Start a Writing Practice — No Matter What Age You Are

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If you ever thought you were too old to begin writing, whether for business or pleasure, guess again. Consider these late-blooming authors:

* Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing when she was in her 40s. Her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published nearly 20 years later.

* Harriet Doerr was 74 when her first novel, Stones of Ibarra, was published.

* Frank McCourt was 66 years old when his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was published.

* English author Daniel Defoe was almost 60 when he finished writing Robinson Crusoe.

* Nora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, didn’t begin writing until she was in her 40s.

There are numerous other authors who did not get published or begin writing until they were in their 40s or older – proof that you don’t have to be a young spring chicken to write. (Here’s another great list of women writers who were late bloomers.)

In fact, it may be more advantageous to start a writing practice later in life rather than earlier.  For one, you have the benefit of life experience. By the time you reach your forties and fifties, you’ve acquired plenty of life experience – new jobs and losses, moving to a new city perhaps, starting a family, starting a business, health crises, etc. You’re able to look back at your experiences to learn from life’s lessons. All you really need to write is the desire and a willingness to commit to it.

As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve come to the conclusion that our lives are divided into two halves. The first half is all about acquiring knowledge, skills and experience. We’re students of life. During the second half of our lives – after age 45 or 50 or so – we look for opportunities to share what we’ve learned with others. We become teachers.

So it makes sense that many older adults rediscover writing as a way to express themselves while sharing their lifetime of knowledge and skills. Writing is the path to teach others about what they’ve learned on their life’s journey.

Writing also challenges you mentally, and at times, emotionally. It keeps your brain active which is important to ward off dementia. By writing, you become more aware of people and events around you too. You notice things more – like the bright colors of flowers, the sharp sweet smell of coffee in the morning, the way someone speaks. You pay more attention to these details because your writing thrives on these types of details.

If you are over age 50 and you’re new to writing, here are a few tips for starting a writing practice. Of course, many of these tips are appropriate no matter what age you are. But I think they are particularly helpful for older writers.

* Be open to learning new things. Attending workshops and classes can help you develop new skills and gain an understanding of the writing process. You’ll meet other people just like you who are starting their writing journey. You’ll have a lot to talk about with them – and a lot to write about afterwards.

* Don’t overlook your life experience. You bring a lot to the table by virtue of your life experience. When it comes to writing, age is an advantage, not a flaw. Write about those experiences that made a difference in your life. Share your life story with others so they can learn from you. Your personal experience is valuable, giving your writing added depth and perspective.

* Start small and work your way into bigger projects. Especially if you’re just starting a writing habit, begin by writing shorter pieces. Even writing in your journal counts. Aim for 100 or 200 words to start, then as you get into a rhythm, you can extend yourself to 500 words or more (if your schedule allows).

You may find that starting with shorter pieces is easier because once you complete them, you feel a greater sense of accomplishment. This approach serves two purposes: it allows you to  test out story concepts in shorter formats to see if they’re viable, and it helps you refine your writing technique for specific genres. Don’t be afraid to start small.

* Pay attention to the world around you. When you begin a writing practice, you may notice events and people around you more keenly. You may pay more attention to little details – the way a woman’s dress moves when she walks down the street, the smell of onions and garlic as you pass an Italian restaurant, or the cheerful chirping of birds outside your window at five in the morning. Writing gives you a renewed appreciation for life, one you appreciate even more as you get older.

* Make an appointment with yourself to write. Put the appointment in your calendar. If you’re good about keeping appointments, you’ll likely be as vigilant about keeping up with your writing practice.  

* Create a body of work you can be proud of. Regardless if you get published or not, keep writing to complete as many essays, stories and blog posts as you can. You’ll develop a body of work to leave as your legacy. More important, your body of work is evidence that you are never too old to start a writing practice.

The best part about starting a writing practice is that you can write well into your 70s, 80s or 90s. No matter what age you are, you can enjoy a writing life for years to come.

In Search of Your True Writing Voice

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It’s not easy transitioning from a career in business communications to fiction writing. The hardest part about the transition is finding your voice. In business communications, the writing voice is impersonal, detached and, well, business-like. Communications are focused on the needs of the company or client that you’re writing for. Your personal voice is absent.

When you begin to write fiction, on the other hand, it’s imperative to find your writing voice because your story and characters are all extensions of yourself.

Finding your writing voice matters for several reasons. It establishes consistency throughout your body of work. It gives your writing personality. Finally, it helps readers know who you are. You can’t hide behind your words; you have to learn to write from the heart. That’s how readers will find you and keep coming back to you.

According to the NY Book Editors blog, a writer’s voice is a combination of three factors: the writing style, perspective and tone.

Style is the character of the writing; the words and phrases you use and how you express your ideas. Style is developed by years of practice and experimentation. It also helps to read the works of different authors from different genres to sample their writing style. Over time, you pick up bits and pieces from authors you admire. Style may be short, abrupt sentences or long sweeping poetic ones. However you develop your style will eventually become your hallmark, editors say.

Perspective is how you choose to view a situation and relay what’s happening. Perspective is drawn from your history of experience and knowledge of the situation. For example, when a car accident occurs on a busy street corner, one witness standing on the sidewalk will have a different perspective of the accident than the passenger in one of the involved vehicles and the policeman who arrives to investigate it will have yet a different perspective.

