Fresh Start 2019: Five Strategies to Jumpstart Your Writing Practice After the Holidays

 

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Getting back into regular writing mode after the holidays can be a challenge. After weeks of celebrations and shopping, writing may have been the furthest thing from your mind. If you’re still struggling to restart your writing practice two weeks into the New Year, here are some tips to get you back on track.

1. Start small. Set a daily goal of either time duration (15 minutes, for example) or word count (200 words or so). Short-term goals will be easier to achieve, and once you achieve them, you feel you’ve accomplished something significant. Do that for several days and pretty soon, you will naturally expand your goals to writing for 30 minutes or longer and reaching higher word counts.

Another smaller goal might be to write a 500-word essay, short story or op-ed piece before jumping into a novel. That way you can break down the writing into smaller chunks over several days. By the end of that first week, you’ve finished one project and you can move on to a larger, more challenging piece.

2. Make an appointment with yourself. If you are fairly reliable about keeping appointments, make one for your writing sessions. Write them down on your calendar just as you would a doctor appointment or a client meeting. Putting the appointments in your calendar will serve as a reminder to keep with your writing schedule. It will help you maintain consistency with your practice. Even if your session is only for 15 minutes, seeing it in your calendar will motivate you to keep that important appointment with yourself.

3. Meet with a writing buddy or a mentor. Sometimes having someone on your side who supports your endeavors can motivate you to keep up with your practice. Making a coffee date with a writing buddy or a mentor and talking shop for an hour can spur some interesting story ideas and keep you motivated. If you are the competitive type, you might be galvanized into action when you find out he/she is churning out pages of copy while you’re still eating holiday leftovers. A mentor can help you redouble your efforts and give you a long overdue pep talk, so you can start writing again.

4. Attend a write-in session. Write-ins are open, public forums for people to spend quiet, uninterrupted time writing on whatever piece they’re working on. Write-ins can take place anywhere and are usually sponsored by a library, university or writers group. It usually doesn’t cost anything to attend. Just bring your laptop or a notebook and pens, and your imagination. Then be prepared to write for as long as you wish. The extended quiet time helps you focus on your current piece with little or no interruption.

It’s also motivating to be surrounded by other like-minded creative individuals who are working toward similar goals. There’s a silent camaraderie in an environment like that, which is why it presents a great opportunity to jumpstart your writing practice. Because once you start writing in an environment like that, you want to keep the creative juices flowing. Check local libraries, universities and writing studios to see if there’s a public write-in near you.

5. Learn something new. Take a class or attend a workshop or lecture. There are numerous cheap or free classes you can take online or at a local community college or studio. One two-hour session may be all you need to inspire you to write, and the session doesn’t even have to be writing-related. Take a cooking class and watch how the instructor mixes ingredients. Listen to a podcast or participate in a webinar about money management or astronomy – whatever piques your interest. Sometimes focusing on a completely off-the-radar topic can spur some wildly imaginative ideas. And it’s just plain fun to learn something new.

Experts suggest it can take six to eight weeks to form a new habit, so it may take that long to get back into your writing groove. Be patient with yourself. The world was not built in one day. Neither will your novel. Try any one of these baby steps to jump start your writing practice.

Taking a break happens to all of us. The key is getting started again right away. Don’t let too much time pass. It’s a lot like falling off a bike. After you fall, you have to dust yourself off and jump back on the bike. Then just keep pedaling. You’ll get to your writing destination in no time.

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

Stephen King does it. So does Kristen Hannah. So do Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris and Andre Dubus III.

They are all writers who write their first drafts in longhand with pen and paper.

Whether you are writing a novel, short story, essay or even a business writing project, like a report or white paper, it may seem counterintuitive to write the first draft longhand rather than use a computer. Writing longhand is too time consuming, you might say. Who has the patience for that?

Lots of writers have weighed in on this topic. You can find links to some of their opinions at the bottom of this post.

