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.

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.  

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

Preparing for a Writer’s Conference: The Elevator Pitch

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Congratulations! You’ve just signed up for a writer’s conference. Whether you’re attending your first conference or you’ve gone to a couple dozen in your career, there’s always plenty of prep work to do before you go. For one, you’ll need to pack your elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a brief description of who you are and what kind of writing you do. Most authors agree the pitch should be no more than 30 seconds long, or about 50 to 100 words. Since you don’t have a lot of time to make your points, you need to make every word and every second count.

But creating a pitch for the first time can be daunting. Even more experienced writers don’t always get it right and have to re-do theirs from time to time, especially as their projects change.

Why is an elevator pitch necessary?

There is some debate among literary agents about the purpose of elevator pitches and whether they are truly necessary. At the Book Ends Literary blog, agent Jessica Faust suggests that authors and would-be authors dump the traditional pitch in favor of real conversation. Some agents don’t want to be bombarded at a conference with pitches. They’d rather get to know you as a person and as a writer. They want to talk about publishing and the latest books you’ve read.

I can understand Faust’s point. Imagine being a literary agent at a conference attended by several hundred people. Would you want to be hounded by all these would-be authors? If that were me, I would want to hide out in a corner just to avoid the rush of people clamoring for my attention.

Still, it’s important to have an elevator pitch ready in case someone asks. Why? Because writers like to hear what other writers are working on, and agents and publishers are always looking for new talent and new book concepts. So when someone asks, “What are you writing?” you can be prepared to answer them, briefly and succinctly.

Moral of this story: don’t dump your elevator pitch altogether, but do keep it in your back pocket.

What should an elevator pitch include?

When you only have 30 seconds to make an impression, it can be challenging to squeeze as much information into your elevator pitch. Opt for the most important points. Avoid giving a chapter-by-chapter account of your story; that will simply take too long. Shorter is better, about 50 to 100 words, but have more points prepared in case you are asked follow up questions.

When you prepare your elevator pitch, here are a few factors to keep in mind:

What genre do you write? – Mention what genre story you are writing. Is it women’s fiction, a memoir or a self-help book? For examples of some great elevator pitches in these three genres, see Bookbub’s Insights blog.

What is your current project? Give a brief summary of your story line, focusing on character and conflict. Then add context for the story – where does it take place in relation to the world we live in. Finally, consider why readers should care about your story.

What have you written previously? Even if you haven’t published anything before, say so. Instead, you can say, “This is my debut novel.”

Keep it snappy. Once you’ve written the key elements of your pitch, edit it so it will grab a listener’s attention.

Practice your pitch. Keep practicing your pitch so it feels comfortable rolling off your tongue. One of the worst things to happen is to sound too rehearsed and canned, or like you are speaking lines for a play. You want to come across as natural as possible.

Here’s a great tip from The Writing Cooperative. When someone asks how they can find out more about you and your writing, don’t just hand out your business card or spit out your website URL. There’s no guarantee that they will ever follow up with you and checkout your website on their own. Instead, say something like “I’ll be happy to give you that information. Do you have an email address I can send it to?” or ask for their business card. This way you can follow up with them after the conference. Be sure you really do follow up with a personal note.

Remember not to hound agents and publishers at conferences. They’re there to enjoy the event just as much as you are. Focus on creating conversation. Inquire how their day is going. Ask what authors they enjoy reading. Ask what sessions they’ve attended. Just get the conversation started.

Then don’t be surprised if they turn the spotlight on you at some point and ask “What are you writing?” Then be ready to give your elevator pitch, naturally and comfortably.

How to Juggle Multiple Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

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Like most writers I know, I tend to work on several different writing projects at one time. In addition to writing this blog, I’m currently writing a novel, I have several essays in various stages of completion, and I just completed a freelance writing assignment for a client. The work certainly keeps me busy, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If I decide to work on one project, it means I can’t give my attention to the others.

Add to that all the extra administrative and marketing work that goes along with writing for a living, and you can see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

There’s a constant struggle to maintain balance in my work schedule. Every morning, I ask myself, “Which piece should I work on today?” It’s a problem I don’t mind having because the alternative is spending hours in an office doing work that sucks the life out of my soul.

