Fresh Start to 2019: Three Writing Prompts to Brainstorm Story Ideas

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This is the first of a series of posts about starting fresh for 2019. With the New Year upon us, many of us look to start new habits or activities. I’ll address some of those fresh starts as it relates to work, life and writing. In this first post, I will share writing prompts to brainstorm story ideas and boost your writing practice.

Starting a writing practice is difficult, but it’s nearly impossible without a story idea to work with. There are numerous sources of writing prompts to get you started, of course, but they can be so narrowly focused that they may not fit what you want to ultimately achieve.

Most writing prompts deal with one of three themes: the past, the present or the future. With this in mind, you really only need three writing prompts to help you brainstorm story ideas, one for each of these themes. Let me show you how.

1) I Remember… (or alternately, “Remember when”)

Using either of these prompts helps you reflect on the past. It’s ideal for memoirs, stories about growing up, attending school, family dynamics and vacations. Incidents that seemed insignificant when they first occurred may have more meaning now as you reflect on them. That reflection is the basis of your story.

On a sheet of paper, write the phrase “I remember” at the top. Then give yourself five or ten minutes to complete the phrase.

Examples include:
“I remember when I nearly drowned in our family’s swimming pool.”
“I remember attending my first Blackhawks hockey game with my father when I was 11 years old.”
“I remember the day my younger brother was born.”

You get the idea. Keep going with your list until time expires. You should have plenty of ideas to work with to begin writing. It may even lead to a collection of essays that you can publish in the future.

2) I Believe

From the past, we move to the present with the prompt “I Believe.” This prompt explores how you are feeling in the present moment. Those beliefs can be about anything: politics, relationships, raising children, your career. But the common element is your beliefs, your values, what you see as important in your life at this moment. Because the focus is on the present, this prompt is most useful for defining subjects for op-ed pieces and personal essays.

Examples include:
“I believe many pet owners treat their pets better than they treat other humans.”
“I believe all colleges and universities should provide free tuition.”
“I believe I was fired from my job because my boss didn’t like me.”

Once you have made your list of completed “I believe” statements, you can begin to explore your feelings further, beginning with why you believe the way you do. It might be helpful to back up your belief statements with statistics, survey results and other research that will give your statement more credence.

3. What if?
If you’re more forward-thinking, the prompt “What if?” can help you imagine all sorts of possibilities about the future. It helps you create worlds that don’t currently exist. What is different about this prompt compared to the previous two is that it does not hinge on any emotional content. “What if?” is non-personal, non-judgmental and more objective. This type of prompt is ideal for creating fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries and thrillers. Of the three prompts, this is the one you can have the most fun with because there is no limit to what your imagination can conjure up.

Examples include:
“What if the city of Chicago was invaded by zombies who climbed out of Lake Michigan?
“What if scientists finally found a cure for AIDS, cancer or some other disease?
“What if a woman was elected President of the United States?”

If you’re feeling stuck with your writing and are looking for new story ideas, these three basic writing prompts are all you really need to kickstart your efforts. Start with one, make your bullet list, and then let your imagination do the rest.

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Seven Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Writing Practice

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Some months ago, I attended a writing workshop on a Saturday morning sponsored by a local writers group. Over one of the breaks, I chatted with the man next to me, an attorney who had recently married. I asked him what kind of writing he did. His answer? “I don’t have time to write. I have a busy law practice and I just got married,” he said rather sheepishly.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the inconsistency of his remark. He claimed not to have time for writing, yet managed to find time from his supposed busy schedule to attend a three-hour writing workshop on a Saturday morning. What’s wrong with that picture?

For many of us, it is far easier to think about, read about and talk about writing than to actually sit down and write. We’d much rather make excuses about why we don’t write than to examine the reasons why we don’t.

A writing practice, as I define it, is a regular, consistent routine of putting pen or pencil to paper (though some people prefer to use a computer). The amount of time devoted to the practice differs from person to person. But whether you spend two hours a day or fifteen minutes a day, the key is consistency. A little bit of writing every day slowly and gradually builds up your practice. And the more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will feel about your writing. The more you practice, the more progress you will see which gives you more momentum and motivation to keep writing.

Not everyone is mentally or emotionally prepared to begin a writing practice, however. They may have questions about starting a writing practice – lots of them. And they may have self-doubts and fears, either about the writing practice itself or about their own abilities as a writer. As a former colleague once told me years ago, “Fear and self-doubt will kill every opportunity that comes your way.”

So before you embark on this writing journey, ask yourself the following questions. The answers will help you to ‘get real’ about your writing practice.