Funny thing is, writers who previously wrote their stories on their laptop and experimented with writing longhand say they are sold. There is something about that physical process that helped them be more productive and access their imagination more readily. Some writers claim that there’s a stronger hand-to-heart connection that helps them access deeply held emotions which comes across in their writing.

The process of writing longhand can be liberating. By writing my stories longhand, I’m able to focus on the story development process. Writing longhand seems to open up a pathway to the brain where the core of creativity lies. Amazing things have happened as I write. Characters began showing up that hadn’t been part of the story before, and scenes went off into different unanticipated directions. That’s the fun part of writing.

Writing longhand provides physical proof of your progress. Every notebook or legal pad you write on shows the results of your daily efforts. Seeing your work in black and white can make you feel good about your progress and you’ll want to keep writing. It’s a great motivator to your writing practice. If consistency (or lack thereof) has been a problem for you, try writing longhand and see how it affects your writing practice.

When choosing between the mighty pen and laptop, also think about your typing skills. How fast do you type? If you aren’t fast or accurate, writing longhand might also be a better option for you. Writing might seem slower than typing, but ideas may begin to flow at a rate you can keep up with.

When I first tried writing stories on the computer, I didn’t get very far. I was too busy editing as I was writing. Or I would go back to correct misspelled words. The process you think would be faster and easier was actually slower because I was trying to do both writing and editing at the same time, which means I was using both sides of the brain.

Multi-tasking might be fine, but not when your brain is engaged. Now I use a pen and notebook for writing while I reserve the laptop for typing my stories from the page and editing them. Yes, that might seem like an extra step. But maybe it isn’t. I am editing as I’m transferring my words during that process so it now becomes my second draft. I feel I have gotten more done because I am focused on one activity at a time and I’m not overloading my brain.

Another problem with doing your writing on the computer is the temptation to check details via the Internet, which is obviously more accessible. If you stop writing to check a piece of information, chances are you won’t get back to your writing for another three hours because you got lost in the World Wide Web. You won’t have that temptation if you write longhand.

Here are a few other ways writing longhand can improve your writing:

* Writing longhand may help undo writer’s block. The next time you feel blocked, try writing longhand. Experts say the process of writing has a cognitive benefit. It is directly connected to the part of the brain that governs creativity. By writing longhand, you are actually getting in touch with your creativity.

* It forces you to focus on one activity at a time – writing — which is actually more productive than trying to write and edit at the same time, which uses both sides of the brain. That kind of multi-tasking might actually be counterproductive.

* Brain dumping is easier when writing longhand. Let’s face it. The first draft is always a mess. So what if you write it by hand? You give yourself permission to write crappy copy from the start. With a pen it’s easier to cross out, add, write in the margins, or make notes about what to look up later. Yes, it will look messy, but that’s your brain at work.

* Pen and paper are more portable and lightweight. These writing tools travel easily anywhere you go, whether it’s your front porch, your bedroom, the local coffee shop or the library. You don’t have to worry about missing cords or recharging batteries. It’s just your pen, paper and your ideas. That’s what I call traveling light.

* Pen and paper isn’t hard on your eyesight the way a computer screen is. Sitting in front of computer screen for hours each day is hard on your eyesight. Is it a wonder so many of us wear eyeglasses? And the rays from the screen can affect our ability to sleep at night. Paper and pen don’t have the same impact.

Before you dismiss the idea of writing your stories longhand, give it a try. See how it affects your writing.  Are you more productive? Are you more focused on your story and less distracted by the Internet of things? The computer has its place in the writing process. But when it comes to launching your first draft, pen and paper may be the best way to get you to “The End.”

Book Review: Writing from the Heart

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Writing is easy, but getting started can be a challenge. Many writers use any number of excuses to avoid getting started: no time, the kids, no privacy, no inspiration, no place to write, too busy.

You get the idea.

Perhaps the most pressing reason that many people can’t get started writing is because they are emotionally stuck. The stories and words will not flow because it’s been shut off by fear, guilt, disappointment, pain — you name it. To get those stories flowing, you need to release those emotions. Yet, ironically, writing is one way to release them.

