Category Archives: On writing

feedback

Regarding Feedback: Why you don’t have to have thick skin.

 

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Yesterday a writer friend asked my advice on an awkward situation he’d gotten into where he’d given another writer feedback that was not well received. Shocked by the negative emotional response, he wondered what he’d said or done wrong. I’m not going further into that story. It’s his story to tell or not tell, but his bringing me into the question about feedback helped me solidify my own ideas, ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time.

There seems to be a pervading myth that if we want to be taken seriously as writers, we have to develop thick skin, be open to receiving feedback from anyone and not take it personally. I reject this notion. Even considering other questions, such as when a piece is ready to be let go and be commented on by others. Receiving feedback prematurely from anyone is a risk. I wrote a short letter about that a while back after handing a trusted editor a story that had just been born.  Yet, I believe, even when you have worked your piece to a vibrant gleam, you do not have to be thick skinned regarding your work. You shouldn’t be. Fitzgerald said that as a writer “you’ve got to sell your heart.” This is validated in everything I know about the writing process. The way we slip into the skins of our characters in order to feel what they feel. The way we weave a story in time and space into strands of universal meaning. The way we work and work arranging and rearranging words. Why should we have to be willing to give our hearts away to anyone?

The best critiques I’ve gotten are from friends who are truly interested in helping me become a better writer and who understand that I know my work needs work and, from them, I’m willing to hear some possibilities as to how I might go about improving that work. I’m in a critique group now with writers I know and trust, and I feel grateful for that. During the MFA program I graduated from in 2011, we were placed in random workshop groups with people who we often didn’t know, sometimes didn’t trust. I think these types of feedback groups are the worst idea ever.  You give everyone in the group your heart and trust that they like you, aren’t the type of person who is more worried about impressing a faculty facilitator than helping you, and is wise enough not to allow their own aesthetic bias to seep into their comments.

Now, you might say one ought to be prepared to take that kind of feedback too, especially if the plan is to get the work out into the world where anyone is free to stomp on it as they please. But a work sent out into the world is a finished work, you’ve let it go. A work you’re working on should be shared with only people you trust. Believing that thick skin garbage was easy for me. I’ve spent a life time learning to toughen up. Being vulnerable is human and necessary. You do not have to be thick skinned to be a writer.

 

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goldfish

A defense of prompts, an opportunity, and a goldfish

The other day I may have bought a few books at the Half-Priced Books 50% off sale. While the checker was scanning each book (took a while), one book (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction) sparked a conversation about writing. Would this be a good book for creative writers?, the college-faced checker wanted to know, blowing his blond bangs off his face from one side of his mouth. Chris, who was standing eagerly behind me, said oh, yes, the prompts are fantastic. Hmmm. The checker, replied. I never write to prompts.

At that point we gathered our books and left, never knowing the real story of the HPB checker, who clearly had some aspirations to write creatively. But the moment made me think about prompts and why and what we use them for, how I feel about them. Look at the writing section of any bookstore and you will see oodles of books full of nothing but prompts. I’ve owned a number of these books. One that influenced me greatly as a young writer was Writing Down The Bones, a narrative with prompts meant to help you write fluidly and freely without fear.

Between the ages of 17 to say 25ish, I was part of several writing groups, some more successful than others, one or two at least that never grew beyond me sitting alone in a coffee shop writing to prompts, sure that next week some other writer eager to connect with other writers would join me. During this time, I wrote often to prompts. Sometimes those prompts became stories.

Now, I’ve written four novel-length stories and more stories than I can count. I’ve also learned the art of editing, the most important part of the writing process. Yet I still think it is important to write to prompts. To write without regard for what will come of what you’re writing. As writers we should have notebooks full of writing that is just for us, just for practice. That practice is how we become better writers. Use prompts to warm up. Use prompts to get unstuck. Use prompts to spend some time simply playing with words without the pressure of how those words hold up in service of the work you are doing for real, the art you are hoping to send out to the world.

So, today I give you a prompt. Write something with the word goldfish in it. If you send me what you wrote and your mailing address, I will send you a thank you for playing with me. In case you can’t find it anywhere else on this page, my email is eatyourwords,lizshine@gmail.com.

goldfish

Photo courtesy of fishtankbank.com

Now, having written for twenty minutes, including a line of dialogue in which a girl asks her parents “Well, can we at least get a goldfish?”, I am getting to my work of the day, picking up the novel I’m working on to see if I can find my way to the resolution of Chapter 3.

