Sidetracked but Not Derailed

I have a passion for railroad trains. As a child, when I was tucked into bed at my grandparents’ house, I loved to listen to the distant choo choo of passing trains. As an adult, I enjoy living on the wrong side of the tracks, where I can hear the call of the trains’ whistles while I work.

Railways have been a thing since the seventeenth century. They’ve been in use in the United States almost since the country’s inception. But for the first two hundred years, the cars were drawn by horses. In the early nineteenth century, John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, came up with the idea to combine a locomotive with the steam power that was being used to propel ships along American rivers, and it was game on.

The things we love always seem to find their way into our writing, whether we mean them to or not. I often find myself sneaking train metaphors and imagery into my writing without realizing it. Train terminology has made its way into our everyday language, too.

For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin of the word sidetrack:

sidetrack (n.)

also side-track, ‘railway siding,’ 1835, from side (adj.) + track (n.). The verb meaning ‘to move (a train car) onto a sidetrack’ is from 1874; figurative sense of ‘to divert from the main purpose’ is attested from 1881.

 

Originally, a sidetrack was a short length of track to which a train could be diverted for purposes of loading freight or so another train could pass. But the 1881 figurative use of the word has stuck. Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb sidetrack as “to turn aside from a purpose.”

Derail also has its origins in railroad jargon, but comes to us from the French language:

derail (v.)

1850 (Dionysius Lardner, ‘Railway Economy’), in both transitive and intransitive senses, ’cause to leave the rails or run off the tracks; to run off the rails or tracks,’ from French dérailler ‘to go off the rails,’ from de- + railler.

 

If a train is derailed, it is a much more serious, permanent, and catastrophic departure from the train tracks. Like sidetrack, the word derail developed a figurative meaning. Today, Merriam-Webster defines the verb derail as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.” Again, a much more serious tampering, with potentially permanent results.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train at Roaring Camp, Felton, Santa Cruz County, California.

 

Writer, why am I talking to you about trains? Because I’ve been thinking about trains as I work my way back into manuscript revisions.

I decided at the beginning of summer to set aside work on my book for a month, in favor of catching up on some other things and finishing a few projects that were hanging over my head. It’s hard for me to focus on writing when other things are pulling at me. And it’s never a bad idea to give a manuscript a rest, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Once I was in a better place, I was thrilled with the idea of getting back to my book without anything hanging over my head. I woke up early in the morning and headed straight to my keyboard, free of anything else that I felt like I should be doing. But then, life happened, as it always does. Over the past several months, my day job became increasingly demanding. I worked a lot of extra hours–long days, evenings, and weekends. I found myself skipping over my early morning writing to get a jump start on my day work. I really hate having things hanging over my head.

I let myself get sidetracked from my writing.

But Writer, that’s no way to live for any length of time. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and a little blue. I like my day work, I really do–I help people, and it’s rewarding in a real world sort of way. But my family and writing and working with writers are the things I’m passionate about; those are the things that make my life worth living. If I don’t have a balanced mix of all of those things–if I consistently allow my day job (or any one thing) to get the biggest share of me–then I’m not a happy person.

I like being caught up on my work–like I said, I find it difficult to focus on writing when I’m not. But there’s always something to pull us away from our writing, am I right? I can say that just this once I’ll skip writing and start work early, but it can become too easy to do that again tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next. It’s a dangerous mindset to sidetrack the things we love too often or to feel that we must do all the other things first, before we can sit down to write. The most important things should come first if we are going to live the lives we were meant to live.

Let’s face it. Things come up. We’re going to get sidetracked from writing now and then. That’s okay if it’s an occasional thing because, on a particular day, because of particular circumstances, something else has to take precedence. But let’s make a promise to one another, Writer: we may get sidetracked now and then, but we will never be derailed. We will always get back on track.

The Calm Before the War

Last week, I wrote about The War of Art, a book by Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book was recommended to me at just the right time in my life. I finished my MFA last year and came out of it tired, but promptly enrolled in two more year-long programs and launched a book coaching and editing business, while continuing to work at my full-time day job. A little over a year ago, I was up before dawn, writing three to four hours each and every morning before my day job even started. So I know I can do it. But over the past year, I’ve mastered every excuse for not writing or for promising myself I’ll get back to my old writing routine “starting on Monday.”

Pressfield’s book was perfect for me. I was well-positioned to write for several hours a day. I just wasn’t doing it. My only obstacle was myself. So I needed someone to tell me to stop mucking around and do my work. Thanks to Pressfield’s advice, I am beginning to think of myself as a professional writer and to behave accordingly.

But as I read, I also thought about the fact that not everyone is as privileged as I am. Not everyone can climb out of a warm bed in the morning, turn on a light, make a cup of coffee and a slice of peanut butter toast, boot up a computer, and write for several hours, without worrying about anything or anyone else. (Which makes my neglect of my writing all the more shameful.)

I was gradually reminded of “prosperity theology” (abundance as a sign of divine favor) and “limiting beliefs,” a philosophy that blames any lack of success on a person’s mindset, despite the person’s circumstances.

I am uneasy with descriptions of things like drug addiction, chronic illness, and tolerating abuse as products of a mind trying to avoid creative work. I’ve been guilty of allowing life’s unnecessary dramas to keep me from writing, and that, I agree, is disrespectful of my life, my dreams, and my talents. But there are things which are not so easy to set aside or escape from. I don’t believe that someone who is in an abusive relationship or battling illness or addiction is allowing limiting beliefs to keep them from realizing their potential as a writer.

I do believe writers can find greater success by changing their mindsets and by developing professional work habits. We can be limited by our beliefs. For example, we might believe we aren’t worthy of good things in life, when we most certainly are. Or we might believe we can’t wake up a couple of hours early to write before work, when we definitely can make that shift in our schedules. But it’s a mistake to say we can’t also limited by our individual circumstances. To believe otherwise is a limiting belief in and of itself, a way of shirking our obligation of love toward our fellow human beings. It’s similar to victim blaming–a way of shielding oneself from fear by thinking, “That could never happen to me. I would never end up like that, I would never find myself in those circumstances or in that situation, because I would never do the things that person did.”

