Sunday, October 19, 2008

Seeking a Little Zing—Gotham Writer's Workshop Fiction Guide

I need a little zing in my writing routine. I seem to collect all these books of enticing writing exercises and then fail to make time to try them out. However, I've always found that reading books about writing energizes my work and introduces me to new techniques and theories. It's important to stay fresh. So, I'm now officially carving out time in my writing schedule for exploring these books. Zing!

I'm starting with a book that's been on my shelf for a while, The Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. Reading this book is like taking mini-workshops on character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting and pacing, voice, theme, revision, and the business of writing. The chapters are written by Gotham instructors and are interspersed with writing exercises. You can read a couple or sections of a chapter and do a couple of exercises in about 20 minutes and learn something useful in the bargain.

Imagine that—learn something useful for your writing in about 20 minutes. You can't beat it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sharing Your Work Won’t Kill You

This article

made me think of the importance of sharing your work with others to get that all important feedback. When I teach classes and work with writers individually, I get a lot of questions about sharing work—when to do it, how to do it, why do it. Here are some tips to help you along. A lot of this relates to writers, but it can apply to other forms of expression as well.

1. Give your work to someone you know is going to treat it with respect (meaning not trample on your confidence) and who is not going to give you frivolous comments. If you've written something about a family incident that really happened, you don't want to hear from your mother that "that's not how it happened."

2. Be clear about what you want to hear back. If you do give the family story to your mother, tell her you're not interested in whether you captured it the way it really happened, but in the emotion it evokes, or whether it’s confusing, or if you spelled everything right, or whatever. Be specific. I've given my work to people with the following instructions: My confidence is shaken; even if you this stinks, just tell me you love it.

3. What do you ask for? When I teach, I don't allow people to use phrases like: it was good; it was bad; I liked it; I didn't like it. As the writer, how can you possibly use such feedback to develop your work. And that’s what we're talking about here—developing your work, pulling out the themes and emotions that you want to strengthen, dampening down the ones you don't want to highlight, choosing a direction for a character or story. Feedback is a valuable tool in helping you make these decisions.

I have one or two readers with whom I share my work. I ask them to tell me what the story makes them think about, what memories and emotions it evokes for them. If I am stuck on something in the story, I ask them—where could I go with this?—and see what they have to say. I used to dread sharing my work—I used to come close to having a heart attack at the thought of someone reading my stuff. How stupid, right? I mean, isn't that the point of writing, to have someone read it?

4. Listen to the feedback. The most common thing I see—and it kind of irks me a bit—is writers ask for feedback, beg for it sometimes, and then when you give it, they start arguing with you right off the bat. And I'm pretty nice about how I give feedback. It's not easy, but take your ego off and just listen to what people have to say. You'll learn something about your work if you can just make yourself listen. And especially if you asked someone to read your stuff, don't get defensive with them. If you start arguing with them as soon as they open their mouth, chances are they won't read your stuff next time.

5. Thank the person who took the time to read your work and give you feedback.

Definitely find ways to share your work. You'll get new ideas, and you'll probably get inspired. If you're scared, make this the one thing you do today that scares you.

Come on. Do it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Resistance Equals Persistence

Resistance equals persistence. I came across this phrase in "The Secret"—that giant blockbuster book about the Law of Attraction. There’s some good advice in there about practical ways to change your attitude. This is one of the pearls I took away from that book.

When faced with something I don't want to do, whether at work, at home or in my creative life, I've learned that the worst thing I can do is resist it, ignore it, avoid it. First of all, whatever that thing is, no matter how long I resist doing it, it's still there waiting for me. Secondly, the longer I avoid it, the larger it looms in my imagination, growing bigger and meaner and worse than it really is. It's like anticipating a doctor's appointment or a dentist visit. You spend all that time building it up in your mind, getting all anxious about it, and it turns out to be a five minute non-event. All that energy, wasted.

So, the more you resist the thing you don't want to do, the longer it persists.

The remedy: Jump in with both feet and do it. I'm coming out of a situation where I had to do a lot of things that were challenging for me and not necessarily "my thing," not how I would prefer to spend my time and not always very rewarding in the end. But each time a new challenge came up, I would say to myself "resistance equals persistence" and take some action toward resolving the problem or accomplishing the task at hand. And it worked. I may not have enjoyed the actual task any more, but I felt better about it—it wasn't weighing on my mind and shredding my nerves. I didn't waste as much energy worrying about everything as I would have if I had avoided every problem I didn’t want to deal with. It's best to just rip the Band-Aid off in one shot and get it over with.

