How Writers Can Cultivate Curiosity

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Last week, I wrote a post about the habits of highly productive writers. One of the habits I mentioned is  the ability to maintain an open, curious outlook. For today’s post, I’ll be delving deeper into that habit.

Curiosity, by definition, is the strong desire to know or learn something. It is one of the most valued traits a writer can have. By staying curious about the world around them, writers are able to find answers to the questions they’ve long asked, and by extension, answer questions that readers want to know.

According to this Lifehack blog post, curiosity is important for several reasons:

* It makes your mind active rather than passive. By asking questions and doing research, curiosity makes your mind stronger and more engaged.
* It makes your mind more observant of new ideas. You’re more likely to recognize new ideas when they occur. When you fail to be curious, those ideas may pass you by.
* It opens up new worlds and possibilities. You’re able to explore different cultures and ways of doing things.
* It brings more excitement into your life. Because there are always new things to try and new ideas to explore, a curious person’s life is never dull or boring. Curious people have an adventurous life.

I will add one more reason to that list:

* Curiosity begets creativity. Curious people who have done their research tend to be more creative because the new knowledge feeds their desire to create something new.

By nature most writers are curious. They’re not afraid to ask questions. The five Ws are always in their writing arsenal. They’re the first to ask at an accident scene what happened, how it happened, who drove the car, when did it happen, where did it happen, and why.

Sometimes the grind of daily life can sap your curious nature, however. If you find yourself struggling to be curious about the world around you, here are a few ways to cultivate more curiosity in your writing life.

1. Read, read and read some more.  Reading books and magazine features on a variety of topics broadens your mind. If you prefer fiction, you can use curiosity as you read novels. For example, as you read, jot down questions about the characters, plot and setting. Where does the story take place? Is it a place you’ve never been to before, such as Alaska? Then jot down questions about Alaska that you’d like to find out.

2. Ask lots of questions. The five Ws plus How should be part of your writing toolbox. I would add a couple more:  “what if?” And “I wonder.” (Yes, I know “I wonder” isn’t a question, but it open up possibilities all the same.)

3. People watch. Hang out in the park, a shopping mall or a food court. Watch people as they go about their day. Be curious about them. Who are they? What do they do for a living? Why are they there? Create different scenarios for each person you observe.

4. Experiment. Be adventurous. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? For example, several years ago, I finally had the chance to ride in a hot air balloon, something I’d always wanted to do. I enjoyed every minute of it. The experience gave me something to write about. Experiment with your writing too. For example, if you’re struggling to find the right viewpoint for your story, try writing it from different character points of view until you find one that works best for the story.

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

Voltaire

5. Research something just for fun. Think of something you’d like to learn more about, preferably something not related to your every day job or your writing practice. It could be how to make lasagna from scratch or how to begin bird watching – whatever tickles your fancy. Then spend 30 minutes on the internet researching everything you can find out about it.

Michelle Richmond at The Caffeinated Writer suggests this exercise to test your research skills:

1) Make a list of ten subjects you’d like to know more about.
2) Choose one of those subjects. Then write a list of questions about that subject.
3) Spend 30 minutes researching this question on the internet.
4) Then find one book that will help you delve further into the topic and deepen your understanding. You can buy a book or borrow it from the library. Richmond says buying the book allows you to make notations.

Remember this is strictly for fun, so enjoy the research process. But be sure to cap the amount of time spent researching. It’s easy to get carried away and lose track of time!

6. Connect with an expert. We all know people who are experts at something. I have a friend who is a scientist, another who runs marathons, a third teaches yoga, and a fourth studied engineering. They’re all experts at what they do, and I know that if I ever need their insights or want to learn more about what they do, I can reach out to them, armed with my toolbox of questions.

I challenge you to jot down the names of 10 people you know along with the special knowledge or skill that they have. Then jot down questions you might ask them about what they do. Bonus points for reaching out to one of them and chatting with them about their work.