However, managing multiple projects does have a few upsides, writes author Heather Webb at the Writer Unboxed blog. It alleviates “manuscript fatigue,” she says. Switching between projects prevents you from getting too tired of one project. After a few days away from it, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

Having multiple projects also takes the pressure off of trying to create the “perfect” piece, Webb adds. Since you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, you have more freedom to experiment with your writing. That can only help you produce better quality writing.

Managing multiple projects has its upsides, but it has plenty of challenges too.

Challenge 1:  There’s a limited amount of time to work on any one project.

When you’re working on several stories at once, you don’t have as much time to work on each of them as you’d like. Obviously, the paid work comes first because there are deadlines, and if you don’t make those deadlines, you don’t get paid. Once you submit your paid piece and return to an essay that’s closer to your heart after an extended time away from it, it can be difficult to get back into the flow of the story again. You can begin to feel disconnected from the story altogether.

Solution:  Re-read the last chapter of your novel, the beginning of the essay or review your notes. These are obvious starting points that will allow you to pick up the thread of the action. With fresh eyes, you might even resolve a plot point or come up with a new character.

Challenge 2:  Characters and story lines can blend in with one another.

Sometimes characters and protagonists begin to blend in with one another when you switch from one story to the next too often. This is even more disconcerting if those stories happen in different cities or eras of history.

Solution: Much like challenge #1, re-read the previous scenes to get inside the character’s mindset, or as Webb suggests at the Writer Unboxed blog, try journaling in the character’s voice to get inside their head again.

Challenge 3:  Creative burnout can occur.

When working on many projects, or worse, when you’re up against multiple deadlines, things can get a bit crazy. Working at that level of creativity for too long can produce creative burnout, writes Mark McGuinness, author of Productivity for Creative People (a book I definitely must read). That’s not a sustainable routine for the long term. (See this article in The Write Life for details.)

Solution:  Create a sustainable workload by limiting yourself to two to four writing projects to keep yourself sane. Make a list of the most important activities you need to work on, such as client work, family obligations and recurring tasks. These activities form the base for your time obligations. Next fill in what’s left – your spare time – with one or two writing projects. That approach, says McGuinness, will give you the time and space you need to work on what’s important to you while keeping you sane.

While it’s easy for writers and creative professionals to have several projects going on at the same time, it’s not so easy to manage them efficiently without ruining your life. When you set priorities and allow some downtime to transition between stories, you can manage multiple writing projects with greater ease and better results.

How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.

Why Writers Are Bigger Risk Takers Than Most Non-Writers

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How much of a risk taker are you? Not just in your life, but in your writing?

At first glance, it would seem that writers are not big risk takers. Writers are frequently perceived as thoughtful, introspective and cautious. That may not be true necessarily, but the cerebral nature of writing gives writers those qualities.

The reality is that writers are bigger risk takers than most average folks. Think about all the ways you’ve taken risks with your own writing.

* Writers risk putting their thoughts down on paper. The very act of doing that shows a certain level of commitment to the writing process. Putting words down on paper (or typed onto a computer screen) feels more permanent. It makes the stories, even in their most primitive forms, seem more real than if they were left alone in their brains.

* Writers risk exposing their emotional lives. Some feelings are so deeply hidden and so deeply felt that it is only by writing about them and with them that writers can truly embrace them. Writers take ownership of those emotions. Writing helps them process those feelings and give them life on the page that is both socially acceptable and healing.

* Writers risk looking ignorant or foolish. There may be times when writers express an unpopular opinion. The way around that is to do plenty of research to help support that opinion. Back up those opinions with factual data and studies or interviews with experts. There will always be people who disagree with you or who don’t like what you write. That is par for the course. That is the risk of being a writer. Writers will never please everyone, which is probably why they focus on pleasing themselves.

* Writers risk criticism of their work. Let’s face it – the world can be a sour, cruel place. Not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox of life. People won’t think twice about tearing down all your hard work, whether because of their own jealousy, fear or insecurity. Writers will need to develop thick skins to ward off those blows. But the satisfaction of doing work that they love is worth the brief moment of pain that harsh criticism can bring.