Since leaving this particular situation, someone said to me that what she appreciated about me was that no matter what I was handed, I jumped in with both feet and just did it.

Whatever it is you're avoiding, just do it. Come on. Do it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Interview on Great Blog for Books and Writing

Check out this interview with me by writer and book blogger Jennifer Prado. Jennifer includes terrific material on her blog, such as book reviews, interviews with new and established authors, and her own writing. Definitely check it out.

Thank you, Jennifer, for being a friend to authors.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Motivation Anyone?

I'm a pretty disciplined person. I like notebooks and to-do lists and filing systems—although you will still find my office (home and work) repeatedly falling into a state of chaos. Still, I strive for order and focus.

In my writing life, I stick to a routine. I write almost every day, at the same time and in the same place. I know that for me, waiting for inspiration is a mistake—the book will never get written if I wait to be inspired. Rather, I need to sit and do the work, every day, whether I want to or not.

I advise beginning writers to do the same, at least until they can figure out their own writing process and working style. My kind of routine isn't the best way to work for everyone. But I do believe that beginning writers need to get past the initial fear of writing and need to understand that writing is work—not magic—and it takes practice to become good at writing and revising your work.

But I have to admit that even I lose my motivation. I get it back with a very simple trick: I pay myself. I bought myself a nice pottery jar at a seconds sale and placed it on my desk. And when I'm truly struggling to get my butt in the chair to write, I put a dollar in the jar every day that I do it. When I've gathered enough money, I buy myself something. Right now, I have 6 bucks in the jar, which means I've been doing all right. But I'll be paying myself, as the book I'm working on becomes more challenging. Plus, I'm a big fan of Levenger notebooks and I've been mooning over a bunch of stuff in their latest catalog. Writers and their notebooks, right?

If you're having trouble finding motivation for your writing or whatever creative work you do, you might try paying yourself to do it. You'd be amazed at how just one dollar can make a difference in how you feel about sitting down to work.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You're Never Too Old to Play Pretend

Here's a trick I learned a while ago. When I'm nervous about anything—a presentation, a public-speaking engagement, a job interview, any situation that makes me nervous—I pretend I'm not nervous.

The same goes for confidence. Whenever I'm going into a situation in which I'm lacking self confidence, I pretend I have all the self confidence in the world. It can be tough when you're doing creative work to keep up your self esteem, especially in the face of near constant rejection. That rejection can lead to poor self image, which starts a downward spiral to some deep dark places. No spelunking, please!

The urge to dive can be very hard to resist, though, and we easily give in to those feelings, that we have nothing to offer, that we'll never make it, that all our hard work has been a waste of time, that we are, in fact, worthless.

And this is not limited to the creative process, by the way. I'm sure you know people who are going through a job search process who feel this way, or a college search process, or who may be starting their own business. Pretty much any endeavor that requires putting yourself on the line will cause you to question your very existence.

If you've plunged into one of those places, pretending can be the lifeline to pull you out.

Yes, pretending. You remember what it was like to play pretend, right?

First of all, though, I'd like to point out that it’s important to recognize that the way you see yourself sometimes—quite often, actually—is wrong. We don't see ourselves for who we really are. We are our own worst critics. We all tend to minimize our faults and our excellent qualities as well. Both of these tendencies are detrimental to our self esteem and to our ability to realize our full potential. If we don't fully recognize our faults, we will never understand the full extent of how they get in our way and thus they will always hold us back. If we don't fully recognize our excellent qualities, we can never use them to their full benefit.

Now to the pretending. When you're lacking self confidence, when you're self esteem is at its worst, pretend that you are the most confident person in the world. Pretend that you have great self esteem. Pretend that what you do is not worthless, but worth a lot to a lot of people. And with that, your self esteem will start to lift out of that deep, dark cave.

Whenever I'm in a situation where I am overwhelmed with nerves, I pretend I'm not nervous. Whenever I'm in a situation where I lack confidence, I pretend I'm confident. And it works every time.

Try it. What have you go to lose?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Gordon Ramsay is My Hero--Part 2

Not only is chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay inspiring and motivating to watch as he turns kitchen nightmares into dream businesses, he has a lot of important lessons to teach about life and living. I find a lot of what Gordon Ramsay does in his approach to running a restaurant and motivating failing restaurant owners to change and become more versatile and daring quite applicable to the creative life. Here's my take on what can be learned from "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares."