I’m thinking now of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the most basic and accepted psychological theories, usually depicted as a pyramid:

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that human beings must have their basic needs for physical well-being and safety met before they can worry about other needs. In other words, if a person is homeless, cold, and hungry, their focus is going to be on finding shelter, warmth, and food. If they’re experiencing those circumstances, and they also have children in their care, or are struggling with a drug addiction or physical abuse, they face even more difficulty. In the meantime, they probably aren’t going to knock out the great American novel. They’re not going to move up the pyramid. They’re not limited by their beliefs; they’re limited by their circumstances. They’re limited by their need to spend their waking hours looking for food, or housing, or a job, or a place to sleep or shower. As you can see, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities,” is way up at the top of the pyramid.

Do people write novels under adverse circumstances? Yes, they do. We’ve heard about the outliers, like the woman who wrote an unbelievably successful book about a boy wizard while she was a single mother, living on government assistance in a rodent-infested flat, and hiding out from an abusive spouse, or the highly successful romance author who wrote all her books late at night after putting her seven children to bed. Stories like these can make us feel ashamed that we aren’t as industrious or as dedicated. But if someone doesn’t produce art while setting mouse traps in the kitchen, applying for restraining orders, and enduring rude remarks in the checkout line as they pay for their groceries with food stamps, to say that person is being held back by a scarcity mindset is a surface-level oversimplification. Even with the outliers, if you look at their stories more closely, there is almost always a little luck or privilege involved, as well as some access to support and options not everyone has.

I’ve had some rough circumstances in my own life. I’ve overcome some tremendous odds. Statistically, I should never have even graduated high school. And yes, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been stubborn. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’m also mindful of what part of that wasn’t earned, but was luck mixed with privilege. I’ve met other women who’ve experienced similar circumstances and who, for whatever reason, were broken by them or didn’t survive them in the same way. I’ve known women who didn’t survive at all. When I was in the worst of it, I was not brave or tenacious or resilient. I wasn’t writing. I was barely getting by. I didn’t do anything special to have come out okay on the other side, and the others didn’t do anything to deserve not coming out okay on the other side. I was lucky, and I was more privileged in some ways, and they were not as lucky or as privileged. Life, in that sense, isn’t fair. I’m quite aware things could have gone a completely different way for me, and I’m mindful that I didn’t do anything to earn the fact that they didn’t.

I was lucky for a long time before I found myself in a position to be able to build on that luck with my own hard work. I survived the storm and came into the calm. Only then was I able to begin to think about anything besides battening down the hatches and bailing the boat nonstop with a thimble.

I know this is kind of rambling. I guess what I most want to say is to be kind to yourself, but also be kind to other writers. People are struggling in more ways than we can begin to imagine. Be a warrior for yourself and your own writing, but also be a warrior for those who need a boost. If you are struggling, rather than shame yourself, consider what is holding you back–I think there is a lot of power in just knowing what we are up against. And then, please, ask for help. With any of it. With all of it. There are people who will help you reach the calm so you can have peace and begin to think about other things. After that, ask for a notebook and a pencil–writing will save you. And if you’re already in the calm, if you’ve had a bit of luck, enjoy your success, but then lift others up behind you.

5 Great Keyboard Getaways

So, I’m aware of the fact that I often seem to be advising writers not to write. But it only seems that way–all the things I encourage you to do as a writer will ultimately feed your writing, even if that means taking a break from writing so your subconscious brain can do its share of the work. Still writing.

Today, I want to share five ideas for writing that get you away from your computer screen and keyboard.

  1.  Take a walk. Or listen to music. Or paint a picture. Or take some nature photographs. I give this kind of advice so often, you probably already guessed it, so I may as well list it first and get it out of the way. I used to be such a hard taskmaster when it came to my own writing. I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of all the subconscious writing tools my brain has to offer. And my writing suffered for it. My subconscious brain is much more creative than I am. These days, when I’m stuck, I don’t try to force it. I set the writing aside and take a walk. I’ve had great mentors in my life who’ve taught me that taking a walk or engaging in other creative endeavors or doing a mindless activity like washing the dishes is writing. Our brains need time to work out those plot twists and mind-blowing story endings, without the stress and pressure that stifles creativity. When I am working too hard and not taking breaks, I notice it now. The writing isn’t as good, and it doesn’t come as easily.
  2. Write the Old-Fashioned Way. Grab a notebook and a pencil and outline your novel or scene or story on paper. Do it away from your computer and your desk–sit in the comfy chair in your reading nook, or better yet, sit outside in the sunshine. This is a great way to brainstorm too. Not sure how your story is going to end? Brainstorm many possible endings in a stream-of-consciousness way. You may be surprised with the brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. Not sure what your character wants? Write a character sketch. If you dare, start writing your story or novel by hand. In a 2020 study, professor Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “the brain … is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.” She writes that: “The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.” (Why writing by hand makes kids smarter.) You might also consider printing out your keyboarded pages for reading or editing.
  3. Use Print Research Materials. Twyla Tharp suggests that artists have a box or some sort of container for each project they are working on. I love this idea and am just beginning to use it. This means that, instead of bookmarking all my research materials on the computer (although I’m doing that too), I’m printing some of the materials out so that I can read them in a more relaxed (and creatively productive) way, with a highlighter and a pen nearby. Then I toss them in the project box so they’re available when I need them. Depending on your research needs, consider visiting the library and checking out books to read for your research, instead of spending all that time on the internet which, for me, ultimately has me going down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
  4. Try Dictating Your Work. Consider writing your book (or parts of it) by dictating the words into a recording device. Our ideas begin in our minds, and like handwriting, speaking them out loud has its benefits, especially for writing dialogue. It activates different parts of the brain, stimulates spontaneous thought and ideas, and increases creativity. Try dictating hands-free while driving a long distance, gardening, or doing chores around the house, then listen back later and see what you’ve come up with. Another idea: read your printed pages aloud, or better yet, record yourself reading them and then listen back.
  5. Use a Typewriter. Like handwriting, typing offers benefits the computer keyboard doesn’t. Author Natalie Goldberg advises that “[W]riting is really a physical activity.” In Writing Down the Bones, she writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.” Many writers swear by the typewriter. John Mayer says it keeps him from editing himself when he’s writing a song. Sam Shepard says it’s more creatively satisfying, feeling the key hit the page and seeing the ink sink into the paper. I’ll go into more detail about typewriting next week.

5 Reasons Not to Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.

I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.

The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.

We had to decline the story, for several reasons:

    1. The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
    2. The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
    3. Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.

Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:

1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest.  If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.

I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.

2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.

The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.

3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.

Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.

Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.

4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.

In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the  right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.

Know what you’re getting into.

5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.

Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.

Good luck!

A Handful of Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature art and image courtesy of Christopher Wiley.

Leo Tolstoy played chess. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Jane Austen played cards. Mark Twain was into scrapbooking and inventing–he combined these two hobbies to invent the scrapbook with adhesive pages.

This week, I want to encourage you to get away from your desk and out of the house. All writing and no living makes for some dull fiction. Hobbies, outside interests, physical activity–all these things will make you a better writer. Some of the best hobbies for writers include reading, traveling, photography, and people watching. Any of these activities will expand your ideas about the world and help you to see the world and the people in it from a different perspective. They will also fill your mental arsenal with images, sounds, and smells.

I’ve lately been fascinated with asking my writer friends what they do when they aren’t writing, and the results both surprised and delighted me. I got a few more responses in recent weeks, so here’s an encore post–five more writers and their other interests. I hope these inspire you to take some risks, take a break from writing, and seek out more fun in your own life.

Linda Romano: Writer, Cyclist & Runner:

Writer Linda Romano escaping her desk for a bike ride.

Observing the environment stimulates my creative process and helps me focus. When an idea feels important, instead of relying on memory, I try to jot it down somewhere. If not in a small notebook that I keep in my car, then texts or emailed notes to my phone. The phone has become an easy way to talk to myself!

Biking, running, and most outdoor activities have kept me sane over the years from events that occurred early in my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in the beginning of Title IX when sports for girls were more available. It became an opportunity to engage in a community activity with a sense of comradeship, especially with other girls and women. Since then, I have learned to use physical activity as an escape to reengage my mind on new thoughts and avoid mental tailspins. More recently it has been an opportunity to engage with people of all ages. When I return to my desk and write, it feels like a fresh start. A sentence can take on a new form. A new idea may be triggered that wasn’t present earlier. Even a walk around the block can make a difference.

When she isn’t taking a spin around Northern California, writer and engineer Linda Romano is hard at work on her memoir.

Joe Garrity: Writer, Director & Improviser:

I got into improv, trepidatiously, as a writer first. Previously I had considered improv a sport only for professional actors, capital P Performers. I learned through watching many live shows during a semester in New York what a wide range of people took part in the practice: introverts, extroverts, listeners, talkers, leaders, followers. And I learned that none of these attributes actually belonged to anyone forever. We each contained multitudes. Shortly after college I stepped into my first improv course, a night class held at the Berkeley YWCA with retirees and computer programmers. I was terrified but slowly became acclimated to the central idea: courting terror. Disarming it. Practicing equanimity. Through one class, into another, from a theater in San Francisco to one in New York, I followed a winding path toward a friendlier relationship with my imagination. It became easier to reserve judgement, to honor feeling, to sit in uncertainty. To really laugh. Now I find myself in Los Angeles, studying at The Groundlings theater just down the street from me, where so many of my heroes have trained. I’m right where I want to be, in a scene I couldn’t have written.

Joe Garrity is a writer, director, and editor originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote, directed, and starred in the award-winning short film Twinsburg. Joe is directing Sunday Night at Jane’s by playwright Emily Powers for this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Tickets go on sale May 1st.

Christopher Wiley: Writer & Artist

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Sensory experiences spark inspiration for me. Creating art becomes tactile, visual and problem-solving encounters for my brain. It is relaxation, a brief vacation from the assemblages of words on a blank page. It encourages uninhibited mind wandering that allows me to tap into unfiltered thoughts, ideas and feelings. Art also makes good practice for experimentation. I’d say that my art is craft-oriented, relying on mostly found objects and materials. Discovering and using found things for art projects gets me to see these discarded objects in a new way. Putting unusual or unlikely objects together in the physical world is a great exercise for expanding a writer’s mind. It cultivates my writer’s third eye that urges me to see—and express—the world clearly and creatively.

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Christopher Wiley’s short play Irreversible Binomials recently premiered at The Post Theatre Company at Long Island University. Several of his poems recently appeared in Bending Genres and Peculiar.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher: Writer, Pianist & Snowboarder:

Playing the piano provides a perfect break when I’m writing. I mainly play the same few pieces (occasionally I learn something new, and an old favorite drops off the rotation), so practicing has an immediate effect; I can hear myself improve. Unlike with writing, I know the notes, so I can change the tone, the pace, the emotion. That resets my brain.

I can’t do this as often, but I also love to snowboard. How else can one access a snow-covered Narnian forest? On snowy tree days, I’m through the wardrobe, which will never stop being my ultimate fantasy. Also, when I’m in extreme terrain, which I prefer, I am one hundred percent in the moment. I’m a chronic overthinker, so the sudden silence in my brain is a tremendous relief. Sometimes this happens when I write, but not as frequently; danger forces the switch. I tend to have lots of ideas after I access that (underused) portion of my brain. And more optimism. At the top of a giant mountain, there’s no past (regrets) and no future (worries)—there’s only that rock and that cliff and that tree.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher‘s short story “Family Map” recently appeared in Kelp Journal.

Mick Guinn: Writer, Recording Artist, Gardener, Cyclist, Polymath ….

I was told recently (by a professional who should know) that my curse is I’m a polymath, which has nothing to do with math, which is good because I’m just “okay” at math, unless it’s financial woe math where I’m wont to articulate and exaggerate in great algebraic detail––which still doesn’t make me good at math––but doesn’t rule out the possibility of polymath. It could just be my ADHD. However, if the polymath diagnosis is correct, it may explain why my careers and pastimes are strewn all over the place like socks that never made the hamper.

As a recording artist and lyricist of questionable talent, I often unconsciously create wildly rhyming sentences with cadences like dances that call too much attention to themselves. All the while, pining for something more akin to the liquidity of lyrical prose to drop on the page. Most of the time when my butt is bolted to the chair as instructed, weeds call me out of it. The pullable, not smokable, kind.  Gardening’s in a different part of what’s left of my brain, giving the write brain a rest. I’m particularly obsessed with pruning, which feels like editing. Cycling sans earbuds does something similar. That’s when I hear the voices. I used to throw pots for the same unthinking reason. I guess the best pastimes for me are ones that use the unused parts of my brain.  Or the knees I need to take a walk with now.