In her book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice, author Nancy Slonin Aronie addresses many of the issues that stop us from hearing our internal voice. (Some of you may know Aronie from National Public Radio’s All Things Considered  program.)

Though this book was published more than 20 years ago, Aronie’s writing advice holds true today as much as it did then. Below are several of my favorite suggestions from her book. You might find them helpful too.

1. Look at everything as if it is new to you. You might see a place, a thing, a person every day and you can become so accustomed to seeing it that you don’t every really see it. You might notice the tree in your front yard, but do you really see it? Do you notice the change in leave colors, the change in the bark, the thickness of the branches, the way the leaves sway in the breeze, the ants that crawl up the bark? Do you notice it throughout the seasons or at different times of day? Look at that tree as if you are seeing it for the first time. What do you see? Do the same for any person or thing in your life. You may never look at any one thing the same way ever again.

2. Feel your feelings, deal with them and heal yourself. Before you can open yourself up to the writing process, Aronie advises writers to allow themselves time to feel the hurts and disappointments of the past. By staying with those feelings, you learn to face them with courage and dignity. The hurts of the past may never dissolve completely, but they are there to remind you of what you have experienced. And you can always draw into that life experience to write your stories. It is through writing about them that you can heal.

3. Focus on the process of writing, not the end product. Writing should give you joy on the inside. It’s an internal process. But when you focus only on the end product, you lose that enjoyment because you are looking for external gratification. If you want to write with greater joy, focus on the process, the way the story develops. With each step forward in the writing process, new scenes and characters will reveal themselves to you, bringing with them a sense of mystery and wonder. It’s these unexpected developments that what make writing fun.

4. Write for yourself, not for someone else. To make writing work for you, write for yourself, and only for yourself. Write for your own enjoyment. Write for your personal growth and professional development. Write to challenge yourself. Write to express your creativity. Write to heal your hurts and share your joys. Write because you want to, not because you have to. When you write for someone else, you are listening to their feedback in your head before you’ve even written a word. When you write for someone else, it is their words you hear in your head, not your own. When you write, you need to write your own words, not someone else’s.

5. Define what creativity means to you. Some people avoid writing because they think they are not creative enough. Most people have the idea that being creative means having some artistic talent, like being a musician, a dancer or photographer. But being creative means more than that. Being creative means finding creative solutions to problems, looking at the world in a different way, or writing a story with a unique point of view. Writing is just one outlet for creativity. There are many more. Once you define creativity on your terms, writing becomes much easier.

6. Look at the world from a different perspective. To shake up your creative juices, look at the world through a different pair of eyes. You might remember the day you graduated from high school, but ask your friends, your teachers or your parents to share their memory of that day. How did they experience that day? What did they notice that you might have missed? Look at the same event through their eyes and perhaps you will begin to see the same event in a different way.

Writing from the heart is an emotional process, rather than a technical one. Once you release old wounds and trust your inner voice, the heart opens to new possibilities, paving the way to writing stories that reflect who you are.

Four Fun Activities to Break the Ice at Networking Events

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Image courtesy of Hub Spot

Networking events can be tedious to attend, especially if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people. But they can be difficult to plan as well, particularly if the point of the event is to introduce participants to one another. It can be a challenge to come up with fun and innovative ways for participants to get acquainted.

In all the meetings and events I’ve attended over the years, a few have stood out for their sense of fun and creativity. That’s because the planners started off with an innovative ice breaker that set the tone for the evening.

Below are a few of those ice breakers. The next time you are faced with planning a networking event, experiment with one of these ideas. You can find other ideas by following the links at the bottom of this article.

1. The M&M Game 
As participants enter the room, invite them to grab a handful of M&Ms from a bowl. Once they are seated, have them set aside three individual candies of different colors, which will be used as part of their introduction. Before they introduce themselves, the leader will reveal a set of questions they must answer based on their three candy colors they chose. The questions can be personal or business-related. For example, a red M&M might mean: What do you hope to learn from this session? A green one might mean: What business are you in? You get the idea. This exercise puts a twist on the traditional introduction at the start of the session. Plus you get to eat the candies afterward.

