Writing In the Summertime

Writingoutside
My outdoor writing space

It is hot here in Portland, mid to upper 90s all last week and more of the same this week, with temps predicted to reach into the 100s by the weekend.  We usually get some hot hot weather during the summer, but this is very early for a heat wave and it is lasting a long time.

My office is upstairs (I'm in process of moving it downstairs, but that project is taking forever) and that automatically makes it hot.  (We, like many Portlanders who live in older homes, don't have air conditioning.) But it also gets stuffy, the air stagnant, and because it is full of boxes (the afore mentioned moving project), its not a very inspiring space at the moment.

In self defense, I moved my computer and all my notes downstairs last weekend and then one early morning around 6 AM I got the idea to move my operation out back.  I set up on the outdoor table on the deck and listened to the birds sing and wrote my heart out.  I started out a few weeks ago setting my Iphone timer for 15 minutes and telling myself I was just going to write, simply as a way to get to the page.  But now, I think it is safe to say that these daily outside writing sessions are turning into my next novel--and that my daily writing practice has transformed my writing life.

Firtreeoutback
The tree above me

I now set up outside every morning and it has quickly become my favorite time of day.  It is peaceful and cool and quiet aside from the occasional dog barking and I am getting a lot of writing done every morning.  It is amazing to me what a change of venue can do for your writing.  Some people love to go work in coffee shops, but me? Not so much.  I'm far too distracted by people and noise and activity.  Besides, I do my best work early in the day, in my pajamas, and that doesn't work so well anywhere but home.

By 7:30 the sun hits my back and lights the screen and I can't see so well and I'm starting to flag anyway.  But the point of all this, besides encouraging you to look at where you write and how well it is working for you, is to share a few tips I've learned (relearned?) as I start writing a long project (i.e., a novel), again.  

1.  Call it Daily Writing Practice.   Some times the daily writings  are just random scenes, sometimes they actually turn into a scene for my WIP, and sometimes they become me obsessing about where I am in the WIP.  But gradually, the daily practices have turned into real, consistent work on my next novel, and the sessions have lengthened out considerably.  But at the beginning, I just called it daily practice and all I had to do was write something, anything for 15 minutes. Whether or not your writing sessions pertain to your WIP is up to you—but if it doesn't, that's okay.

2.  Keep a Writing Log. I've started a daily writing log, wherein I write about my feelings and thoughts on what I'm writing.   I wish I'd done this during the writing of my most recent novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery.  Now that it is finished, that novel exists in a sort of magical haze for me, and I've convinced myself that writing it went smoothly from the idea to the end.  But a few days ago, I opened, by chance, one of my daily writings from last summer--and read a whole long rant about how stuck and frustrated I was on the progress I was making.  Because, the thing is, when a novel is done, you forget the day to day grind that went into it.  Because the Bonne Chance was somewhat magical in origin, with the entire story essentially downloaded to me in the shower, it has been easy to forget the hard parts. Instead, I labor under the delusion that the writing of it was easy and sure in every letter and word.  While parts of it were, much of it wasn't.  And it is reassuring to remember that as I struggle to start anew.

For a look at how a major literary figure used a diary, check out this great Brain Pickings piece about the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing the Grapes of Wrath.

3.  Set Word Count Goals.  Once you get beyond the random daily writing practice (and its okay if you never do, truly), it is fun to set yourself some goals.  I was hitting 1K words a morning with ease, so today I notched it up to 1,500.  It helps to give me some kind of framework for what I'm doing.

4.  Give Yourself a Place to Go the Next Day.  If you are working on a long project, write a sentence or two about what happens next, so that you know where to start the next day.  If you are doing random writing, choose a prompt so that you don't go in search of one on the internet and get distracted.

 5.  Stay Organized.  For some dumb reason that I will probably regret, I like to save each days' writing in a separate file, labeled with the date.  I think I like to see the files pile up in the folder I've created for them.  What I will likely soon do is put all these pieces together into a file labeled "full manuscript."  But I am notoriously terrible at organization, so you can probably figure out your own system that works well for you.

Okay, that's it!  I hope you are making progress on your WIP or enjoying writing something.  Do you have any tips for sustaining a regular writing practice?


Inventive Writing Prompt Round-up #48

Ah, yes, better late than never.  It is Saturday, albeit nearly time for Happy Hour in my neck of the woods, and here is my latest collection of writing prompts for you.  I've not been dallying around, I've been teaching all day--a fine group of local students who showed up despite forecasted temperatures of 102 degrees.  The good news is that the temps haven't been quite that high and all the attendees were wonderful.  So here are the prompts:

#330 She grabbed the envelope, tore it open and then shrieked in ______________ (delight, horror, sadness, laughter, etc.)

#331  The explosion woke her from a sound sleep.

#332  I once knew someone who ate a candy bar and washed it down with a Coke every afternoon. This ended when he was diagnosed with diabetes.  And then there was the friend who I watched eat a whole half a pie one night.  He was a recovering alcoholic.

Does your main character have a sweet tooth?  How does this manifest in his or her life?

#333 Ocean or mountains? Which does your main character prefer?

