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

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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.

Ambition Isn’t Selfish If It Fuels Your Creativity For the Greater Good

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A few years ago, actress Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay that was published in Glamour magazine about women and ambition. She observed that women are judged too harshly for being ambitious. Men with ambition are seen as powerful and appealing, while women with ambition are seen as selfish and less worthy of being hired or promoted than their male counterparts. The double standard had to end. “We have to change the idea that a woman with ambition is out only for herself,” she wrote.

I have never forgotten that article. Witherspoon’s sentiment has stayed with me ever since. Ambition gets a bad rap sometimes for bringing about negative reactions in people. But ambition is not to be feared. It is not to be hidden away, especially by women, who may have the desire to achieve meaningful things. “Ambition is simply a drive inside of you,” writes Witherspoon. “It’s having a curiosity or a new idea and the desire to pursue it.”

Other writers and creative types have weighed in on the topic. The famous artist Salvador Dali once wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Without those wings, we might as well swim with the ducks.

Maya Angelou writes, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” It takes more than ambition to be successful. It’s one thing to reach for the highest goal, such as publishing a best-selling novel. But it takes a truly wise person to write a novel that touches the hearts and souls of readers.

There are different ways to look at ambition. For many, it’s a negative trait best left under wraps. But then how will you ever achieve your greatest work? The true measure of creative genius is finding the right balance of ambition. Too little ambition and you risk undercutting your opportunities and underselling your talents. You come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, exhibit too much ambition or the wrong kind of ambition that doesn’t help the greater good and people see you as arrogant.

Where is the happy medium? As writers and creatives, it’s not only okay to be ambitious, it’s imperative. Without ambition, you may never accomplish anything meaningful. Ambition fuels your dreams and your passions. That’s the positive side of ambition.

But ambition has its darker side too. The dark side of ambition drives you blindly toward outcomes that not only hurt others but can ultimately derail your best efforts. Under the influence of the dark energy, you can become more focused on your competition – who is standing in your way of success. The key is to harness ambition’s positive energy without getting sucked into its darker forces. It can be all too easy to fall into that trap. You have to remember that it is just that – a mind trap.

Here are a few suggestions for making peace with the ambitious side of yourself so you can take advantage of its positive energy.

* Be aware of how you feel when you are ambitious. How do you describe your energy level – high, low, medium? Do you feel energized, determined and optimistic about the outcome of your endeavors, or do you feel angered, aggressive and driven to the point of madness? Higher energy and optimism are signs of the positive side of ambition. More important, it makes you feel happy about your work.

* Recognize ambition’s positive energy. Use that energy to create something useful, make a positive impact on others’ lives, or simply make other people happy. When you feel ambitious, it’s usually to DO something or to create something — climb a mountain, write a book, or build a business. Those are positive outcomes of ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it helps others. But if your ambition is to tear something apart or hurt someone, then you have fallen under the darker side of ambition. Always choose ambition’s positive energy.

* Don’t waste your ambition on people or situations that won’t respect or appreciate it. (Another pearl of wisdom from Ms. Witherspoon.) Once you recognize that there are people in your life (bosses, for example) who don’t appreciate your ambitious ideas, quickly move on. Find another company or project that will welcome your ambitious ideas.

* Recognize that everyone has some level of ambition. Some people have more ambition than others, but that doesn’t mean others have no ambition at all. It just means they haven’t tapped into it yet. While many people use ambition in healthy ways, others may subdue their ambition, believing (erroneously) that they are being selfish for wanting more than they have. Or they use their ambition to serve their own purposes rather than for the greater good.

* Being ambitious means taking a few risks. As someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the best apples are.” Even if it means risking your well-being by falling out of the tree.

* Remind yourself that it is not selfish to be ambitious. If your ambition calls for creating meaningful work that people will enjoy, then it’s not selfish to indulge in your craft. If your ambition calls for you to leave behind your family so you can go to medical school in a different city, it’s not selfish to want to improve your education so you can help heal people who are sick. If there is an overriding desire to help others, then ambition can only help you achieve your goals.

When you learn to tap into the positive energy of ambition, great things can happen.

The Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Rejection

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Rejection is one of the most painful experiences a writer can go through. It’s also a normal part of the creative process. Because without rejection, we would have no impetus to improve our work.

At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, right?

When rejection happens over and over again though, it can feel like a giant boulder slamming down on your head. You may grow weary of all the effort you put into your work only to have it rejected. You may wonder if a writing life is worth all the rejection, and you may begin to doubt yourself. You may even be tempted to give up on writing altogether.

But don’t give up. If you have a story to tell, you need to tell it. Keep going. Keep writing.

Whether you’ve been turned down for a job, overlooked for a promotion in your company or received a rejection notice from a publisher, rejection hurts. It will always hurt. But there are ways to deal with the lingering emotional turmoil so you can make the most of the rejection and use it to fuel your future endeavors.

So how can writers move past rejection? There are several steps you can take to not only cope with rejection, but use it to fuel your work.

1. Take a time-out. After you’ve been rejected, it might be helpful to take a time-out to re-settle yourself emotionally. Getting rejected is painful, especially if you’ve toiled for weeks, even years, on your latest masterpiece. But rather than get back to work, take a break. Do something else for a couple of days — read a book, do yoga, take a hike, work in your garden, clean house, or visit a museum. Do anything that will clear your heart and mind before getting back to work.

2. Write about your rejection. Don’t dwell on the rejection. Sometimes writing about your rejection experience can help clear your mind and body of the emotional turmoil rejection leaves behind. Write about it in your personal journal, or write a personal essay. In fact, it doesn’t have to be anything anyone else will read. But by writing about it can help heal a wound before it festers beyond repair.