Because curiosity can boost your creativity. So it makes sense to cultivate more curiosity into your writing life.

How to Love Your Writer Self (Even When It Isn’t Perfect)

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: Write about a time when a stranger did something nice for you.

As individuals, we play different roles – parent, child, student, employee, boss, spouse and friend. Add one more to that list – writer.

The writer self may start out small and vulnerable, like an infant or toddler. Just like a toddler who is just learning to walk, your writer self must learn to walk too. That means taking baby steps, such as writing a little bit each day, taking a class or workshop to develop skills and experimenting with different writing styles to figure out what kind of writer you want to be.

Most important, as you grow into your writer role, you learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You also must learn to love your writer self, flaws and all. In her book Milk and Honey about resilience and overcoming adversity, Rupi Kauer writes, “How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.”

At My LA Therapy blog, Tobias Foster writes, “Accepting our strengths and weaknesses and reconciling the conflicting parts in our inner world is critical to our health and happiness. You cannot achieve anything substantial in the outer world without fixing your inner world.”

In order to make an impact with your writing and create meaningful work, you must take steps to clear your inner world of negative thoughts and replace it with kinder, gentler ones. You must strive for self-kindness and self-acceptance.  “Having self-compassion builds resilience in the face of adversity, and helps people recover more quickly from trauma or romantic separation,” writes Ana Sandoui in Medical News Today. “It also helps us cope with failure and embarrassment.”

The harsh self-criticism we give ourselves, she adds, is because we’re driven by a deep need to do everything perfectly all the time, which can cause physical and mental health issues down the road.  

So what does all this mean for writers? How can writers move past these mental and emotional road blocks to become a more loving writer self? Here are a few tips for practicing self-compassion for your writer self.

* Avoid judging yourself. Or at least, don’t judge yourself so harshly. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You may not be aware that you are judging yourself because you may become so lost in your own world that you don’t pay attention to your own thoughts. Many times, we are our own worst critics when judging our own writing. If you find yourself judging yourself too harshly, have someone else review your work. They may be more objective than you, and they may find that it’s not nearly as terrible as you think it is.

* Recognize that perfection is a myth. Realize that no one is perfect; we all have flaws we’d prefer to hide from the public. But as part of a larger community of creatives, you experience the same feelings of self-doubt and fear. That makes you more alike with your fellow creatives than you are different. When you accept that you are not perfect and everyone else is not perfect, you won’t feel so alone or as different as you fear.

* Avoid comparing yourself to others. One mistake new writers make is comparing themselves to other writers, especially to those whose work they admire. Remind yourself that you are at a different experience level than they are, and you bring a different set of experiences to the table. When you compare yourself to others, you will always lose. You will set yourself up for failure before you even begin. Know that your life experience and writing skill has value.

* Learn to practice mindfulness. Whether through meditation, yoga or journaling, it’s important to quiet your mind so you can hear yourself think. Be still and be in the moment. Turn off social media and electronic devices and turn in to yourself. You may realize that your thoughts aren’t nearly as negative as you believe them to be. When you practice mindfulness, you develop emotional equanimity – that feeling of being in balance with your inner world, and you’re less likely to identify with painful emotions and experiences that can hold you back from writing.

* Don’t seek approval from other people. When you begin writing, it may be important to seek other people’s opinions of your work. You may wonder if you’re moving in the right direction, or if the story you’re writing is boring. While it’s important to get feedback, don’t let it influence your writing practice. Take everything than anyone says with a grain of salt. Remember to write for yourself first, then for your readers. If you write strictly for someone else’s approval, you will never be satisfied with your effort because you will always be looking at it through their eyes. Learn to trust yourself.

* Practice self-kindness. Learn to forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made. As I mentioned, no one is perfect. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend or a sibling – with kindness, compassion and understanding. Learn to speak tenderly with yourself, suggests mystery author Julie Glover. If you’re constantly berating yourself about your writing, then flip the script. Talk to yourself as a lover would, she says. (Glover gives a nice example of this on her Writers in the Storm blog.)

