Can People Watching Make You a Better Writer?

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“A good writer is always a people watcher.” – Judy Blume, author

Ever find yourself in a public place watching other people go about their business? Chances are you are probably a good writer. Why? My guess is that the act of carefully observing other people can create a store of knowledge that you can tap into later during the process of writing. That’s something to think about as you create characters for your novels, develop dialogue or re-create scenes.

Judy Blume makes an interesting point. If you want to become a better writer, it makes sense to pay close attention to the details of your surroundings, especially the people near you.

You can watch people anywhere – the public park, a library, a coffee shop, a music festival. Anywhere where there is a group of people gathered is ripe for people watching.  To make the most of the opportunity, however, you need to set aside your laptop, smart phone or other electronic device, and watch. True, people might find it strange that you are staring at them, but they don’t need to know that you are building your base of characters or that you are preparing to write your next novel.

Here’s how becoming an avid people watcher can help improve your writing.

* It helps you focus on details. When you observe the people around you, note how they dress, from the shoes they wear to the color of their shirt. Pay attention to their physical attributes, facial expressions and mannerisms. Listen to how they speak. Do they blink too much? Do they have crooked teeth? Do they wear a hearing aid?  Do they enunciate their words properly, or do they use a lot of slang language? These little details may normally go unnoticed, but can add color and depth to your character’s description.

* It helps you create dialogue between characters. Listen in on their conversations, whether they are on the phone or in conversation with one or more people. Pay attention to not only the content of the conversation, but also the mannerisms as they speak. Do they get excited and talk with their hands, for example? Do the individuals talk over one another, not allowing others to speak? Do they raise their voices when they get excited, or do they cover their mouths when they speak? These little details can help create context for dialogue beyond just a simple exchange of words.

* It helps you create characters with unique characteristics. Is there anything unusual about their appearance, for example, such as a scar or a tattoo, or do they walk with a noticeable limp?

* It helps you build a story about them. Since you probably don’t know these individuals personally, you can create a story about them. Where do they come from, and where are they going? What are their dreams, their motivations? What are their fears? What kind of work do they do? Are they married or single? What kind of personality do they have – shy and withdrawn, or outgoing and friendly? Give them a name, a home, a life, and you have the ideal set up for your character.

If you want to improve your writing, start with developing good people watching skills.

How Your Work Space Can Inspire Better Creative Work

What does your work space say about you? If someone were to walk into your office, cubicle or other area where you work, what would they see? Would they see stacks of papers and books littered around the room? Would the room appear dark and dreary? Does it drain your energy and make you feel sad?

More important, how do you feel when you work there? Does the space inspire you to do your best work? Do you feel creative and energized, or do you feel bored and depressed?

If your work area doesn’t inspire you to be productive, or doesn’t energize you to do your best work, it’s time to mix things up. Here are a few typical problem areas and how to fix them.

