It’s funny how once you give yourself permission to spend 2 hours a week away from your family and friends in the interests of creative inspiration, you suddenly have no idea what to do with yourself. That was my challenge as I was wrapping up Week 2 of Julia Cameron‘s self-paced course The Artist’s Way.
Last week was easy. I took myself to a coffee shop and kickstarted my manuscript editing using a few highlighter pens and brightly colored stickers. The other customers looked at me pretty strangely as I proceeded to take up two tables with my 40+ index cards, but I didn’t care. I was having fun- which was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
I pondered this week’s date for several days. I came up with a good one for Week 3 or 4 (depending on availability) and I didn’t want to cop out and just do some coffee shop writing this week. I needed something fresh and new. It was completely by chance that I stumbled across the idea to visit to the Minnesota History Center.
The haunted house my manuscript The Edge of Shadows is based on a massive house that was built in Uptown in the early 1900s that was then torn down less than twenty years later (it cost $60,000 a year to maintain!). Local architecture and history has always been an interest of mine, so it made sense to take a little adventure to downtown St. Paul and see what else I could dig up to use in my writing.
Wow. I had a fantastic time. I visited five different exhibits and felt like I was wandering through time. I learned about a ton of influential people from Minnesota, as well as several different significant events that shaped that state’s history. The most impactful exhibit for me was called “Open House” and it chronicled the lives of families who had lived in a single home that was built in St. Paul in the late 1800s. (I smell a book plot there!)
I came home revved up to start cranking on some new story lines, which of course was exactly the point of the Artist Date. Extra bonus: I think a membership to the MHS will be on my Christmas list.
Have you scheduled an Artist’s Date lately? What is inspiring your writing?
(photo credit cliff1066)
You poke around social media chats long enough, you’ll start to see lots of discussions where people are asking questions around why they (as content creators) aren’t seeing the level of interaction that they were expecting from the wonderful folks who meander over and visit their site. These content creators feel they are putting solid content out there, but no one is paying attention. No one is talking back.
There are a variety of reasons that your readers (and potential customers) aren’t talking to you, but one of the biggest questions you need to answer first is:
Are you trying to talk WITH people or are you talking AT them?
I can usually muddle my way through a boring article if I’m really interested in the topic and feel like there may be a gem or two that I can learn. I’m not going to stick around to comment but I may mention it as a resource down the road.
It’s when I feel like the writer is bordering on preachy that I just leave. I have no interest in commenting or engaging on any level. There are so many other places where I can hang out and feel like part of a community that I have no need to spend time anywhere where I don’t feel like my opinion would be valuable.
So if we are truly in it to get some conversations going (and let’s be honest- some people aren’t) then there are a few different things that you can do:
- Ask questions- lots of them. As soon as you shift the attention from you to the other person, you’ve opened up a whole new dynamic. People love to share their own feelings and experiences, and it’s refreshing to feel like you’ve contributing to the greater collective on a topic.
- Keep an open mind. The whole point of effective two-way communication is the ability to freely exchange thoughts and ideas. And it doesn’t have to be a debate. It’s recognition that we are all wired a wee bit differently, and sometimes we can learn more by simply listening then trying to push our own agenda. If you shut people down by trying to convince them that the only right way is your way, you’ll soon find you’re talking to yourself.
- Show up and show interest. I hate talking to someone and then watching their eyes drift over my shoulder or to another part of the room. Hello, am I boring you? This is something you have to be especially conscious of if it’s an online interaction. If you ask a question that someone answers, and you don’t respond, you are sending a clear message that you weren’t that interested to begin with, whether you realize it or not.
- Come up with new ideas. If I’m digging for some gold on a topic, there is nothing more frustrating than pulling up a Google search and seeing the same old concepts recycled over and over again. But you get my interest and attention when you start showing me something new, and when you do that, I’ll be asking you questions about it. I won’t be able to help myself!
- Grow a thick skin. It’s inevitable that as soon as you start to say something original, you are going to find there are people who don’t agree with you, and who are not afraid to be vocal about it. You can’t take it personally, but keep the dialogue positive and constructive. (But outright abuse is rude and should never be tolerated.)
If you are consistently doing all of these things right, you are going to find that you aren’t talking to an empty room any longer. And the more you engage your audience, the more likely they are going to tell their friends, and come back again and again.
Take a look back at your last few days of interactions. Have you been talking or telling?
(photo credit @boetter)
When’s the last time you sat down and worked on a jigsaw puzzle? Depending on the number of pieces you start with, it’s an activity that can keep you busy for days. A few years ago, my husband and I thought that this would be a wonderful “together” activity to do, so we went out and bought a puzzle. It was an Italian countryside scene that didn’t look terribly complicated. Needless to say, we bit off more than our collective patience could chew, and a thoughtful relative finished it for us. (It looked very nice on our kitchen wall for several years.)
I realized that being able to complete a jigsaw puzzle isn’t that different from writing a story. You have the perfect idea. You may even know how it ends. But when you sit down to start writing, you often only have many little fragmented pieces that, once assembled, will display a rosy picture of your vision. When we create content, it’s up to us to put them all together.