* Writers risk sharing too much of themselves. Especially in memoir writing, writers expose so much of their personal lives on the page that would make most non-writing people cringe. It takes courage to share stories of trauma, pain, anxiety and disappointment. It’s much easier to share stories of joy and triumph.  It takes courage to reveal the darkest sides of our souls. But it is a necessary evil if those revelations help heal others who experience a similar pain.

* Writers risk anonymity. They risk the possibility that no one will ever read their work. Writers can toil for weeks, months, or even years on one literary masterpiece only to see it never published. Or if it does get published, it gathers dust on the bookshelf. But like the risk of criticism, most writers probably won’t mind the risk of anonymity because it’s the writing process that gives them the most pleasure, not the outcome.

* Writers risk their pride. Many writers I know are not afraid to show their work to others when the story is still in its rawest form. It takes courage to ask others for assistance. Others, like myself, prefer to wait until the piece is nearly 100 percent finished before asking people to review it. Somehow it does not seem fair to ask people to review work that is still in progress. That’s like asking someone to view a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. You only see part of the picture, not the entire piece. Many writers are willing to set aside their pride to welcome suggestions for improvement along the way.

If you feel you don’t put enough risk into your writing, there may be ways around it. For starters, try something new and different that you would normally not consider doing, says Kellie McGann a contributor at The Write Practice blog. For example, if you’ve never been a big fan of poetry, sign up for a poetry class. Because the creative process for writing poetry is different than for other types of writing, you can learn a different approach to putting words and phrases together to tell a story.

It’s important to push yourself to try different things, McGann writes. “If you always write about what you know, you’ll never be a better writer,” McGann says. Which flies in the face of a long-held belief that we need to write what we know.

The next time you feel stuck in your writing or you just want to experiment with a different writing technique, do something different. Take a class or do something that is out of your comfort zone. Taking risks are necessary to open the flow of ideas. Or as McGann writes, “When we take risks, we step into the unknown. That’s where ideas begin to flow.”

Of course, not all risks go well. In fact, some fail miserably. There’s no worse feeling that taking a leap of faith and falling flat on your face.

So what can writers do when that happens? Grieve, suggests author Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed. Give yourself a few days, or even a week to process the disappointment. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss, the failure. Set a time limit too so the grieving process does not go on indefinitely. Then when that week is up, roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

The writing process is filled with risk. Embrace the adventurous, risk-taking part of your soul. It may just help you become a better writer.

Why Creative Ruts Happen and What You Can Do About Them

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Falling into a creative rut can feel like the end of the world, like you’re stuck in a dense forest with no sign of water, food or life. When they happen, you can do one of two things: fight them to the death, or embrace them.

Ruts are not a bad thing, says author and freelance journalist Kristin Wong. They serve a useful purpose, prompting you to question your life goals and career aspirations. Ruts, she says, reminds you that you are human after all, not a machine.

Other creative types see ruts differently. Author Jane Porter suggests that it’s not a rut you are experiencing at all, but impatience. You want to see results right away. You want to see progress quickly, just the way you sketched it out ahead of time. You want to see proof that your hard work is paying off. But, Porter says, efficiency is not the same as creativity.

Do a Google search and you’ll find hundreds of articles with suggestions for dealing with ruts. But not many of them address why they happen in the first place. Wong says when she falls into ruts, they usually happen for one of three reasons:

* Information overload. The Internet provides a lot of information. Some good, others not so good. It’s easy to get lost in the world of information, and it’s even more fun to learn new ideas from people. It’s also easy to get distracted with non-essential ideas that don’t fit in with your own aspirations. When you feel lost, it’s easy to seek guidance from other people and forget that you even have a voice. You need to block out the distractions so you can hear your own voice and follow your own path.

* Burnout. Creative professionals often work on the same project for months or even years. But after looking at the same pages all the time, you can become bored. You begin to feel stagnant, and run out of ideas of how to fix your writing or artwork. Burnout is natural when you stare at a project for too long, says Wong. To counter burn out, it’s important to take breaks – lots of them. Self-care is as much a part of the creative process as the work you do. During those breaks, learn to do nothing, even if it’s just staring out the window. Breaks give you stamina and energy so you can keep going toward your goals.

