Achieve Your Writing Goal in One Year (or Less)

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Have you heard this questions before? “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I’ve always hated that question in job interviews because I could never answer it without making myself look like a disorganized mess. I would hem and haw, waiting for inspiration to strike me with an appropriate answer before finally settling on a very safe one: “Working here.”

The truth is, I’ve always had difficulty setting and keeping five-year goals because I could never think that far ahead. Too much can happen between this moment and five years from now that could alter my long-term plans, so why bother making any?

These days, my goal-setting is simpler because I focus on short-term goals and I look no further than one year ahead. Instead, I ask myself, “Where do I want to be one year from now?” I figure as long as I take care of the short term goals, the long-term future will take care of itself.

The one-year plan includes several interim goals to measure your progress. I borrow this approach from publishing production schedules, which establishes the publishing date first and then works backward to the starting point of the production cycle. In between, there are deadlines for writing, proofing, artwork and so on.

Think about what you want to accomplish with your writing practice. Where do you see it one year from now? Maybe your vision is to manage a blog. Maybe you want to complete a collection of travel essays. Or maybe you want to write stories from your life to pass onto your grandchildren. Whatever that goal may be, start with your year-end vision, then break it down into smaller, achievable tasks. Those tasks become your interim deadlines. When you know you want to achieve X one year from now, it’s easier to work backward to set the interim deadlines.

I find a good time for these goal-setting sessions is the beginning of the New Year, your birthday, or the beginning of the school year. Those times signify fresh starts when goal setting can help you stay motivated. But any time of year is a good time to make goals for yourself, no matter what you want to achieve with your writing.

To help you with this goal-setting exercise, answer the following questions.

1. Name one thing you would like to achieve in your writing practice one year from now. For example, complete first drafts of 12 childhood memoir essays to be included in a published collection. (Twelve is a random number that I chose based on the calendar months of the year. That equates to one memoir essay each month.)

2. Name one thing you would like to achieve in six months. Perhaps your six-month goal is to review the essays you’ve written so far leading up to your one-year goal. How many essays have you completed toward your year-end goal? Do they need editing? Perhaps your six-month goal is to hire an editor or have someone review the work you’ve done.

3. Name one thing you would like to achieve by the end of three months. Perhaps in three months, you would like to read one or two memoir collections that other people have written to help you understand how it’s done. Or maybe your goal is to write three essays that will be included in your collection.

4. Name one thing you would like to achieve within one month. Your goal could be to write for 30 minutes at least three days a week, or it could be to complete a draft of one essay for your childhood memoir.

5. Name one thing you’d like to achieve within the next two weeks. It could be to evaluate your daily schedule to see what you can change to make room for writing. Or it could be brainstorming ideas for your collection of memoir essays.

By the end of this exercise, you will have set five goals for your writing practice at five different time periods – two weeks, one month, three months, six months, and one year. Make sure they are reasonable, measurable and realistic to achieve. Then review your goals every few months to see how much progress you have made. If you find that you haven’t achieved any of your goals, do not beat yourself up over it. Just modify your goals and start over again.

By developing a one-year plan with smaller goals at interim points, you can stay focused on the tasks at hand while letting the long-term future take care of itself.   

What kind of writing plans do you make for yourself? Are you able to stick to them?

Three Questions Every Writer Should Ask Before Starting a Writing Routine

Novice writers often ask, “How often should I write? And should I write every day?”

Browse the internet and you’ll likely find a variety of responses to these questions. Some responses suggest making time goals, such as one hour a day, while others suggest word goals, such as 500 words. For example, Stephen King in his book “On Writing,” advises new writers to aim for a lofty 1,000 words a day.

To add to the confusion, novice scribes are advised to write every day to achieve consistency with your writing. If you don’t write every day, experts argue, you might lose momentum and motivation. After missing several days, you may never get back to writing.

While their arguments are valid, they may not be practical. Not everyone has time to write every single day because of demanding schedules. Further, the thought of writing every day can be daunting, especially for novice writers who haven’t a clue how to get started. You might say to yourself, “Write every day? I can’t possibly do that! That will take up too much of my day!”

That kind of reasoning assumes that writing is time consuming. But the truth is, writing isn’t nearly as time consuming as we imagine it is. That’s because many of us have built up scenarios in our brain in which we imagine sitting in front of our computer for several hours a day. That scenario might be accurate for well-known authors and professional writers, but not for beginning writers like you and me.