1. Why do you want to begin a writing practice? Why is a writing practice important to you at this point in your life? Answering this question determines how strong a desire you have to write. If you’re still unsure of your response, answer this question: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not important at all and 10 being very important), how important is writing to you?

2. What do you want to achieve with your writing? To eventually get published? To pass along family lore and legends? Or just have fun?

3. What does your writing practice look like to you? What notions, if any, do you have about how much time you should spend on your writing, or where you write? Many of you may have preconceived ideas about what your writing life looks like – about how much time you should spend each day or how many words you should write, what your office space looks like, etc. However, the reality often looks different from the fantasy.

4. What obstacles, excuses or conditions hold you back from starting and maintaining a writing practice? For most people, time management is an issue. Let’s face it, we all lead busy lives. But some people are more willing to adjust their schedules so they have more time to write. Remember, it’s not about having the time to write, but about making the time to write. Those with the greatest desire to write will make the time to write.

Suspense author Mary Higgins Clark was a widow living in New York with five children to support. She had to work to support her family, so she got a job writing radio scripts. Still her desire to write was so strong that she made time in her busy schedule to write her first novel. For two hours every morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., she set her typewriter on the kitchen table and wrote. Clark could easily have made excuses for not writing. She didn’t, and she went on to a very successful career.

5. Do you have a dedicated space for writing? If coffee shops are your thing, more power to you. Or like me, do you prefer quieter places, like the library, so you can think, plan and create?

6. Do you have a support system? Are there people in your life who not only provide encouragement and input about your writing, but also respect the time and space you need for writing?

7. How much time are you reasonably willing and able to devote to your practice? If you were to keep a log of your activities for three consecutive days, I bet you would find gaps in your schedule where you could sneak in a writing session. We’re not nearly as busy as we think we are.

The more you understand your motivations and desire to write, the more prepared you will be to begin writing. If the motivation and desire to write isn’t strong to begin with, no amount of encouragement from others will get you started on your practice.

A healthy mindset is also important. If you are not in a good place mentally or emotionally, it will be more difficult to begin a writing practice. When you are in a good place, the stories seem to flow more naturally and organically. You won’t have to ask, “What do I write about?”

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to explore some of these concepts in greater detail. If you have any questions about how to start a writing practice, feel free to post a comment below.

Want to Improve Your Own Writing? Read Poorly Written Books

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In his book On Writing, (which I highly recommend), author Stephen King suggests that if you want to be a better writer, all you have to do is read. Read a lot. And read a variety of stories.

Of course, that might mean exposing yourself to less than stellar writing. But that’s okay.  Even the less-than-stellar samples can show writers a thing or two about crafting stories – the right way.

Perhaps I should begin by defining what I mean by ‘bad writing.’ It isn’t just about a lack of proper grammar and punctuation, although that’s part of it. It has more to do with the development of the story. Think stilted dialogue, implausible plot lines and poorly drawn characters. It isn’t the writing that’s poorly done as much as the storytelling.

As British author Toby Litt writes in The Guardian, bad writing is boring writing. Bad writing are stories you can’t wait to finish because they are dreadfully boring, or one that you don’t finish at all. On the other hand, a well-crafted, well-written book is one that keeps your attention all the way through. It makes you want to turn the page, and the next page and the next page, and so on.

In my opinion, a good book may not be the highest quality writing. It may not even be a best-seller. But what it does well is keep the reader involved in the story and with the characters, especially the protagonist. If you have a hard time putting a book down, it means the author has successfully designed the story to satisfy your interest. You want to read more to find out what’s going to happen next.

After you’ve read enough stories of different genres, your brain begins to notice differences in the way authors develop their plots and characters, or the way dialogue and narration are presented. When you’ve read enough books, you recognize contrived plot lines and inconsistent behavior from characters. You can decide, as the reader, what is believable and what isn’t. By reading bad writing, you are, hopefully, aware enough of your own skill not to commit the same mistakes.

I recently finished reading a romance novel by an author whose work I had read before and enjoyed. I looked forward to a light, easy read. It was anything but. The plot was not believable, the female protagonist behaved in ways that was not consistent with her character, and the overall experience of reading the book was unpleasant. I felt disappointed and cheated.

You don’t want to do that to your readers.

I doubt I will read anything else by this particular author ever again, although I will pick up another romance novel. They can be fun reads on their own — when they’re written well.

Lesson learned from that reading experience: Make sure the plot is plausible and believable and your protagonist behaves in ways that are true to their personality.

Bad writing can appear in any genre, and sometimes in best-sellers. If in doubt about what ‘bad writing’ is, check out Goodreads’ list of ‘poorly written’ books. Among the Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight collections is The Da Vinci Code. I once tried to read it many years ago and couldn’t get through it. The language was overly descriptive and heavy, moving the narrative along at a snail’s pace. I kept wanting the author to pick up the pace. Naturally, I never made it to the end.

