Archive | Writing

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Update Your Website

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

January is a good time to capitalize on all that New Year energy floating around and make changes to your life that you’ve been meaning to enact for quite some time but haven’t quite gotten around to.

In this spirit, I recently made a beeline to the very bottom of my “long” To Do list and pulled something off of there that’s been chipping away at the outer edges of mind for ages: my website.

I’m a writer, you see, so having a reasonably attractive, fully-functional website that succinctly showcases both my background and my current projects is crucial for – well – staying employed.

A writer’s website doesn’t have to be anything fancy – and indeed, mine isn’t. (You can check it out here.) But it does need to look grown up and professional and be user-friendly.

Which my old one just wasn’t.

So this week’s tip list goes out to all writers, near and far, though the lessons should hopefully prove useful to anyone who has a resume that they haven’t looked at in a while.

Here are five reasons to update your website:

1. You update your links. Subscribe to just about any blog about freelance writing and one of the first posts you’ll come across is one that reminds you to always, always, always create PDFs of everything you write Online. And that’s because while it’s generally true that things live forever on the internet, plenty of publications will  – without warning – decide to yank your URLs and not link to them anymore. While I’m sure there’s some way to retrieve them if you know someone on staff, if you don’t, you’re SOL. When I started building my new website, I was amazed at how many of my links no longer went to the original articles. And that’s just not O.K. if the whole point of having a website is to showcase your writing. As a friend of mine once said about his application to law school, “Given that I pretty much wrote it in crayon, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t accept me.” My old website was not written in crayon, but it did lack a certain gravitas. And having links that went nowhere was part of the problem.

2. You stop procrastinating. In addition to the relief that flowed after completing this large task that had been bothering me for – oh, about two yearsrevamping my website also forced me to stop procrastinating on some of the smaller side-projects that flowed from the re-design. To wit: linking to my audio files. I used to work in radio, you see, but for reasons that still elude me, I couldn’t upload all of my audio files to my old website. So I just ignored them, and buried them on my hard drive in places I knew I wouldn’t encounter. But once I confronted the beast and re-did the website, I finally got around to linking to the audio. So now you can listen, for example, to why I *really* embrace such a green lifestyle here in London.

3. You learn new skills. Commensurate with #2, I now know how to update audio files to WordPress.com. O.K., O.K., that’s admittedly not as impressive as blogging in Mandarin or learning to write code, but for the technologically challenged amongst us, I feel like I’ve stepped up my game.

4. You see how far you’ve come. If you haven’t updated your resume or your website in a while, I’d encourage you to go and take a gander. You may be surprised by what you find. Among other things – and particularly if you’ve taken on a new job and/or career in recent years – you’ll see how far you’ve come from when you were just a newbie. In my case, while perusing my old website, I came across a menu called “Op Eds and Guest Blog Posts.” “What’s This?” I wondered to myself. And when I opened it, I happened upon the very first blog post I ever wrote – for The Urban Muse – about academic blogs. I wrote this back in February, 2008, a full year before I launched RealDelia. And I wrote it precisely because I wanted to test the waters and see what this whole “blogging thing” was all about…

5. You reconceptualize yourself. In a recent post on career change, I made the rather unconventional suggestion that you apply for a job before you’re really ready in order to practice re-imagining yourself doing something new. Updating your website offers a similar benefit. It forces you to provide a narrative of yourself – if not several – that gives you a language for presenting yourself professionally.

*****

For great tips on website re-design, I highly recommend Marci Alboher’s amazing book, One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model For Work/Life Success.)

Image: Crayons by GenBug via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Manage Conflict Effectively

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I think we’ve all been in a situation where something goes wrong – with a colleague, with a friend, with a family member – and our first inclination is to kick or scream or throw things, or just open the window and yell “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (Oh, sorry. Is that just me?)

But then cooler heads prevail and we realize that we actually need to manage the conflict, rather than just vent.