#334  Life’s a bitch, and then you die.  True, or not true? What does your main character think?

#335  If your main character were to choose one word that would sum him or her up, what would it be?

#336  Choose yourself a council of mentors.  They can be dead or alive.  Write about why each one of them inspires you.  Now do the same for your main character.


Stupid Writer Tricks: 7 Crucial Mistakes Writers Make

Dunce-school-punishment-857281-hSometimes I like to tell myself stories, say, when I'm doing the dishes (which my husband might claim is rare) or putting on my make-up and drying my hair.  And it occurred to me recently, that a couple of my favorite stories fell into the category of colleagues doing Stupid Writer Tricks. (Because, in the stories I tell myself, I'm always the heroine who is five times smarter than anyone else--and of course, I never do any of these myself.  Nope, not ever.)

And then it occurred to me that these stupid writer tricks warranted a blog post.  So here you go.  In all seriousness, these are bad habits that can derail a writing career faster than my cats attacking their food dishes at 4 AM in the morning.

1.  Not utilizing the basic tools of the trade.  In the course of my travels through the writing landscape, I have come upon several practitioners of our craft who do not have word processing programs.  God only knows what they type on, but this means, at a minimum, there's no formatting and no spell check.  It also often means that others cannot open their manuscript.  It for sure means that their submissions to anyone anywhere in the entire publishing world will be ignored and they will be branded as an amateur.

2.  Ignoring conventions of genre and structure.  Like, writing a mystery without a murder. Or thinking that it really doesn't matter if their novel's characters don't want anything.  It does to matter, because, DESIRE MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND.  And furthermore: yes, the conventions of literature apply to you.  No, your genius is not such that you can ignore them all. And if you persist in coddling your genius in this manner, guess what? The world will ignore your work.

3.  Ignoring the critiques of those whom you have entrusted to read your manuscript.  There's a fine art to taking criticism.  Sometimes, it is so clearly not applicable and that's fine.  Reject it.  But I've seen writers ignore advice that would have made the difference between a meh book and a wow book and that's just plain dumb.  Rule of thumb: if more than one person is bumping over something, consider changing it.

4.  Ignoring submission guidelines.  Years ago, at one of the first writing conferences I ever attended, an audience member inquired at an agent panel, "Does my manuscript have to be typed?" Sure wish I had a photo of the expressions on the faces of the agents there that day.  I don't think anybody these days is quite that stupid, but you'd be surprised how many people I know fail to follow the most basic of submission guidelines.  Bottom line is this: go to the website of the agent or publication to whom you wish to submit and DO EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAY.

5.  Not using social media.  Yeah, I know.  It's beneath you.  Tough.  Do it anyway. If you don't like Twitter, use Facebook, and vice versa.  If you don't like either, try Instagram (my current favorite).  Or Pinterest. Maybe you'll even be one of 10 people who like Google+!  Whatever, find something, anything that you like and work it.

6.  Posting all self-promotion, all the time.  I have a friend. She is the bane of all her writer's friends existences because all she does on social media is talk about her great she is and how everyone loves her book so much and how now she's appearing at this conference (where everybody loves her) and now she's reading at this event.  Barf.  I've got news for you--after awhile, nobody pays attention.  I know its a cliche, but what we want is to engage.  Start conversations.  Comment on what other people post.  Chat a bit. It'll get you way more followers--and it is way more fun.

7.  Not writing every day.  Because none of the above matter one bit if you don't.

Which of the above are you guilty of?  Okay, maybe you don't want to confess publicly.  So which ones are your writer friends guilty of?


Inventive Writing Prompt Round-up #47

It's Saturday, and you know what that means, don't you?  Darn right, it's time for prompts.  Here's my weekly round-up of them for you, compiled from my Tumblr blog.  And don't forget I wrote a blog post about prompt writing this week, which you can read here.  

#323  Country or city?  Which is your character most comfortable in? If its the city, show her on the farm.  If its the country, write a scene with him in the city.

#324  If your character could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

#325  Write a diary of what you (or your main character) ate yesterday, and through this account create a window into the emotions and events of the day.

#326  She was tired of it all.  So tired of the pain, the distraction, and the anxiety.  So one day she ……..

#327  If your character was assigned to start making something right now, what would it be? Dinner?  A knitted sweater? A painting? A musical composition? What and why?

 #328  He sat across from the card reader, who spread her deck out on the table between them.   When she was finished, she gazed at the cards and gasped. She looked at him, once more at the cards, back to him.  “This is absolutely incredible,” she said.  “Because…..”

#329  “It’s not much further now,” he called, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead.

How's your writing going?

 

 

 


Book Review: Step Out of Your Story

Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman

Bookcover1-194x300Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review.  And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic.  (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)

So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you?  It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman.  (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)

Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can!  Here goes:

 What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?

As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.

Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.

Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?

Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.

While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements - protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. - serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.

What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?

How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.

This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.

However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.

Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.

Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?

We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.

Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen - what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens - what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.

Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.

Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?

A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.

It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.

Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?

No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.

Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?

One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.

How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?

Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.

That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?

While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.

The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.