Day 5: Prepare

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Although I’m not a gourmet cook, I enjoy trying new recipes. And I’ve learned that preparation is the key ingredient to successful culinary ventures. Taking time to line up the necessary ingredients, measure them out properly and have them ready to add at the appropriate time increases the odds of a good outcome. It also means the cook is far less frazzled and more likely to enjoy the meal.

Just as a cook prepares for delectable creations, so must a writer prepare for greatness. Lining up the ingredients for a writer means doing the research, thinking the project though, getting feedback before and after the writing is done, and finally sending it out into the world.

I’m better at some of those steps than others.

I’m good at doing research. I like delving into the nuts and bolts of an idea, looking up pertinent quotations and information, seeking out sources. I’m great at the “shitty first drafts” that Anne Lamott talks about in Bird by Bird (my writing Bible).

But sometimes I don’t think things through carefully enough, and because of that my writing is less authentic than it should be. It doesn’t tunnel as deeply as it should into layers of ideas and expression.

And I’m terrible about getting feedback on my work. My natural reticence causes me to hide away, makes it difficult for me to ask any of my writer friends to read and comment on my projects.

One way to get the feedback we need, Jeff Goinstells us today, one essential way to prepare for greatness, is to ship even if it’s not as good as you want it to be. Put something out there and see what happens.

That’s hard.

Because there is a huge risk involved in that action. Risk of criticism. Risk of rejection. Risk of failure.

Honestly, I’m not prepared for any of that.

When I’m cooking, there’s always a moment of fear before when I turn on the stove and start putting all those well prepared ingredients to the fire. Will it turn out the way I hoped? Will it look like the glossy magazine picture accompanying the recipe? Most importantly, will my family smile with satisfaction at the first tasty bite?

All the preparation in the world is meaningless until you finish the product.

The proof is in the pudding.

Prepare for it.

Day 4: Practice

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You need to show up and show us your gift. Until you do that you’re just practicing in private.

It’s Show Time.

Time to bring the writing out of dusty practice rooms.

Time to give it a shove between the shoulder blades and push it stumbling and weak-kneed onto the stage.

To me, this habit might better be named “performance” than practice. Yes, practice is necessary. But when you’re talking about going public, then it’s performance time all the way.

We 21st century writers are lucky. We have a stage readily available, with performance times open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can enjoy the show for free (good for them, not so good for us) and a often as they like.

I’m talking about the internet, of course, and I make great use of the world wide web as a performance venue for my writing.

But sometimes I think it’s a little too easy.

After all, I only have to write something for one of my blogs, hit “publish” and there it is.

Easy peasy.

As much as I appreciate the format, blogging is not the Carnegie Hall of writing. Remember the old joke about how you get there?

Practice, practice, practice.

So maybe I should be working a little harder, aiming a little higher. Toward magazines, essay collections, even a book.

The Carnegie Halls of writing will take a lot of practice too. No more dashing off those cute blog posts or glib book reviews. The kind of writing I have in mind will take careful thought, research, revision.

I’ve got the ideas already in my head. I’ve just never had the initiative to move forward with them.

Perhaps this 15 Habits of Great Writers is the shove between the shoulders I need to get me on the stage with a whole new repertoire.

Stay tuned. We’ll see what the program looks like.

Day 3: Initiate

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Declaration. I am a writer.
Belief. I know I can do this.

But do what exactly?

How fine it is to make the outer declaration and hold fast to that inner faith. But without the initiative to take concrete action, declaration and belief aren’t even worth a cup of coffee.

And we all know how much writers need their coffee.

This third of the 15 Habits of Great Writers is the bugler’s reveille. Pick the thing you most want to write and start writing it. Even if it’s scary, even if you have no idea where to begin.

Begin you must, and that is what Great Writers do every day.

In addition to being a writer, I’m also a musician. I’m a pianist, and I’ve worked as an accompanist for some wonderful school choirs, as well as churches and community groups. I’m also a handbell player, and have played with a professional group. You’d think I’d be satisfied with my proficiency in these instruments.

But no. The musical thing I really wish I could do is sing.

As an accompanist, I work with singers all the time. I’m in the background, and part of me likes that just fine. The spotlight isn’t on me. I’m a support person at heart, and I’m usually content to bask in reflected glory.

Deep down, though, I hunger to be the star, the one who can open their mouth and release melody into the air.

Writing is no different. I’m pretty comfortable in my niches – blogging, book reviewing, technical writing.

But oh how I crave to write a novel.

To create an entire world spun from the web of my imagination.

That would take a major initiative on my part.

I don’t know if I’m “great” enough for that just yet.

Day 2: Believe

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Until you actually believe you are a writer, you’re only kidding yourself. 

from 15 Habits of Great Writers, Day 2

Saying it is one thing. Doing it is another.

Yesterday, I was bold enough to declare my identity as a writer. I was brash enough to say that I’ve been a writer for the past 45 years of my life. I insinuated that I was sure of my writerhood, confident in my ability whether or not the world agreed with me.

But do I believe it?

Saying it is one thing, doing it another.

Years ago I was in behavioral therapy for depression. My therapist, a very wise woman, encouraged me to start acting as if I weren’t depressed. At first, she said, it will feel like the biggest lie you’ve ever perpetrated on yourself. You’ll feel fake and uncomfortable.

In time, you will start to believe this trick you’ve been playing on your psyche. What was once a difficult acting job will become  like second nature. Eventually you’ll realize that you aren’t acting the role of a happier person, you really are a happier person.