Here are five suggestions for how to manage conflict effectively:

1. Call, don’t write. A friend of mine who works in corporate America once told me that one of the very first things she learned at her job was that the minute you have a professional conflict with someone, you pick up the phone. Never, ever email. And that’s because – according to her at least – there’s greater room for misinterpretation when you write something, whereas in speech you can be more direct. As a writer, my instinct is *always* to write to people when there’s potential discord because I feel I can control the message better. But ever since she told me that, I’ve reconsidered. The other reason, of course – and pace the recent WikiLeaks scandal – is that once you put something in writing, it lives on ad infinitum. And then it can come back to haunt you.

2. If you must write, assume everyone is reading it. Which brings me to point two. For me, the potential perils of email were really brought home this past summer, when my Politics Daily colleague Andrew Cohen wrote a much-trafficked love letter to his ex on our news site entitled “On Her Wedding Day: Saying Things Left Unsaid.” My colleague Lizzie Skurnick then published a response to Andrew’s post entitled “How Not To Congratulate Your Ex On Her Wedding Day.” And then some emails ensued between the two of them which led to this and this. (If you aren’t cringing by now, you should be.)

3. Write an email, but don’t send it. I was once offered a job when I was first on the academic job market which I turned down – albeit with some remorse. And I felt so badly about turning it down that I compose this incredibly long, heartfelt explanation to the Department Chair. And then I threw it away. Because when I woke up the next morning, I realized that the letter was really written for me, rather than for him. In a similar vein, I’ve taken lately to writing out long emails to people I’m angry with and then not publishing them. As a writer, putting my thoughts down on the page helps me to express and even clarify my feelings, but without experiencing any of the blowback discussed in point #2.

4. Try to see it through their eyes. I got an email the other day that really irritated me. It was condescending. It was territorial. And it was bitchy. Or at least so I thought the first time I read it through. And I spent a good deal of the night composing a response (in my head) that I seriously debated sending to this person, despite my advice in #3. But when I came downstairs the next morning, I re-read the email and decided that – even though I was pretty sure that my initial reaction was justified – there was conceivably another way to read said email that put it in a more favorable light. And so – taking Gretchen Rubin’s maxim – “act the way we want to feel”  – to heart, I willed myself to reinterpret the original email as more benign so that I, too, could feel more positively towards this person. And then I just ignored it.

5. Write a letter. This may sound like it contradicts point #1 – and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it in a professional setting. But sometimes I think that writing a good, old-fashioned letter can go a long way towards smoothing over differences between friends and family. For starters, in an internet age, everyone appreciates that letter-writing has gone the way of the horse and buggy. So when people take the time to actually write down their thoughts – with a pen! – it shows how much they matter to you. Second, while most people like their emails short and digestible, it’s O.K. to write a long letter and to really elaborate on what you’re feeling. I once did this with a friend and it really saved our friendship.

How about you? What strategies do you employ to manage conflict?

Image: Writing Samples: Parker 75 by churl via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

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

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

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 4-6 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, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you 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. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. 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. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: 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 up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, 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 and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not 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. And I’m sure that 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.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

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 something?

*****

I’m over on www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.

 

Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Why I Joined A Writing Group

I’ve started a writing group. We met for the first time last night for an organizational meeting.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Back when I stepped down from the PTA (a full month and a half ago!), I vowed that I’d take a break from organizing things. So much for that.

But this is different. First of all, it’s only five people. And second of all – unlike the PTA, which was loads of fun but fundamentally about raising money for a cause – this one’s about me. I’m doing it for precisely the same reason that I encouraged all of you to join a club this Autumn: pursuing hobbies in adulthood is fun.

Of course, I’m not only doing it because it’s fun. I’m also doing it because I think that it’s going to be worthwhile professionally. Why is that?

For starters, the people in the group aren’t close friends. I know all of them socially, but what links me to them first and foremost is that we all share an interest in writing. (Most of us are interested in pursuing fiction within the confines of this group, though there’s one TV/Film writer.)

And that means that while it’s a friendly crowd, we’re not there to chit-chat about our lives. We’re there to get feedback on our work. So unlike, say, a book club, which is – at the end of the day – a fundamentally social experience, this club feels more serious. And that suits me just fine right now.