Be Passionate—When it comes to food, Gordon exudes passion. That's why he gets so angry at chefs and restaurant owners who don't give food or their customers proper care and respect. My goal is to put about half as much passion into my writing every day as Gordon puts into his cooking. If I can do that, my writing will surely reach new heights.

Take Risks—You can tell just by looking at Gordon that he's taken his share of risks in his life. He's a hard-rocking dude. It's impossible to achieve that kind of success without taking risks.

Don't Be Afraid to Fail—Gordon is the first to tell floundering restaurant owners how many times he has failed in the past, and how many times he has picked himself up and tried again. You can't take risks and do everything with passion and not fail at least once in a while. And you can't do anything creative without failing now and then either. I always tell myself, in order to do something well I must first be willing to do it badly. I also love that Woody Allen quote: "If you're not failing now and then, you must not be doing anything very innovative."

Take Pride in Your Work—I love how Gordon will ask a chef if he or she is happy with a dish before it gets sent out to a table. And if the answer is no, it goes into the trash. Gordon never settles for second rate. It's a challenging way to live with your art, but a goal worth striving for. How many times a day do we ask ourselves that question about our work or our art--are you happy with that? And what do we do if the answer is 'no'?

Embrace Change—As humans, we hate change, even when we know it's for the best. It's so interesting to see these restaurant owners resist every change Gordon wants to make, even though the status quo is failing miserably and change can only make things better. I try very hard to approach change with a positive attitude, even if I know it will be uncomfortable or painful. Personal growth always comes with at least a little pain, but it's worth it to be a better, stronger person in the end.

Live with Joy—Gordon truly loves what he does. He is bursting with energy and enthusiasm. You can see it in the way he interacts with people—well, once he gets past hating them for being so stubborn. When the tide in these restaurants begins to turn and a team begins to emerge, Gordon is everyone's big brother, cheering them on as they work toward greater success.

Gordon is a great motivator, someone we can all learn from. I'd be happy to perfect any one of these lessons. Which one do you need most?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why Gordon Ramsay is My Hero

Gordon Ramsay is my new hero. Not the nasty, petulant, downright mean Gordon Ramsay of "Hell's Kitchen." That's a horrible show and not his best career decision. Sorry, Gordon, your agent steered you wrong on that one.

I'm talking about the Gordon Ramsay of "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares," the BBC America version, to be exact. By now, most people have seen the Americanized version on Fox, but the original BBC show is tops. It's a brilliant show: world renowned chef Gordon Ramsay spends a week at a failing restaurant helping the owner turn it into a success. These are desperately failing establishments, their owners tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt because they are in over their heads in a business they know nothing about and can’t see any way out.

Enter Gordon Ramsay. In a matter of minutes, he pinpoints all the problems—the first of which is always horrible food. How can a restaurant be successful when its sole product is terrible? The food is always followed by bad management on the part of the owner, an unmotivated staff, poor marketing and usually one or two bad apples on staff that threaten to bring the whole place down.

The fascinating part of every show is watching Gordon handle the psychology behind all of these moving parts. Because people are so resistant to change—even if not changing the menu in their restaurant means they could lose their home—Gordon must come on strong, yelling and swearing right in their faces. They hate Gordon for saying their food is terrible—for saying it tastes like "baby sick." At one restaurant, he ran to the bathroom to throw up after a few bites of the main course. And while their restaurant sits empty and they sink deeper and deeper into debt, and while they tell the camera that they are desperate and need to do something to save their business or it will fold, they then turn around and tell Gordon he's wrong, their food is perfectly good and they get great feedback from their customers, the ones who do come in to eat, that is.

This is the human being's natural response to change. We hate it. Even when we know it will be the best thing for us. Even when we want to change, we have a natural aversion to it and resist it with all of our strength.

Gordon deals with this human aversion to change in a way that makes for great drama. He pushes people to the brink until, falling flat on their asses, they can come to terms with their own folly. Only then can they pick themselves up and begin to change. Not everyone does, and a lot of people revert back to their old ways. Change is slow and fleeting. But they mostly all love him by the end of the show.

Another thing I love about Gordon: He seeks out the hidden talent. He looks for the quiet person lurking in the background and see what he or she can do. He gives that person confidence in their abilities and lights a fire in them. It's an admirable quality and a pleasure to watch Gordon bring out the best in these hidden gems.