Tone is the attitude or feeling about the story that you’re telling. It can be serious or sad, or it can be humorous and upbeat. Tone gives readers a clue about how to feel about what’s happening in the story.

It can take years to find and refine your writing voice. Here are a few ways to help you find it.

1. Spend time alone with your thoughts. Be aware of the ideas, notions and imaginings going through your head. Note the conversations you have with yourself internally.  Notice your own feelings too. Do you feel cheerful, optimistic, sad, guilty or fearful? What is the source of those feelings? Where are they coming from? It might help to learn meditation to be fully present with yourself.

2. Keep a journal. Most writers do keep a journal. It helps them take stock of their experiences. If you prefer, carry a small notebook in your pocket or purse so you can jot down ideas and observations as you go about your day.

3. Write letters. If you’ve ever written a personal letter to someone, you know how difficult it can be to find the right  words to express how you feel. The practice of writing letters helps you access what you’re feeling in your heart. Writing from the heart is the key to finding your writing voice.

4. Read different authors. When you read different genres and authors, you expose yourself to different ways of storytelling. We naturally pick up bits and pieces along the way from other writers, especially ones whose works we admire. Over time, you will synthesize different styles to form your own.

5. Freewrite. As I’ve described in previous posts, freewriting is the practice of writing nonstop for several pages about anything that comes to mind. There are no right or wrong answers to what you put down on paper. It’s simply a fast, easy way to access parts of your subconscious that you may have kept hidden, even from yourself. You never know what shows up on those freewritten pages. When you go back to re-read what you’ve written, the writing will most likely be sloppy, but you may find hidden gems of heart-felt emotion. That’s where your voice will emerge.

If you want to explore this topic more, I highly recommend the book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie.

Finding your true voice as a writer does not happen overnight. It takes practice and dedication to access those parts of you that readers will appreciate.

Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

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Three days. Two virtual conferences. One head spinning with ideas.

That essentially sums up the recent weekend’s activities.

Imagine sitting in front of a laptop screen for three consecutive days attending online workshops, keynote presentations and education sessions. It was wall-to-wall education. By the end of three days, my head was throbbing with so many ideas, and my to-do list became as long as Merlin’s beard.

Virtual meetings have come a long way since the very first virtual set-up by AT&T in 1964. At that time, it was one closed-circuit TV screen connected to another in a different location. After the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the first virtual trade show was held in 1993. 

Then in the late 2000s, virtual conferences became more popular as the recession hit and companies looked for cost-effective ways to hold meetings for large groups of people. Today’s platforms are more sophisticated, allowing people from all over the world to gather in one virtual meeting place to listen to keynote speeches, attend online networking events, and meet one-on-one with clients or entire teams. There are more software and platforms available for online meetings than ever before.

AS the pandemic hit this spring, even more companies jumped on board, converting their in-person trade shows to the online platform, including Spring Fling 2020 which I had been looking forward to attending since the beginning of the year. Would the online presentation water down the conference experience? I answered that question this past weekend.

Below are my takeaways about my experiences with virtual conferences in general. In the near future, I’ll do more specific roundups of the individual conferences I attended hosted by Freelancers Union and Spring Fling 2020 (regional event of the Romance Writers of America).

Takeaway #1: The current pandemic crisis has made technology even more vital to our familial and collegial connections. Without technology tools and event platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with friends, family, colleagues and fellow volunteers would not be possible. Many platforms are fairly easy to use, even for novice users. Still both virtual conferences had their share of tech issues. Some speakers had difficulty staying connected to the platform while others experienced drop outs of sound and/or visuals. Some platforms work better with certain browsers over others. For example, the Accelevents conference worked better with Chrome than other browsers.

Takeaway #2: If you decide to attend a virtual conference, make goals for yourself about what you want to get out of it, just as you would if you were attending it in person. However, some feature may require more effort on your part. For example, if your goal is to meet at least three new people during the event, you might need to make the extra effort to attend the networking sessions since they occur in a separate hub, and most interactions aren’t likely to be by happenstance as they might be if you were there in person.

Takeaway #3: Pace yourself. There are as many sessions and workshops to attend during a virtual conference as there are at in-person events. It’s tempting to visit every one of them. If the experience becomes overwhelming, take a time out. Keep in mind your educational goals. That said, the nice thing about virtual events is you can jump from one session to another quickly without having to get up from your seat and move to another room.

Takeaway #4: Take good notes. There may not be handouts so make sure your notes are crystal clear. Since there are so many sessions, take time to review them a day or two later to refresh your memory. Even better, write one or two summaries of the sessions you attend and post them to a blog – just like I’ve done.

Takeaway #5: Chat rooms can be fun, but they can also be a distraction. It was fun to see the ongoing conversation going on in the chat room that ran alongside the presentation. Even the speakers would get involved in a side chat. It allowed for added interactivity that you might not get in an in-person event. The live chat also allowed participants to post questions, which speakers addressed at the end of the session. Still, it was tempting to get caught up in the commentary and lose track of what speakers were talking about. Other times, it was downright annoying, much like hearing people making snarky remarks about a movie that’s showing in a theater.