 

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comfort zone

Get out of your comfort zone

This is easier said than done, yet this is the message I’m hearing loud and clear. A message without pretense or subtlety. Let me explain what I mean, and also how it applies to my writing life–and, perhaps, applies to you and the work you’re doing too.
I am a cautious person for good reason. There has been little security or stability in my life. Until now. In response to a tumultuous life, I have nurtured certain aspects of my character: strength, independence, and shrewdness among them. I am not comfortable in vulnerability, dependence, or non-judgment. Like everyone else I have zones of comfort I prefer to stay in. This is the nature of survival. Yet, as an educator, I understand that after basic needs are accounted for, we each have exponential potential for growth and the way to expand our potential as human beings is to get uncomfortable. This is how we get better at math and it’s also how we develop compassion.

So, back to this message I’ve been receiving. In these past couple of years I’ve gotten away from a regular yoga practice, and lately I’ve been trying to get back to the mat. I am not as strong, not as balanced, not as flexible, not as focused. Classes for me have never been a necessity, just an occasional treat. I began practicing yoga at fifteen and had no idea classes even existed. I’m sure in 1989 I wouldn’t have found one in Aberdeen or Hoquiam anyway. But I had books, and books are definitely my comfort zone. I’ve practiced yoga over the years with dozens of books propped open next to my mat. However, that wasn’t working for me this time. I’d lost the passion and curiosity, needed to be led back into practice. So I signed up for two yoga series, one with my husband, one on my own.

The series I’m taking on my own turns out to be way out of my comfort zone. It’s all women and what I call woo-woo. There’s hugging, chanting, and all sorts of verbal sharing, plus tea and conversation for an undefined length of time after class. I am introverted and struggle when called to make small talk. From the first class I knew this group would not be without awkward moments for me ( though I do like the class and the people in it), but being out of my comfort zone is precisely what is calling to me right now. I just figured this out, on a walk after my second class. And just as this insight came to me, my phone buzzed. Regarding a different matter, my Dad had texted me “thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone”.

Here’s where I come to the part about writing. As I walked on, my mind went to Suz, the central character in a collection of short stories I’m writing about food and body image, and how both are connected to love and happiness. As I walked, I imagined Suz in my new yoga class and understood whether that exactly needed to happen, it definitely needed to happen. Meaning I need to get Suz out of her comfort zone. You see what I’m getting at here? Good fiction demands we put our characters in uncomfortable situations. As writers, we’ll be better at that if we’re willing to do the same.

 

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A celebration of the pause.

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I can be an intensely goal-oriented person, and mostly this has served me well. I wrote a semi-autobiographical novella in part about resiliency, or at least that was the seed. You see, directly and indirectly I have heard all my life that for me, success was unlikely, that my success is a particular miracle, unexpected. So I wanted to explore how it is that I don’t feel particularly resilient at all. I wanted to put a character in a situation somewhat like mine and see just how she might come to save herself. It’s true I was a welfare kid, a victim of childhood abuse, an intensely shy child who suffered severe allergies for all of my pre-adult life. It’s also true that genetically I am predisposed to self-destruct through addictive behavior and that I have suffered anxiety as long as I can remember.
My ability to set goals and work toward them has enabled me to manage anxiety without medication, to go from being unable to run at 24 years old to running my first marathon at 30, and to be a now National Boards Certified Teacher, 15 years of teaching experience behind me. I am a compulsive list maker and goal-setter. I can read through old journals and see that this pattern established itself early. But I’m not writing this blog as a celebration of goal-setting. I’m writing in celebration of the absence of moving toward a goal, a celebration of the pause, something I’ve come to appreciate these past few weeks.
Certainly my lists and goals serve my writing. It is this tendency that has inspired me to wake up at 4 and 5 in the morning to write first each day, that allows me to add practices to my work that keep me moving forward, like keeping a writing journal on my desk and writing down short and long term goals. But what I’ve discovered in this early morning writing time is that in the writing itself, I am best served when I can let go of all goals and give myself up to the writing itself. When I try to write fast, when I try to finish a work before it is ready to be done, when I rush editing, I ruin the work. I’ve done this over and over again.
Fortunately, I am a fan of Whitman’s insight about contradictions and I too believe I contain multitudes, thus am capable of writing slow, pausing to take walks or just stare out the window in spite of the anxious, goal-oriented me. Practices that strengthen my ability to pause include the writing itself, yoga and meditation, and time spent in nature. As I write this, I am thinking of this work we do as writers as a kind of dance where we are called to move through many aspects of ourselves to do our best work.