2. Fill-in-the-Blank Index Card
Each participant is handed an index card with twelve boxes, each containing a clue. Using the clues as a guide, the participant’s task is to match a person with the clue. For example, the clue might be “has green eyes.” The task is to find someone else attending the event who has green eyes. That person will put their signatures on that square. Each participant must move around the room, getting signatures from other attendees that match the description on the card. For larger crowds, it might be helpful to have three or four different versions of the card. Other suggested clues: shoe color, hair color, traveled to Europe (or Asia or South America), has a dog, has a bird, plays tennis, reads comic books, practices yoga, has three or more kids, lives in a high-rise building, lives in the suburbs, drives a SUV, etc. Mix it up. The goal is to have the card completely signed by twelve different individuals. This exercise assures that everyone meets at least twelve people during the event. It’s a great way to build a network in a safe, fun environment. For more fun, offer a prize for the first person to complete their card before the program begins.

3. The “Who Am I?” Guessing Game
Especially fun for a more relaxed environment, such as a part or a picnic. As people arrive, put a piece of paper on their backs with the name of a celebrity or other famous personality. Since they won’t know who they are, their task is to figure it out by asking questions about their famous personality. But there are three rules: They can ask no more than twenty questions; the questions must be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; the questions must be asked of twenty different people. For example, “Am I a female?”, and “Am I singer?” They keep asking questions until the answers add up to a complete picture of their character. Ideally, they will have met at least twenty individuals along the way. For more fun, you might consider offering a prize to the person who guesses who they are with the fewest clues.

4. Speed Networking
 Speed networking is just like speed dating, except you’re not looking for someone to date, but someone to do business with, offer your services to or hire for a position at your company. Mind you, I have never heard of or participated in a speed networking event, but hey, if it works for dating, why not for business networking?

Speed networking would work like this. When people arrive, they are divided into group A and group B, regardless of gender. Just like with speed dating, group A people will remain seated at each of the tables while group B switch seats as they move from one table to the next for each round of conversation. Allow a set period of time for conversation, say five minutes, before the bell sounds and the line moves on. Participants can always continue their conversations after the speed networking event. After two hours, imagine how many people you could add to your business network. Many of them may not fit your needs at that time, but keep their business cards. You never know when you might need to talk with them later. (Editor’s note: I’ve never participated in a speed networking event, though I’m sure there are events similar in nature.)

Networking doesn’t have to be all work and no play. With some ingenuity, you can help participants break the ice with each other and get your meetings off to a rollicking, productive start.

Related Articles:
20 Icebreakers to Make Your Next Meeting Fun
6 Icebreaker Games For Work That Your Team Will Love
The 10 Best Icebreaker Activities for Any Work Event

What Makes a Story Memorable?

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Have you ever read a book that stayed with you long after you finished reading the final page? Or watched a movie that kept you awake all night as scenes replayed over and over in your mind?

There are few stories that are so memorable that they grab you by the throat and throttle your senses, or grip your heart so tightly that you want to cry or scream. Most reactions to stories are more subtle, of course, but still effective. Sometimes, a film or book drains you instead, so all you want to do is clutch a warm, soothing cup of tea and sit huddled on the sofa staring into space trying to relive the story in your mind or erase it because it was too horrible to experience again.

Recently I re-discovered one of my favorite all-time films on cable and again, I experienced that “stickiness” of a good story. I grew up watching Fiddler on the Roof enchanted by the music and the romance in a time and place far away from the here and now. The story is about a Jewish peasant in prerevolutionary Russia contending with the marriage of three of his daughters. It wasn’t until I was older and watched it as an adult that I understood the historical and religious undertones of the story. Still, as I lay in bed that night a few weeks ago, the story, the characters and the music continued to play in my head, delaying sleep.