When you practice self-compassion for your writer self, you’ll forgive yourself for your mistakes and become more resilient in the face of adversity, such as a loss of a contract or a bad review.

Most important, remember that no one is perfect; all writers and creatives are flawed in some way. It’s a waste of time and energy to let self-doubt ruin your writing. In the words of poet Henry David Thoreau: “It is not worth the while to let our imperfections disturb us always.”

Five Ways Your Writing Life Improves When You Say “I Am a Writer”

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For many aspiring writers, it can be difficult to say the words, “I am a writer.” Deep down, they feel they don’t deserve the title because they’re new at writing. Many newbies argue that they don’t feel justified in calling themselves a writer because they haven’t published anything.

But the truth is, it’s a key step in your writing journey. Because if you are serious about your writing, you need to call yourself a writer.

But if you write, you are a writer. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if you craft posts for your blog, pour your heart out in your journal every morning, or slug away on a novel, you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you are published or not. As long as you are putting in the effort, you can honestly and proudly say, “I am a writer.”

The thing is, once you begin to say it (it might help to say it out loud or in front of a mirror), and say it every day, the name becomes a part of you. Even better, good things happen in your writing life.

As Jeff Goins writes (or more specifically his cat) at The Write Practice blog, “the only way to be a writer was to act like one.” For more definitions about what makes a writer, check out this post by Anne R. Allen.

But I think there’s more to it than what Goins and Allen suggest. Saying “I am a writer” alters your mindset. It’s all about belief in yourself. When you think of yourself as a writer, your behavior follows suit. You begin to form the habits that will make you successful.

Here are five ways your writing life will change when you begin to call yourself a writer.

1. You begin to take your writing more seriously than before. Maybe you already had a writing routine, but now, you’ve decided to add to your daily word count or you have a specific goal in mind, such as writing two novel chapters every week. Maybe you contemplate taking classes to learn more about technique, or you feel a need to share your work with others. Even though you may never get published, you call yourself a writer and you start acting like one.

2. You no longer want to hide behind your writing. You’re more willing to “put yourself out there.” That means reading your work aloud to a roomful of strangers, participating in critique groups or submitting your work to editors. You seek feedback from others in the hopes of improving your craft because you realize you no longer want to work in isolation. You no longer want to hide your writing from others.  

3. You’re no longer afraid of expressing yourself. To say “I am a writer” means you bravely share your ideas and opinions, and speaking your truth. The words you need to say come more naturally because they come from your heart.

4. Your confidence soars. When you say “I am a writer” with a smile on your face, people know you are proud of your calling. You stand taller, and you feel energized. You are filled with story ideas and you can’t wait to work on them. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike before you begin writing. Instead, inspiration finds you because you’ve already been writing consistently. 

5. Your writing life becomes more real. This isn’t a fantasy anymore, a dream. By saying, “I am a writer,” the writing life becomes real and worthy of your gifts. Writing isn’t just a hobby; it’s your calling. You decide to do the work you need to do to make your writing life real.   

The power behind these four magic words is belief. You must believe in yourself to write and write well. If you lack faith in your abilities or if you believe you are not worthy of this calling, you will never write anything. So it’s important to call yourself a writer to express belief in yourself. And when you believe in yourself, others will follow along on your writing journey with you.

Create a vision for your writing practice in 2021

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

What does your writing life look like a year from now? What kind of writer do you want to be by then? If this was January 2022, what would you have achieved, especially in your writing?

If you’ve been asking yourself these questions lately, then it may be time to create a vision for your writing practice.

Even if you don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m sure you have ideas of what you want for yourself in the coming year. Envisioning your future writing life isn’t easy – too many variables and unknown factors can throw you off your game. But you can use a number of tools to help you clarify your goals and help you envision your writing life for the coming year.