 

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The importance of place.

I’m four pages in to chapter two of my new book, a book I’ve outlined, made character sketches for, and even bought markers and big pieces of white paper to make visual maps of motifs and character relationships. I feel so ready to write this book!
Until, I don’t.
I’m on my second week of getting up at four in the morning to write, and I’m in the thick of chapter two. This morning I was writing a scene in a kitchen with two teens and their Dad, a primary setting in this story. As I visualized the scene in my head, moved the characters in space, rendered their words, thoughts, and actions, I realized a piece I had forgotten to plan.
I hadn’t planned the layout of the house my characters lived in, or the individual rooms. The story takes place in Olympia, but I hadn’t even planned what part of town, let alone the details of the house. For that matter, there’s a chunk of it that takes place at a school. What does it look like? In 2005?
Without an intentional plan, in order to write forward, I picked a house I used to rent as a model for my story. The point here is, though, that I did this without any awareness. Once I realized what I had done, I had to decide whether the choice was a good one or merely a familiar default. Should the story be in a different place? Where?
It is in this way that we continue to plan our stories, add to our outlines as we get deeper and deeper into the writing. The key is to recognize when to pin down the details. I noticed where I had placed my story because I was struggling with some of the details. You see, I hadn’t committed to that old house, that particular setting. I just used it to keep writing.
I have committed to it now, but I could just as easily have moved the story to a different house, across town. Two understandings emerged for me in this moment of attention. The first is that when you are writing about people in a place, you should know that place in as much specificity as possible. What color are the curtains? Does a faucet leak? Whether it’s a real place or imagined—set your story down somewhere with walls of a certain color and doors that creak, with smudges of dirt on the light switches. Draw it or pick a place you know, or both. The second thing?
Welcome these moments that demand that you add to your outline as a critical part of the process. There is such an urge to write, let nothing get in the way, because writing is hard enough. But I think I’ve caused myself more trouble than necessary writing this way.
When I print out first drafts of chapters to edit, I highlight all the specific details that emerge, mostly as a tool to keep them in the visual landscape I move through in my mind as I put words to page. Shouldn’t we welcome these breaks to draw, list, and diagram as part of creating a place for your story that seems real?

 

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house

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Wake before the sun? Are you kidding me?

At the moment, I am flying high and nothing is wrong in the universe.
Why?
Because it’s 5:30 in the morning, I haven’t even started my work day yet, and I’ve already written 700 words on my novel.
Now, I know this feeling is temporary, but humor me. Can we just relish in how I got there for a bit?
In the past ten years, I have made hundreds of writing schedules, all of them avoiding the wee hours in the morning when I prefer to be sleeping. Then, last week I had a particularly scattered, brain-tired struggle of a writing session in the evening and I panicked, realizing that I cannot end the school year thinking that fall comes I’m going to go back to the same evening writing sessions and find success. I that moment of panic, I hit upon the idea that perhaps the trouble is that I’ve been trying to fit my creative time in at the end of the day when my mind is taxed and my energy low. How does that make sense? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write first when the mind is slow in a good way and fresh?
Yikes, though. That would mean—I calculated that I’d have to get up at 4 to make coffee and walk the dogs to be writing by 4:30. I’d also have to give up walking to school in the mornings. I like walking to school. I like the slow pace and the solitude. But I could walk home from school, right? And as far as getting the exercise, my evenings would be free to stroll all I wanted because I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk beating myself up to write three sentences. Or procrastinating sitting at my desk to write three sentences by sending Carrie pins or doing the dishes.
Then, I thought: What are you willing to change to prioritize writing?
Well, I’m on day two of rising at 4 am to write and I haven’t written like this in weeks. Today I wrote 695 new words on my novel and now I’m writing this blog. I took notes on how the writing went and made a road map for tomorrow. The quiet and solitude of the morning coupled with the stillness of my rested mind is the perfect place for writing.
I never thought I’d say this…
After all, I am a morning person.

 

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zen accident

Zen Accident

I began writing poetry at fourteen or fifteen, some terrible lost and vulnerable age. I wrote reams of poems about how profoundly I didn’t understand anything, using juxtaposed words like vomit truth and playground nightmare. It seems I’d always been a gawker, but I started to write little snippets of what I saw in my notebooks: man at bus stop shaving his feet, woman screaming fuck you fuck fuck on her way to the library, or an orange is a globe of light. I also started to write down the sentences from what I read that sent a charge of delight up my spine. If I could write like that!

I’ve identified as a writer from a young age and over the years I have continued to write, record my observations, and collect sentences with inconsistent commitment. This blog is dedicated to the commitment I’ve made to make time for writing in spite of the real and imagined demands on my writing time. I’ve been distracted by so many projects during my adult life including running a marathon and earning a Masters degree, both of which took far less effort and commitment than writing a book does. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have done these things, not at all. One can’t write every single moment of every single day. When you are not writing, though, everything else is a potential distraction.

Over this past winter break I had a moment of epiphany regarding my sometimes absurd cycle of professing I need time to write, then getting that time and struggling to write three sentences, then drowning my sorrows in a glass or two of red which of course completely kills my impulse to write and clouds my thinking. Of course there are other times where the writing flows and I finish my writing time absolutely buzzed by the feeling that I’ve created something dangerously close to what I want to say and with some tweaking, by God, it just might do. I’ve strategized ways to induce this kind of creative flow. I’ve turned corners of rooms into writing nooks, made signs for doors warning: Writer At Work, snuck away to cafes, bought noise-canceling headphones, and on and on.

We’ve just moved to a new house and by winter break we’d been there nearly a month and I hadn’t even once sat in the writing nook I fashioned in one corner of our bedroom. I’d written, but never there. And that’s when a new way of looking at the whole situation struck me dumb. Over the next few days I sat to write at our family computer that is literally wide-open in the middle of the house in the family room, the most unprivate spot one could possibly occupy.

What happened? Yes, children interrupted me. Dogs too with their endless need for ear-scratches and lap time. I’m pretty sure Chris also asked me where I had put the coffee filters, which were right in front of his face where they always are, just tucked a little toward the back. As all these disruptions happened, I didn’t react resentfully to them. Each disruption happened, then I returned to the writing. This is how I finished the novella I’ve been working on for six years.

Happy accident? Result of a recently revived meditation practice?

I don’t know, but I’ll take it.

 

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Worth the wait

    I’m not entirely sure yet what this story has to do with writing, but I know that it does have to do with writing in a big way.
    There are many little and big actions that renew my commitment to write every day.
      • Running/Walking
      • Yoga/Meditation
      • Getting right to it and seeing progress (as opposed to the days where I sit down to write and waste most/all of the time checking email or social media)
      • Reading great writing
      • Attending lectures/talks/readings

It’s this last one that is the main subject of this blog entry. Last Friday, I went to the Barboza Lounge in Seattle to listen to John Darnielle read from and talk about his new and first novel Wolf in White Van. John Darnielle is known for his part in the musical group The Mountain Goats, but is making his debut as a writer. I went with my husband who is a long time fan of Darnielle’s music. I hadn’t read the book in advance and I don’t know Darnielle’s music so I wondered whether I would enjoy the talk.

What Darnielle read from his book made me want to buy it and what he said about writing made me actually take out my bank card and hand it over to the man in black holding a mini iPad with one of those magic squares that have come to replace the cash register.

The stage was set up in the usual SAL style, two deep, broad-armed black leather chairs not quite facing each other. The best seats were crossed-legged on a concrete dance floor. Chris (husband) and I sat shoulder to shoulder, waiting out the thirty minutes until the show started, drinking IPA out of plastic pint glasses. All around us people sat on their cellphones, sometimes couples sitting together staring at their tiny screens, scrolling. The more I looked around the sadder I felt for how unaccustomed we’ve become as a culture with periods of waiting.

Paul Constant (Stranger Books Editor) interviewed Darnielle. As soon as Darnielle started to speak, doubt that I would enjoy the talk and sadness from watching the tech-crazed crowd turned to enthusiasm. I don’t remember everything he said about writing and in a way the particulars don’t matter. Darnielle did not hesitate and he answered every question with authority. That he loved making stories that people might be moved by was uncontestable. We listened, rapt, until the audience question part came and people started asking questions that had more to do with themselves than anything he had said in the last 45 minutes. Were they even listening?