What stories have you read or watched that made you feel sad, angry, joyous, surprised, frightened or ecstatic? What films have made you take notice of an issue, a person or a piece of history that you had not noticed before? What stories or characters made you want to take some sort of action — to dance and sing, to hug your children to make sure they were safe and felt loved, or hop on an airplane to a place you had never been before, just because you saw it on the movie screen or read such a vivid description that you had to see it in person?

In the business world, the term “stickiness” refers to a website’s ability to keep eyeballs browsing its pages. I suppose the same “stickiness” can be applied to a story’s ability to stay on in your memory long after you closed the book. The story gives us so much pleasure that we want to experience that pleasure again.

So what makes a story memorable? What elements do memorable stories have in common that make them worth seeing or reading over and over again? Here are a few common elements, based on my own observations.

Fully developed characters. If fictional characters were real human beings, they wouldn’t be flat, emotionless people. Characters need depth, flaws, and qualities that makes them more like one of us. Strong characters don’t necessarily have to be good characters and they certainly shouldn’t be perfect or we wouldn’t be able to relate to them. Complex, multi-dimensional characters make the most memorable characters, and they aren’t always the most likable. Think Ebinezer Scrooge or Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort.

Sense of time and place. We might remember a story for its unique setting or its place in history. For example, the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz is memorable because its unusual color transcends what we believe to be true of traditional paths that are made of other materials and other colors. It makes us realize that this is not part of our world.

Emotional connection. A story can be memorable by the emotional connection it creates between the characters and their readers or viewers. We can sympathize with Topol’s father figure in Fiddler on the Roof because of the emotional conflicts he faces. We feel the love he has for his family and his community, and we witness the pain and confusion in his eyes as he sees his old comfortable world falling apart, and he feels helpless to do anything to stop it.

Suspense. Without suspense, there isn’t much of a story, just a bunch of scenes with no connection to one another. Suspense creates tension, which is the engine that drives the action forward. As each chapter unfolds, another clue, character, or plot twist keeps our interest. If we want to know what’s going to happen next, we have to keep reading.

A satisfactory conclusion. There is nothing more disappointing than reading a page-turner only to get to an ending that makes you wonder, “What happened?”  The ending may not be what you or I have in mind, but it makes sense from the author’s or director’s perspective. We are so conditioned to believe in “happily ever after” that we expect happy outcomes in movies and books. So when a story ends differently, like Thelma and Louise driving their convertible off a cliff, or two young lovers split up at the end of La La Land, it can be a bit startling. The satisfaction comes with understanding that there is a resolution to the conflict in the story; it just may not be the one we wish it to be.

Granted most of these examples are films, but these tips work just as well for books, TV shows, even song lyrics. They tell stories too. Whether you write stories, or just enjoy reading them or watching them on film, remember that stories aren’t worth experiencing unless you can make them memorable.

How Stories Are Revealed to Us — One Layer at a Time

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Have you ever stopped to consider where stories come from? I’m not just talking about the words on a page. It’s more than that. It’s the stories we view around us – at an art museum, on stage at a theater, behind the brick and glass storefront building, or behind the eyes of child.

Stories come in various shapes, sizes and formats. One single item can produce multiple story lines, which I call layers. Think of an onion. You peel back the skin to reveal multiple layers underneath. Every story is like that. It isn’t one single story being told; it is several, and not all at the same time.

I came to this conclusion while wandering the French Impressionism exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago recently, and again at the Shedd Aquarium. I later contemplated those same ideas as I watched movies and TV shows, and listened to music.

With each work of art, there is more than one story being told. First, there is a story about the work itself – how it came into being, the creator’s motivation and inspiration, and the tools and materials the artist chose to use to create it.

But behind the artwork’s story, there is a story about the artist. Where does she/he live? What was happening in their lives when they were creating this piece? Why did they become an artist? What message did they want to share?

I think of the French Impressionist artists and I wonder about their personal stories. Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear, and what did he really see when he painted The Starry Night? Why was Monet fascinated by the different plays of light throughout the day? How did Toulouse-Lautrec compensate for his physical disabilities?