How much time you devote to writing depends on several factors: what you’re schedule allows, whether you’re new to writing, and what you want to achieve with your writing. No two writers will have the same answers. Below are several questions you need to ask yourself before establishing a writing routine.

Question 1: Are you new to writing?

If you’re new to writing, it might be helpful to start with a small goal and work your way up into larger goals as you gain more confidence in your abilities. Set a word goal of 100 words, for example. If after a few days, 100 words is too easy, you can raise the goal to 250 words.

For other writers, a time goal may be a better option, say 15 minutes or 30 minutes. Even five minutes is better than none at all. As you gain more confidence, you can add more time to your sessions, moving from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, for example.

Shannon Ashley at the Post-Grad Survival Guide blog writes that it’s important to achieve consistency with your writing. But how much time and energy you put into it is up to individual writers and what they want to achieve. But it’s not necessary to write every day to achieve that success. It is important if you want to achieve consistency, especially for newer writers.

I recommend setting a small goal of 100 words per session. That is the equivalent of three or four paragraphs, something that is easy to achieve if you write every day. However, if you don’t have time to write every day, you can choose to write two or three times a week or even just weekends. You can still achieve consistency with your writing by committing to writing three days a week.

As you gain more experience, you will learn to write faster and get more writing done in less time. That’s when you can set higher goals for yourself and create more flexible writing schedules.

Question 2: Do you prefer a structured routine or write when you can?

Some writers prefer having a set schedule because they enjoy the structure that it gives them.  Writing every day for a set amount of time or specific word count provides a sense of accomplishment. Just sitting down and writing at the same time every day is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The reality is, there is no set rule that says you have to write every day, writes Ali Luke at WritetoDone blog. It’s simply a goal to work toward. Only you know what is best for you considering your schedule.

On the other hand, some writers with more demanding work schedules may not have a lot of spare time for writing. Or they may simply thrive in unstructured work environments. Sometimes it’s necessary to find time to write wherever you can squeeze it in. For example, you may jot down notes while riding on the bus to work, or cram in a half hour of writing before bedtime. Further, it may not be possible to commit to writing every day. It may be that you are weekend warriors, writing in chunks on Saturday and Sunday.

Knowing which type of person you are – structured or unstructured – can help you decide how to set up your writing routine or whether you should have one at all.

Question 3: What do you want to accomplish with your writing?

If writing is a hobby, then you can be more flexible with your schedule since you are not tied to any deadlines. You can write whenever and wherever you want, and you can make your sessions as short or as long as you want – as your schedule allows. It might be easier to squeeze in writing time before doctor’s appointments and work breaks.

But if your goals are more serious – such as writing an essay or article that you want to have published – then you might need to devote a longer work session to complete it. That’s quiet, uninterrupted time to research, contemplate and prepare your finished piece for an editor. Since it requires greater care, then you will need longer stretches of time to work on it.

The bottom line is this: the more you want to accomplish with your writing, the more time you will devote to your craft. If you love to write, the more time you will make for it. That’s the difference between those who see writing as a casual leisurely pursuit and those who view it as their life’s work.

15 Writing Ideas for Your 15-Minute Writing Session

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So you think you don’t have time to write. That’s very possible, considering all the demands on our time these days. Work (or looking for work), home schooling your kids, household chores, cooking, and all the other responsibilities we have that can get in the way of our writing time.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re not able to accomplish as much writing during your writing sessions. If you can make time for 15 minutes of writing, you can accomplish more than you think. You just have to go into your session with a goal. Know what you want to accomplish or what you want to write about. When you know what you want to accomplish, you can make the best use of your time. Then get down to work.

Here’s what you can do with your 15-minute writing session.

1. Freewrite for 15 minutes straight without stopping. Let the ideas flow from your brain to the page. Aim to write 100 words every session – at a minimum. Do not stop to edit or rethink what you just wrote. Just keep writing. You may be surprised at the ideas that you see on the page afterward. If you do this consistently, over 10 sessions (aiming for those 100 words), you should be able to complete a 1,000-word essay.

2. Draft a dialogue between two characters. Start with one character asking the other person a question. See where that dialogue takes your characters. Avoid writing back story or other narrative. Focus only on the dialogue.

3. Choose an object on your desk or somewhere in your room. Describe it in detail including the color, shape and texture of it. How did you acquire that item? Is there a story behind where that item came from?

4. If you have a pet, give the animal a voice. Write a few paragraphs as if the pet is speaking to you. What would the animal say? Would he lavish you with praise, or whine and complain that you don’t pay enough attention to them?