Mick Guinn is unsurprisingly unpublished at this time, but currently completing work on a 3000-page coming-of-age memoir titled, Based on a True Story, which he hopes still is.

WRITER TIP: How do your outside interests enrich your writing life? Consider not only the direct connections, but indirect benefits. If running is your thing, you don’t have to come back from a run with a full-blown story idea. As Collin Mitchell shared last week, running and other physical activities release endorphins and keep us mentally and physically healthy. Other activities might exercise our right brains or help us keep our mental edge. All these things will make us better writers and will keep us in top writing form for many, many years.

Writing and Writing on Running

Please enjoy this guest post by writer and runner Collin Mitchell.

Much has been written about the relationship between running and the successful writing life: there are the obvious comparisons between the slog of marathon training and producing a novel, the way fresh air and exertion clears fog from the brain, and the age-old idea that any kind of pain makes one stronger.

Generally speaking, I have no argument with any of this.

So why write more about running and writing? What else is there to say, really?

Writers, perhaps more than most people, can appreciate the link between mental stimulation and an agile mind. Riding a bike or people-watching at the mall are decent ways to get words on the page—or at least delay them. We all want something (in this case, writing the Great American Novel), yet it’s the path we choose, or are forced to take, that’s the more interesting point of the story.

So, what of the pursuit of writing a novel, or anything, really? John Gardner has said that the primary subjects of fiction are human emotion, values, and beliefs. Is running an embodiment of this idea while also serving as a means by which to write?

By some stroke of fate, running found me. It’s also one of the few things I know how to do as well as eat or go to the bathroom, so I consider myself lucky that something which fell into my lap has proven to be natural to my disposition. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami intimated something similar in his musings on running. Much in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, appeals to me—the workaday approach to running and writing, the satisfaction with boredom. In short, we both need (more like, crave) the empty, benign space running provides. But here, I’d rather reflect on an anecdote that doesn’t describe me at all. Murakami writes:

I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

Each of these traits is a “no” for me. I began running at twenty-five because a friend, who had just finished his first marathon, encouraged me to give it a try. His accomplishment made me jealous in the best way, and I went for it. I’m still running nearly fifteen years later. My writing life had a similar trajectory. After years of avoiding the desire to write, I finally got started after a friend asked me to contribute something for a zine he was putting together. That same friend, (over years, mind you) cajoled me into working with him on a film, then movie scripts, and finally an animated TV pilot that got some attention in a handful of Burbank production offices. And then, after all that, when this same friend got his MFA and connected me with a paid writing gig, it finally occurred to me (boy, am I dense) that I should take myself a little bit more seriously. Unlike Murakami, I specifically don’t do whatever I feel like and almost always, wait for permission to move forward. Of all the things I wish I could change about myself, this is number one.

So what do writing and running and me have to do with each other? Well, we were pushed together, like reluctant kids at a junior high dance. Over the years we’ve found that if we have to be here (read: in life/on earth) we might as well stick together. Like the scrappy outcasts in an ‘80s movie, we’re gonna get through this and hopefully get to the end, with a pizza and a pitcher of Coors Light to celebrate.

Mostly, I don’t know what I want to do with myself on any given day. If I could walk around the neighborhood from sunup to sundown, I would. But this won’t work with my current lifestyle (marriage/kid), so running has to get the job done—it’s more efficient. Similarly, I would love to read all day, but some priggish sense of duty and productivity doesn’t allow me to do that. So, instead, I do something slightly less indolent, and I write. Which means I have to push a lot of inertia aside.

Running gets my feelings in check, and together we wrangle in the aimlessness of living. Anger turns to indifference, or better, empathy. Frustration turns to mild annoyance. With any luck, enthusiasm raises its eager head.

But more than this, running is about remembering who I am. The real me, or the ideal me. The me who can transform an old story idea into something resembling a plot. The me who has the imagination to finally get some lines of dialogue out. The me who cares enough about himself, even if just for an hour, before the endorphins drop, to make something with my time. This is the me who is ten years old again and doesn’t care about what others think or how much money I’ve made or any of those other distractions.

Running makes me familiar with myself again and asks, gently, if I might want to take a step forward, pursue my wants. For a moment, those narrative emotions, values, and beliefs are in stark relief. If I take a moment, and walk through the mental opening a good run provides, I can have a story to call my very own.


Collin Mitchell is a graduate of the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He contributes to Publishers Weekly and Los Angeles Review of Books, and he lives in Redlands.

More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image courtesy of Mackenzie Kram.

Sylvia Plath kept bees. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks. Emily Dickinson was an award-winning baker. Franz Kafka collected porn.

I can’t remember what triggered it. I think it may have been a book I was reading, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Whatever it was, I recently began noticing that my writer friends all have really cool hobbies and other creative outlets. I asked them to share how these other pursuits feed their writing. The responses I’ve gotten have been fascinating and enlightening. This is the last of three installments (at least for now) of writers talking about their other interests. Enjoy!

Rodney E. Schmidt: Writer & Hiker:

My writing and pastime activities run on different freeways that never intersect or run parallel. I write paranoid fantasies about Luddites and opportunists who try to shine in a bleak world, while my hobbies consist of me hiking through the mountains or deserts alone. Like I said, binaries. I’ve wandered so miles across this planet, and during that time, I’ve never thought that I needed technology to make my moment any better. Nor has there been a time when I’ve written about a dystopian future filled with nature and solitude. Maybe the dyad keeps the balance in my mind, influencing my plots, placating my fears. In both fiction and reality, I’m allowed to explore. And in both science fiction and nature, forces more significant tower over me. Maybe there’s a bigger connection than I thought.

Rodney E. Schmidt’s short story “Like and Follow” recently appeared in Caustic Frolic.

Paulla Rich Estes: Writer & Nature Enthusiast:

Walking my dog in the woods near my house, I witness the seasonal changes of Maine—the fall colors, winter snows, spring blossoms, and summer growth. But there’s a point on the path, twenty minutes to a half hour in, where something in me shifts. After mentally ticking down my checklist for the day, my brain exhales and I begin to write. Ideas crop up that I voice-text to myself, and I allow nature to help find the book inside me that’s waiting to be written.

Paulla Rich Estes’s essay “Extraction” recently appeared in The Coachella Review.

Writer Paulla Rich Estes and her companion Dinah.