Writing and reading contain so many periods of waiting and that is part of what I love about both. The chance to spend an evening with a good writer willing to share his own methods for navigating those periods almost always pays in droves of inspiration.

 

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setbacks

Setbacks

 

This week I encountered a major setback in the progress of my novel after several days of sweet flow. I set a goal of eight pages per day Monday through Friday for the five weeks I will be teaching summer school. By the end of five weeks, I mused, I would be back in the practice I’d fallen out of during a challenging school year. I arranged my life so that I could be successful, including informing my family of my plan, setting up a space to do the writing, and writing myself a letter setting my intentions. Three days passed and the world was rainbows and hearts and flowers because holy cow I was writing again and that felt better than ________  (fill in the blank with your simile of choice).

Then Monday happened and I thought at first that I must be asleep having a freaky-scary nightmare. I  opened the document containing the 30,000 or so words I had so far of my novel and what did I see?

 

and therefoswimmin’wimminerefore couladded, twisting

Figure 1

It looked like someone took the letters of all the words and tossed them in the air to see where they’d land!

In the hours that followed I felt pretty certain that I’d reached the point where Liz gives up and my internal editor rose to the occasion, beating me down in that way only she can. You’re wasting your time. Think of all the books you will be able to read, how many seasons of TV you will consume. You’re life will be less stressful and you suck at writing anyway. It’s just a delusion you came up with as a little girl and why the hell do you keep pretending you are a writer? You’re a writer about as much as you are the most popular girl in school or a spy with special powers to read minds, also things you used to think you wanted.

I cried. I went to the gym and upped the weight on all the nautilus machines to make it even harder on myself, the loop of all the reasons I should just stop the madness playing on repeat.

When I came home I opened the document again thinking maybe it would be magically fixed. It t wasn’t. I didn’t write that day, but I did print out as many versions of the garbled prose I could find, vowing to make a plan tomorrow.

My plan? Retype the entire novel one chapter at a time and that is going to take some rewriting and some deciphering of nonsense. It is forcing me to consider every line and I’m cutting and adding too. I am saving a new draft every time I sit down to write in three locations: Drive, Dropbox, and the hard disk of my computer. I’m pretty sure the problem happened in the first place because I was working on a Macbook and an iPad. My iPad makes a nice ebook reader and has a nice yoga app on it, but I’m done with trying to write on it.

I wish that I could say, lesson learned, I never again have to encounter the self-doubt that accompanies setbacks in writing. Not only am I certain that sometime in the future I will have to resist the urge to delete everything I’ve ever written and take up crossword puzzles. I am also fairly certain that these setbacks make me a stronger writer and remind me why I go to all this trouble in the first place. In order to come back I had to remember that I write because I love it and that’s reason enough to carry on.

 

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Why stories matter

My seniors have spent the last several weeks reading excerpts from different styles and genres and responding to creative writing prompts. These seniors are IB students who work hard and who have now finished their testing for the year. They are just waiting to graduate. They’ve donned the apparel of the college they will attend in the fall and are playing cell phone video games, wearing slippers to class, and passing yearbooks.
Not all of them are thrilled that instead of having study hall or watching movies all class now that testing is over I am still making them read and write, but most are curious and willing to give it a try and a few have been waiting for a unit that lets them just play with words and stretch their imaginations, reaching for their own standards, not IB’s or mine.
Their final is to select one piece to read for the class in a planned, practice presentation that might include props and/or costumes. A student came in this morning to present to me. She explained how her favorite part of books is the description and that she’s always been good at writing description, but her challenge is trying to make a story out of her imagery. She worked on the piece she read extensively to move from imagery to actually having a story behind the description. Her piece was lovely, compelling, and rich in story. Her story, she explained, was a work of fiction in which she attempted to explore something she had been dealing with for the past several months: the inevitability of losing someone close to you at some point in your life (In her case, her grandparents who had both been in and out of the hospital).
We live in a world rich in story that is ours for the spinning and those stories are all deeply personal in some way. One can start with an image or a line of dialogue or an idea for a character or a theme. Why bother? Because our grandparents have been in and out of the hospital, we aren’t sure who we are anymore, or we don’t know how to get the attention of the person we think we just might want to spend the rest of our lives with—to name a few reasons. The stories that connect us are infinite and that matters.

 

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