, “Why not?”

Once we’d done some relaxation and time-travel together, my friend asked me to describe that future self:  what she looked like, where she lived, etc.

The interesting thing about this part of this exercise was that my future self didn’t look all that much like me. She was dressed in a long, flowing skirt and had her hair drawn up in a bun. “Elegant” was a phrase I used to describe her. (“Schlumpy” might be the word of choice on any given day right now.) Rather than living in a city, as I have since the age of 18, she lived in a village on the edge of the sea in rural Italy.

Most interesting of all, the walls of her house were painted yellow. I don’t own a single item of yellow clothing and I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a home with yellow walls. But the morning that I spoke with my friend, I’d seen a an image of Daffodils in my Twitter feed. The author described “yellow” as a happy color, which was news to me. Clearly, that post had resonated.

Above all, my future self radiated calm. She wasn’t galloping through life. She was trotting along at a productive but relaxed pace, with plenty of time each day to accomplish everything she wanted.

Part 3: Talk to Your Future Self

Towards the end of the exercise, your future self presents you with a gift. She also tells you something.

My gift was a fancy pen, very similar to the one my old boss gave me and which I used to write my morning pages. That pen disappeared when my bag was stolen a couple of years back. I replaced it, and then subsequently lost the new one. At that point, as I explained to my friend, I decided that I didn’t deserve a fancy pen. So I started using a regular one.

Needless to say, my friend picked up on the term “deserving.” Clearly, my future self was telling me that I was worthy of a fancy pen. Translated: I was worthy of believing in myself as a writer.

Not only that. When he asked me to recount my future self’s message, I told him that she’d given me permission to put down the manuscript I’ve been trying to publish for the past two years and pursue an entirely new writing project. It’s one I’ve been taking notes on for ages, but have feared writing because it’s so personal.

“It’s OK to move on,” she was telling me. “Write the book you’re afraid to write.”

Write the book you’re afraid to write.

Boy, did I need to hear that.

Try visiting your future self and see what she’s telling you to do with your life. You might just be amazed.

Image: Future Self by Eddi van W. via Flickr

Why Rejection Helps Me Persist

early morning writing

early morning writingI got a lovely email yesterday from a literary agent. I’d sent her my book manuscript a few months back. Her email read accordingly:

Dear Delia,

So sorry for the delay.  I went round in circles… the thing is, I love the writing and the idea but I am just not sure how I would sell it.  Sometimes I come across a book that I long to read, but fail to know how to edit and get sold and this is one.  Hence my circles!  Thank you for your patience – am quite sure you will find the right agent.

It was probably the 20th or so rejection I’ve had in the last 18 months since I started shopping my book. That number is possibly even higher. Most of the time, you don’t hear anything back from agents. If they liked your idea enough to read beyond the cover letter, you’ll usually get something along the lines of “While I liked this….you need someone who can get behind you 100%.

Occasionally, you get a blow to the gut. One person’s PA told me that while her boss “loved the premise, she didn’t like the writing.” Ouch.

You may wonder why I’ve chosen to adopt such a halcyon reaction to this particular rejection. After all, this lady ain’t publishing my book.

But the email did lift my spirits. When you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time alone, often in the in the dark. (Shout out to The 5am Writers Club!) You have no audience save your own inner critic, and you often lose hope. Your writing starts to look ugly…unpolished…preposterous. More dangerous still, it may start to look beautiful, one-of-a-kind and revolutionary. (And then you wander over to Slush Pile Hell and remember why so many writers get rejected by agents.)

When I tell friends and family that I’ve yet to find an agent for my book, they remind me that J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before landing the Harry Potter series. Or they point me towards this comedian who vowed to get rejected 100 times as her New Year’s Resolution.

It’s kind of them to support me like that. They don’t want me to give up. But I have no illusions that I’m the next J.K. Rowling. I just need the odd reminder that the thing I created – which, at the time, felt like the book only I could write – wasn’t total shit.

So for someone – especially a professional – to say something encouraging about my writing, even when they reject it, makes me feel less alone. It also makes me feel like I wasn’t insane to spend a couple of years on said topic. And it gives me hope that someday, someone might actually take a punt and choose to represent me.

In short, rejection helps me go on. When my teenage daughter tells me that she’s afraid to audition for something – an orchestra, a theatre production, anything – because she’s sure she’ll be rejected, I exhort her to go ahead and apply anyway. “If you don’t apply, you’ll be in the same place you are now,” I remind her. “Whereas if you *do* apply, you might be somewhere different.”