  • Cluttered space. Obviously, cluttered space isn’t conducive to productivity. If you have stacks of papers, books, magazines, folders and other junk lying around, how can you possibly think clearly? Take an hour or two to sort through your papers and file them away or toss, put the books back on their shelves and clear your desk of unnecessary items.
  • Dark, depressing environment. There’s nothing more discouraging that working in a dark, depressing environment. Lighten things up. Add a cool, modern lamp to your desk for better task lighting while you read or write. Paint the walls a bright, cheerful color, and keep the shades up during the day to let in natural sunlight.
  • Too many distractions. If you prefer a quiet place to work or study, the local coffee shop may not be your best bet. With music playing overhead and a steady rush of people coming in and out of the shop, it can prove too distracting. To create your own quiet space, preferably with a door that you can shut out interruptions. If you live with others, make it clear to them that you do not want to be disturbed. Set regular office hours too, and stick with them.
  • Much like the cluttered space, disorganization can also be distracting, causing you to feel unfocused and miss deadlines. You may have tossed out a lot of junk, but you still need to find a place for what’s left. I like to set up file folders and label them for each project I’m working on. I may have a file for magazine articles I want to read, another for receipts for my tax returns, and another for story ideas for my blog. Make sure you store the files where you can find them easily; in other words, don’t leave them on your desk or lying around your living room floor.
  • Mood-killer. If your work space is dark, depressing and doesn’t inspire you, make you feel comfortable or kills your spirit, it’s time for a change. A few changes to your décor can lift your spirits. Put a few (two or three at the most) photos of loved ones on your desk, a vase of fresh flowers or other colorful mementos from your travels to spice up your space. Open the windows and let in fresh air, pushing old, stagnant air out. Bring your pet to work with you, if it’s allowed. There’s something about having your favorite furry friend near you while you work that is soothing and comforting, inspiring you to focus on your project.
  • Too uncomfortable. Consider your seating. Where do you sit when you work? At a desk? Or do you lounge on your couch with a laptop in your lap? How and where you sit can impact your ability to concentrate and produce quality work. For example, if you sit at a desk, make sure your computer is at a comfortable eye level and you can type without pain or discomfort. Make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor as you work, and the chair is at a comfortable height without hurting your back. Experts suggest getting up once an hour and walk around so your legs do not stiffen up from sitting for so long.

These are just a few ideas to help you create a more inviting work space that lifts your spirit and encourages you to produce your best creative work.

 

What Does Bob Dylan’s Nobel Peace Prize Mean for Other Songwriters?

Since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature last week, there’s been a debate among literary artists whether songwriters should be considered for such a high honor. After all, critics say, the prize is for the best works of literature, not songwriting.

Jodi Picoult, author of several novels including My Sister’s Keeper, tweeted “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, but #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinaGrammy?” Critics argue that giving the award to a songwriter weakens the meaningfulness of the award, according to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, other best-selling authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King praised the move.

That begs the question: can song lyrics be considered poetry or literature in the same vein as, say, T.S. Eliot? Yes, when those lyrics can stand alone without music, say supporters.

Clearly, Dylan’s body of work falls into that category, like this section from Mr. Tambourine Man. (“Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time/Far past the frozen leaves/The haunted frightened trees/Out to the windy bench/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow). Certainly, Dylan’s lyrics in protest songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” have struck a chord with the American public.

By naming Bob Dylan the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, does that open the door for other songwriters to be considered for this honor? If Dylan can receive the Nobel Peace Prize, why not Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie or Joan Baez?

Perhaps it is time for the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize every year, to begin awarding a prize for the arts, to honor the best works in theater, dance, art and music. What a radical idea, almost as radical as Bob Dylan himself.

Should You Stay Friendly With a Former Boss?

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“Never burn your bridges because you never know when you might need someone’s help some day.”

I’ve never forgotten this tidbit of wisdom from a colleague many years ago. It seems once we leave a job for greener pastures, most of us are ready to put everything behind us, including our relationships with our supervisors and CEOs. We’re eager to start our new jobs or business opportunities. The last thing on our minds is keeping in touch with former bosses. As time passes, those relationships tend to be relegated to a dust pile, long forgotten.

But is that prudent? In an age when our business connections are vital to our success, shouldn’t our relationships with former bosses be a key component of our network?

Yet, how many of us keep in touch with our supervisors? It seems the only time we touch base with them is when we need their help – or a reference. That could be once every few years, or even a decade. Most of us prefer to keep our jobs and our bosses in the rear view mirror, with no intent to re-engage with them. But there are times when keeping those relationships alive can benefit you and your career.

I’m not talking about forming a close friendship with your former boss. But remaining friendly with them over time builds goodwill. With social media sites like Linked In, Twitter and Facebook, it’s much easier now to stay in touch with past supervisors than it was many years ago when I started my career.

A quick phone call every few months to say hello is always welcome. Another option is a brief email to recognize milestones, such as a birthday or a promotion. It’s not necessary to contact them often; usually once or twice a year is sufficient, more often if you had a much closer working relationship.