I’ve written in the past about setting a one-year goal. (You can read about it here.) Five years seems too long in the future to plan that far in advance, so I don’t. I only look ahead for one year. Then working backward from that starting point, I set milestone goals for myself on the way to that year-end goal. Make sense?

Visualization is somewhat like goal-setting. It’s a technique for using positive mental images to achieve a particular goal or outcome. It can help you create the future you want. For example, your goal for 2021 might be to write and publish an e-book for your business but visualization can help you imagine the steps you need to take toward that goal and how you will feel when you accomplish it.

Here’s how I once used visualization (and a bit of intuition) in my career. While working at a membership association some years ago, I started out in a lower level position, but I knew I wanted to work my way up into a manager role. However, at that time, I didn’t think I was being taken seriously in my job by some of the directors. So rather than complain, I assessed my own behavior. I asked myself, “How would I act if I already was a manager? How would I dress? How would I interact with people?”  

Over the next few weeks and months, I dressed more professionally and I responded more promptly to phone calls and emails from members and staff. I got to work on time, met my deadlines and proved that I was a reliable worker. I did everything to up my game. Within a year, I had my promotion to manager.

As my case shows, visualization can work. However, as life coach and TV show host Mel Robbins says, it’s doesn’t guarantee success. You might get some version of your goal and it may not happen exactly as you wish or in the time frame you’d like.

Having a vision changes your expectations, Robbins adds. When you alter the expectations of yourself, you alter your behavior accordingly to achieve that goal. Visualization helps you the steps you need to take to get where you want to be. All good things come to those who are willing to work for it.

What tools can help you visualize the future of your writing practice? A few of those below I’ve done on my own; others I’m just learning about. Find one or two that work best for you.

1. Write your vision as if it has already been achieved. Imagine that it is one year from now – January 2022. Describe what your writing practice looks like. Where do you write? Is anyone with you? Are you alone or in a roomful of other people? Remember that it might be different than it is now. What have you accomplished over the past year of 2021? This isn’t about describing what you wish your practice would look like, but putting yourself in a new pair of shoes in January 2022 and looking back at what you have achieved in the previous year. Seeing yourself a year from now can help you reset your goals and expectations for the coming year, as well as the steps to take you there.

2. Create a vision board. This is a fun, creative and personal project that anyone can do. When you have a goal in mind for the year, you create a visual representation of that goal. For example, using the e-book example above, you might cut out pictures from magazines that show someone writing or reading a book, or a laptop and other tools of the writing trade. You can make drawings with markers and add a positive message to keep you motivated. When you’re done, you can set the board somewhere in your office where you can see it every day. For a good example of a vision board and how to create one, check out this post at Mind Body Green. Review and update your vision board at least once a year, more often depending on your goals.

3. Do some heavy-duty soul searching by answering a series of questions. Mel Robbins has a list of questions that can help you visualize your ideal future. The questions can be used whether you’re looking ahead five years or one year. While Robbins’ questions can help you get a handle where your life is right now, I’m not sure how it helps people create their vision for the future. But contemplating your progress so far can be a strong foundation for creating a stronger future.

4. Create a writer’s vision statement. Once you’re done answering the above questions, use the answers to create a writer’s vision statement. Or use the method used by writing coach Marisa Mohi, who says that having a writer’s vision statement can help you stay on track to meet your career goals even as your non-artistic friends don’t understand the path that you’re on.

5. Use visualization exercises. If none of the previous tools work for you, you can always try the traditional visualization exercises, a form of meditation that guides your internal mental images of the life you want to lead. The images are all inside your mind but you can convert them to a visualization board or write an essay about your experience.

No matter what method you use, visualizing your future self as a writer is key to finding success on your terms and building a practice that you can be proud of.

Six Lessons Writers Can Learn from the Life and Career of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

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Like most people I know, I was devastated to learn of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She had been a mainstay on the U.S. Supreme Court for several decades, and only the second woman to serve behind Sandra Day O’Connor.