Takeaway #6: You can’t replace the energy of a live event. No matter how well planned the conference organizers make the event, it still feels like something is missing from the experience. In-person events seem to have a stronger collaborative energy. You can’t help but start conversations with people around you while you’re waiting for a session to start. You don’t get that with online events – or at least I didn’t. Sure, there is an ongoing chat during the sessions, but it’s more about commenting on what the speaker is presenting. Not sure if any of those chats led to a meaningful connection with a fellow attendee, however.

By the way, if you’re interested in participating in a virtual conference, check out WordPress.com’s Growth Summit event August 11-12, 2020 in the U.S. (No, I do not work for WordPress, but thought it was an interesting and timely item to share considering my topic today.)
 
Bottom line: You get out of a virtual conference what you put into it. I’ve always been interested in the education sessions rather than networking, so that’s where I put most of my effort. But if your goal is expanding your network, there are plenty of people to connect with at these virtual conferences.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, virtual conferences will only get more commonplace. It will be interesting to see if they become a permanent fixture in the business world.

Have you ever attended a virtual conference? What was your experience like? Would you attend another one in the future?

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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Our childhood is filled with events both big and small, and we carry those memories with us as we grow older. That’s why our childhood and early family life are fertile soil for story ideas for memoirs and personal essays.

Sometimes our minds can draw a blank when forced to come up with a story idea, however. Beyond the basic “I remember” prompt that I frequently talk about on my blog, there are other story starters to brainstorm potential ideas.

I found the following list in my collection of notes from webinars and workshops. I wanted to share them with you so you never run out of story ideas for your essay collection or memoir. Feel free to refer to this list often whenever you feel stuck.

Good luck!

1. Fears, big and small. Perhaps your biggest fear is spiders or snakes. Or maybe it’s drowning or flying in an airplane. When was the first time you noticed that fear and how has it dominated your life? Have you done anything to overcome that fear?

2. Secrets, big and small. What secrets, big or small, have you never told anyone?  Perhaps it’s the one night you spent in jail for disorderly conduct that a friend helped you get released. Or maybe the abortion you had when you were sixteen that you never told anyone about. We all have our reasons for keeping secrets. Explore why you’ve kept this secret for so long.

3. Embarrassing moments. What is your most embarrassing moment in front of strangers? It could be spilling a gallon of milk while waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store? Perhaps you openly belched after a scrumptious meal in an upscale restaurant? It could be anything that happened to you or to someone else, and it can take place anywhere. Whatever the event, don’t forget to describe how people reacted because that’s what makes those embarrassing moments worth writing about.

4. Physical features. What physical feature or body part do you obsess over? Is there a feature that you think is too big, too small, too crooked, too narrow, or too obscene to show in public? Explain why this feature makes you feel uncomfortable or inadequate.

5. Parents are people too. When did you realize that your parents were not perfect? That they could not always protect you when you needed to be protected. Or that there were times when they felt scared, angry, lonely or guilty – that they were (gasp!) human.

6. Name changes. Some people don’t like the name they were given at birth. If you could change your name, what would you change it to and why? This could pertain to your first name, your last name or your middle name – or all three. What’s in a name anyway? Do you think a name change would alter your personality or your outlook on the world?

7. Family pets. Did you have a family pet? If so what are some of your favorite memories of that pet? Perhaps you had, like my family did, a series of unusual pets – hamsters, baby chicks, a baby alligator (I think my brother named him Sidney) and goldfish that died within three days. When you think of your favorite pet stories, think “Marley & Me.”

8. Families and food. When we think of family gatherings, we also tend to think of the meals we shared. What role did food have in your family life? Did you enjoy outdoor barbecues and abundant celebrations? Or was it just the opposite – your family struggled to put food on the table? How has food defined your childhood, and have those attitudes carried over into your adult life?

9. Family road trips. What is the most unusual place you and your family visited together? Perhaps you remember going camping for the first time, or learning to ski in Colorado. Have you ever seen the ocean or the mountains? Describe your most memorable vacations and explain why they were so memorable.

10. Family vehicles. Do you remember the car your parents drove when you were a child? Or do you recall the first car you ever owned? What did that car mean to you?

11. Favorite mementos. Is there one possession you have that brings back memories? It could be a piece of jewelry that you received from your grandmother, or a Christmas ornament that’s been handed down several generations. When you see that item, what memories does it conjure up for you?

12. Job hopping. What was the most unique job(s) you ever had? What about your parents or siblings – did they hold any unusual jobs? What work did they do? What did they learn from their experience? For example, when I was born, my father worked as a milkman, delivering milk to households. It was a dying career, however, and my father was soon forced to find other work. Think about family attitudes toward work and earning a living.

13. Hidden quirks and happy habits. Family members all have their hidden quirks and habits – a sister who talks in her sleep, a grandfather who collects antique instruments, or a mother who dances the Irish jig every night after the dinner plates are cleaned and put away. Do you have any family members with hidden quirks, habits or special talents?

14. Musical interludes. What kind of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up? Did you learn to play a musical instrument? I remember growing up with a jukebox in our basement that arrived for my sister’s sixteenth birthday party. I listened to records on that jukebox for hours. These days I have a playlist on my iPod that contains many of those records I listened to long ago. How did your family’s musical tastes influence your own? What role did music play in your family life?

15. The writing life. What events from your childhood influenced you to start writing? Did you win a writing contest, or perhaps you were always good in English and spelling? Was there someone who encouraged you to be a writer – or tried to persuade you not to be one? How did you develop your love of writing? Where did it come from?