Keeping these relationships alive can benefit you and your career in a number of ways:

* It helps build goodwill for the long term. Express your gratitude for how they helped you in your career.

* They can be a source of support and professional advice when you need it. Likewise, you never know when they might need support and advice from you.

*They can provide a positive reference for you when you seek new job opportunities.

* It can open the door to new opportunities to rejoin the company working for your boss again in a difference capacity.

* It can present an opportunity to rejoin your supervisor if they move to a different company.

You don’t have to be close friends with your boss, but it does help to remain friendly with them. You never know when you might need their assistance, or how you might be able to help them.

Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Creativity?

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Photo courtesy of Hubspot Marketing

How many hours of sleep do you typically get in one night? How much do you think you need to be at your best creatively?

Medical experts say most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to function properly. Getting only five or six hours of quality sleep can affect us adversely.  You may be short-tempered and impatient which can put a strain on relationships, for example, and mentally you may not be as sharp, which can lead to potential mistakes. Physically, lack of sleep can affect your mood, cause weight gain, high blood pressure and other ailments.

We all lead busy lives, and as we take on more responsibilities, unfortunately, sleep becomes less of a priority.  How can you possibly think clearly, make critical decisions, remain calm under pressure and perform at your best without adequate sleep? The truth is, you don’t realize how valuable sleep is until you begin to lose it.

If your performance on the job can improve with better quality sleep, it makes sense that it can also sharpen your creativity.  If a lack of sleep is preventing you from producing your best creative work, here are a few tips to help you when sleep eludes you:

1. Keep a notebook by your bed. If your brain is racing with ideas or overthinking a problem, grab a notebook and pen and start writing them all down. Getting these ideas down on paper before sleep helps declutter your brain so you can sleep better.

2. Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed time. The lighting from your smart phone, TV and laptop can interfere with the chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep. Avoid watching TV or listening to music before bed time. (I find that this actually works.) It’s important to quiet the mind before sleep.

3. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. If after 20 minutes you can’t fall asleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then try again.

4. Read before hitting the sack. This may seem counterintuitive if you’re reading an engrossing page-turner, but reading for a few minutes each night before bedtime can also help you relax. Try reading something dull and boring, like a science textbook.

5. Take a warm shower or bath. The warm water eases muscle tension and makes you sleepy.

6. Drink a glass of warm milk before heading off to bed. If you drink cow’s milk, try warming a mug of almond or cashew milk. You can also try chamomile tea, but it might make you go to the bathroom more often during the night, which only disrupts your sleep more. Wine and other alcoholic beverages might help you get to sleep, but you may have difficulty staying asleep.

7. Avoid sleeping pills. Some can be addictive, while others are ineffective. Other products on the market, like melatonin and Nyquil Zzzzs have had mixed results.

Whether you are an artist, writer or business owner, if you want to maximize your creativity and be more productive in your work, sleep is the most valuable commodity you’ll ever need.

Find Creative Inspiration in These Soulful Spaces

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I sat inside a local coffee shop recently, where I wrote in my journal and sketched out a story for my blog. I don’t go to coffee shops very often since I have a home office, but on occasion, I feel the need to hunker down somewhere in the neighborhood. While sipping my coffee, I’m not only brainstorming story ideas, but I find myself half-listening to other peoples’ conversations at nearby tables or watching people or simply staring out the window. By the time I left the coffee shop some four hours later, I hadn’t crossed off all my tasks on my to-do list, but what I did have were pages of ideas and emotions that I could tap into for stories later.

There have been other places I’ve visited that has inspired me to write, to dream, and to create. If you’re feeling stuck and looking for inspiration, get out of the house and get around your neighborhood.

1. Coffee shops. Coffee isn’t the only thing that flows at these neighborhood java shops. Whether people watching, surreptitiously listening in on conversations or mindfully enjoying a cup of your favorite beverage, the local coffee shop is the obvious choice for finding inspiration. Even the tap-tapping of nearby computer keyboards signals that creative juices are flowing.