Her passing has made me think about my own legacy. What kind of impact do I want to make in my career as a writer? I can’t possibly live up to the same standards of success as RBG, but certainly I can make the world a better place in my own way through my writing.

Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As writers, we can all learn something from Ginsberg through her experience as a law student, an attorney, college professor, circuit court judge and Supreme Court Justice. Here are a few of them.

1. Don’t let rejection deter you from your goals. Ruth Bader Ginsberg graduated from law school at a time when women weren’t allowed to practice in law firms. She applied to hundreds of law firms and was turned away because she was a woman. RBG altered course and did what most other women who graduated law school did – she went into teaching. But she used her legal education to take up the fight for gender equality so that women wouldn’t experience discrimination like she had.

As writers, we’re bound to receive hundreds of rejection letters. But that shouldn’t mean we stop writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from writing. There’s always something to say, something to write about, even if others don’t want to read it or publish it. Keep writing. Somewhere there is an audience for your work.

2. Find a cause to be passionate about. After her numerous rejections by law firms, Ginsberg found her cause – gender equality and civil rights. And she persisted in her fight for equal rights throughout her career.

Writers too can find a cause to be passionate about. Whether that cause is social equity, climate change or rescuing homeless pets, your passion can fuel your writing. Write essays, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, even short stories that carry a theme around your cause. Use your words to fight for a cause that’s important to you.

3. Have a Plan B. I heard an interesting story during RBG’s televised memorial last week. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, once asked Ginsberg, “Where do you think we’d be if we had been accepted into a law firm? We’d most likely be retired from a law firm.”

In other words, neither woman would ever have been named to the Supreme Court. Their rejection by so many legal firms proved to be a blessing in disguise for it paved the way for a different legal career path.

As writers, it’s important to view repeated rejection as a sign that it may be time to change course, to redirect your energies elsewhere. For example, if you keep looking for work in the corporate world and keep getting turned down, it may be a sign that your talents are needed elsewhere, perhaps in a new industry or as a freelancer. It’s up to you to figure out how and where. Sometimes rejection means a better opportunity awaits you in a direction you never considered.

4. Do your homework and get the facts. For every case Ginsberg ever worked on, she needed to do research. Her ability to review past cases, study data, and conduct interviews was key to making her case in a court of law. As a Supreme Court Justice, there were numerous cases to review, hearings, review testimonies and more reading and research. Only then was she able to provide her judgment on key issues.

As writers, especially those in journalism, research is a key component of your work. It’s necessary to get all the facts, interview credible sources, and be thorough in your investigation. Presenting factual data helps establish your authority and credibility. People will want to believe you because you’ve taken the time to do your homework.  

5. Work for the common good. Whether through her teaching, trying cases on behalf of the ACLU, or hearing cases as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsberg made sure she made decisions that benefited all people. She was committed to making the world a better place.

As writers, it’s important to write for the common good too. Use your words to persuade, examine, educate and inspire others. Like RBG, be kind and helpful to others, even if they don’t share your views.

6. Surround yourself with a strong support team. Ginsberg’s husband Marty saw Ruth’s potential while they were in college together. Many years later, when RBG was nominated for the Supreme Court, Marty became her cheerleader. Because she didn’t care for schmoozing, Marty met with Senators to persuade them that she was the right person for that role.

Writers can benefit by having one or two people in your inner circle who will go to bat for you, who will cheer you on when you finish that first novel, promote your work, and give constructive feedback. We all need that one person who supports our work and who sees our potential long before we do.

Throughout her long and productive career, Ruth Bader Ginsberg made a big difference in many people’s lives. As writers, we can all learn to approach our life’s work with the same grace, compassion and wisdom that made RBG so successful.

Update Your Reference Library With These Writing and Creativity Books

As writers, it’s important to keep up with our reading, especially when that reading pertains to the writing craft. Sometimes you need to read about writing to motivate you to keep writing, experiment with a different writing style or improve your skills. There’s always something new to learn by reading about other writers’ experiences of their writing journey that you can adapt to your own situation.