One other reason Gordon Ramsay is my hero: He is passionate about everything he does. All of that yelling and swearing—it's because he cares about what he's doing, and he cares about the people he's trying to help. He coaches people, and in the best sense of the word "coach," striving to bring out the best in everything—people, his restaurants, the food he prepares. It's part of the reason he's so fun to watch on television. This passion, it makes Gordon Ramsay a truly magnetic personality.

So, thanks, Gordon, for being my hero.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

You're a genius! What, no one told you?

According to this article by Brian Tracy,, you are a genius. You just need to practice the skills of creative thinking.

A lot of what he says here makes sense. As a writer, I especially identify with Thomas Edison's famous quote about invention being one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I know from experience that the idea plays an important, but small part in the writing process. The writing is the real work. My current manuscript has taken more than three years to write.

This article is definitely worth the read. You'll find some helpful tips about how to think creatively in all areas of your life.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Meet Jinson Joseph

I am of that generation who grew up without computers and entered the working world with them. E-mail and the Internet came on the scene while I was in college, and so I am still amazed at how people separated by hundreds of thousands of miles can connect to each other through the Web.

It boggled my mind, for example, to learn that my little blog written in my little room in my little house in my little town in New England had struck a chord with Jinson Joseph—halfway around the world in India. Jinson Joseph is an artist, and I encourage you to visit his blog and look at his beautiful paintings:

Jinson Joseph is a teacher in Hyderabad, India, but pursues his passion of painting after work, just like I pursue my passion for writing at the end of the work day. He had been preparing for an exhibit of his work on February 16. Jinson Joseph, please let us know how your show went. I hope it was a great success!

What artistic endeavors are you pursuing when your workday ends? Share your story in the comments section, or e-mail me and I'll share your blog address, too.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Knitting Saved My Life

About two-and-a-half years ago, I got back into knitting. I'd known how to knit since middle school, when my mom first taught me. I dabbled in it ever since, learning more working my summers in college at Old Sturbridge Village, a living-history museum where I was part of a staff who demonstrated daily life in a rural New England village during the 1830s. This included demonstrating handcrafts, such as knitting, which weren't handcrafts then. They were essentials for life. If you didn't knit, you didn't have warm socks, hats, mittens or scarves to keep you warm during the cold New England winters.

In college, I had this urge to learn to crochet. My late grandmother, who'd always showed up at our house for visits with something crocheted for each of us, must’ve been watching over me, because what kind of college student is overcome by a desire to learn to crochet? I know she was watching over me when my adopted grandmother gave me all of her old crochet books and needles, because somehow I was able to read the directions and, with a little help from my mom, figure it out without much trouble. Crocheting came easily to me and fast, the hook working over the yarn in a blur that sometimes amazed even me.

But about two-and-a-half years ago, when knitting became ultra popular and all these fun yarns and patterns came bursting on the market and into people's wardrobes, I got the itch. It started with a desire to learn to knit socks. And then mittens and hats. In six months, I was a knitting fiend, spending at least an hour a day on a project—more on weekends. Faire Isle knitting projects, what most non-knitters would recognize as alpine sweaters with all the different colors patterns, were particularly addictive. With the completion of each row, I wanted to do just one more row, to see how the pattern was developing. That's the fun of Faire Isle knitting.

I was working on a pair of Faire Isle mittens when our black lab became gravely ill. It was completely unexpected. One day she was a happy, healthy dog, and the next day something was terribly wrong. After two days in one of the best veterinary hospitals in the state, we knew that she had one of two kinds of acute leukemia all throughout her bones. There was so much of it that to put her through chemotherapy would almost kill her. And if she survived the chemotherapy, she would get either six more weeks or six more months, depending on which of the two kinds of leukemia it was, which the veterinarians could not determine. We could not put her through it.

We brought our dog home—our dog, who was pure love—and gave her four days of twenty-four hour love and attention before we let her go. We fed her all the best foods—steak, chicken, ham and cheese. Popcorn, which was one of her favorites. Anything she wanted, she had. We sat with her and laid down with her when she slept. We shed countless tears that week over our beloved ZuZu.