Lesson from that reading experience: Don’t get so bogged down in details that the story slows to a crawl. Keep moving the story along and you will maintain your readers’ interest. Keep that in mind when you do your own writing.

On the upside, reading bad writing can put your own writing into perspective. You can say to yourself, “Hey, I can write better than this. If this trash is being published, maybe there’s hope for me yet in this business.”

The more you read, the more you can learn from the mistakes other writers have made. So even if you have to trudge through a few bad apples along the way, you can still gain from the experience and improve your writing at the same time.

Related Reading about ‘Bad Writing’:
https://bookriot.com/2013/06/27/the-case-for-reading-bad-books/

https://joshcraigwrites.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/about-reading-poorly-written-books/

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Writing from the Heart

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Creative Inspiration in These Soulful Spaces

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I sat inside a local coffee shop recently, where I wrote in my journal and sketched out a story for my blog. I don’t go to coffee shops very often since I have a home office, but on occasion, I feel the need to hunker down somewhere in the neighborhood. While sipping my coffee, I’m not only brainstorming story ideas, but I find myself half-listening to other peoples’ conversations at nearby tables or watching people or simply staring out the window. By the time I left the coffee shop some four hours later, I hadn’t crossed off all my tasks on my to-do list, but what I did have were pages of ideas and emotions that I could tap into for stories later.

There have been other places I’ve visited that has inspired me to write, to dream, and to create. If you’re feeling stuck and looking for inspiration, get out of the house and get around your neighborhood.

1. Coffee shops. Coffee isn’t the only thing that flows at these neighborhood java shops. Whether people watching, surreptitiously listening in on conversations or mindfully enjoying a cup of your favorite beverage, the local coffee shop is the obvious choice for finding inspiration. Even the tap-tapping of nearby computer keyboards signals that creative juices are flowing.

2. Libraries and bookstores. Next to coffee shops, libraries and bookstores are my favorite place to find inspiration. When you browse the book shelves, note the topics, the story lines, the biographies. Hundreds of thousands of books have been published, yet there is still plenty to write about. Somewhere in our world, there is a story that has yet to be written, and you and I have the opportunity to write it.

3. Places of worship. There is something powerfully serene and reverent when I walk into a church or other place of worship. Sit in the silence (preferably not when there is a service taking place) and observe your surroundings. Or better yet, close your eyes. Whether you pray or not is up to you. In fact, prayer isn’t necessary. Just your mindful awareness and your willingness to be present.

4. Cemeteries. As odd as it may seem, cemeteries are great places to find creative inspiration. Think of those who have died and are buried there. They all have a story. Read their tombstones. When were they born? When did they perish? Imagine what their lives must have been like. How did they live? Who did they marry? How did they die? Keeping these questions in mind can help you create their life story, whether they are true or not.

5. Museums. Have you ever seen a painting, sculpture or other artistic endeavor that moved you? What is its story?  Each antique relic, painting and sculpture you see in a museum has a story.  Even after you’ve read the caption next to it, you can still write your own story about that particular piece. How did it move you? What did it look like? What did you experience when viewed it for the first time?

6. Nature. Feeling stuck indoors? Take a walk, whether in a park, along a lake or in the woods. Nature calls for us to be quiet so we can hear the still voice within us. That is our creative muse, and sometimes in the hectic pace of life, we lose its sound. Spending time in nature is one of the best ways to reconnect with our soul, which can help get those creative juices flowing again.

7. Music. They say music calms the savage beast, and they may be right. Though not a specific place, music does provide a meaningful backdrop to any creative endeavor. When I sit down to write or read, I prefer to listen to softer music, like contemporary folk or classical. Listening to a piece of music that is unfamiliar to you may be especially enlightening, providing a new experience to draw on for your next inspired story.

Mix and match, or choose whatever you are in the mood for. When you need a change of scenery, a change of pace or even a change of heart, visiting a quiet place can help you reconnect with yourself and find the creative inspiration you seek to write your next great story.

Idea-Generating Tools for the Not-So-Organized

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Ever have those moments when you’ve come up with what you believe is a brilliant idea and forget to write it down? What happens to your idea then? More than likely, it fades into oblivion, never to be implemented for your personal or professional purpose.

Whether you’re a creative professional or are someone who simply is involved in many projects, you may need a system for keeping track of all your ideas and projects. I’m a bit old school, so for me, keeping notebooks for each story or project idea is the simplest, easiest solution for this purpose. There may be other systems or platforms available on the Internet, but I prefer handwritten tools so I can write things down as I think of them.