* Uncertainty about your path. Sometimes you can be so engulfed in the process of creating that you lose sight of your overall vision. It can translate as boredom on the job. When you continue to do a job out of routine, and you’re unclear what the overall vision is for that job, it can throw you into a rut.

So now that you have a better understanding why ruts happen, what can you do about them? Ask any creative person and they will tell you how they deal with them. But their ways of dealing with ruts are as different as they are. Check out this Huffington Post article about how 29 artists break out of ruts. It’s important to find what works best for you. Here are a few ideas:

1. Take a break. Most creative people will tell you that frequent breaks are necessary for clearing your head. Go for a walk, take a weekend getaway, play with your pet, or take a nap. When you return to your desk, you may notice a solution you hadn’t seen before.

2. Work with your hands. Try gardening, playing in the sand, mold clay, juggle, or anything that requires you to use your hands rather than your head. Playing with something tangible like dirt, water or clay can be therapeutic and gives your brain a rest.

3. Take a bath or shower. Ever have an eureka moment while showering? There’s something about immersing yourself in water that releases creative energy. In astrology, water is often associated with creativity and artistry, so any activity involving water may help “flush out” new innovative ideas.

4. Try something different. Do something you’ve never done before, says Christine Mason Miller, author of Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the World in a recent Psyche Central article. Sign up for a cooking class, visit a nearby town you’ve never been to before, or go horseback riding if you’ve never done it. The key is to open your mind up to doing something different. If you experience something out of the ordinary, that new experience can spawn new creative ideas.

5. Make small changes. Sometimes making small changes to your environment can help you look at the world differently. Miller says whenever she falls into a creative rut, she will repaint a room, rearrange the furniture, or buy new pillows. Bringing something new into your environment can spark creative ideas.

6. Allow yourself to be bored. Author Jane Porter says our brains are too occupied with information, data, news and other stuff. Our brains are too busy, and all that busyness can kill creativity. It’s okay to be bored every so often. Think of it as part of the creative process.

7. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Visit a museum, listen to classical music or read poetry. Enjoy the sources of beauty and creativity that surround you. Seeing it in nature or seeing it in the works of other creative types can inspire you.

8. Embrace your creative rut. Realize that feeling stuck is part of the creative process. Once you understand this, you can embrace it for what it truly is – a reason to keep creating.

Creative ruts are inevitable. They’re a natural part of the creative process. They’re red flags alerting you that something is out of sync. When you fall into one, don’t fret. Recognize it for what it is – a chance to recharge your creative spirit so you can produce your best work.

Five Lies About Writing That Can Derail Your Writing Practice

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When it comes to maintaining a writing practice, we tell ourselves a lot of lies – not being good enough, not having enough time to write, not having any good ideas, writing is easy, etc.

Why do we tell ourselves so many lies? More important, what are we basing them on? Whose voices do we hear when we hear those lies? Perhaps it was some offhand comment someone said to you many years ago that you took to heart? Or perhaps it’s someone else’s belief that you adopted as your own, even though that person is no longer alive?

Those lies often act as barriers to your writing. If you get too far ahead of yourself,  you may hear that voice again. That’s when self-doubt kicks in. You slow down or stop writing altogether. That’s no way to engage with your writing.

Maybe it’s time to dispel those beliefs and get real about your writing practice. Maybe it’s time to re-frame those internal messages into more positive ones so you can enjoy writing again.

Below are the most common “lies” that you may have told yourself at one time or another and how you can dispel them once and for all.

Lie #1: “There’s not enough time to write.”
An old friend of mine once told me that he didn’t realize how much time he wasted until he started grad school. Once he started classes, he became more aware of how he was spending his time. “We waste a lot of time,” he told me with a shake of his head.

The truth is we fill our days with busy work, much of it meaningless. If you claim that you’re too busy to write, what are you “too busy” doing? How do you know that you don’t have time to write if you have never tracked your activities throughout the day? Are you using your time as efficiently as you could?

Try this exercise: For three consecutive days, keep track of how you spend your time. Include one weekend day (for example, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Set up worksheets from midnight to midnight with fifteen-minute increments for each day. Be honest with yourself. Once these worksheets are completed, take note of any gaps in your schedule. Are there pockets of time where nothing is happening? Can you split up a segment of time? For example, if you get an hour for lunch, can you set aside a half hour for writing? Or if you spend most Saturdays watching marathon episodes of your favorite show on Netflix, could you swap out one hour for writing instead?