5. Create a bullet list of stories you’d like to write. Use a prompt like “I remember” or “What if?” to kick off your ideas.

6. Write a brief review of the last book you read or the last movie you watched.

7. Write the final chapter of your current work in progress. Sometimes by writing the ending first, you have a clearer idea of how to start your novel.

8. Browse through old vacation photos. Describe the place as you remember when you visited it. Add as much detail as you can recall.

9. Create a character sketch of your protagonist, antagonist or other major character. Describe their appearance, then write as much detail about what they are striving for in your story. What is the character’s back story?

10. Recall the last dream you had. Rewrite it as you might read it in a book or see on a movie screen.

11. Write a letter to a friend or loved one, especially someone you have not seen in a long time. Or write a letter to a historical figure you admire and wish you could meet. What would you say to them?

12. Play writing games. For example, choose three words at random from the dictionary (close your eyes, open to a random page and let your finger stop on a word) and write a story using those three words. The story can easily be two to three paragraphs.

13. Think of a book or movie in which you did not like the way it ended. Rewrite the ending. Remember you only have 15 minutes, but you can jot down the key ideas.

14. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? Describe the sounds and the images that come to mind when you hear them. Are there birds chirping? Is there a plane flying overhead? Is someone playing their stereo loudly?  You can do this same exercise with other senses as well, such as touch, taste and smell.

15. Listen to a piece of music, preferably instrumental. Close your ideas as you listen to it. What images come to mind? Does it bring back any memories? Then write about your listening experience.

No matter how busy you may be, there is always time for writing, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Your writing practice shouldn’t suffer because you believe you don’t have enough time. There is always time, as long as you have the desire to write.

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Four Ways to Elevate Your Writing Habit Into a Writing Practice

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I’ve written previously about how aspiring writers can create a regular writing practice. Yet, the term “writing practice” might be confusing for many people. “Isn’t that the same as a writing habit?” you might ask.

No, they are not quite the same. Let me explain as best as I can.

A habit is any activity that is done at roughly the same time every day, like brushing your teeth after every meal or kicking off your shoes when you enter the front door. Habits are more about time and place – where you do that activity, at what time of day, and how often. Some habits, like nail biting, are done so routinely (like during scary movies or intense sporting events) that you don’t even think about what you are doing or why. It becomes mindless.

If you’ve already started a writing habit, you likely write at the same time every day. That set routine encourages consistency and helps you monitor your progress. A writing practice takes the habit a step further by creating stronger purpose, intention and focus.

I borrowed the concept of a writing practice from yoga. I felt there were similarities in the way they are both very individualized experiences. How you progress through the poses is based on a number of factors, such as your level of confidence, body type and skill level, even how you’re feeling that day. Further, yoga isn’t necessarily dependent on practicing every day, though many people do. If you only make it to one class a week, it’s still considered a yoga practice, not a yoga habit. 

Like yoga, a writing practice consists of a purpose and intention, such as getting in touch with a deep emotional wound, creating better sensory descriptions, jotting notes for a non-fiction book, or experimenting with a different genre. Writing every day might make it a routine but to make it a regular practice, you need to add intention and purpose. It’s this mindfulness aspect – of being one with your creative self – that I believe is missing from most writer’s routines.

When comparing a writing habit to a writing practice, there are four characteristics that separate them.

1. Schedule – Think of all the habits you’ve developed over the years. You might go to bed at the same time every night or maybe brush your teeth every morning and every evening. A writing habit provides structure and routine. If you already have a writing habit, you probably have a set schedule for your writing, say writing for one hour starting at six a.m. every day. A writing practice is less structured, and you can choose to write whenever and wherever it is most convenient. If all you have is two hours on a Saturday morning to write, that is your writing practice.

2. Purpose – The goal of a writing habit is to encourage consistency, to make sure you write every day. When you set up a routine time and place to write, it makes it easier to stick to that schedule. In a writing practice, the goal is to create an immersive experience that challenges you in some way. For example, you might dedicate your writing practice to writing a collection of essays or learning to write a different genre.  The practice not only benefits your writing, but also your personal development.

3. Intention – Some writing habits can be mindless in nature. You simply write because it appears in your appointment calendar. Or you write with no set intention for improvement or progress toward a larger goal. Like a yoga session, you might set an intention at the start of your writing session. The intention is designed to help challenge yourself, whether it’s to finish that chapter you’ve been working on or perfect your dialogue or release some pent-up emotion. Without the intention, you have no opportunity to improve your craft.