At times, I wish I had a pensieve like Professor Dumbledore used in the Harry Potter series. With a tap of his wand at his temple, he could extract a memory and save it in the pensieve to review later. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar container for all our ideas so they didn’t clutter our brains?

At the moment I have about four different notebooks for four different purposes. This helps me to keep one idea or task related to one project separated from the others. When you have so many ideas coming at you at one time, this process helps to organize them so they are easy to access later when you may need them.

Here are a few ideas for organizing your ideas for creative and business projects.

Writing Logs: 

Personal journal – For most people, the journal is where they recap their personal experiences and insights about work, relationships, and the struggles of daily life.

Poetry – Write poetry? Keep drafts of your poetry in a file or notebook to separate it from other types of writing that you do.

Writing – Notes from writing webinars, lists of books to read (not necessarily about the topic of writing but stuff you want to read), writing tips from other writers, and lists of unfamiliar words to look up. Also keep ideas and bullet point for short stories, essays and other types of writing you may be doing.

Blogging log – If you manage your own blog, keep a notebook of ideas for potential postings. Include any research related to these story ideas, blogging tools and resources to help you be more productive, blogging apps that might aid your blog, and advice and tips from other professional bloggers.

Personal Development: 

Dream log – Ever have a dream and wonder what it means? The next time you remember having a dream, write it down in a journal to keep it separate from any writing journal you keep. Either use a dream dictionary or an online dream interpretation tool to look up potential meanings and jot them down next to your dream.

Inspiration log: Collect items that inspire you, such as photos, positive and uplifting news stories that you read in the paper or on the Internet, and motivational quotes.

Health/fitness log: On a diet or trying to make a lifestyle change, like quitting smoking? Use a log to monitor the foods you eat, your workouts, vitamins, water intake, etc. It might be helpful to record your thought processes as you change your health and fitness regimen.

Home improvement/buying or selling a home – Whether you are planning on selling your home or simply renovating it for your own enjoyment, it may be a good idea to track home improvements. In particular, note what type of work was done and when, and the name and contact information for contractors, real estate agents, lenders and other professionals. This type of log may be especially helpful if you are doing a series of renovations before selling the home, so you can refer to your notes when buyers have questions about the home.

Business Related: 

Job search – If you’re looking for a new job or changing careers, a career log or job search log can help you  stay on top of your progress. Keep track of all your network contacts, and write down names of people who you meet. Keep track of the businesses you approach for jobs, including when you sent your resume to them and what kind of response, if any, that you received.

Business startup – Got an idea for a new business start-up? Jot down everything you want to do to get your new business venture off the ground, including products, potential competition, potential clients, tasks to accomplish, forms to complete and deadlines.

Legal/Lawsuit: If you ever get involved in a legal issue, keep a log to recall incidents related to your case, record conversations with your attorney and list any tasks you need to accomplish.

Medical log – If you’ve ever had an injury or illness and needed medical care, keeping a medical log can help your sort through the details of your medical care. Keep track of everything, from the names and contact information of medical doctors and hospitals involved, dates and results of medical tests, conversations with medical team, and any drugs that were prescribed.

These are just a few examples of idea-tracking logs, whether it’s to keep track of your writing projects or your personal ones. You don’t have to do them all. Focus on the ones where you get the most ideas so you won’t feel so overwhelmed as you progress. It may seem overwhelming to have a log for every little segment of your life, but I find it helpful to separate – and in some cases, compartmentalize – all of life’s projects so they don’t feel so overwhelming.

Experiment with one or two types of logs, perhaps a dream log and a poetry log, or a business start-up log and a blogging blog, so you can develop ideas for your business blog. Find what works for you. If written notebooks aren’t your style, check the Internet for other possible platforms.

Whichever format you use, you’ll find that keeping multiple log books helps clear your brain of the ideas.

The Search for Motivation and Passion in Your Work

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Many years ago, I attended a professional workshop led by a woman who ran her own communications agency. During the event, she admitted to putting in some long hours for her business. Someone in the group asked, “Do you mind working longer hours? Is it worth it to have your own business?” The woman replied, “I love what I do, so I don’t mind working longer hours.”

She is one of the lucky people who found a career that they were passionate about. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all find that passion?

But not everyone is as lucky as this business owner. Most of us strive each day to find the drive to keep going, keep searching, and keep reaching for our goals. For many of us, just waking up and getting out of bed in the morning is a major achievement.