I’m also joining this group because I think that as a writer, working across genres really helps you to stay fresh. You exercise different parts of your brain. You get out of your comfort zone. You keep yourself from getting bored. I was thinking about this yesterday when I happened to be working on two different projects that took me away from my ordinary blogging duties. One was a travel piece and the other was an interview that I did for a commercial outlet. At the end of the day, I felt really refreshed. And I think that’s because I stepped away from my routine. So I’m hoping that by adding some fiction writing back into the mix, I’ll continue to keep myself crisp as a writer.

But mostly I’m doing this because I need to confront the beast. (That would be my novel…you know, the proverbial one that sits in a drawer somewhere, only to be very occasionally dusted off and sent out to greet the world?) It’s time for a fourth down, kick-0r-stick moment with that sucker. (Forgive the cheesy football analogies. I think we all know that sports isn’t my thing.) Either I’m going to go back to the drawing board, and use this writing group as way to workshop the hell out of that thing…or I’m going to have a fancy new footrest as I embark on some new ideas. Either way, it’s time to make a move.

Wish me luck.

How do you keep yourself fresh at work?

*****

For those who are interested, here’s a piece I wrote for Politics Daily on how some people in Germany seem to be forgetting the Holocaust.

Image: Writing Challenge by Starbuck Guy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Generate Ideas

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

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.”

In my own case, I’ve been trying to pay attention to how and when I come up with ideas – for blog posts, for feature articles, for possible future novels. And what I’ve noticed is that a lot of my ideas seem to come when I’m doing something *other than* sitting at the computer typing. So today, I thought that I’d share some of my own techniques for coming up with ideas, with the hope that these may prove interesting – as well as useful – to others. While I focus on writing, I imagine that some of these same strategies may be pertinent to other fields as well.

1.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 a simple run will solve my problem. I may not go out on the run intending to think about that 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 has a summer house in France and he tells me that he spends the afternoons taking long bike rides and by the next morning, he’s got loads of fresh material. The trick is to rush inside right after you’re done and jot down the main ideas.

2. Take a Thinking Shower. This one comes from grad school. During my first few years in graduate school, we were required to take a series of exams in order to qualify in various fields. They were called “field exams” and in my department, at least, they consisted of a series of essays which you research and wrote over the course of a weekend. Needless to say, I don’t think any 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 to see how she was getting on with her exams. “The shower?” I’d ask, perplexed, wondering who could possibly bathe regularly when they had so little time to get these things done. “It’s a thinking shower,” she’d respond. She found that burst of hot water on her face actually enabled her to outline her essays. So I tried it. So should you.

3. Figure out what’s distinctive about your perspective. This is actually something I’ve used quite a bit since moving overseas because I find that so much of what I think about various issues – whether it’s health care reform, therapy or the BBC – has changed dramatically simply by virtue of living somewhere else. But it doesn’t have to be a geographic niche that motivates you. Just this morning I was mulling over a feature I’m writing on the outcome of the British elections when I realized exactly what was different about my take:  I was approaching them as a political scientist rather than a journalist. And that was both distinctive – and useful. (I was buying coffee when I had that realization, BTW. Which again underscores how often our brains are working even when we don’t think they are.)

4. Ask yourself what’s the most striking thing someone said to you in the last week. Very often for blog posts – and even for posts about politics – I find that when I want to come up with an idea, I just think about the most striking or unusual thing something’s said to me in the past week. Often that person is one of my children. (“Why is God so famous?“) But sometimes it’s someone I just happen to run into. Like the friend I saw on election day who’d just joined the Labour party after living here for 20 years – even though she knew they’d lose – because she wanted to have a say in the party’s future. Or the dad at school drop-off this morning who told me why pink was a color historically associated with boys. Or the guy I met at a dinner party who told me that he picks what movies he sees based solely on the poster. (Whaaaa???) Whenever this happens, I grab my pen and scribble it down.

5. Go outside for a walk. This suggestion comes from one of my all-time favorite creative people:  writer, singer and radio-show host Garrison Keillor. In an oped for the International Herald Tribune a few years back, Keillor gave this advice to aspiring writers: “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. And that’s what it’s all about.

OK, now it’s your turn. How do you generate ideas for your work?

Image: Take A Shower by .m for matthijs via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Living With Mess: Radical Acceptance

Christina Katz has a great post over on her Prosperous Writer E-zine this week about what she calls “clarity.” She defines clarity as “lucidity…exactness…simplicity.”