This is one of those cases where if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk. So I will keep waking up early to write fiction.  I’ll also keep getting out there and sending my book manuscript to agents.

If nothing else, this morning I wrote this blog.

Image: Early morning essay writing by Oliver Quinlan via Flickr

 

How I Maximized My Productivity as a Writer

cell phone

cell phoneIf you’re like me, you can’t read enough about how to maximize your productivity: Deep Work. The Hunter Method. No Meeting Wednesdays. While the optimal time for achieving your best work varies across individuals, there’s a consensus that you need to have laser focus while you’re doing it.

For a while now, I’ve been following that advice. As soon as I decided that I wanted to write a book, I started to devote 15 minutes a morning to doing just that. Over time, those 15 minutes blossomed into 30 and then 45. Once I was laid off, I began devoting several hours a day to my writing.

Even now that the book manuscript is finished (though still not sold – sniff!), I still write every morning. These days, it’s often fiction. Or a blog post. Or my newsletter.

But a month or so ago, I discovered a fatal flaw in my system. No matter how dutiful I was about prioritizing my writing, I did one thing when I first woke up that was absolutely deadly for my flow:  I checked my phone.

To be clear, it was really more of a scan than a deep dive:  I’d quickly scroll through my emails to see if there were any burning platforms…I’d look at any updates on assorted social media platforms…I’d check personal texts and chats.

I told myself that this mini “phone time” was essential. After all, my mother is now quite elderly. Perhaps something happened to her during the night. I’m in close “What’sApp” touch with various friends back in the States, and often miss out on threads that happen while I’m asleep. I’m also self-employed. So I’m always at the beck and call of clients.

But the problem wasn’t the length of time I spent on the phone. It was how distracting it proved.

Because once I’d digested the updates from assorted platforms, I couldn’t turn them off in my brain, even once I put the phone down. I’d find my mind darting back to a meeting I needed to prepare for later that day… a funny tweet I wanted to share on social media…a text I needed to send a friend. Which, of course, defeated the whole purpose of having dedicated writing time in the first place.

Before I knew  it, my  carefully constructed “laser focus” was gone. Or at least diminished.

Then I read this brilliant article by New York Times technology writer Kevin Roose about his cell phone addiction. Roose went so far as to hire a consultant to help him “break up with his phone.” This person encouraged him, for example, to change the lock screen on his phone so that it displayed three questions: “What for? Why now? What else?”

Brilliant.

I didn’t feel that my problem was that serious. But I did know that I had a problem.

So I instituted one tiny change: I no longer allow myself to check my phone until I’ve finished my writing and executed some of the other key markers of my morning routine like journaling, meditation, and stretching. In practice, that amounts to not looking at my phone for the first 1.5-2 hours of my day.

It was really hard at first. Like an addict, I’d find myself making excuses to sneak a peak. But after the first week or so, I began to find this digital detox a relief.

Postponing my phone time had two other benefits. First, I’m an extrovert, so I love being connected to the world through social media. But – much like my rules about dessert – the joy of checking my phone is now all the greater for putting it off. Second, my writing time is also now that much more focused and productive. A win-win, as they say.

I’ve always prided myself on being the consummate multi-tasker. But I’m coming to question whether that personality trait is really an asset for productivity. So I’m wondering: what small habit have you changed that had a much larger impact on your life?

Image: Apple Cell Phone Facebook Google by Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

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Teaching Writing: Editing vs. Coaching

Ballerina

BallerinaThere’s a scene in one of my all-time favorite films, All that Jazz, that addresses the perennial question about innate talent vs. learned ability. In the scene, the protagonist –  a choreographer modeled on the legendary Bob Fosse – confronts a ballerina in his company who’s crying because she knows she’s not as good as the other dancers.

“I can’t make you a great dancer,” Fosse consoles her. “But I can make you a better dancer.”

That’s how I feel when I work with writers.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being a “natural talent” in writing. You can definitely see when a writer has a gift – David Foster Wallace, Amos Oz, and my new idol – Anna Burns – all come to mind. But, as we all know, years of half-written sentences and crumpled up drafts – not to mention gallons of self-doubt – lie behind any prose that looks effortless.

For most of us mere mortals, however, writing is mostly about putting your bum in the chair and being willing to write shitty first drafts. So then the question becomes:  how do you help people become “better dancers?”

Read the rest of this post over on The Writing Coach UK

 

Image: Ballet Ballerina via Wikimedia Commons

Life Lessons from Philip Roth: “Believe in Your Own Crap”

Philip Roth

Philip RothI was scrolling through my list of podcasts the other day – listening to podcasts being my latest hobby – when I came across a New Yorker podcast devoted to the late author Philip Roth.

Roth was a very controversial author, and not everybody’s “cuppa” (as my mother is wont to say). While I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve read, I count American Pastoral among the most awe-inspiring books I’ve ever encountered. (My husband, who has read each and every one of Roth’s books, says When She Was Good is his all-time favorite.)

So I came to this podcast mostly to see if I would learn something about the recently deceased  author that I didn’t already know.

I did. But it was not what I expected. I expected a celebration of Roth by some of his contemporaries and a reflection on his contribution to the canon. There was that, to be sure.

At one point in the podcast, Radio Hour host and New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick asked Roth a question we should perhaps all ask ourselves as we get older: “What did age give you?”

Initially, Roth answers that age gave him “Patience. Patience to stay with your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it, you’ll master it.”  But then he goes on: “Over the years, what you develop is… patience with your own crap. And a belief in your own crap. That if you just stay with it, it will get better.”

Roth is talking about writing, of course. And in many ways he is merely re-stating what writer Anne Lamott famously described as one of two secrets of being a writer:  shitty first drafts. As a writer and writing coach, I wholeheartedly agree. You need to learn how to live with the utter rubbish you put down on the page and believe that somehow, with time, as you work on it a bit more, you will transform it into something better.

But Roth’s insight about what he has learned through time and experience is also applicable to life itself.  As someone who only recently  – 30 years in – figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve often berated myself for not having sorted all of this out much earlier.

But applying Roth’s observation to my own professional journey, I now see that the entire process – every wrong turn, every partial fit  – was all part of learning how to be patient with the “crap.” By which I mean, learning to endure the series of “rough drafts” (read: jobs) that ultimately merged and metamorphosed into my current calling. Which I love.

As the man says, it’s all about trusting the evolutionary and organic process of self-knowledge and self-improvement, being willing to take risks, and then…waiting. (Could I possibly transform this into a pithy strap line to go above my desk, she wonders?)

And with that profound reflection, I wish you all a happy new year.

Image:  Roth photo by Bibliotechque Municipale de Beaune via Flickr

How and Why I Started Writing Fiction

I’ve started working on a novel.

It happened almost by accident. One day this summer – a day when I had way too much energy and not enough to do – I saw a link to an online fiction-writing course with an irresistible teaser like “Write a novel in one year.” And since the tip came by way of the amazing Jane Friedman, and it was free, I thought…why not? I’ll do the first one or two sessions, and if I don’t like it, I’ll stop. No harm, no foul.

Although I attempted to write a novel once before, I never thought I’d do it again. My major stumbling block wasn’t that age-old defense, “I‘m not sure I’ve got a novel in me.” (I’m not sure, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying.) Nor is it that I can’t find the time. Now that I’ve fashioned a creative space for myself – and spent a good part of the past year writing a non-fiction book, I’m now a pro at carving out at least one hour a day for creative pursuits.

My problem is that I’ve never felt like I really “got” how to write fiction. It’s easy for me to write about my life. I do it all the time. And Lord knows I’ve got enough material. (Cough.) But invent somebody else’s reality? Even though I read a ton of fiction myself, I just didn’t know how to do that.

Until I took this course. There are two things I particularly liked about it. The first is that it’s very explicitly about learning how to rewrite your life. That’s actually the name of the course, Rewrite Your Life. (Here’s the book version.) In other words, fiction writing is all about viewing your personal experiences – and particularly your personal pain – in a way that, as she puts it, “helps you forge new reactions to old traumas.” You get to “choose who you want to be; not who you ought to be.” Your life experiences are “personal treasure to be mined.”

That’s hardly a novel idea (no pun intended). But Lourey uses a variety of exercises to enable you to resurface some of that deeply personal material and refashion it into new settings/characters/plot lines. These exercises are great because they all start with you: your pain, your secrets, your hopes, your despair. So there is a lot of emphasis on writing as therapy in this course, right from the get-go.