David Olsen: Writer & Surfer

Surfing is an interesting sport. It seems super niche and sort of inaccessible. At least it did to me for years. I started surfing in earnest in my thirties. The ocean’s crushing jaws, great white sharks just beneath the surface—a close friend of mine was even attacked in Marina years ago—made the ocean seem like a counterintuitive place to find solace. But that is exactly what it has become for me. A solace from the land-world. Out beyond the breakers, reality becomes something new, something silent, and something potentially deadly. It is an experience like no other. And it is in this element, this tranquil, glittering reality beyond the breakers, that I feel truly alive. I think everyone needs a space like this, especially creatives. A space where it feels like you can be alone with just your thoughts and connect to the natural world. Sometimes it’s not about the wave riding, it’s just about existing in that realm for as long as you can, before you have to come back to the real world. I am always a little bit disappointed to have to come back. I always want just one more moment, or one more wave.

David Olsen is a writer and the Editor-In-Chief of Kelp Journal. His work has been widely published, including an essay in CrimeReads, “How Surf Noir Changed My Life.”

Mackenzie Kram: Screenwriter, Filmmaker & Aviation Enthusiast:

To me, airplanes represent freedom, creativity, and enlightenment. As a writer, a lot of my stories have been influenced by aviation and airplanes. For example, most of my characters are either flight attendants or in relationships with flight attendants. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Believe you can and you’re already halfway there.” Connecting the dots with this quote, aviation brings me the spark I need in my writing, allowing me to relate to characters and write screenplays with hints of aviation throughout. My screenplay, Airport Mime Hunt, was partially influenced by my love for airplanes and airports, specifically the Portland International Airport. When faced with writer’s block, or whenever I hit a brick wall in my writing, I go out and plane spot. Sometimes, I even spend all day plane spotting at Palm Springs International Airport or plan my schedule around spotting an inaugural flight (new route or new airline).

Whenever I fly, I try to make trip reports whenever I get a chance, allowing me to use my filmmaking skills while bringing my audience along for the ride. Like writing, I always know what I film, when to film, and where to film, giving me the right cues in making trip reports. Now with my new job as a ramp agent, I get flight benefits, allowing me to spend even more time around airplanes and flight attendants.

The photos on Mackenzie Krams popular Instagram have gotten likes from the airlines (AHA!, Allegiant, Frontier, Sun Country, Swoop, and United). The airplane photos below, as well as the photograph at the top of the post (an Alaska Airlines Jet taxiing at the Palm Springs International Airport for an early morning takeoff) were all taken by Mackenzie Kram.

Two Alaskan Airlines jets at Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

An American Eagle jet and an Alaskan Airlines jet side by side at the Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

A Sun Country jet making a sunset landing.
Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

Andréa Ferrell Gannon: Writer, Class-Taker & Verb Hunter:

Kill for time for a hobby…. Before being locked in with teens all week, then alone with my memories and manuscript all weekend, I tried painting and improv. Yes, both are useful for stirring writerly juices. The most surefire way to get me writing though is working under great writer-teachers; I’m a big class-taker.

Looking forward for inspiration, since my life will calm down in June, I’m considering a summer job outside of my current field–something somewhere where gobs of different people are. I just want to stare at them!

And learning the new skills for the new job will give me new verbs. I love me some new verbs for revving up the ol’ writing!

Andréa Ferrell Gannon’s opinion piece, “First Came the TikTok School Shooting ‘Challenge.’ Then Came the Fear” recently appeared in the Washington Post.

L.A. Hunt: Writer & Rebel Flaneur

I see the most extraordinary things on my walks through East Hollywood and Silverlake—nature flourishing, life unfolding, time passing. And sure, I walk for health. But mostly, my mind wanders. And to my surprise, a different reason altogether has emerged for why I walk; it’s the time I get to devote to myself. See, I spend most of my days and nights and early mornings and late evenings, and every moment in between, taking care of other people. I am a mother, after all. And a teacher. Two of the most demanding roles on time, effort, and breath. When I breathe at work, it’s out of frustration or under pressure. When I breathe at home, it’s out of worry or from guilt. But on a walk, by myself, my breath is free, easy. Uninhibited. Of course, as a writer, the benefits of walking are incalculable, for obvious reasons. But I don’t walk for my writing anymore, because even that, in a way, is for something else outside of myself. I walk as an act of rebellion now. I am a radical. No one knows this. But on my walks, every breath I take is because I choose to breathe. I can also choose not to breathe which, by the way, is not recommended by any sane medical doctor or person with a brain. But the choice. It’s mine. I breathe in not because, if I don’t, my classroom will fall apart or my family system will break down. I breathe in because I am in the moment, I am a woman who feels every woman before her who didn’t have the choice to breathe or couldn’t breathe or was suffocated. I breathe in because I relish the choice to do so. On my walks, I smile. I laugh. I think. I cry. I sing out loud. I talk to myself. I argue. And I do it all as me without the external expectations of being a mother, a sister, a wife, a teacher, a writer, or a friend. I walk, and I breathe; they’re both free. Or rather, freeing. I know, radical, right?

L.A. Hunts essay “The Tree of Life” recently appeared in GXRL magazine.

East Hollywood and Silverlake as seen on the author’s walks.
Photo credit: L.A. Hunt

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: For the last few weeks, I’ve been asking my friends who write about the other things they do creatively or just for movement or fun. The first week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing in 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. Last week, we heard from Matt Ellis, Chih Wang, Ioannis Argiris, Sara Grimes, Jaime Parker Stickle, and Ashley Corinne in 6 More Writers & Their Pastimes. Next week, I have a more in-depth dive into the ways running benefits a writer.

6 More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image of writer & aerialist Chih Wang courtesy of Brandi Cooper.

I got such a great response to my request for the ways my writer friends’ pastimes inform their writing that I thought I’d share a half dozen more this week … and a half dozen more next week! Here’s part two of writers talking creative pursuits, hobbies, and side hustles.

Ioannis Argiris: Writer & Stigmatophile:

Collecting tattoo imagery is a process that inspires my writing work when I’m capturing a mood. I try to find images to connect to that emotion, like courage (panther head tattoo) or anger (dagger), and I think about how the lines and colors that make up that graphic affect my writing. Seeing so many variations of the images expressed by many wonderful tattoo artists helps me find the words I can try out on the page.

Ioannis Argiriss short story “U-Haul” recently appeared in Kelp Journal. His new zine, encinal nights: speculative stories, features four short stories and will be available in April at local Bay Area bookstores and online.

Chih Wang: Writer, Editor & Aerialist:

My other big thing I love to do is aerial hammock, but I’m not sure if it actually helps my writing. When I’m frustrated and feeling low about the progress with my novel, I can sometimes turn to aerial where my progress is much more obvious. Learning a new skill in a one-hour class reminds me that I can still accomplish things and perhaps that bleeds over to my writing morale.

Chih Wang is a freelance copyeditor and is the copyeditor for Kelp Journal. You can reach her at cywediting.com.

Aerialist Chih Wang. Photography credit: Brandi Cooper.

Sara Grimes: Poet & Stand-Up Comedian:

Cutting my teeth in comedy has been a useful tool for developing my poetic voice. When I am feeling depleted in one area of my creative life, it allows me to pivot to another outlet. I have days when inspiration strikes to write a comedy set. On those days, I may be sitting at a coffee shop, and I can feel my consciousness expand and welcome in thematic material to riff off of. It will often start with one joke or idea, and then my writing acumen will come in handy to develop that into a larger bit woven together thoughtfully. This gets the creative juices flowing, and maybe later that day, I will be walking my dog through a neighborhood on the precipice of spring, and I will be inspired to write a poem about it. Then, I will sit down and apply the same balance of craft and lyric flow to my poetry.  There is a sense of rhythm, movement, and pacing to both forms of art.

In this clip, I think the role of emphasis and syntax in both genres is heightened as well: “QR Codes Are the New Classified Ads”

Sara Grimes’s poem “Isolation” recently appeared in The Dewdrop‘s “Isolation Shorts.”

Jaime Parker Stickle: Writer & Podcast Host:

I started a podcast to be able to sit with other artists once a week and talk about all the things, all the jobs, all the money-making gigs we do and have done in pursuit of our careers as writers (and other artists). It really feeds my work as a writer in so many ways–hearing incredible stories from fellow artists inspires me to keep working and not give up. It honestly aids the way I build characters, especially in my screenwriting. I’m often motivated to write characters that I think the actors I have on the show would play with grace and humor and ease. And that is so exciting to me.

The podcast has become such a passion of mine because of how much fulfillment it provides to me creatively, and it keeps me tethered to a community of artists, where I may otherwise feel isolated as a writer. I know my writing is better because of it.

Jaime Parker Stickle is a writer and the co-host of Make That Paper! Podcast.

Writer and podcast host Jaime Parker Stickle

Matt Ellis: Writer, Musician & Air Wave Wanderer:

One of my favorite MFA lecture moments was when thriller novelist Ivy Pochoda likened plot building to releasing a herd of rabbits to run. Her revelation was both mind-blowing and daunting. I’d written long enough to know that once your characters had their own lives and voices, they could drive the story in new and surprising ways. Easy, right? For a successful career, all you need is to create a vast stable of fully realized characters and keep churning them out like a dungeon master with three bags of dice. Oh … but wait … they also need to be both wholly original and identifiable to your reader simultaneously? Reality check, please.

Like many people, I spend far too much time in my car. While switching off the stereo can invite the creative journey that only bumper-to-bumper boredom can bring, getting lost in those mental excursions can invite real-life danger and drama. My solution—reality podcasts! You want authenticity in your writing, let fact drive your what-if explorations. I don’t find the gold in mining sensational stories or the peaks of meteoric rises. Those are already too well known and lean toward the cliché. I’m obsessed with grassroots. Causes that help me shape different effects.

An unusual This American Life profile of an investigator who identifies unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles led me to some profound questions that became my current manuscript. Another led me to a new raison d’être for a critical character that I had to resurrect and carry for two hundred more pages. Need insights into the moral calculus of high-stakes operations for your geopolitical thriller? Tune into Malcolm Gladwell’s exploration of the WWII fire-bombing campaigns on Tokyo in Revisionist History. Got a crime story about street gangs? The Freakonomics crew will tell you the economic reasons many drug dealers still live at home with their mothers.

I’m not saying poach for your prose, but we can all modify a splice of DNA for our own sequencing. Now put on those sunglasses, adjust the seat, and tune your stereo EQ from rock to talk.

Matt Ellis’s short story “Off the Road” was recently published in Kiss the Witch.

Ashley Corinne: Writer, Singer/Songwriter & TV/Film Aficionado:

When I’m not reading or writing, I’m more than likely watching TV or movies or listening to music.

Music is my very first love. I was a singer and a songwriter before I was anything else, thanks to mornings with Radio Disney’s pop jams, princess movies, and Breakfast with the Beatles on 95.5. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of turning the volume up with your headphones in and pretending you’re in a dramatic music video.

While I don’t do so much songwriting these days, and I only sing alone in the car (like my life depends on it), music is the one thing that keeps my brain from folding in on itself. I’m constantly curating playlists for seasons, moods, and feelings or finding film scores to match my reading mood. I just finished putting together my spring playlist, and I’m rather proud of it.

Once I’m finished dancing around my room and performing Ashley: The World Tour for an imaginary audience, my brain is refreshed and full of new ideas for writing.

Film and TV are my other two vices. I’ve always had obnoxious opinions on them, and I’m shocked to read old Facebook statuses where I raved about bad TV like it was a Monet. I do love bad TV, don’t mistake that, but I love so much more about film than my “guilty pleasure” watching (which I do not ever feel guilty about, btw).

I work for a movie studio (an unexpected life turn), where I’ve worked in both film and television, and it’s completely changed the game for me. I not only obsess over storytelling and hot people on my screen, but I’ve become downright geeky about the production process. Writing, VFX, dailies, color and costume tests, MPA rating processes. It’s exhausting and lovely and somehow still one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Watching movies and television allow me to stay close to what I love about reading and writing: storytelling, character, themes, etc, but I’m still able to keep the two separate. And once I’m done with a new show (or an old one I’ve seen a hundred times), I can see my own work so differently. It lets me see that maybe the direction or tone I had started with isn’t actually where the story needs to go.

Ashley Corinne’s essay My Brain Is in a Supermassive Black Hole: A Twilight Reread recently appeared in GXRL.

Writer Ashley Corinne enjoys music, TV & film, and coffee shops.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Last week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing. Read all about it here: 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. What things do you do to keep the creative juices flowing?

6 Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image “Morning Star” courtesy of Trey Burnette.

I’ve been fascinated lately with the way our creative interests and hobbies play into or support our writing. Nearly all of my writer friends have other interests. Some are creative, some are just for fun, some are more grounding. I asked a half dozen writers to tell me about their other creative or just-for-fun pursuits and to discuss how those things inform their writing.

Amy Reardon: Writer, Dancer & Erasure Poet:

“I make erasure poetry to entertain myself and my friends because I find it relaxing and empowering to pull out a deeper agenda within a text. I attend ballet class because it gives me so much pleasure to be in this group of retired ballerinas for whom it is easy and natural to move beautifully. I love being in the room with the music and the barre and the teacher. I’m often the worst one there–and I am learning the language and the moves so it’s humbling and overwhelming, and I have to concentrate so hard–all feelings I put myself in intentionally to inform my writing. But mostly it’s just the beauty. Bodies doing ballet are about the most beautiful thing I can imagine.”

Amy Reardons essay “Stuck” recently appeared in The Believer.

Nicholas Belardes: Writer, Birder & Photographer:

“Nature trails. Birds. Animal life. Behaviors. Birding informs my fiction writing daily. Everything from the jewel of a Summer Tanager to a coyote gulping down a poor bunny. These moments sneak into my stories, help me illuminate how beautiful and dangerous the world can be. My sci-fi story ‘Sky Seekers’ in El Porvenir, Ya! was inspired by what AI birding could be in the far distant future.”

Nicholas Belardess short story “Sky Seekers” is in the Chicano science fiction anthology El Porvenir, Ya!

Summer Tanager, Pismo Beach Campground. Photography credit: Nicholas Belardes.

Anna Reagan: Writer, Reality TV Expert & Celebrity/Pop Culture Queen:

“My Reality TV pleasure brings me a sense of community with people. Instagram, Reddit, friends, etc. Like with the women in my squad, we had such a good time discussing Love is Blind. After and during the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that I need the escape of reality TV and the drama of people I don’t even know on TikTok. It’s fun and it doesn’t affect me directly. I’ve always loved people and their stories, and though people deem it trashy, I love it!

“I think for Real Housewives in particular there can be very complicated issues at hand and human drama—especially how we react to things—is on display. Dissecting with friends and seeing what the internet has to say is really fun and can lead to really interesting conversations. There’s of course the element of some of it being contrived. Some housewives are AMAZING at stirring the pot and Bravo fans will joke that those housewives themselves are producers when we know they want to keep their jobs. There’s also the phenomenon of the second season housewife who totally changes in various ways to respond to their debut season, which can be fascinating. I could go on, clearly.

“For celebrity culture it’s the same but different. Growing up in LA and being around big names, I’ve had a front row seat to how these people act. For instance I went to school with a now B-list actor’s daughter and the daughter of perhaps the most famous living director. And the director’s daughter was incredibly down to earth while the actor’s daughter made a huge display of ordering take-out for lunch everyday—which is expensive—AND had a town car pick her up. So I learned a lot about how people in Hollywood display their insecurities. So celebrity gossip is sometimes like gossip about people I know. But then I’m also a nosy bitch.

“And I just can’t be out of the loop about any cultural phenomenon. I’m too interested in the general discourse. I am getting better at being okay with not being in the loop with everything. I’ve stayed away from Euphoria because it seems anxiety producing. Progress.”

Anna Reagans essay “Dear Kobe Bryant: A Threnody: Wake Up. Grind. Repeat. Become Better” recently appeared in Public Seminar.

Trey Burnette: Writer & Photographer:

“Writing is very cognitive and sedentary, as opposed to photography, which is very instinctual and active. While my artistry and emotion come through my mind with writing, my creativity with photography comes through my body. First through my eyes, and then by a reactive feeling in my body. There is less time to think with photography, one must act on impulse, or miss the shot. Photography is not done sitting at a desk – one stands, sits, squats, climbs, and lies on objects to get the right shot. Both mediums compliment the other; after one is physical and instinctive with photography, there is space for the meditative and heady practice of writing. Photography clears my mind and puts me in the moment. It gives me the space I need to subconsciously process my writing and then return with a fresh view. Writing helps a photographer think about story. Photography helps the writer listen to their instincts.”

Trey Burnettes essay “September 1” recently appeared in Cheat River Review.

“Morning Star” – Photography credit: Trey Burnette

Jackie DesForges: Writer, Artist & Poet:

“For me, being creative has always been about play, to an extent. Trying things and having fun and pushing myself intellectually in an environment where nothing is at stake and where no one else gets a say in what I am doing. Writing used to be like this for me, but now that it is becoming more like work (which, of course, was the goal and I am grateful for it), I need other forms of creativity to fill that void of doing shit for shit’s sake. For me right now it’s getting back into visual art (which I did a lot as a child but stopped for about a decade), and writing poetry, which I always thought I hated and was bad at. Turns out I just hadn’t yet found types of poetry that spoke to me. I also find it helpful to be able to switch to another creative project when I get stuck on another. It feels like a productive way to take a step back until I know how to move forward. And since I am usually working on more than one thing at a time, each of the projects end up having hints of each other.”

Jackie DesForgess essay “How to Build an Artist” recently appeared in Air/Light.

Laurie Rockenbeck: Writer & Fiber Artist:

“I could go on for hours about fiber arts. Planning a knitted piece is a lot like planning a story. Instead of words, the story of a fabric is told in color and fiber. The process uses complimentary parts of the brain that feed my need to create. Knitting uses a different but equally creative part of my brain.  Sometimes when I am stuck on a scene, I’ll pick up the needles to put myself into a different mode.  This change in focus often unlocks a fix.”

Laurie Rockenbeck is a Seattle crime fiction writer hard at work on her next novel. She also makes the best quince liqueur I’ve ever tasted.

One of Laurie Rockenbeck’s fun current projects–a gnome every month in 2022.

Author Laurie Rockenbeck shows off one of her many knitting projects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITER TIP: Scientific studies have shown that having creative interests and hobbies outside of writing will make you a better writer. Hobbies are good for people in general–they support physical health and emotional well-being. For writers, they have added benefits: they get us up and away from our desks; stimulate different centers in our brains; provide us with opportunities to observe people and the world around us; and inspire us creatively. One of my favorite short story writers, Flannery O’Connor, wrote: “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”

Write Hard

I’ve been reading about writing, editing, and creativity lately, and a theme that keeps popping up is the amount of time and hard work it takes to acquire natural born writing talent.