It’s about figuring out what you need and what you want as a writer and paring down your obligations and responsibilities so that you can really zero in on what’s important. (Note: you must subscribe to her free e-zine to read this post, which I heartily recommend.)

This is great advice for both writing and life, and something I continually have to remind myself to do when I start feeling overwhelmed. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity,” as the man said.

The problem is that isn’t always that…well…simple. Sometimes you can’t achieve clarity because there are too many loose ends in your life and you have to accept that some of these just aren’t going to get tied up in short order.

Which is where I’m at right now with – oh – just about everything in my life. You see, I’ve just moved house. So everywhere I look I see unopened boxes.

There are the real boxes, those last stubborn few that simply refuse to empty themselves because – if you cared to tackle them – they’d require you to scratch your head and say: Now where does that plug go? Which cannister is that the top to? And why, again, did we decide to save that yarmulke from that bar mitzvah five years ago?

Then there are the metaphorical boxes:  The stack of New Yorkers that lie unread. The emails that began to pile up the day of the move and some of which sit still – unopened – in the dark recesses of my inbox. Those last few changes of address that haven’t yet happened because it turns out that you actually need to call the pension fund in the U.S. where you still have some pocket of retirement savings during (its) business hours because they can’t process an overseas address on-line.

And then there are all those technological boxes that can’t be opened because this is the U.K. where the customer comes last. So the internet provider lost track of your account and now you have to wait another 10 days for them to come to your neighborhood to set it up. Or the bank forgot to update your address so your credit card keeps getting rejected. Or – my personal favorite – the satellite dish for the TV can’t be installed because you live on the third floor and their ladders don’t go that high. (Um…no offense, but isn’t this what you do for a living?)

It drives me insane, all this mess. Because I hate things that are un-finished. I’m the lady who sometimes adds things to my to-do list *after* I’ve done them just to feel the satisfaction of crossing them off, remember?

So I’ve been feeling really unsettled lately. (It didn’t help that for the first five days of my move the U.K. didn’t have a government. I was like “C’mon, guys! Just make up your minds, would ya?“)

And then, something weird happened. Yesterday night was my monthly book group meeting. And, on top of everything, I hadn’t finished the book. This has never happened to me before. I’m one of those hard-core, unsympathetic book group types who *always* finishes the book. But this time, I just couldn’t.

But because I love my book club, I went anyway. Even though I hadn’t finished and felt wretched about that. (It helps that we were reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s marvelous Half of A Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. Speaking of learning how to live with mess…)

And you know what? It felt OK to be there, even half-read. Because it was the best I could do.

My life coach has a great phrase for moments like this. She calls it “radical acceptance.” It’s for situations where things are exactly how you’d like them *not* to be  – where you can’t, yet, achieve “clarity.”

So you force yourself to extend the parameters of what you’d normally find acceptable. And you decide to  just roll with it. Because you know that you are on the road to clarity.

And that’s O.K.

Radical Acceptance.

Image: Unopened Boxes by CDaisyM via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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In Honor Of Mothers, Daughters, and Writers: A Poem

My post last week about the birth control pill performed double-duty as a Mother’s Day tribute. I hadn’t intended it to do so, that’s just how things worked out given the 50th anniversary of the pill and all of the hullabaloo around that.

The Mother’s Day post that I intended to put up is the one I’m going to post today – a few day’s late, to be sure – but I’m going to blame my move (and the British government…or lack thereof.*)

From time to time I post poetry on this blog. Usually it’s not my own (except my recent ode to a mews house.) Instead, I look to the more inspired words of others to express what I wish I was eloquent enough to say on my own. I did it on my father’s birthday last year, I did it when some friends were going through some rocky times, and today, I’m going to do it again, with a poem that celebrates mothers, daughters and writers.

It was actually my mother who sent me this poem. She did it back in November when I took a self-imposed vacation in order to spend some time sending my novel out to agents.

My mother is a writer. She’s written plays, children’s stories and – most recently – a terrific family history. She’s also become a tireless commenter on this blog, for which I am most grateful.  Most of what I know about writing I learned from her.