The second thing I like about this course is that it makes writing manageable. It takes a few months to work your way through the course. (The ten sessions you’ll see on the e-course are deceptive; Each of them takes hours, sometimes weeks, to complete.). But by the time you finish, as I just did, you’ll have loads of material at your finger tips. Lourey says you need to write one 1500 word scene a week in order to complete a novel in 46 weeks (less than a year!). But if you’re writing 5 days a week, that really only amounts to 300 words a day. 300 words a day? Heck, I could sneeze and write 300 words – (not necessarily good words, but the editing comes later.)

I’m really excited to try this. In addition to Lourey’s course, I also have some other resources to draw upon this time around. First, I’ve reached out to a (now close) friend from my erstwhile writer’s group and we’re going to rekindle a new version of it. Second, I’m also now part of an amazing community of writers here in London – called The Writing Coach – where I’m consulting. We have both online and real-world meet-ups to exhort each other forward and to hold each other accountable. I even found a post I wrote ten years ago on tips for writing fiction that’s surprisingly useful. (Always great when you can give yourself advice…)

Most importantly of all, I have an entirely different attitude to the one I held when I first tried my hand at a novel. Back then, I was utterly focused on the outcome. So I wrote a draft, sent it out to agents prematurely, and then shelved it when I didn’t have a positive response. That may well happen again. Indeed, I may yet decide that this whole fiction thing isn’t for me. But what’s exciting this time around is the process – that of challenging myself to try something new.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Image: Once upon a time by Ramdlon via Pixabay

Designing Your Creative Space

flamingo

flamingoOne of the hardest things about being a writer isn’t finding the time to write. It’s learning how to set up a space – physical, emotional, spiritual – that enables you to be creative.

Accessing that creative space isn’t unique to writing. It’s something all artists need to do. I have a painter friend, for example, who begins each day with the following ritual: First, he cleans his pallet of the prior days’ work. This is the most important part for him. Having his tools fresh and clean and all laid out in front of him allows him to sweep away the toil and struggle from the day before, thereby opening up new artistic possibilities. Then he puts on some music. He also makes sure to always have numerous pieces in progress hanging in his studio. He takes some time looking at them until one catches his attention and then he begins work on that. When he gets really stuck, he tries something completely new.

My routine isn’t all that different. In order to “cleanse my pallet” of the prior day’s work, I spend one hour – but no more than one hour – editing whatever it was I was last working on the day before. This might be a chapter from my book, a blog post, or a personal essay. Spending one hour editing allows me to feel that I’ve “fixed” whatever it was that I allowed myself to leave on a loose end the day before. If other thoughts come to me while I’m in editing mode – sometimes it’s just a snippet of an idea or an image – I jot them down in a notebook so that I can remember to file them in the appropriate place later on.

Then I start the main project I’m working on and continue to pursue that for the next several hours. Even if it’s completely different from the piece I was editing, having spent an hour editing one project frees me up to be creative somewhere else. When I get stuck, I start a new chapter. And I never, ever listen to music while I’m writing.

I also have a few gimmicks I employ to get myself started. For instance, I never start writing until the minute hand is resting on one of the numbers on the clock face. So, for example, if I sit down at my desk at 9:17 a.m., I wait until 9:20 to start writing. Why do I do this? Lord knows. But I’ve been doing it for so long that, at this point, I need to do it in order to begin working.

Other writers have their own rituals. Some people need to face a blank wall in order to start. Others need to have a view out a window. One friend always eats an apple before she begins. Philip Roth famously wrote standing up.

Lately, I’ve been focusing less on my creative routines and more on my creative environment. On the advice of Julia Cameron – of The Artist’s Way fame – I’ve made sure that my physical writing space is an upbeat one. So I’ve taken everything off my desk that’s dull and administrative and left only a handful of objects that make me happy, including: a ceramic heart my son made for me when he was seven on Valentine’s Day…two pins that read “15 Today” which my husband and I wore out to a restaurant on our 15th anniversary…a miniature Big Ben trinket that someone gave me for my key chain when I moved to London for good luck.

I’ve also hung up some quotes – what Cameron calls “affirmations” – above my desk, that are there to remind me to feel confident as I embark upon my creative endeavours. When I left my job, a colleague friend gave me two cards – one that read “You are a flamingo in a  flock of ordinary seagulls” and one that read “You leave a little bit of sparkle wherever you go.” I look at those quotes every morning to  remind myself of what I can bring to the world.

Finally, I’ve even started to “dress” for writing. A friend of mine just published a (great!) book entitled Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. It’s a book about the mutually reinforcing relationship between an author’s signature look and their writing style. At her book launch in London, my friend was asked if she had a “uniform” that she wore while writing the book. Turns out that she did: even if she was going to spend the entire day at home and never see a soul, she dressed up in a nice frock to inspire herself to tackle this material.