As I watched the Summer Olympics in Rio few weeks ago, I was struck by the notion of performing our best when there isn’t a whole lot expected of you. With more than 10,000 athletes participating in the Summer Games, only a handful were expected to contend for a medal. How do you compete when you know you probably won’t win? How do you motivate yourself to stay positive, to keep going, to keep driving towards the finish line?

Consider the performance of Oksana Chusovitina, the 41-year old gymnast from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, who appeared at her seventh Olympic Games. She competed  only in the vault contest and was not expected to medal, but she was thrilled to participate because she loved the sport of gymnastics so much.

Finding that one thing you love so much, that you are so passionate about, is the key to staying motivated. When you love what you do, you are more willing to make sacrifices to achieve your goals. When you love what you do, time stands still, and you find yourself living in the moment. When you love what you do, working longer hours is never an issue.

Sometimes motivation is driven by an inner goal that you set for yourself, one that is not obvious to others. It’s not necessarily about winning the race as it is about finishing it. Finishing the race is as much an accomplishment as winning. You know you’ve found your motivation, your passion when your brain is on fire with ideas and your heart is wholly engaged.

So whether you are a manager, a writer or an athlete, ask yourself today, “What is my motivation? What keeps me motivated to perform my best?”

It could be the love of your family that drives your performance. It could be the desire to one day publish a book or get a byline in a magazine. Or it could be the satisfaction of seeing others that you coach achieve their best.

More important, ask yourself “How do I perform when there isn’t a lot expected of me, when I’m not expected to win a prize or be the best? How do I perform when I don’t expect a lot from myself?”

If you don’t expect the best from yourself, how will others expect the best from you? And how will you be able to perform your best if you don’t believe in yourself? Belief in yourself is the most powerful motivation. Believe in yourself, and others will believe in you too.

 

 

Defining Your Career Mission — in Three Words

 

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Photo courtesy of Hubspot Marketing

Could you define your life’s work, your career motto, in three small words? Every time I asked this question of association members for their magazine, it made me think long and hard about my own response. What would I say? What is my life’s work, and could I describe it in three words? Talk about an editorial challenge!

While many people may scoff at this question, considering it too full of fluff for high-level executives, asking that question even of ourselves forces us to think about our careers with a sharper focus. What do I bring to the table? How do I make myself stand out? How do my services help others? How can I contribute to the greater good?

These are all serious questions. If we want to be successful in our life’s work, no matter what type of work we do, we must begin with in-depth self-analysis of our own place in this world. Many people trip over this idea of defining their personal motto or mission in three words. They claim they need more words to describe it.

Once we find those three words, however, that motto can drive our decisions in our personal and professional lives. When stuck in indecision, we need only to return to that little phrase to guide us to a resolution that is aligned with our motivations. When confronted by tragic circumstances – a job loss, a death in the family, money woes, or a personal or professional crisis, thinking about this motto can be a source of wisdom, courage and inspiration to help you survive the darkest moments of your life.

Inspired by my routine question to our high-level real estate members, I spent time thinking about my own three-word motto. “Act with integrity” came to mind. So simple, yet so potent and empowering. I think of these words every time I am faced with a crisis of consciousness. And it has helped me through some dark times too.

I can think of a few others: “Believe in yourself.”  “Be kind, compassionate.”  “Think before acting.” Use whatever words work for you. Keep it simple and straightforward. There are no wrong answers. There’s no need to publicize it or put it on your business card, unless you really want to. This little three-word mission statement is for your heart and soul alone.

If you’re looking to find inspiration in your career or life’s work, think about three words that defines who you are. These three little words can inspire you, motivate you, and drive every decision you make. To get started, here are a few tips for creating your three-word motto.

1. Start with an action verb. Words like think, believe, act, help, move, etc. gets the action going, and it serves as a reminder to you to be an active participant in life, rather than an observer. Make it empowering, inspirational and proactive.

2. Be positive. What do each of the mottos mentioned above have in common? Each one paints a positive, sunny picture that is sure to brighten your spirit. The more positive you can make it, the more energy it will give you.

3. Be results-oriented. Say something that reminds you to commit to doing something good and brings positive results.

4. Focus on your power as an instrument of change. What influence do you have in the world? Do you want to write, teach, heal, build homes, sing, or make people laugh?

These ideas are just a starting point. Try out several sample mottos to see if they resonate with you. Do they match where you are in the world at this point in time? Mix and match different words until you find the right combination that best describes your life’s mission.

When you’ve finalized your motto, write it down and keep it somewhere where you can readily refer to it – the bathroom mirror, your wallet, or your computer screen saver. Meditate on its meaning or use it as a mantra so that the message seeps deeply into your soul. With time, that motto simply becomes a part of who you are. It will be so deeply ingrained that you won’t need to see it on the bathroom mirror anymore.