As writers (and daughters), we all need support like that. So today’s poem goes out to mothers, daughters and writers everywhere in equal measure.

The Writer

by Richard Wilbur


In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy.

I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again, and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Happy Mother’s Day.

*For those of you who haven’t – by some miracle of modern science – been following the British elections, I’ve had my hands full with that roller coaster of events over the past few days. You can read some of my thoughts here (written the day after election day), here (written when it looked like the Lib Dems and the Tories would form an alliance) and here (when it looked like the Lib Dems might ally with Labour.) By the time you read this, we’ll probably be on Plan C…stay tuned.

Image: Red-winged Starling by Ifijay via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Parenting: Discovering How Your Kids See You

As someone who writes personal essays and blogs, I frequently use my family for material. I’ve written about my husband’s obsession with gadgetry, my son’s first exposure to sex ed and my daughter’s penchant for cross-dressing.

So I guess it was inevitable that sooner or later, the tables would be turned and I’d be the subject of something they wrote. Needless to say, this experience caught me off guard.

At the school my children attend in London, the head teacher solicits “half-term” projects from kids who want to do extra work. The kids write a report, she reads it and they get a certificate at assembly. It’s all good.

Each of my kids has jumped onboard enthusiastically with these assignments. My 8-year-old son has covered topics ranging from Tamerlane (his favorite Khan, as in Ghengis) … Team U.S.A. at the 2008 Olympics … and some of the more obscure “Star Wars” characters. (Plo Koon, anyone?)

My 5-year-old daughter’s reports have been a bit simpler: a reworking of the Cinderella narrative or a series of drawings with self-explanatory captions like “Pirate Louis Is a Pirate.”

Until now. A few days ago, my daughter declared that she’d like to do her half-term project on — wait for it — me. She asked me to download a few photographs from Picasa and then began to work in earnest.

Read the rest of this story at the New York Times Motherlode blog

Image: Writing Lesson by radioflyer007 via flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Throwing Away The Outline (In Writing And Life)

There’s a lot to be said for having an outline when you write.

It gives a structure to your story. It reminds you where you are when you wander off to embellish some minor – but important – point and then realize that you’ve wandered so far you have no idea where you started. Above all, it’s just reassuring:  it suggests that you may actually get to the end of whatever it is you’re writing.

I usually work from a sort of loose outline when I write. Occasionally, I don’t. I just sit down with a bunch of points I want to make and improvise my way towards a conclusion. Usually – about half way through that sort of writing – I figure out what I really wanted to say. And once in a while, I create a really detailed, formal outline of exactly how I’m going to proceed with a given piece.

I used this last strategy – to my own detriment – last week on a feature I’m writing for PoliticsDaily.com about the BBC (watch this space.) It’s a topic that’s obsessed me for as long as I’ve lived in the UK, and I’ve been dying to write about it for years. But I needed to wait until there was a news hook to have an excuse to write the article.

But when I finally sat down to write, I had so much material buzzing around my head – research…interviews…newsclips…my own experiences – that I was a bit overwhelmed. So I started outlining. And outlining. And outlining some more.

I thought that this would help me write the piece more quickly. But the truth was – when I actually put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys), I was so immersed in the subject matter that the points I wanted to make just flowed on their own. So I ended up tossing my outline aside and just running with it. I let the piece “write itself” as it were, rather than trying so hard to control it.

And guess what? It came out much more quickly. And I realized after a few days that I probably could have finished the whole thing much sooner if I’d just given into the creative process rather than obsessively trying to outline my way through it.

This is true in life as well. You see, I’m a planner. (Some might – ahem – say I plan too much. Darling? Is that you?) I tend to approach things that make me stressed (read: just about everything) by scheduling:  carefully planning out my time,  putting dates in the calendar, making endless to-do lists. But we all know that life is best lived in the moment, not through an outline.

I’m trying to keep this in mind as I gear up for my upcoming move which will occupy a lot of psychological real estate in my head over the next six or seven weeks. As I near the move date, my instinct will be to immerse myself in the boxes and the movers and the change-of-address forms. And, sure, those things need to happen.

But what I should really focus on is how happy I am that we are moving to a bigger space, with really nice views, right next to a gigantic park, where my kids can play football (soccer) and run around. And I can take long walks and chill. And *that’s* what this move is about.

Watch this space.

Image: Outlining by dmscvan via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Five Ways To Feel More Legitimate As A Writer

I got a check for $100 in the mail the other day. It was for an article that I wrote more than a year ago and which was published in a women’s magazine in the States. I’ve been chasing that check since last February (which was the deadline for payment according to the contract I signed) and I’ve probably (conservatively) exchanged about 25 or 30 emails on this matter since then.

So what’s the big deal about 100 bucks, you ask? Are things really that tight over here in London?

Well yes…and no. I don’t make a lot of money as a freelance writer, so every payment really does count. But not enough to relentlessly chase down 100 dollars over a nine month period. Of course, that’s not *really* why I “followed the money” (to coin a phrase.) I did it because of what the payment represented to me symbolically.

For me, you see, that check was all about legitimacy.

Feeling legitimate can be a tricky thing in the work world, especially for writers, freelancers, and – in many professions – women. (Yikes! I’m all three!) I remember when I was a kid I once went shopping with a friend and her mother and the owner of a local clothing store denied my friend’s mother a credit card on the grounds that she (a writer) was only self-employed. “I’m afraid you’ll need to bring your husband in,” the owner said. My friend’s mother burst into tears. I was eight years old and had no idea why she was crying.

Now I do.

Because writers and other self-employed people frequently lack the formal trappings of an office – e.g., business cards…a regular paycheck…a door (!), it’s often hard to feel “legitimate” in your chosen profession. Under such circumstances, we self-employeds tend to grasp at anything that offers a soupçon of legitimacy…anything…such as, say, a check for $100!

In that spirit, here are five methods I’ve devised for boosting my sense of legitimacy:

1. Call Your Writing Work. As memoirist Louise De Salvo wrote recently in a memorable post about how to find time to write when you have kids, it’s essential that you always call your writing “work” regardless of how much you’re paid for it (if anything): No one I knows cares if you’re writing.  That’s why you have to call it work.  Because that’s what it is.  Your work.  Your life’s work.” Amen, sister.

2. Call Yourself A Writer. This is a corollary of #1 but surprisingly hard to enact when you’re feeling a legitimacy deficit. I frequently find myself alternating between “journalist,” “blogger” and just plain “writer” but find the latter the hardest to actually utter because I think it sounds…[drumroll please]…illegitimate. But the more I do it, the better I feel. Like the alcoholic who must first admit the problem, I sometimes just force myself to march around the house chanting “My name is Delia and I am a writer….My name is Delia and I am a writer…”

3. Titles Help. I posted a few weeks ago on how to manage your title. Right after I did that, one of the editors at PoliticsDaily.com (where I do work…for money!…she added hastily) referred to me as their “London correspondent” when linking to an article of mine. My usual title is “contributor.” It only happened once but, boy, for the next three hours, I was walking on air. (Sadly, I’ve since then reverted to “contributor.” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.)

4. Diversify Your Portfolio. Another thing I find that really helps is to take on additional jobs or activities in spheres outside of writing – to diversify your portfolio, so to speak. Freelancers often need to do this anyway for economic reasons, but slash careers can confer legitimacy advantages as well. I spent all of yesterday afternoon selling raffle tickets at a Christmas fair to raise money for my daughter’s school. Turns out I’m pretty good at it. But in addition to the positive feelings that ensue from raising money for a good cause, it’s always a huge boost to my self-esteem to know that I’m actually good at something else (even something for which I’m not paid.)

5. Find Your Inner Compass. At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about what one therapist I know calls “finding your inner compass.” How legitimate you feel as a writer or actor or any other inherently freelance profession is really about not giving a hoot what others think (or what you imagine – or project – onto their thinking.) It’s about finding legitimacy…(yes, you guessed it)…from within.

That’s hard to do, though. And speaking of which…I’ve gotta run. I have to chase down that other $100 check from last September that they still haven’t paid me. I’ve got some emails to write…

Image: Vieja Maquina de Escribir by Gonzalo Barrientos via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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