I did not knit. I could not even look at my knitting needles, that's how guilty I felt about having spent so much time knitting in the weeks leading up to ZuZu's illness, instead of spending that time on my dogs. Even though we had always loved our dogs ZuZu and Sissy to pieces their entire lives, when death comes, it seems one natural response is to start looking for where you went wrong, how you could have done more for them, spent more time with them, loved them more, as if they would somehow lessen the pain. The truth is, it won’t lessen the pain, and those regrets accomplish nothing.

After those four days, we took ZuZu to our own vet and held her as she went off into her final sleep. We let her go before she became any more ill than she already was, before she had to suffer any more. She was only seven, still young for a Labrador retriever, which made it all the more heartbreaking. And that's what it felt like, as if someone had taken a knife and cut out part of my heart right there at the vet's office and left me there to bleed to death.

The depression that followed was deep and dark and frightening, and the only thing that helped was knitting, obsessively, at every spare moment, especially when I was at home, where I was most painfully aware of ZuZu's absence.

Normally, writing is my coping mechanism for handling life's difficulties. I used to think that writing helped me process the events and stresses and triumphs in my life because it gave me distance, allowed me to separate myself from them. If I looked at my life experience as potential material for my fiction, then it becomes not so much about me anymore, but about something outside of myself. And that is a comfort.

While I still believe this to be true, the experience of letting my dog go and grieving her death taught me that writing turns my life experiences into material for my work not by creating distance between me and my life experience, but by integrating those experiences into my being. Let me explain. I was working on a manuscript at the time of my dog's illness. I stopped working on it for about a month during her illness and after her death, partly because the story had to do with dogs and death, which was too much for me to handle emotionally. I couldn't write in my journal either, which was different as well. Usually, I can at least write in my journal.

When my mother had a stroke, I brought my journal with me down to Florida where my parents had been traveling when she woke up one morning and couldn't find her left hand. The second night there, I started writing about it. I can see why now—I needed to start processing the event and my emotions about it right away. There were things to do—my parents' boat to pack up, doctors to question, physical therapy to begin, travel arrangements to be made. There was no time for grieving or sadness. That would have to wait. My mother needed me—all of us—right then.

With ZuZu, there was nothing to do but cry and grieve. When my parents came to see her one last time, I told my mom, "Sorry, mom, but this is worse than your stroke." With ZuZu, it was just one long good-bye, and nothing to do but wait for time to do its work.

The writing was inevitable, though. I can't live without it, and I had a manuscript to finish. When it came time to get back to work, I knew that the first thing I had to do was write about the events of ZuZu's death. I knew that if I did not commit that truth to paper, it would stop me from writing any other truths—and I cannot write unless I am writing the truth. Before resuming work on my manuscript, I took out my journal, and through tears blurred my vision, I wrote the story of ZuZu's death. In writing it down, I was integrating the experience of her illness and death into my being, not separating myself from it. That's why I had been avoiding it for so long. And only then could I continue on and complete my manuscript about a young man who learns to grieve for the death of his little brother.

It was knitting, though, that saved me during the dark days after ZuZu's death. Every night after work, I'd stand at the edge of an ever-deepening abyss and look down into the darkness. I could have jumped in and fallen deeper into a very bad place. Instead, with a heavy heart, I'd turn to my knitting bag and pull out a pair of mittens or a scarf or whatever project I had and start to work. I don't remember what I made that fall—some mittens and scarves and felted bags, I think—and I gave everything away. It's as if those projects do not want to be remembered, as if my grief was woven into the stitches to be given away. And while I'm thankful every day to be a writer—to have the art of writing to help me cope with this world—I am also grateful I picked up knitting again two-and-a-half years ago so I could grab a mitten to pull me from the edge of the abyss when I needed it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

David Lynch on meditation and creativity: "There's an ocean of pure, vibrant consciousness in each one of us."

I got into meditation about six years ago and then fizzled out of it—the same way people attempt regular exercise and then drop it. But I've always known that meditation is something I should be doing for my general mental, emotional and physical well being and so I have started a daily practice again.

I found this video of filmmaker David Lynch talking about how meditation is beneficial to the creative process. It's just a few minutes and definitely worth watching. I found this a couple of weeks ago, right around the time I decided it was time to commit to meditation. After watching it, I'm definitely committed. If something so simple can benefit my creativity, I'm all for it!

If you're interested in trying meditation, there are excellent, simple instructions in the book "Minding the Body, Mending the Mind" by Joan Borysenko. It's an all-around great book about the mind-body connection, especially if you have any issues with stress and anxiety.