3. Talk things over.
If you don’t want to write about your experience, talk it over with a friend, spouse, or a colleague – someone close to you who understands your need and desire to write. Writers need to surround themselves with a strong emotional support system so they’ll always have at least one shoulder to cry on, one person to listen to your angry rants, and one person to celebrate when you accomplish your dream.

4. Don’t reply back to the rejection source. This is important. Responding in anger is counterproductive and will likely make you feel worse, writes Angela Tung in the Huffington Post. She suggests that sending an angry reply can hurt your chances of being published later on by this publication. They may not want to work with you. However, there is one exception to this piece of advice. If the editor offered some helpful tips to improve your piece, you can reply with a gracious “thank you.” If the editor took the time to provide feedback on your work, it means they liked your writing enough to give you encouragement. Take their comments to heart.

5. Work on another project. If you’re like most writers, you may have several projects going on at once. While the initial project is on hiatus, pull out another piece you’ve had on the back burner and give it another read. After time away from it, you’ll be able to look at your work with a fresh eye.

6. Review the editor’s comments. Once the emotional dust has cleared, review whatever comments you received from the editor. If they took the time to provide feedback or make suggestions, they clearly felt your piece has some redeeming value. Review your work again, this time with the editor’s comments in mind. You’ll find more often than not, their suggestions are worthwhile.

7. Get back to work. That might mean rewriting your piece or it might mean finding another publication to submit your piece to that might be a better fit. With rejection behind you, you can roll up your sleeves and get back to writing with a fresh eye and renewed energy.

8. Don’t quit. Keep working. Keep writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from your writing. Instead use it to fuel your work.

All writers experience rejection. It’s a normal part of the creative writing process. Rejection, and any feedback that comes along with it, is meant to help you become a better writer. Use it to your advantage.

Related Articles
Tips for Dealing with Inevitable Rejection
Five Easy Steps to Conquer the Heartache of Rejection

The Cautious Writer’s Guide to Writing Groups

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Do a Google search about writers’ groups, and you’ll find a plethora of articles and resources touting its benefits for aspiring writers. But dig a little deeper, perhaps seek out discussion boards about writers’ groups, and you’ll get a very different picture. For example, a discussion on Quora reveals mixed reactions from participants about writing groups. Some had positive, even transformative experiences, while others expressed dissatisfaction with the groups they were part of, citing disinterested or dysfunctional members.

Certainly writers’ groups have their place. They provide a safe space to experiment with your writing, for example. They provide an outlet for socializing with other like-minded people so you can escape the solitariness of your writing life. They provide an opportunity to share resources and best practices, seek motivation, and help yourself and others to stay on track toward your writing goals.

But despite the positive impact they can make on your writing, they can also prove troublesome, according to Script Magazine. If getting too involved in writing groups, they can become a form of procrastination, taking you away from your real work as a writer. There can be a certain competitiveness among members, even jealousy, if one person is perceived to monopolize the conversation or if one person is published while everyone else is still trying to find their writing voice.

Most group members will tend to be at the same development level in their craft, usually just starting out or if they have been writing, still unpublished. As newbies, they may not have the perspective to share meaningful insight about your work. For more experienced and confident writers, writers’ groups may offer little value because they have passed that phase of their career.

Sometimes, members will comment just for the sake of commenting or to appear as a constructive member of the group. But that doesn’t mean they understand your work or can provide any meaningful suggestions.

Many people join writing groups for the socialization. That’s certainly a bonus. But writing is not a group effort. You still have to do the work, and that work requires significant alone time. The sooner writers accept and learn to tolerate the solitary nature of the work they do, said one of the Quora participants, the less need they will have for writers’ groups.

If you still believe joining a writers’ group is good for your career, think about these issues:

1. Decide what you want from the writing group. Do you want your work critiqued? Or do you want a place to gather and socialize, learn new techniques, share best practices and get encouragement for your work? If you are not clear about your expectations, you may join a group whose goals do not align with yours, or they don’t provide the support that you’re looking for.

2. What is the level of experience of the other members? A group consisting of people of different ages and backgrounds can offer alternative perspectives that can benefit your writing. If all group members are at the same level of development, that could limit the depth of knowledge and experience exchanged among group members.

3. Will the group members represent different writing genres, or are they all from the same genre? No matter what genre you work in – novels, screenwriting, short story, memoir – you can benefit from other writers of other genres. The only exception might be poets, who may not understand the nuances of narrative writing. Likewise, novelists and essayists may not understand poetry well enough to provide meaningful feedback to poets.

4. Will one person be moderating the discussion at each meeting, or will members rotate? A rotating schedule can ensure each member has a chance to lead the discussion and be engaged in the learning process. Conversely, having one person facilitate the discussion can provide consistency to the group. Some members may simply not want to take the leadership role.

There are other guidelines for starting and joining a writing group, including this piece of advice from author Jane Friedman. If you do decide to participate in a writing group, make sure you are clear about your own goals and expectations. As you become more successful in your career and gain more confidence, you may find you no longer need to be part of a group. They may not meet your needs as they once did or that you’ve simply outgrown them. Sometimes, group members simply grow apart or life gets too busy.

Writing groups are not for everyone. Critics of these groups say they can do more harm than good, hinder your progress as a writer or provide unnecessary distractions. There is no rule that says you have to be part of one in order to enjoy success as a writer. Only you know what is best for your career path.