Tag Archives: Writing

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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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some worthwhile reading around the blogosphere:

1. Here’s a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about why the “aging” of scientific research grants may impede creativity.

2. And while we’re on the topic of aging – according to the Los Angeles Times – the Tea Partiers are just a bunch of baby boomers longing for the 60s. Who knew?

3. I absolutely adored this homage to The New Yorker over on A Boat Against The Current. Who amongst us didn’t dream of the day the New Yorker would call? (Who am I kidding? Who amongst us *still* doesn’t dream…)

4. I’m now a regular over at Roger Ebert’s Journal on the SunTimes. Here’s a recent post he did on a visit to London (with many ref’s to my very own ‘hood.) It’s about writing…and walking…and, well, writing and walking. Fabulous.

5. If you’re into libraries, have a look at this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about Joyce Carol Oates’ abiding love of libraries. While you’re at it, here’s an interview in Salon with Marilyn Johnson, the author of a new book on librarians entitled This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.

6. Finally, a dispatch from Fast Company on why it’s actually more productive to nap. Hallelujah!

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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some worthwhile reading around the blogosphere:

1. As someone who blogs about adulthood, I really liked Jacob Weisberg’s analysis in Slate of what’s wrong with American politics right now. (Answer: The voters haven’t grown up.)

2. I absolutely adored Kate Harding’s paean to the LRB personals ads in Salon. Her own two ads are laugh-out-loud funny. And while I’m at it, allow me to plug my good friend Paul Reizin’s memoir of how he met his wife through a personals ad: Date Expectations: One Man’s Voyage Through The Lonely Hearts.

3. With all the gloomy talk of marriage lately (and the real-life implosion of several high profile marriages…I mention no names!), it was heartening to read this account of what makes for a successful long-term marriage in The Wall Street Journal. You gotta love an article that includes the Carters (as in Jimmy and Rosalyn) and the  Osbournes (as in Sharon and Ozzy) under one tent.

4. Here’s a thoughtful piece by author Dani Shapiro in The Los Angeles Times about how publishing has overtaken writing as a goal for writers these days.

5. Finally, I was delighted to discover (via Practicing Writing) this new (to me) blog about the adventures of an expatriate writer called Writer Abroad. For obvious reasons, I was particularly taken with this post on how one can become addicted to living abroad.

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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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Tips For Adulthood: How To Manage Your Title

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

One of the biggest quandaries we face in adulthood is what to call ourselves.

This is true for our professional lives — some jobs come with a built-in title (e.g. Dr.), some don’t. It’s also true in our personal lives – should my son’s six year old’s friend call me by my first name or by Mrs. X? And what if I’m not a “Mrs.”?

As a freelance writer, I’ve struggled with the whole title thing for a long time (not to mention what my last name is.)

So here are five tips for how to manage titles in adulthood:

1. Ms., Mrs. and Miss are all ok. As Nancy Gibbs pointed out in a recent article in Time Magazine, one of the great triumphs of second-wave feminism was that women obtained a title – “Ms.” – that didn’t identify them by their marital status. But now that we’ve won that battle, many women (myself included) don’t really care what they’re called, and revel in the multiple identities afforded by Ms., Miss or Mrs. Be careful, however. Some people are very sensitive about these things. I’ll never forget a grumpy senior colleague addressing a young, fellow co-worker as “Missy” many years ago. She responded: “That’s ‘Ms.’ to you, Sir.” You said it, sister!

2. Madam is not ok. For reasons that elude me, Brits continue to use the term “Madam” to refer to married women. I mean, I know the English like to sound formal and all that, but seriously…Madam? What, do I look like I run a brothel?

3. Freelance Writers are now Professional Entrepreneurs. In her blog WordCount, Michelle Rafter argues that freelance writers in today’s world are performing many different tasks across many different industries, including writing, copyediting and web content. And because journalism is morphing so rapidly into…something else, freelance writers must also do a ton of self-promotion. Thus, they now resemble entrepreneurs much more than just plain old “writers.” To which I say, Hallelujah! You mean I don’t have to describe myself as a writer/journalist/blogger anymore? Bring it on, baby.

4. Calling yourself a “Dr.” may be unnecessary. I have a Ph.D. But whenever someone addressed me as “Dr.” back when I was still a practicing academic, I always found myself turning around to see if there was a doctor in the house. It’s a personal thing, of course, and some people like the honorific. But for me the term “Dr.” should be reserved for those who wear a stethoscope around their necks and write prescriptions.* (*Unless you’re trying to do research in Mexico, in which case I’d mine that PhD as much as you can or you won’t get the time of day. Trust me.)