There’s plenty of inspiration for your personal essays or memoir. You just have to be willing to go back in time to find them.

Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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Are you the type of writer who has to keep editing your work-in-progress because you believe it’s never good enough? Is your waste basket overflowing with crumpled pages because you thought the opening of your story was garbage? Are you afraid to show your work to others because you think it isn’t good enough to be shown?

If this sounds like you, read on.  

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that striving for perfection is overrated. Perfection is a goal you can never achieve. Instead, it might be more beneficial to strive for excellence.

How do you define ‘perfection’?

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? “Because it’s a vague standard,” writes Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice blog. No one really understands what it means. It also can zap the fun and enjoyment out of writing, Reid says.

Try this exercise. On a sheet of paper, write your definition of perfection. What does a perfect piece of writing look like? How does it feel when you read it?

I’m willing to bet that once you attempt to define it or draw a picture of perfection that you realize there is no satisfactory definition. Whatever concept you come up with is likely to be fuzzy and indefinite. That’s because the concept of perfection is vague and subjective. No two people will draw the same picture of it or define it the same way.

How perfectionism holds you back

To understand how perfectionism may be holding you back, ask yourself: what drives your need to be perfect? Is it to please that person from your past who was overly critical of your efforts? Even if they’re no longer around, their words may ring in your ears. If so, stop looking at yourself through their eyes, and envision yourself as the writer you want to be.

Or perhaps you want to emulate the success of a particular acquaintance whose work you have always admired. Gosh, you think, I’d love to write just like them. But each time you sit down to write, the words come out all wrong. You keep starting your piece over and over because it doesn’t read like anything so-and-so would write. If this sounds like you, stop comparing yourself to others. You will always come out second best.

The truth is perfection is an illusion. Perfection doesn’t exist except in your own psyche and imagination. Nobody is born perfect, nor can it be achieved with hard work and talent. Stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. Further, you will never write like anyone else, so stop trying. Instead, forge your own path on your own terms.

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

If perfectionism is interfering with your writing efforts, it’s time to take control of it (rather than allow it to control you). There are ways to work around perfectionism in your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

* Use freewriting to get into the flow of writing. Every morning before you begin your day, write for five or ten minutes without stopping. Allow the ideas to flow from your brain to your pen, no matter what they are. Don’t stop to judge or critique them. Just keep your pen to the paper and don’t lift it up until your timer goes off. You may surprise yourself at how much you are able to write in a short amount of time.

* Acknowledge that your piece isn’t perfect – and publish it anyway. Be willing to publish your work even if it isn’t perfect, says Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog.  Every author has published stuff that they knew wasn’t perfect. That’s actually good news for the rest of us toiling away on our masterpieces. It means your writing only has to be publishable, a more modest goal.  

* Name your critic. In fact, put a face to them too. Identify the one person whose voice you hear when you critique your work, Penn says. Acknowledge their presence, then quickly and swiftly banish them from your work space. Once those critics are out of the picture – and out of your head – you can reclaim your space so you can write more freely.

* Recognize that no writer is perfect. Every writer struggles with self-doubt at times. You are not alone in the way you feel. This is especially true if you’re new to writing. Realize that your initial efforts will not be very good. That’s okay, because you are learning along the way. But by writing every day, or as often as possible, your writing will improve.

* If you struggle with over-editing your pieces out of fear that your work isn’t perfect, try putting a cap on your editing passes. For example, I give myself three revision passes for my projects. Three revisions is more than enough to help me figure out where my story is headed and whether it worth pursuing further. If that doesn’t work for you, have a trusted friend or colleague review your work with you so you stay on track.

* Remember that first drafts always stink. They’re never very good, but you can still find a few nuggets of good writing within them. Think of first drafts as brain dumps – the process of dumping the overload of ideas piling up inside your brain. Use the best ideas for your stories, then discard the rest.

Remember that perfectionism can hurt you more than help you. So do what you can to release your deeply-felt need to be perfect before it derails your writing dream.

Nine signs you were born to be a writer

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I think I realized I was born to write when I was in seventh grade. My English teacher pulled me out of class one day and asked if I was interested in participating in an essay contest. I was flattered and said yes. Never mind that I never submitted an essay to the contest.

Over the years, other teachers expressed similar opinions about my writing skill. No wonder I wanted to write when I grew up. Everybody thought I was good at it.

That begs the question: how do you know that you were born to be a writer? The answer, I suppose, is as varied as the individual writer. Some people start creating plays and writing short stories as early as kindergarten. Others discover their writing hobby in high school when they begin keeping a diary or dabble in poetry. Yet many others don’t discover writing until well into adulthood.

The truth is there are signs that you are meant to be a writer, or at least love to write. (I believe there is a difference between the two: loving to write is more of a hobby while being a writer is a calling.)

Here are a few signs that convinced me that I was born to write. Of course, your experience may be quite different than mine.  

1. You see stories all around you. No matter where you look – your backyard, the park, the school, or the grocery store – stories abound. You can find stories in the people you see on the street and in nature too. For example, there’s a story behind the couple arguing in a restaurant, and a story behind the family of raccoons that dig into your garbage cans every night searching for their next meal. When you see stories in people, places and things, you know you are a writer.