By seeing your activity in print, you’ll likely find ways to re-allocate your time so you can spend more valuable time writing.

Lie #2: “Writing is too time-consuming.”
How much time do you think you need to establish a regular writing practice? Thirty minutes? An hour, perhaps? Many people believe writing is time-consuming based on some preconceived idealistic vision of what a writing practice looks like. They imagine an overly large oak desk in a drawing room with lots of bookshelves and French doors that open up onto a garden with a view of the lake in the distance.

This scenario is far from the truth. (Hence the schedule assessment). More likely, writers are squeezing in a writing session during their lunch hour or on a bus ride to work in the morning. Most have full-time jobs, families to raise, obligations to the community. They don’t have a lot of time to indulge in fantasy, but they do make time to work on their craft.

The truth is, many writing experts say you only need ten to fifteen minutes a day to establish a regular writing practice. If all you need is ten minutes, you can write anywhere. Check your activity assessment again. Are there gaps in your schedule where you can squeeze in ten minutes of writing?

Lie #3: “There is nothing worthwhile to write about.”
Many aspiring writers stop writing because they think they don’t have anything worthy to say, no interesting stories to tell. But ideas for stories are everywhere if you remain aware and alert for them.

Engage with the world around you. Notice the people walking in the park or through your neighborhood. What are they doing? Riding a bike, feeding the birds, playing with their kids? Observe the other passengers on your next train ride to work or in the coffee shop you hang out. How are they dressed? How are they spending their time? Quietly and unobtrusively listen to the conversations around you. Note how two people speak to one another. In hushed tones so as not to be overheard? Or loud and emotional, as if they are having an argument?

There is plenty to write about. You just have to be aware of your surroundings to be inspired.

Lie #4: “Writing is not a worthwhile career.”
If you believe that writing is not a worthwhile career, go to the nearest bookstore or library, open up a magazine or newspaper or browse the Internet. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for writers. Sure, it may be tough going at the start of your career, or even in mid-career. But that has never stopped writers from writing. You may have to work a dull nine-to-five job to pay the bills while you hone your craft. But ask anyone who has ever been published and they will tell you that writing brings them joy. That in itself makes it worthwhile.

Lie #5: “Writing is for sissies.”
Writing is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you are writing a novel or a work of non-fiction, writing is a slow, agonizing process, complete with false starts and writer’s blocks. Your first draft is usually junk, and you’ll have to go through several editing passes before an editor or publisher believes your latest project is worth sharing with the rest of the world.

The key to progress is consistency. You can work on your latest masterpiece and still it may not be good enough to be published. But writers are the most courageous and heartiest of souls. They risk rejection constantly. Even after they’ve received fifty rejection slips, they dust themselves off and try again.They’re willing to toil for years on one project that is close to their heart, just to see it come to fruition. This writing life is definitely not for sissies.

Remember you are in charge of your own writing practice. You set the schedule and the parameters for success, however success means to you. Once you become aware of the self-defeating beliefs, myths and assumptions affecting your writing, you can flip the script. Rewrite the assumptions as fact-based truths. Then use them to redefine your writing practice.

Are there any lies that you used to believe in that nearly derailed your writing career?

24 Quotes about Writing by Women Who Write

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight some of history’s most prominent female authors. In their own words, here are their thoughts and musings about writing and the writing life. Let their words be an inspiration and motivation for your own work.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, either from the collection below or one that is not represented?

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

“I could not write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Jane Austen

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self; to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Toni Morrison

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings,  specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course, you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“You must not only know how to write, but you have to be privately, personally, sound at the core. Not sane, but sound. If not, it always shows.”
Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

“To write something, you  have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but one which makes you think.”
Harper Lee

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Margaret Atwood

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”
Sandra Cisneros

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
J.K. Rowling

“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us.”
Alice Walker

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Invention, it my be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
Mary Shelley

“When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.”
Amy Tan

“After awhile, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
Alice Hoffman

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
Louisa May Alcott

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.”
Isabel Allende

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
Ann Patchett

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.”
Annie Proulx

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou