Learning My Lesson–Again!

Week One of Classes: I survived. The students survived. And I’m sure we all went home on Friday night relieved that the first week was over and feeling a lot better about next Monday morning.

And the writing, Heather? Okay. Not so good there. I completely lost track of the mindset that would have helped me do some writing last week. I forgot that, in order to get any writing done when I’m busy, I have to stop thinking about writing a story, but instead think about writing in smaller pieces. Sadly, I sit down thinking that I really need to get that story written, and then I freeze because I don’t have the time or the ability or the energy to concentrate through such a complicated process. I can type, but I certainly can’t create.

Today, I finally came in for a landing and remembered the lesson I’d learned before about all this, and now, I’m ready to face another busy week that will include writing on terms I can cope with. The lesson is in this quote from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird:

“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

I don’t have the time to write the story, but I can write a small part of it–one scene, one moment, one character description, one brainstorming page of scribbles to work through a plot point. I can research something, or journal to clear my head. All good. All doable. If I remember the one-inch picture frame.

I’m IMG_1563going to reread this blog by Kristi Holl, too. “Chop! Chop! Writing in 20 Minute Slices.” If you’re having trouble feeling like a writer when life gets crazy, you might want to read it, too.

Hope you have a great week and that you find the time you need, even if only  a few minutes at a time, to feel like a writer.

Delaying Tactics

What do you do instead of writing? I don’t mean the things that stop you from finding the time to write, but the things that you do to avoid hitting the keyboard when you actually do have the time.

I’m one of those people that really dreads the blank page. I’m fine once I get started, but beginning something new is a struggle for me. In my head, I know that I’m only writing, in Anne Lamott’s words, a ‘shitty first draft’ (Bird by Bird). I know that every word that hits the page the first time through does not have the right to sprout roots and stay put and that changes will be made later. In fact, I really enjoy editing. However, all that ‘knowing’ does not help the fact that I would rather clean my bathroom than start typing those first words–or put in a load of laundry–or organize my files, or my bookcase, or the top of my desk–all things that normally are regularly on the bottom of my to-do list. On the plus side, starting a new project usually coincides with a much tidier office.

Now, obviously I do get started, or I wouldn’t be much of a writer, but if anyone has some tips for short-circuiting my initial plunge into a story, I’d love to hear them. And now, I’m going to pick up my story where I left off yesterday and get some work done.

My Favourite Books About Writing

Some wonderful books have been written by writers about writing and here are a few standbys that I wouldn’t be without.

If you don’t already have it, make sure you own a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. This little book is a concise guide to clear, uncluttered prose. According to Stephen King, “Strunk and White offer the best tools (and the best rules) you could hope for, describing them simply and clearly.”

 And that leads me to Stephen King. His book, On Writing: A memoir of the craft is a funny, moving, and unromantic look at his childhood, early struggles to get published, decline into and recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, and surviving a nearly-deadly collision with a van. Aside from King’s colourful insights into writing and his writing life, it is hard to find a more succinct description of the necessary techniques of the writer’s craft than in the section of this book titled “Toolbox.” You have to love a writer who declares, “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Another favourite of mine is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Combining autobiography with writing advice, this book reaches the reader with a brilliant combination of serious advice, laugh-out-loud humour, and inspiration. One of Lamott’s writing tools is always at my desk—the one-inch picture frame. Lamott says, “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” When a project of mine becomes overwhelming (and sometimes this can be daily), that picture frame gives me the freedom to write just a little bit. I can deal with that. I know I will write another bit and another–and finish the project. Ask Lamott why writing matters and she will reply, “Because of the spirit. . . .Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.” Anne Lamott’s book will feed your writer’s soul.

 Both the Lamott and the King books are sprinkled with some fairly ‘colourful’ language and, if you will find that uncomfortable reading, then here is one more great inspiration. Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a book you will want to read with a highlighter in your hand because it is so rich in ‘just right’ statements about writing. Here’s a sample: “Writing…is ninety percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you and when you write it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else.” Wow.

Of course reading about writing has its place, but the most important thing is the writing. Here are some writing starters from another favourite book of mine, The Pocket Muse: ideas and inspirations for writing by Monica Wood. Full of photographs, quotes, writing tips and ideas, it’s a book I like to open when I need a creative push. Here are a few of her writing starters:

  • “Fill in the blank and then keep going: Until _______________, nothing notable had happened in the town of Madison since the year of its founding.”
  • “Write about a person who wins something she doesn’t want.”
  • “Today’s Horoscope: Somebody close to you will tell your secret.”
  • “Write about trouble resulting from a good deed.”
  • “Write a scene in which the dramatic tension revolves around a misspelling: a road sign, the name on a birthday cake, the directions to a doctor’s office, a word in a spelling bee.”

Sometimes it’s hard to face the empty page or blank screen. Wood has this advice for people reluctant to start a writing project: “Nobody has to see that first draft but you. You can eat it when you’re done.  You can make it into origami animals and decorate a table. You can dunk it in hot water, stir it up, mash it back into pulp. You can build a fire, line a birdcage, stuff a pillow. You can’t do any of this, however, until you write the thing.”  For me, that says it all.

I have one other favourite book, No Plot? No Problem!: A High-velocity, Low-stress Way to Write a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty. I’ll write more about that closer to NaNoWriMo time.

Do you have a favourite book that you turn to time and again? I’d love to know what it is and why it is so special to you. Please add a comment and share it with me and my readers.  


Monica Wood – http://www.monicawood.com/tips.html

Natalie Goldberg – http://www.nataliegoldberg.com/

Stephen King – http://www.stephenking.com/index.html

Anne Lamott – http://www.barclayagency.com/lamott.html

Elements of Stylehttp://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/dp/020530902X

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