2. You’re a day dreamer. You could be sitting in a classroom, around the dinner table, or out on the patio with your morning coffee, and your mind transports to other worlds – some you know well, and others that don’t exist except in your own imagination. If you’re constantly dreaming of real or imagined worlds, you have the creative mindset to be a writer.

3. You love to read. Reading and writing seem interconnected; I don’t think you can do one without the other. If you enjoy reading full-length books, such as memoirs and nonfiction to suspense thrillers and science fiction, you are naturally going to want to write full-length books too. Reading helps you learn about crafting stories, essential if you want to be a writer.

4. You enjoy spending time alone. Recent research at the University of Buffalo finds that unsociable individuals who withdraw from society because of a “non-fearful preference for solitude” are more likely to engage in creative activities. Writers are by nature solo artists. They do their best work when they are alone. They don’t mind that alone time because it gives them a chance to hear their thoughts, organize their ideas and craft their stories, both inside their heads and on paper.

5. You’ve received compliments about your writing. You may even keep a file of papers and essays with teachers’ remarks on it that remind you how good you can be. Pay attention to the feedback you get from teachers and colleagues. More important, pay attention to what you learn about your writing from their feedback. For example, while the feedback from my teacher in eighth grade made me feel good, her observation about being verbose and repetitive made me more aware of what I needed to work on. To this day, I write with an awareness to be succinct. If so many people tell you that they enjoy your writing, that might be a sign that you were meant to write.

6. You always kept a journal. It seems many writers kept a journal when they were younger. Journals are a way to sort through your emotions, your ideals, your hopes and dreams. You might one day look back over what you’ve written so long ago to see how far you’ve come in understanding that time of your life. Making sense of nonsensical things is one of the strengths of writers. Keeping a journal to do that is one more sign you might have been born to write.

7. You are constantly reading and learning about writing. You attend workshops, conferences, lectures, and author readings. You join writing groups to get feedback for your work. You soak up all the knowledge you can about your craft. You don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a writer because there are plenty of other resources available, such as websites, magazines and writing studios. There’s a huge writing community, and we can all learn from each other.

8. You express yourself better in writing than verbally. Debra Lobel, an author at the Writing Cooperative, says when things get too emotional, she writes about those emotions and puts them down on paper. Sometimes she sends the note, but other times, Lobel says, she puts it into her fiction. If you were born to write, you probably find it easier to put your thoughts on paper than to speak them.

9. You had imaginary friends in childhood. Sure, you hung out with your school friends and did your homework together, but when you needed a good heart-to-heart chat, you turned to those invisible friends for comfort. At least, they never talked back to you.

However, just because you experience any or all of these signs doesn’t guarantee that you were meant to write.  Conversely, you can still be a writer even if none of these experiences is true for you.

Think about your own writing experience. Were there any signs early on that you were meant to be a writer?

Come to think of it, there is probably only one true sign that you were born to write. That is making the time to write every day.  

Let Your Natural Writing Rhythm Help You Become More Productive

Ever notice that there’s a natural rhythm to life? If you pay close attention, you can see it all around you.

For example, you may see a rhythm in the changing of the seasons – from spring, summer, autumn and winter, then back to spring again. You may see it in the repeated patterns of the 12 months of the year, the seven days of the week, nighttime and daytime, and through the new moon/full moon cycles.

Likewise, humans have a natural rhythm, like the steady inhalation and exhalation of breath, for instance. You may go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time the following morning (unless you’re an insomniac, then all bets are off). Eating three meals a day, usually at the same time every day is another example of that rhythm. And for women, there’s the monthly menstrual cycle.

You may notice too how you are more energetic at certain hours of the day, while at others, usually midafternoon, your energy dips. When you become aware of the rise and fall of your natural energy levels, you can work with those rhythms to write more and create better work.

It’s like watching traffic patterns in the city and waiting for when highway traffic is light so you can drive to your destination without hitting any traffic jams. It’s like riding your raft in the direction that the river flows rather than fight against the flow going in the opposite direction.

Your writing process can fall into an easy rhythm too, if you remain aware of those cycles of productivity and creativity in your life. There’s as much an ebb and flow to your writing process as there is in the ocean tides. For more about creativity cycles, check out this article on Write to Done blog which describes the four phases of the cycle in depth.

At high tide, for instance, your energy level rises. You may feel ready to tackle complex projects, and ideas and words flow seamlessly. You seem able to get more done in a shorter amount of time.

At low tide, your energy dips. Everything seems like a struggle. You have difficulty finding the right words for what you want to say.

When you learn to recognize the high tides and low tides that are specific to you, you can adjust your writing routine accordingly. You can schedule writing sessions during high tides to to capture the creative flow and ride it as long as possible, like a surfer on the ocean. Reserve the low tides for administrative tasks that don’t require as much thought, creative energy or complex problem solving.

One way to learn about your natural creative rhythm is to track your activities throughout the day. For an example of how this works, check out author Chris Bailey’s blog A Life of Productivity in which he describes how you can calculate your biological prime time – your most productive hours of the day.

You may already know which hours of the day you are most productive. For me, it’s that morning window of 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. That’s when I do most of my creative writing.

When you are aware of your energy peaks and valleys – your writing rhythm – you can fit writing into those productive periods and save the valleys for more mundane tasks. You’ll get more writing done in short bursts when your energy is at its peak, and you’ll avoid spinning your wheels during those periods of low energy. Consequently, your writing practice may grow beyond your wildest dreams because you’re able to achieve more in less time.

When you recognize the best wave when it comes along, you can ride it to the shore. Enjoy the ride.

How Well Do You Manage Your Emotions When You Write?

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Several years ago when I faced an emotional and financial crisis, I took to journaling almost every day to deal with the pain and anxiety I felt. The emotional pain was so intense, in fact, that it took two notebooks of journal entries to release those emotions. I just kept writing and writing to release the anger, fear and guilt I felt until I had my emotions under control. Writing in my journal was much better than pacing floors and indulging in crying spells.

Psychologists at the Harvard University Healthbeat blog call this expressive writing. They cited several studies showing how expressive writing (journal writing) can help you manage stress and anxiety by organizing your thoughts and making sense of traumatic experiences. Expressive writing can also help you break free of the endless mental cycling through of events that can lead to brooding and depression.

So why am I writing about this? With so much going on in our world, many people begin writing to deal with their often confused emotions to make sense of things. For many, writing helps heal wounds both old and new. At a time like now, expressive writing, or different variations of it, can help you deal with the emotional aspects of these dramatic events.

Writers learn to write with emotion, to use it to fuel their stories. But how do you write when you feel too overwhelmed by life-altering events, when you feel too emotional to write? How do you express your emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do you put those emotional experiences into proper perspective?

Here are a few writing tools to help you navigate those rocky seas of emotion.

1. Journaling – Therapists at the University of Rochester Medical Center say that journaling is one of the easiest ways to release your emotions, next to talking to a close friend or family member. That’s where expressive writing comes in. The idea behind journaling, or expressive writing, is to set aside time every day to write in a journal or notebook for a specified amount of time, say thirty minutes or so. (However, in my personal experience, if you’re feeling really emotional about a situation, you might consider writing for longer than that, or at least until you have nothing left to put on the page.) Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, and don’t show your journal to anyone. Journaling is your personal path to healing.

2. Freewriting – Freewriting is like a stream of consciousness on the page. You don’t stop to edit yourself either, much like journaling. While expressive writing helps you deal with the emotional content, like a dumping ground of sorts, freewriting is the flow of thoughts and ideas. Journaling is more personal, while freewriting is less emotional. But because of the assortment of ideas, freewriting helps you sort through them to find nuggets of wisdom. I also recommend handwriting for both journalizing and freewriting because writing by hand creates a direct connection to your subconscious mind.

3. Letter writing — Another exercise I used to get through my emotional crisis was letter writing. Write a letter to that person (or organization) who you feel angry with (or disappointed, saddened, frustrated, etc.). Describe your rage or fears, and most important, explain what you would like them to do in response. Be specific in your request. Most important, don’t mail the letter. Instead, tear it up or burn it. Release the contents into the Universe. You never ever want to mail a letter to someone that you wrote in anger. You might regret it later. Write as many letters as you see fit until your emotions are under control. It really does make you feel better to get things off your chest, even if you never mail the letter.

4. Write about your experience in third person. This suggestion comes from a therapist at Psych Central, who explains that writing in third person (he/she/they) creates distance between yourself and the traumatic event. When it’s less personal, the traumatic experience is easier to deal with.

5. Do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Do nothing – at least for right now. Be careful not to respond to a volatile situation with a kneejerk reaction. What you write in the heat of the moment may not be what you really want to say. Allow time for your emotional self to cool off. It could be a few days, a week or a month or more. When you wait for the drama to subside, what you want to write about will eventually become clear.

The turmoil in the world has created a lot of emotional noise. You don’t want your voice to get lost in it. Take a step back (or two or three) from the drama, allow some time to pass, then you’ll be able to look upon that situation with greater clarity. Writing can help by giving you an outlet for those pent up feelings.

With life in topsy-turvy mode these past few months, writing solely for yourself can bring balance back into your life.

Are You Being Truly Authentic in Your Writing?

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Webster’s dictionary defines authentic as “genuine” or “real.” But what does it mean to be genuine or real in your own writing?

Writing authentically means revealing a little bit about yourself through your writing. You provide a glimpse of your daily life so others can see that you are not some robot but a real person with real feelings and real experiences of the world. Your readers are looking for a reason to connect with you. They want to see your humanness. Being a responsible, authentic writer means opening yourself up to them.

I’m not talking about an online diary or a log of everything you ate for breakfast this morning. I’m talking about human emotion and experiences, which readers can relate to.

Writing with an authentic voice is the key to being a successful writer, says writer and blogger James Prescott, who eloquently describes his own experience about losing his authentic self at the Publishous blog. When Prescott focused on external ego-centric factors like publishing deals and how many followers he had, he said he easily lost sight of what was truly important about writing: connecting with readers.

Your readers aren’t interested in those ego-centric things about you. What they do want to know is how you overcome writing blocks, how you found your first writing gig, how you brainstorm story ideas. Because these are issues they deal with every day. These are problems they want to solve. They want to see that you are just like them, a writer who struggles with motivation and inspiration and time management, even as you build your success.