2. Libraries and bookstores. Next to coffee shops, libraries and bookstores are my favorite place to find inspiration. When you browse the book shelves, note the topics, the story lines, the biographies. Hundreds of thousands of books have been published, yet there is still plenty to write about. Somewhere in our world, there is a story that has yet to be written, and you and I have the opportunity to write it.

3. Places of worship. There is something powerfully serene and reverent when I walk into a church or other place of worship. Sit in the silence (preferably not when there is a service taking place) and observe your surroundings. Or better yet, close your eyes. Whether you pray or not is up to you. In fact, prayer isn’t necessary. Just your mindful awareness and your willingness to be present.

4. Cemeteries. As odd as it may seem, cemeteries are great places to find creative inspiration. Think of those who have died and are buried there. They all have a story. Read their tombstones. When were they born? When did they perish? Imagine what their lives must have been like. How did they live? Who did they marry? How did they die? Keeping these questions in mind can help you create their life story, whether they are true or not.

5. Museums. Have you ever seen a painting, sculpture or other artistic endeavor that moved you? What is its story?  Each antique relic, painting and sculpture you see in a museum has a story.  Even after you’ve read the caption next to it, you can still write your own story about that particular piece. How did it move you? What did it look like? What did you experience when viewed it for the first time?

6. Nature. Feeling stuck indoors? Take a walk, whether in a park, along a lake or in the woods. Nature calls for us to be quiet so we can hear the still voice within us. That is our creative muse, and sometimes in the hectic pace of life, we lose its sound. Spending time in nature is one of the best ways to reconnect with our soul, which can help get those creative juices flowing again.

7. Music. They say music calms the savage beast, and they may be right. Though not a specific place, music does provide a meaningful backdrop to any creative endeavor. When I sit down to write or read, I prefer to listen to softer music, like contemporary folk or classical. Listening to a piece of music that is unfamiliar to you may be especially enlightening, providing a new experience to draw on for your next inspired story.

Mix and match, or choose whatever you are in the mood for. When you need a change of scenery, a change of pace or even a change of heart, visiting a quiet place can help you reconnect with yourself and find the creative inspiration you seek to write your next great story.

Tips for Finding Credible Sources via the Internet

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A woman I met in a writing class was working on a book project. She had never done anything like it before, so she didn’t know how to go about researching her topic. “How do I find good, credible sources of information on the Internet?” she wondered.

Good question. The Internet, for all its accessibility to the information highway, has been known to play host to some faulty, inaccurate data, enough so that it has been the brunt of jokes. The fact is you can’t assume that what you read on the Internet is true, accurate, trustworthy, or worthy of being shared.

But fortunately for many of us writers, there are plenty of credible sources. You just have to know where to look for them and how to vet them. Here’s a list of sites I regularly seek out to find a credible source to interview or do background research.

* Trade associations, which cover industry news. For example, the National Association of Realtors covers the housing market, while the American Hospital Association obviously covers news about hospitals. If you don’t already have a contact there, reach out to the media relations department who can put you in touch with the best expert for your project.

* Government agencies collect data and conduct research about everything from energy consumption to employment statistics. If you need data to back up your research, agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Trade Commission will be strong bets.

* Universities often produce studies or have think tanks on-site. Professors with special expertise in certain topics or who are involved in research studies are good candidates for sources.

* Book authors often have specialized expertise. Check Amazon or Barnes and Noble for recent releases. Note the name of the author(s) and check out their website, if they have one. If they’ve written a book or published an article, they’re experts and they’re worth interviewing.

* Magazine, newsletter and website editors cover the topics of the day. They understand the issues facing their industry and are usually open to offering their perspective.

* Quoted experts in news articles. As you read articles on your topic, note the experts who are quoted in the story. What company or industry do they represent? What expertise do they have? Follow up with them via their website or connect with them through social media. If they’ve done one interview, they are likely willing to talk to you.

* Think Tank organizations and other research firms, such as Pew Research Center provide massive amounts of studies and data, and their researchers are often quoted in news stories.

* Not-for-profit organizations and foundations, such as American Heart Association, can provide a unique perspective. For example, the director of a silent film group can provide a historical perspective to the passing of a well-loved actress.

For most writing projects, I usually begin by contacting the media relations department. Describe your writing project and be specific as you can about what information you need. They will usually direct you to the right expert. If they don’t have someone available, ask if they can refer someone else. But be patient. It may take a few hours or days for them to get back to you. If time is a factor, make sure you tell them that you are working on a deadline.

Once you’ve collected your sources, don’t set up interviews right away, unless you’ve talked with them previously and know them well enough to contact them. You need to be sure they are legitimate sources for your story.  A source that hasn’t been properly vetted can weaken an otherwise well-researched story.

If the information you find is too good to be true, or promises more than they can deliver, think twice before sharing it. Be sure to confirm the accuracy of one source by using a second, and possibly a third source.

Check the Better Business Bureau to determine if there are any complaints against the company or source. If there are, they may not be the best choice of expert to be interviewed.

Do a Google search of topics and individuals. You might be surprised what pops up. For example, enter HCG Diet in the search space, and the list will reveal both positive and negative reports, which suggest that the diet may not live up to the hype. On the other hand, by seeing both positive and negative responses, you may find sources who are willing to discuss opposing perspectives, which can make your story more well-rounded and credible.

In the long run, your story is only as good as the sources you use.

Spice Up Your Business with Laughter

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

No matter how stressed or worried you may be about what is happening at your job or in your personal life, studies show laughter has been known to boost mood and release tension.

According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has both short-term and long-term effects on the body. It increases the intake of oxygen, which stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles. It improves the immune system, relieves pain, improves mood while lessening anxiety, and makes it easier to cope with difficult moments in your life.

So why aren’t more people cultivating more humor and laughter in their lives, especially at work?

For starters, they may be perceived in the workplace as not being truly serious about their work, as being a goof-off, or not being promotable. So they keep their humor in check rather than risk reprisals at work.

But studies show that humor and laughter can boost work productivity. According to this Forbes article, humor can be key to business success in several ways:

* Humor, when used wisely, can help win friends and influence people. People enjoy working with people they like. But don’t be snarky, say experts, which is not good for team building, and don’t offend others.

* It boosts morale among team members. People who share a good laugh form a bond over a shared experience.

* Humor can make your company differentiate itself from competitors. If you can make customers laugh, it makes your company more memorable, and it can be part of your branding.

* Humor helps create an upbeat office environment that encourages interaction among team members and brainstorm new ideas, which lead to greater productivity and greater product innovation.

* Humor is a stress-buster, puts people at ease and builds trust.

Whether you work from home alone without co-workers or work in a not-so-fun office, there are ways to bring laughter into your work life. Here are a few ideas:

* Sign up to receive a joke of the day or cartoon of the day from any number of websites. My personal favorite is Savage Chickens by cartoonist Doug Savage. (www.savagechickens.com). Each morning during the week, I receive a cartoon in my email inbox, and I start my day with a smile with minimal interruption to my work day.

* Post a few funny cartoons at your desk so you have something to laugh at throughout the day.

* Recruit colleagues to participate in a skit that encourages them to express their humorous side.

* Set out games that team members can work on throughout the day, such as a crossword puzzle or chess board.

* Away from work or in off hours, indulge in a comedy-a-thon, playing back-to-back-to-back episodes of your favorite comedy or movie series.

* Visit a comedy club, or take an improvisational class.

* Spend a few minutes (and I do mean a few minutes, not hours) on YouTube videos. Just don’t spend so much time on the site that it interferes with your work.

* Enjoy a comedy festival, like the Cat Video Festival that tours the country each year.

Laughter is good for your heart, mind and soul. Take the time each day to put a little more laughter into your life, and share it with someone else. It just may improve your work life.