Make sure you have all your pieces
Okay- I’ve heard it’s good practice to count all your puzzle pieces ahead of time before you start your puzzle. You know- so you don’t get to the end and get ticked that you are missing one piece. I admit that I have never done this, but it seems like a good idea.
The same good practice applies to writing, and if you are easily distracted, then it is critical that when you start, you have it all in front of you. If you have to stop for one moment to go look something up on Wikipedia, there is a good chance that you’ll stop on Facebook, Twitter, and your email along the way. Suddenly you’ve run out of time or steam and the writing has to wait until you’re struck by inspiration again. You also don’t want to be be 95% done only to realize you need just one more piece of research.
Organize your pieces
This is one of my favorite parts because I am a detail oriented nut. When I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle, I like to separate my pieces into the border pieces first. Then I put stacks of similar pieces (those with identifiable markings) together. Once the border is together, I put those stacks in the areas of the puzzle where I know they go. It helps keep me on track and organized. Not unlike a writing outline.
I’ve never been a huge proponent of outlines, they are starting to win me over. If I’m writing a non-fiction article, 9 times out of 10 I sketch out a rough outline. Even bulleting the main points helps to shape your writing and tell you where to go next. That can be especially useful if you get stuck mid-stream.
Go with the flow
Once I start inside the frame of the puzzle, I jump all over the place. I’ll find a piece here that fits over there and so I’ll work on that corner for awhile. If I get stuck or bored, I’ll jump over to another area and work there. I don’t have to have a specified route for moving around. I go wherever my attention and interest take me.
There is no rule in writing that says you have to write your piece in linear fashion. You don’t have to start at the beginning if you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s more fun NOT to write that way. If the muse has handed you a vivid image of the climax scene, and you feel like working backwards from there instead, then by all means do it. Don’t crush your creativity by forcing a defined pattern on it. Let the words flow as they will.
Don’t force it
There is nothing more frustrating that having that ONE puzzle piece that you just can’t figure out where it goes. You move it all around, you try it here, you try it there, and nothing. You become so focused on that one piece that you can’t even see the rest of the puzzle anymore.
Writing is no different. First drafts are clunky. The ideas may not fit together just right. Some of my posts I am easily able to sit down and write in one sitting. Others I know right away after taking the first stab at it that it’s going to need more time. Usually I know because I can feel that something is missing. I can poke, poke, poke at it, but I just can’t find what I’m looking for.
It’s at the point that I become frustrated that I know it’s time to leave it. It never fails that later that day or the next, I am struck with the idea that suddenly joins all the pieces together. Coming back to a frustrating problem later gives you a fresh perspective (and you’re usually A LOT more patient).
There is something enormously satisfying about creating the story that matches your vision. You feel good about it and you can’t wait to share it with your readers. When all the pieces come together, and you can SEE it, you know your work there is done. It’s time to tackle a new story puzzle.
What kind of story puzzle are you tackling next?
(photo by eiratansey)
I sometimes forget that there are a lot of people out there who don’t like to write. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. I started my first novel when I was 12. It was about a haunted house. (I was trying desperately to channel Stephen King.) I didn’t finish it, but I remember coming back to it every year for several years until I was about 16. I completed two novels just a few years ago. (One of those was about a haunted house too.)
The task of writing has never bothered me because I easily get caught up in the story. That’s why my favorite non-fiction writing is always a feature story of some kind. My dilema has always been getting my butt into the writer’s seat to do it.
“I’ve Always Wanted to Write a Book”
When I tell people I’m a writer, the first thing I usually hear is about how they’ve always wanted to write too. But they don’t think they are good at it, haven’t found the time to do it, don’t know what to write, etc. etc. etc. There’s always a perfectly good and valid reason why they haven’t written that story in their head down yet, and it usually all gets categorized under the general heading of “I don’t like to write”.
I always feel a bit sad listening to people get down on themselves and belittle their writing skills. Now don’t get me wrong- I’ve read some pretty bad stuff. But when you stop trying to get better at something that you aren’t naturally good at, you may be selling yourself short. Some people have a knack for it. Many people don’t. The only way you’ll ever know for sure if you have it in you is if you TRY.
Stories are Told a Bit at a Time
I’ve been yapping about wanting to write a novel since I was 12. I had the urge to do. I wanted to do it so bad I could taste it. I even had the compliments of family, friends, and teachers to validate that the short stories I wrote were good. But I didn’t do it. I was scared of how big that commitment of a whole book felt. So I had to break it down and take it step by step. I joined a little movement called National Novel Writing Month, and I took it one day at a time. It worked. It worked so well, I did again the following year.
We write stories all the time. Even some tweets can be counted as stories these days- it’s hard work conveying a full message in 140 characters but people do it! What we write, and the information we choose to share says a lot about us, imperfect as we may be. Within those nuggets of data, we may find clues to other stories that we are being called to write; if we are just brave enough to do it.
Do It Now
If you’ve always wanted to write a story, a blog post, an article, or anything that requires stringing words together in a way that makes sense, but don’t know how to go about it, I can help.
Take a look around. Feel free to ask me any questions about writing that you can think of, but more than anything else, don’t wait to write the story that lingers inside you. That way you can confidently say: I AM a writer.
(photo by Hirok)