Writing authentically is about knowing what your audience wants to know, not what you want for yourself. For example, you might begin a blog post by telling readers about a writing class you attended recently and what you learned from it. Not only do you share your knowledge, you put up a mirror of sorts so they can see themselves through you. Sharing your personal stories helps you connect with your readers.

Readers are on your side. They want you to succeed in your writing. They want to read stories that are honest and truthful and speaks to their heart. They seek authenticity from the writers they read and follow in social media, so it’s up to you and me, as writers, to give them what they want.

Here are a few ways that you can bring more authenticity to your writing.

  • Turn off the negative internal voice. You know the one that tells you that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have a right to share your knowledge with others, that writing is a big waste of time. You get the idea. Find a way to shut out that negative internal voice. Better yet, shout back at them. “Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I enjoy writing so it’s not a waste of time.”

  • Stop worrying about being perfect. Just focus on your message. What do you want to say to your readers? When you focus on your message, the right words will come naturally.

  • Watch for performance anxiety. Putting words down on the page is a lot like standing on a stage to perform for an audience, but you don’t have a script and you have to fly by the seat of your pants. Not knowing what to say to a room full of strangers can cause anxiety for even the most practiced public speakers. If you feel performance anxiety just by staring at a blank page, again focus on your key message(s). The words will come.

  • Feel the fear and write about it anyway. Human emotions are the one thing that connects us all. We all feel fear. We all know what it’s like to feel our knees go weak, our hands tremble, and our heart beat wildly inside our chest. Write about those things. Those experiences will help you connect to your readers.

  • Learn to meditate. Meditating helps you quiet your mind and slows your breath to an easy rhythm. When your thoughts slow down, you can observe your inner world more clearly. You can observe the way you think and the way you feel. When you slow down, new thoughts arise, thoughts you never knew you had. Meditating helps you reconnect to your true self, and when you connect to your true self, you discover your personal truths. When you are in tuned with those truths, you are more likely to share them with conviction.

Don’t be afraid to share what you learn about yourself. It’s scary, of course, but that’s what makes it real. That’s what make you human. That’s what makes you authentic. And your writing will improve because of it.

What about you? How do you bring authenticity into your writing?

For more about authenticity in writing, check out these links:
Why Authenticity as a Writer and Blogger Is Crucial to Success
Writing with Authenticity

Learning to Pivot During Times of Crisis

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I’m stepping aside from my usual posts about the business of writing to explore a different topic – learning to pivot.

“Pivot” has suddenly become one of the common terms associated with the pandemic crisis that we’ve been dealing with these past few months. What does it mean to pivot? In today’s terms, it means repurposing skills and resources to address an immediate need. It’s the ability to switch gears, to shift from one focus to another.

It’s much like watching the weather change before our eyes, then taking steps to protect ourselves from the wind, the rain and lightning.

In the time of coronavirus, people are pivoting between careers, relationships and life goals. One day they may be serving meals to customers at their diner. The next they are packaging meals to deliver to healthcare workers working on the front lines.

Or one day, they may be operating a T-shirt company or work as a seamstress. The next, they may be making masks to meet public demand for face coverings.

Parents have had to pivot too, by becoming at-home school teachers for their kids.

Writers and creatives are not immune. They’ve had to make some rapid adjustments as well. A survey by Freelancers Union in early April found that 76% of freelancers lost business because their clients cancelled contracts or projects. Their clients were small businesses or travel/hospitality companies that were hit particularly hard during this time and couldn’t afford to keep them on. Further 65% reported that they could not find new clients as a result of the pandemic.

With those results, it’s easy to see how some writers need to pivot as much as restaurant workers and travel agents. At least, writers may have more options than those other workers.

So how can you pivot in your writing career during this difficult time? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

— Ask yourself, “How can I help?” Look around at what is happening in your community. Is there someone who needs assistance? They may not need your writing and editing skills, but maybe they are isolating and need groceries or prescriptions. Doing something constructive can give you some peace of mind, even when you’re not writing.

— Brainstorm ways that you can repurpose your creative skills, or develop new ones. If writing assignments have dried up, look at other ways you can engage. Perhaps start a blog if you don’t already have one, teach a writing workshop to friends and colleagues on Zoom. Or read stories to your kid’s kindergarten class via Zoom. By repurposing your creative skills, you may discover a new talent you didn’t realize you had.

— Look at different industries. Believe it or not, there are some writers who are as busy as ever. Why? They write for companies in industries that are near-recession proof, writes Courtney Danyel at Freelance Writing Gigs. (Check out these tips for finding recession-proof writing gigs.) These industries include ecommerce, healthcare, technology, education government, legal, accounting and energy, among others. Look for companies that are established too. While small businesses and startups can make great clients, they may not be able to afford your services and they may not exist beyond a crisis, like a pandemic, says Danyel.

— Find a way to innovate. There’s an old saying you might have heard of: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When we are faced with challenges we’ve never encountered before, we learn to innovate to solve those challenges. We develop new systems for operating, invent new products, or experiment with different teaching methods to keep our kids interested in learning. We learn to pivot because a crisis calls us to do so. Look around you now. What can you do that will better serve your family, your neighbors or the community at large?

— Explore new career options. Pivoting can put you on a different career path, one you may not have ever considered. This time might be opportune to take an online course in a subject that interests you. Check out Coursera or Udemy where you can learn about grant writing, entrepreneurship, leadership, content marketing, and contact tracing — the decades old practice of contacting individuals to curtail the transmission of disease.

We are all learning to adapt to the new realities of COVID-19. Some of us are adapting more easily than others. It all depends on how quickly we can pivot

Writing Websites You Should Know

Writer’s Digest magazine just published its annual list of 101 best websites for writers in its May/June 2020 issue. I’m pleased to see several of my favorite sites named to this list, including Bookends Literary Blog and Writer Unboxed.

I am inspired to share some of my favorite websites about writing. Some provide helpful advice for developing a writing career while others offer online courses and tools for getting started writing. Some focus on freelancing, others on blogging. Yet a couple of them focus on finding and working with literary agents.

Take some time to browse these sites to find resources and inspiration for your own writing needs. You just might learn something new.

Professional development

Writer’s Digest – This is the largest collection of writing resources you’ll find on the web, and maybe the only one, depending on what you’re looking for. They offer online classes, webinars and a critique service called 2nd Draft. You could probably get lost in their archives of articles that go back quite a few years. It’s worth spending a rainy afternoon browsing their site.

DIY MFA – Most writers can’t afford to return to school for an MFA program. That’s why this site is so helpful. DIY MFA offers time management and productivity tools to help you manage your writing process more easily. Just for fun, check out the random generated prompt feature. Just hit the Shuffle button, and the app spins to reveal a protagonist, situation, and scene to get you started on a story.

Freelancing

Contently.net — Contently.net is a platform for freelance professionals. Its blog The Freelancer provides relevant content related to operating a freelance business, from setting rates, making sure you get paid, and finding new clients. You can also sign on to their platform to showcase your work to Contently’s clients.

Freelancers Union – If you currently freelance or would like to start freelancing, this site is a must. According to its website, Freelancers Union has been advocating for the rights of independent workers since 1995. The site gives them access to insurance benefits, education, community and a political voice that is so necessary these days.

Literary Agents

Books and Such Blog – Focused on books, publishing and life, this blog gives readers an inside view on the world of book publishing from the perspective of a literary agent. What I like most about their site is that they are always so positive and motivating to new authors.

Bookends Literary Blog – Bookends provides practical advice for finding the right literary agent for your manuscript. There’s lots of information about when and how to query an agent, what to do when you meet them at conferences, and what agents look for when reviewing a manuscript.

Content Marketing/Blogging


Copyblogger – If you specialize in content marketing for your own business or for a client, Copyblogger offers all the tools and tips you need to operate your blog efficiently and profitably.

Problogger – Whether you’re new at blogging or have been managing one for a while, you can always learn something new about blogging at Problogger. This site provides insights into the latest trends in blog publishing, such as adding video and podcasts to your site.

The Art of Blogging – If you’re just starting out blogging, The Art of Blogging can be your go-to source of practical information on how to get started. The site covers everything from how to write headlines and improve readership to how to earn money from your blog.

Communities

The Writing Cooperative – You could spend hours on The Writing Cooperative site browsing through hundreds of articles. They are writers too, and the belief is that writers can learn from each other. As their tag line says, “A community of people helping each other write better.” You’ll find articles from blogging and fiction writing to grammar and time management. Most important, reading and learning from others’ experience can motivate you to be more dedicated to your craft.

She Writes – This online community of women writers offers different perspectives of the writing life. While they are currently closed to new members, you can still browse the multitude of articles by and for women writers. They also have special interest groups such as travel writing, blogging and struggling novelists. Also check out their sister site, She Writes Press which offers hybrid publishing options for women authors.

Publishing Resources

Writer Unboxed – This blog covers the craft and business of writing fiction, and has more than 50 authors and industry professionals contributing content daily. With so many perspectives, you’ll learn something new every day.

Jane Friedman.com – Any writer who wants to improve their writing and, more important, stay motivated, should check out Jane Friedman’s site. A former editor at Writer’s Digest and a current occasional columnist for Publisher’s Weekly, Friedman is renowned for her knowledge of the publishing industry and freely shares her insights about its changing landscape. Sign up for her newsletter and check out the archives for publishing advice, or sign up for one of her sponsored online courses.

Storyaday.org – If you want to get started writing every day, this site will give you the tools to do so. You’ll find a daily prompt to get you thinking about your next story. The site is less focused on getting published and more about challenging yourself to think and write creatively.

The Write Life – This is another helpful resource for writers from blogging and freelancing to marketing your writing services. This is an especially practical place to go for news and advice about building your writing business.

Getting Published

Creative Nonfiction – If you specialize in memoir and personal essays, this site is for you. Creative Nonfiction is a literary journal published twice a year usually centered around a central theme. They also publish a mini-magazine True Story for long-form pieces. In addition, they offer online courses, webinars and self-guided classes year round.

Submittable – Submittable is a multi-faceted platform where writers can research literary publications, and submit and track your manuscripts. It’s a must tool to make it easy to manage your essay publication process. It’s free for individuals to use. You can also find grant applications and projects for screenwriting. 

Narrative Magazine – A new entry on my list is Narrative, an online magazine that publishes short stories, novel excerpts, nonfiction essays and poetry. They operate as a nonprofit, so donations are always welcome. Most important, they encourage new and emerging writers to submit to their publication.

What about you? Do you have a favorite website or blog about writing?