Then there is the story of the museum and its relationship to the work and to the artist. Why is the museum showing this piece of work? How did they acquire it? How are they displaying the work – in a darkened room with a single spotlight on it, or in an open space with similar works?

I saw similar stories at the Shedd Aquarium and its display of sea life from around the world. From the smallest fish to the dolphins and whales, there are stories about each one. Why are they so important to our knowledge of the sea world? How is each one created? What does it eat? How does it move or swim?

Trace that same story to the region in which the fish live. Do they swim in the Caribbean, or in the Midwestern lakes? Part of the answer to that question is biological of course. You won’t find a stingray swimming along the shores of Lake Michigan, when it needs warm salt water of the ocean to survive.

Apply that layering approach to the people in our lives. Each one has a story. Some are obvious, carried on their sleeve. Others are deeply hidden, but you can see it in their eyes. “The eyes are the window to the soul.”  I believe that to be true, which makes me wonder about the people who frequently wear sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. What story about themselves are they reluctant to reveal?

Stories abound all around us. We only see the ones on the surface. There are layers of stories for each tree, each animal and each person we meet in our lives. But we are all like onions, with layers upon layers of stories within us. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness to know those stories are there. It takes even more courage to share those stories with others.

Movie Review: La La Land Straddles the Line Between Fantasy and Reality

Highly-touted film is creativity in motion.

It’s being billed as a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture, earned numerous SAG and Golden Globe nominations and has already garnered Critics Choice awards for Best Picture and Best Director. La La Land, (http://www.lalaland.movie/) directed by Damien Chazelle (who also directed Whiplash), takes us on a musical adventure in the city of big dreams, Los Angeles. From the opening dance sequence on a southern California freeway to a duet while floating among the stars, the entertainment never stops.

La La Land tells the story of two aspiring young artists who cross paths while stuck in a freeway traffic jam. Emma Stone plays a budding actress who has confidence issues, and Ryan Gosling is a struggling jazz musician who stubbornly refuses to sell out on his dream of owning his own jazz club. As their lives cross paths, the audience is taken along on their journey, with every joy and heartache the characters experience along the way.

The film is defined best by its dance sequences, which are both entertaining and magical, and the special effects add a fantasy-like charm. Stone and Gosling prove to be surprisingly good singers. If you enjoy the musicals from the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, La La Land is certain to please you. I don’t want to spoil all the fun but you can watch the trailer here.

As Stone and Gosling’s goals begin to conflict with one another and their paths diverge, reality begins to settle in. Each came to LA with a vision for their career, which altered with each failed audition or as new opportunities arose. When confronted with each challenge, their characters re-assessed and questioned their paths. Just like in the real world

In one scene, for example, Gosling is approached by an old musical acquaintance (played by John Legend) who invites him to join his band. Gosling hesitates at first, but later changes his mind. As he stands up on stage playing music that runs counter to his jazz background, Stone and the movie audience is left wondering if he sold out on his dream. Or did he catch a glimpse of his own reality, that he would never open his own jazz club without a cash cow to support him? In relaxing his own stubborn stance on jazz, he opened up to an opportunity – as distasteful as it was — that gave him a path toward his dream.

Sound familiar? How many of us as struggling artists or disgruntled business owners have found ourselves hitting the pavement in search of more steady, secure work. There is something to be said for security, especially when you come from nothing and are barely making ends meet. At those times, realism sets in; the fantasy has to be set aside for the time being.

And that message may be both a strength and a weakness of La La Land. This film does such a wonderful job building the fantasy, creating dream sequences that transport us to an alternate reality, that it can be difficult to accept the harsh truth of reality when we come face to face with it. Many people may find the film’s ending a bit disappointing, a letdown after the joyous highs of the film. The truth is, it ended the only way it could.

Stone and Gosling do live happily ever after – just not in the way we expect. Reality can be difficult to accept when you’ve been living in La La Land.