We’ve all read stories of “overnight success”–talented actors, writers, musicians, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere. What we don’t hear about are the years of hard work these overnight successes put into honing their craft, not to mention the innumerable instances of rejection. When it comes to overnight success, what it boils down to is this: when their moment to shine arrived, they were well-prepared. They were ready.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp discusses the phenomenon of the overnight success: “It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. … I come down on the side of hard work.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, widely accepted as a genius whose talent and skill came fully-formed and naturally to him at birth. That’s what this excerpt from Mozart’s Wikipedia page would have us believe anyway: “Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five … .”

The thing is, we are all born with a talent, and often more than one talent. Part of the difference between someone born with musical talent who succeeds, and someone born with the same talent who does not succeed, is the luck of the draw. What the legends about Mozart often fail to mention is the family Mozart was born into. There was a clavier in the house, among other instruments. Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a talented musician in his own right–he was a violin virtuoso and even has his own Wikipedia page. He was a composer, played several instruments, and made his living as (get this) a music teacher. He noticed his son Wolfgang had musical talent when the child was a toddler, and he had the skills and the time to nurture that talent.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791 at age six

I mean, yes, Mozart wrote his first music compositions when he was four or five years old, but so what? I wrote and performed my first poems at the age of six and wrote a complete book series at the age of nine. The question for both of us is this: yes, but how good were they? Tharp notes that, “Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five.” Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that my book series about two frog brothers never found a publisher.

The other difference besides luck, I firmly believe, is hard work. Talent and luck without hard work are candles in the wind, in my opinion–weak, fragile, likely to burn out. This was true even of Mozart, who had everything going for him. “Nobody worked harder than Mozart,” Tharp writes. “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

Mozart acknowledged this himself. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

I thought of these things recently, when I watched the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. As the story tells it, Richard Williams and Oracene Price had two daughters with the intention of raising them from birth to be tennis greats. Both Williams and Price became tennis coaches in order to coach their daughters. They instilled a tremendous work ethic in their daughters, and the Williams family worked hard together and made many sacrifices, each and every day, to achieve their dreams.

Tennis stars Venus Williams and Serena Williams

I can extend this example to Will Smith, too, the actor who played Richard Williams in the film. I once heard actor Penn Badgley (You; Gossip Girl) respond to an aspiring actor who asked him how to break into acting. I wish I could find the exact quote or the clip–if I’m able to, I’ll add it here and share it on Twitter. It was so good. But basically, his response was to keep acting, to keep working at it. To practice. He pointed out that attorneys go to seven years of college before they can practice law, and doctors go to eight years of college and then several years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice medicine. Acting is a career choice, he said, and actors have to put in those same years of study and practice.

Anyway, my point is, Will Smith had been acting for 12 years before he received his first Academy Award nomination for Ali in 2002. That’s 12 years from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to greatness, and he was actually acting even before that, in music videos for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” in 1989 and 1991. Smith was nominated for an Academy Award again in 2007 for The Pursuit of Happyness, and he was nominated this year for King Richard. Perhaps this is the year he will win. If so, it won’t have come out of nowhere. It will have come after nearly 25 years of hard work, commitment, and tenacity.

Actor Will Smith. Photography credit: Lorenzo Agius

 

If hard work = genius, then practice = excellence.

When I was a student in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, I had the incredible good fortune to work on my short stories with Mary Yukari Waters for a year. Waters is an award-winning writer, the author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites, and an exceptional human being. She’s won an O’Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for her writing, and her own stories have been in Best American Short Stories … three times. When I struggled to get my words onto the page in the same brilliant way they came to me in my head, Waters explained not only the importance of practice, but its significance.

Consider this: Babies spend their first three years learning to talk. They begin making sounds at around six months. By the age of nine months they can understand a few words and begin to experiment with making many sounds. From around their first birthday to the age of 18 months, they learn to say a few words. By the age of two, they can string short phrases of two to three words together. By the age of three, they have a rapidly expanding vocabulary and begin to string short sentences together.

Although babies can only speak a few words at the age of 12-18 months, they can understand many more words–around 25 according to experts. Although they can’t speak sentences until around the age of three, they can understand them and respond to them. Last night, my granddaughter Louise, who is ten months old today, was trilling her tongue and saying, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da-da-da” on repeat. She was practicing. She can’t say the words, but she uses sign language to signal when she wants to “eat,” when she wants “more,” and when she’s “all done.” No, she can’t say the words, but she understands the words and their meanings. It’s all in her head, although she can’t articulate it in speech yet.

It’s the same with writing, Waters explained. When it comes to writing, we are like babies, with ideas in our heads, but without the ability to articulate them. The words are in our heads much sooner than we’re able to express them fully on the page. We are baby writers, and with practice, the words we write will more and more closely resemble the ideas we picture in our minds. It takes practice to get them from our brains and into our writing.

Mary Yukari Waters, author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites

For a writer, perhaps nowhere does the hard work of writing show up more than in a writer’s devotion to rewriting. Revision. Self-editing. Hard work. In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell recalls: “There is a saying: Genius is perseverance.” Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, she writes with admiration about the intense work Fitzgerald put into the novel. She calls the novel “a tour de force of revision,” and she means that as a compliment of the highest order. Commenting on the words critics use to describe the novel, she concludes: “Careful, sound, carefully written; hard effort; wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised; structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to willful editing.”

The bottom line is, excellence in writing (or in anything) is more a matter of hard work than innate talent. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome after reading your contemporary literary heroes’ latest work, like I am, think about what it took for them to get there. You have those same tools at your disposal–hard work, dedication, persistence, perhaps a stubborn streak and a thick skin. Excellence and genius and mastery reside in you, too. Add hard work and practice, shake well, and pour it onto the page.

WRITER TIP: Perhaps no one acknowledges the need for practice more than golfers. Ben Hogan and Gary Player are generally considered to be among the greatest golfers of all time. “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good,” Hogan said. Player put it this way: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Keep in mind that what we call genius is made up mostly of hard work, daily practice, and stick-to-it-iveness. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.