4. Focus – Writing habits tend to be more externally focused. Perhaps you set office hours and ask your family not to disturb you. People on the outside will see that you are involved in a regular writing session. On the other hand, a writing practice is more internally focused because when you write, you experience growth and progress within yourself, perhaps through greater confidence or a more observant attitude. No one on the outside may notice the difference in your attitude, but you will.

I’ve summarized the comparison in the table below.

 HabitPractice
ScheduleSet schedule, usually same time every dayUnstructured schedule, not every day, but frequently
PurposeProvide consistency and structureImprove writing or create a more immersive experience
IntentionCan be mindless in natureMindful intention to achieve something with each session
FocusExternally focusedPersonal, internally focused

If you have a regular writing habit, that’s great news. It’s important to establish a consistent routine of writing, especially if you are a newbie writer. However, if you want to turn your writing habit into a writing practice, try adding a dose of mindful attention to your work. You’ll create a deeper, more meaningful personal connection to each writing session.

Best Ideas from the Freelancers Union Conference

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As a follow up to my post last week about virtual conferences, below are some of the best ideas gleaned from the recent Freelancers Union virtual conference. While I’ve heard many of these suggestions in the past, it never hurts to hear them again.

1. Say YES to opportunities. In his keynote speech, activist and suicide survivor Darryl Stinson described how important it is to say yes to opportunities and to life. In one of the best quotes of the conference, Stinson says, “Massive success isn’t dependent on all the tasks you need to do; it’s dependent on the decision you need to make.” That singular decision is whether to say YES to your future. By saying YES, you open yourself up to people and situations that can help you achieve your goals. Saying YES puts you in a positive mindset to embrace opportunities as they come.

2. For better clients, find a niche. If you’re struggling to find quality clients, it might help to focus on a specific industry. Throwing a wider net might attract more clients, but they may not be the type of clients you need to be successful for the long term. There will be haters too – people who don’t understand your business or don’t need your product or service. Not everyone will need your services, and that’s okay. If they aren’t interested, move on. Instead, focus on the clients who do like you and want to do business with you.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Freelancers may work solo, but it’s still important to surround yourself with a support team, like mentors, colleagues and other freelancers. Join groups on LinkedIn and Facebook who share your interests, and be willing to give advice as much if not more than you receive. You can learn from each other.

4. Be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s during those times that you can experiment and innovate. Some experiments will work out, while others won’t. Don’t be afraid to fail either. Through failure, you can learn something new about yourself and the creative process. You never know if that experimentation might turn into a viable product or service later.

5. Never start with the ask; focus on building relationships with prospects instead. A good place to prospect for clients is through social media. On LinkedIn, for example, you can check the company page for a list of employees, then search for individuals who have job titles that appear to be the person you want to reach. Next, search the person’s profile page to find out their interests and hobbies, if any. Then when you message them, begin a conversation by mentioning your common interest. Always focus on building relationships with potential clients. Offer to help, give advice, share information, recommend someone for a job, etc. Give, give, give and eventually that giving will be returned to you.

6. Build your personal brand that reflects the real you. Branding expert Diane Diaz defines a brand as “a gut feeling that a person has about a product, service, organization or a person.” When you build your brand, think about how you want to be perceived by potential clients. Then review all your social media channels to see if your outgoing message accurately reflects who you really want others to see. The right message will attract the best individuals and organizations that can help you achieve your goals.

7. Give yourself permission to brag. Diaz also says it’s important to tell others what you have achieved. Most women have been brought up to downplay their accomplishments. But bragging is perfectly okay if it’s done with honesty, Diaz says. “It’s not bragging if you are honest about what you bring to the table.” 

8. Maintain an “I am awesome” file. Collect thank-you notes, press clippings, announcements, memos from bosses and anything else from past employers and clients. Then whenever you feel discouraged, browse through them to remind yourself of what you have already accomplished and that you are appreciated.

9. Practice the art of “Act as if…” This exercise is intended to put your into a more positive frame of mind and erase any feelings of lack. The concept is simple: You act as if you already are the person you want to become, then you will eventually feel that way. If you lack confidence, for example, act as if you are confident. In time, you will begin to feel confident. Act as if you have already achieved the success you want, then you will feel successful. If you act it first, you will eventually become it.

What is the best idea you’ve ever received from a conference?

WordPress users, have you registered for WordPress.com Growth Summit on August 11-12? If you want to grow your blog business, this is a can’t-miss event. (Yes, I will be there too. No, I do not work for WordPress.com, but I thought this was worth passing along in light of my topic today.)

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.

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.

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.