The three most important books I keep on my shelf is a dictionary, a thesaurus and the classic The Elements of Editing by Strunk and White. In addition, I have the AP Stylebook for when I write magazine articles.

If you want to add to your library, or you’re just starting one, there are numerous other books that are worthy of adding to your collection.

Below is my list of recommended reading. Admittedly, I’ve only read half of them. The other half are either currently on my bookshelf waiting to be read or on my “to be acquired” list because they were recommended by other writers.

What about you? Do you have a favorite book about writing that you like to refer to over and over?

1. On Writing by Stephen King. You’ll find King’s book on numerous recommended lists, and it’s easy to see why. Part memoir and part writing toolbox, there are so many practical tips that makes it easy to jump into a regular writing practice. I appreciated his honesty about the writing life – it’s not always easy and you’ll find bumps along the way.

2. Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. If you want to start writing personal essays, this is a must-read book. Moore breaks down the art and craft of essay writing in simple, easy-to-understand ways. He covers different types of essay writing too – food, travel, childhood experiences, etc. Moore, by the way, is editor of Brevity’s Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.

3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. If you prefer a little humor with your writing advice, you’ll enjoy Lamott’s personal odyssey in writing. She covers everything from getting started to joining writer’s groups and attending conferences. You’ll learn a thing or two as you laugh.

4. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. The best part of Bradbury’s book is his description of how he comes up with story ideas, which is by word associations. If you’re tired of doing writing prompts, Bradbury’s approach might be worth a try.

5. Writing from the Heart by Nancy Aronie. While this title is not as well-known as others on this list, it is a worthwhile read. Her goal is to create a safe environment for people to write. Not everyone finds the writing process easy, and Aronie takes you through the process step by step so you don’t feel so intimidated.

6. Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy. While not a book about writing, it is about finding your calling. If you believe that writing is your calling, then this is a must-read to help you get over any fears and self-esteem issues that may be holding you back from accomplishing your goals. Levoy is not only a terrific story teller, he relies on his personal experience and the experiences of other people to show how it is possible to live an authentic life. I read Levoy’s book twenty years ago, and I still go back to read sections that resonate with me.

7. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many writers point to Cameron’s book as the one that got them started writing. She is most known for her freewriting exercise: writing three pages non-stop first thing in the morning. The exercise is intended to help you remove the toxic thoughts and emotions that build up in your mind and body. Once you release those thoughts, your mind is free to create. If you’ve already read The Artist’s Way, check out Cameron’s follow up, The Right to Write.

8. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book has appeared on numerous reading lists and it’s been on my to-read list for a couple of decades. According to the book summary, Goldberg believes that “writing is a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives.” Included are chapters about using verbs, listening, writing first thoughts (writing nonstop, keeping your pen on the page and not crossing anything out), and overcoming self-doubt.

9. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. Tharp may have been a famous dancer and choreographer, but she also knew a thing or two about tapping into one’s own creativity. She describes the empty space of the dance floor (or the blank page) as the starting point for creativity. If you’re looking to start writing or creating on a regular basis, Tharp’s book may help you get past “writer’s block.”

10. On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block by Laraine Herring. Speaking of writer’s block and getting stuck, Herring’s book explores the possibilities that writer’s block holds. She speaks about using these sticking points to your advantage rather than getting stymied by the creative process. Herring has written another book worth checking out, Writing Begins with the Breath.

11. The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn. I always thought Penn had the perfect name for a writer. While I have not read this book, I have read her The Creative Penn blog on occasion, which is chock full of helpful tools and advice for developing a successful mindset for your writing career.

12. The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work by Marie Arana. I only recently came across this title. I’ve always found it intriguing how other writers begin their writing journey. We all can learn something from their experiences.

I hope you find these titles helpful. As you continue your writing journey, it helps to pause to read about the experiences of other writers, if only to inspire you to keep writing.