5. When in doubt, buy a title. When the school nurse at my son’s new school revealed that she was actually a Lady, I was momentarily flummoxed. What on earth should I call her? (I tried writing a letter to her and the co-Matron (old-fashioned term for nurse, speaking of titles) which read “Dear Ladies,” but that didn’t seem quite right.) But then a friend of mine told me that you could actually purchase titles on line. Yes, you, too can become a Lord or Lady for a mere pittance. Who said feudalism was dead?

I remain your humble servant, Herr Lady Dr. Ms.Delia, professional entrepreneur.


While we’re on the subject of freelance writing, if you haven’t checked out Susan Johnston’s Urban Muse blog, it is well worth a visit. Susan provides incredibly handy writing and publishing tips with a sunny, upbeat tone. I’m a regular.

Image: My Doctoring Toolz by Churl via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

This Friday I point you to some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1. I liked Jacob Weisberg’s thoughtful piece in Slate on the demise of intellectually serious Conservatism and why that’s bad for the Right and the Left.

2. I absolutely loved this story in the Washington Post about a world-class violinist who tries to get people to stop and – literally – hear the music in a subway station. Be sure you look at the videos and read the piece.

3. Here’s a great essay that all writers should read about that eternal tension between writing and “the day job.” (Hat Tip: Practicing Writing.)

4. This is a great article by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir about why he and his wife chose to home school their children and the judgments they faced from other parents. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s a parent.

5. Finally, in case you thought we were done with sex scandals, here’s my take on the latest one to emerge…from France.

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There Are Some Second Acts

A friend of mine sent me this article in the London Times from last week about second novels. It’s a story about the pressure on novelists who strike it big with their first novel – like Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Travelers Wife – to repeat this success the second time around.

The article goes on to list famous books that were spectacular second novels but which followed on barely noticed first novels – Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, Midnight’s Children – to name a few. It also lists cursed second novels that followed on huge successes – Something Happened by Joseph Heller after Catch 22, for example, or Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier after Cold Mountain –  as well as one hit wonders that were never followed by anything at all. To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind both fall in the last category.

As a veteran of two career changes and an aspiring novelist, I was heartened to see the list of great second novels. The length of the list and the star quality of its titles really drove home that age-old adage: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Most of us won’t become wildly famous in the process, but if we really apply ourselves to something, we will likely improve. (As Bob Fosse expalined to an aspiring dancer in one of my all-time favorite movies, All That Jazz, “I can’t make you a great dancer. But I can make you a better dancer.”)

I keep that quotation in my head a lot. And it doesn’t apply just to writing or the creative life. With a little elbow grease, we can all get better at what we do (though if I’d written To Kill A Mockingbird I might have put down my pen and called it a day too).

Any other great second novels on your list?

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Life is Not a Crew Race

As I sit here at 8 pm on a Thursday night, determined to get a post out before beginning my nightly ablutions, I am reminded of something  a friend once told me that had great resonance for me: “Life is Not a Crew Race.”

He was right. It’s more like a marathon.

My friend was talking about graduate school, and the fact that you couldn’t think about pursuing a PhD (something we were both doing at the time) as a short term project or you’d never get anywhere. Rather, you had to think of it as a long term investment and understand that the payoff would be deferred.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because when I began this blog, “blogging every day”–or at least every week day–was one of my resolutions. I’m a pretty self-disciplined sort, so I thought it would be no problem. And it wasn’t–for the first two days. And then a massive, unexpected family crisis unfolded that had me on a plane to New York within three hours of booking my flight (I live in London, so this was not a trivial journey). And there went post number three, disappearing into thin air somewhere over Iceland (or was it Greenland? Note to self: must learn names and locations of Northern island countries.)

And though I’m SO GLAD I went to New York, and SO GLAD that I have the sort of career where I can drop everything and run to the nearest airport when I need to, I also felt this nagging sense the entire time I was there that I was letting myself down. That I’d committed to something and failed to follow through. And because when things like this happen I often go on what another friend calls a “death spiral,” before I knew it I had death-spiralled down to the end of the blog…to the end of my career as a writer…the end of, well, everything. In like five minutes. I was dead.

And then I remembered this quote from my friend and I took a deep breath and I felt a bit better. Because while this new blog is really important to me and something that I don’t want to let fall to the wayside (and while I’m at it, please do give me credit for not beginning this post with the all-dreadful “Sorry it’s been quiet here for awhile…”), it’s also important for me to recognize that sometimes life really does intervene and things more important than–egads!–RealDelia.com will take over and supercede it.

Because if there’s one thing that I do know, it’s that writing–blogs, fiction…heck, just about anything worthwhile–really is a marathon. It’s something you build upon, and improve, and experiment with every day. And if I just think about this blog as a giant 26 mile run around a city (any city, but let’s pick Washington DC for the moment, since I once ran a lame-o 5k there many moons ago) rather than a sprint/crew race/pick your athletic poison, then I know that having missed three days of posts does not mean that I’ve lost the entire race.

In fact, I’ve just begun…

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