In a similar vein, right before I left my old job, a younger colleague whom I’d mentored gave me a necklace with the words @RealDelia inscribed on a small pendant. For me, that necklace symbolizes this blog, which I launched way back when as a way of rediscovering my voice as an adult and sharing those insights with others. I wear the necklace now when I’m writing my book to remind myself to always circle back to the authentic me.

The bottom line is that creativity isn’t just about having the talent or the time. It’s about being able to readily call up whatever it is inside you that draws that creativity out. And it takes awhile to figure out which routines and props are most conducive to that process.

How do you access your creative space? I’d love to know.

Image: Phoenicopterus ruber via Wikipedia.com

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons to Start Journaling

fountain pen

fountain penOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry is always difficult. This is true when you’re coming back from a trip and you need to get back into your daily routine. And it’s equally true when you’ve been laid off and need to create a new space to accomplish your goals, whatever those might be.

In my own case, it meant returning to my book project on swimming and adulthood.

At first, I felt overwhelmed. I was terrified of even peeking at my book, let alone writing a blog post. All the familiar writers’ fears plagued me: What if I had run out of ideas? What if, when I dared to look back at my book draft,  it was all sh#$? What if, after all this, I really wasn’t meant to be a writer after all?

I knew that it in order to get back into the swing of things, I would need to create a system. And although I already had a fixed morning routine back when I was working full-time, in this new, uncharted territory, I felt like I needed something else.

And so, following the guidance of creativity Guru Julia Cameron – I’ve started keeping what she calls “Morning Pages.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand, morning writing about absolutely anything. They are to be written first thing in the morning, and shown to no one. As Cameron puts it, “I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.”

So now every day, before I do anything else, I sit down and write three pages of whatever is top of mind. With a pen.

I’ll have more to say about what else I’m learning from Cameron another time. Today, let me focus on five reasons journaling can be so useful:

1. It’s therapeutic. If, like me, you often wake up in a panic-driven sweat, consumed by anxiety from your dreams, a current life crisis, or simply the latest episode of Homeland, keeping a journal helps. It lets you get out all of the bile that’s sitting in your system – not just your anger and frustration, if those are there, but also your fears and your worries. I often spend about half of my 3 pages on my dreams alone, just narrating what happened in them, how I felt, and which random characters from my 50 years of existence happened to wander in and pay a visit. Dear God, is it cathartic to get all that down on the page and out of my head and my body. If you can’t afford a therapist, journaling can help.

 2. It will stimulate your creativity. This is why Cameron recommends it. And it’s true. In the past two weeks since I started journaling regularly, I’ve not only had ideas for my book, but for blog posts, creative non-fiction, op-eds and short stories. They come to me, unbidden, without needing to brainstorm. They just jump out of my unconscious. And every time that happens, I jot them down and save them. It’s fantastic that by actually taking time away from writing, I am fortifying my writing. But you don’t have to be a writer for this to help unlock your creativity. It can apply to all manner of creative endeavours: sculpting, painting, dancing, singing. Whatever it is that’s inside of you and wants to come out.

3. It will make you more productive. This isn’t the primary reason I’m journaling every morning, though I suppose I am hoping that in sparking my creativity, I’ll also become more productive. But others swear by journaling as key to helping you prioritize, clarify thinking, and accomplish your most important daily tasks. It’s worked for the likes of Albert Einstein, Reid Hoffman and Leonardo Da Vinci. It might also work for you.

4. It will help you focus on the big picture. In my own case, in addition to all the writing ideas journaling is generating, it’s also helping me to zero in on what I really want to do next with my professional life. At this point, those insights come more in the form of verbs and feelings than in concrete job descriptions. But they are beginning to cohere and take shape, pointing me in the direction of me.

5. It’s fun. I mentioned earlier that one of the key, non-negotiable aspects of keeping a journal is to do it long-hand. That initially feels very old-school for we of the key-board generation, but once you get the hang of it, it really does help you to feel more connected to what’s on the page. Right before I left my previous job, my colleagues bought me a really fancy fountain pen as a good-bye present. While I was delighted with the gift, I didn’t initially know exactly how and when I’d be able to use it. Now I do.

So try it. And let me know how it goes.

Image: Fountain Pen via Wikimedia Commons