Believing in ourselves as writers requires a similar slight-of-mind trickery. Sending the declaration out into the universe is the first step. Doing something about it another. Here’s today’s challenge from the 15 Habits of Great Writers:

Just so you don’t think this is all esoteric, you’re going to do something radical. You’re going to get up two hours early and write.

If you usually get up at seven, get up at five. If five, then three. You get the idea. Don’t check your email or read blogs. Just write. This is how you know you really believe something. Thinking and talking and tweeting about writing is one thing; actually doing it is another. So today, believe it; tomorrow, do it.

Great writers believe in themselves. And when that crazy self-doubt slips in – when the right words won’t come, when the rejections pour in, when the naysayers say – they shove it all back into the corner where it belongs. Sometimes, they pretend it never existed. Everyday they do things that reinforce that belief in themselves.

They believe.

So – I’m game if you are. Tomorrow, up at 5:00 a.m.  Nothing but writing. And believing.

Day 1: Declare

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BE A WRITER, the magazine ad screamed at me. JOIN THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL AND LEARN FROM SOME OF TODAYS WELL KNOWN AUTHORS. MAIL THIS POSTAGE PAID CARD FOR A COPY OF OUR FREE APTITUDE TEST.

That ad appeared in every issue of my mother’s Look Magazine. After staring at it and re-reading it month after month, I finally screwed up the courage to submit the card.

It was 1967. I was eleven years old.

Nevermind.

I was a writer. I wanted to learn from the best, and that certainly wasn’t Mrs. McLean, my high-strung, frizzy haired fifth grade teacher. Why shouldn’t I apply for the famous writers school? Let them teach me what I needed to know so I could become famous too.

The aptitude test came, an 8 1/2″ x 11” bound paper booklet in which I was to handwrite the answers. (Luckily, my cursive had improved since my third grade teacher, the equally frizzy haired Mrs. Simons, had given me a C in penmanship.) My favorite question was the last – write a descriptive paragraph that will leave the reader feeling a strong emotion.

I titled my paragraph “The Black Room,” and began it with the parenthetical statement that it was “from one of my works.”  In the paragraph, I remember writing about a “narrow room filled with grim shadows” where “only the sensation of evil lurked.”

I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I wasn’t accepted into the Famous Writer’s School. However, the Famous Writer who was randomly assigned my aptitude test (and I can’t even recall that Famous Writer’s name) was extremely kind. He/she actually scored my test, and gave me some helpful hints about writing before letting me down very easily.

“Rebecca, you obviously have writing talent,” he scrawled in blue ink, “but unfortunately our students must be at least 18 years of age. Please do try again when you’re older.”

I was surprised, but I wasn’t crushed. I would just keep writing, adding to my “works” until I was 18 and then reapply.

Didn’t matter.

I was a writer anyway. And I wasn’t afraid to declare it to those Famous Writers.

Know what?

It’s 45 years later and although I never was admitted to the Famous Writers School, I’m still a writer.

I tell the world I’m a writer every time I hit publish on a blog post, or mail a submission to a magazine or send in a completed technical report to my office. I tell myself  I’m a writer even more often – every time I make notes in my journal, or do research for an essay, or write lists of names for characters.

I declare my writerhood every time I transfer the thoughts from my head into words on a page.

Like I’m doing right now.

I’m a writer. Are you?

 DECLARE your writerhood. It’s one of the 15 Habits of Great Writers, and I’m joining Jeff Goins and over 500 other writers in exploring every one over the course of the next 15 days.

New Habits

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I know it’s Monday.

But grab your pencil and notebook anyway  – there’s still time to join Jeff Goins free blog series, Mastering the Habits of Great Writers. The series starts tomorrow and will feature one habit of great writers every day, along with a daily challenge to help us become great writers too.

I’ll be participating with posts here at Write on Wednesday.

Hope you’ll join in.

 

A Penny for Your Thoughts

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One of my very worst writing habits is failure to think.

An idea pops into my head and I sit down at the keyboard and start writing, letting the words take me where they will.

Sometimes I sit at the blank screen and start typing something, anything, again letting the words take me down one path after another until I stumble upon a makeshift destination.

While I believe there are times this kind of writing is valuable, I also believe I rely on it too much, that I write too casually without taking the time to think through my ideas or turn them carefully around in my mind as I would an interesting rock or seashell found on the beach.

I believe real writers must think as much as they write – maybe more. Louise Penny, one of my favorite mystery writers, keeps a lovely blog where she talks about the intersection of daily life and writing. The other day, she wrote these words:

Wrote more than 2,000 words today, but not happy. I think it’s close, but slightly off. Perhaps just too much detail….need to streamline it. But I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think, and came to the conclusion that it needs tightening, sharpening, and I need to really pin down what I want this section to say and do. The purpose.

“I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think…” Good writing needs that mulling over time, both before and after the words appear on the page. Time to consider what’s about to be said or to reconsider what has been set down in black and white.

Brenda Ueland also touches on this idea, a concept she calls “moodling” and defines as “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” This is how we open the door for our imagination, allow ideas to wander in and make themselves comfortable.

The pace of modern life doesn’t always allow for the kind of deep thoughtfulness I’ve decided is so important to a writer. Blogging and Facebooking and Twittering encourage us to throw ideas out there willy-nilly, to say whatever pops into our head at a given moment. After all, there is always the opportunity to post something else tomorrow, or even in 15 minutes if you so choose. Our attention is fragmented by cell phones and texts and e-mails, like noisy toddlers clamoring to be noticed.

It’s hard to silence that noise and focus on a single strand of thoughts pertaining to your work in progress.

But I believe it’s imperative to do so.

And if you can, those thoughts will be worth much more than a penny.

How about you? Do you think as much as you write? How do you invite deep thoughtfulness into your writing life?

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