15 Writing Prompts for Memoirs and Essays

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

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

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

Good luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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

If this sounds like you, read on.  

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

How do you define ‘perfection’?

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

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

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

How perfectionism holds you back

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

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

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

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine signs you were born to be a writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the Freedom to Write

statue of liberty
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America is about to celebrate its independence on July 4th. It seems only fitting that I examine one of life’s greatest freedoms: the freedom to write. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Writing and reading are basic human rights. From my volunteer work with Chicago Books to Women in Prison, I’ve come to realize that not everyone has easy access to books. That fact saddens me. I believe every human being, no matter where they live or where they grew up, is entitled to reading and writing and all the benefits and joys those activities bring. I could not imagine a world without having the ability to read and write or without access to books and pens and paper. Every person should have access to these things. Reading and writing bring peace of mind even through our darkest moments. They’re like security blankets for the soul.

2. Writing and reading are gateways to higher learning. Without the ability to read and write, individuals are limited in what they can learn and what they can achieve and how much they can grow. Without reading and writing, how would we ever learn about history, science or world cultures, or any other subject that tickles our imagination? Reading and writing are the stepping stones to knowledge and wisdom. They open our minds to different expressions of thought and conversation.

3. Writing is self-expression. It enables us to find the right words and phrases to speak our minds, share family stories, tell our truths, divulge long-held secrets, reveal our emotions, express opinions and bare our souls to the world. Writing is the pathway to healing from tragedy and turmoil. Just as important, writing allows us to celebrate the joys and triumphs of life too.

4. Writing is the ultimate form of communication. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate in writing than by speaking. Whether we choose to use a pen, pencil or laptop, writing lets us form connections with others. We don’t live as islands, secluded and alone. Writing helps us to reach out to others when speaking may be difficult.

5. Writing is self-discovery. It’s a way of connecting with ourselves. It’s how we gain access to the ideas in our head before transmitting them into words on a page. Writing allows us to explore the inner workings of our hearts and souls. How can we possibly understand who we are, how we feel and what we stand for if we don’t put those thoughts down on paper (or the screen)?

6. Writing is finding your voice. As I mentioned earlier, writing is a form of self-expression. But before you get to that point, you must find your voice. I believe we have two types of voices – the one we hear inside our head and the one we express through words, either written or verbally. In a world where conflicting voices clamor to be heard, it can be difficult, sometimes even impossible, to know which voice is yours and which belongs to someone else. It can be too easy to follow the voice that is louder, more authoritative and insistent, especially when we’re struggling to find our voice. Writing allows us to gain access to our internal voice so it can become stronger and louder. The more you write, the more confident your voice becomes.

7. Writing is independent thinking. As your inner voice becomes more confident, stronger, and louder, you may realize that your voice stands alone in the world. Others may not agree with you or support you. That’s okay because how you think and what you believe makes you stand out from the crowd. That is why so many writers live solitary lives. That solitary thought process is a path to better, more independent thinking. That’s what sets you apart from everyone else. Would you rather follow the crowd with your voice drowned out by others? Or would you prefer to set your own path, even though you may walk it alone? Writing guides you on the path that is truly your own.

8. Writing is exercising your right to freedom of speech. Last I checked, the U.S. is still a free country. It protects our right for freedom of speech. We may not always like what someone says or writes about in the press, and we may not agree with someone’s point of view. But it’s imperative that we allow them the right to free speech just as we would want them to allow us to have our say. Even more important, it’s important to protect those freedoms. They belong to every American. It’s okay to disagree. In fact, it’s vital to have differences of opinion if we are to understand one another better. It’s just not okay to shut someone down or drown out their voice.

The beautiful thing about writing is that it means different things to different people. Writing is as individual as you and me. It’s what helps us understand ourselves and each other. It’s what helps us makes sense of the world around us and within us. It’s what helps us be human. Writing is life.

Thank you for reading. This is my only post this week. Happy 4th of July, and celebrate safely.