Find your tool fetish

While non-writers may look sideways at the fetishizing of writing utensils, a writer understands that what looks to be a mere object to others, is an important aspect of our creativity, an extension of us. Our pens, pencils, notebooks, and yellow legal pads are conduits between our muse, ourselves, and our stories. Talismans, even.

For instance, I’ve written in the past about how I use the keyboard for certain stages of writing (mind dumping big thoughts and writing the story) and write by hand for other stages (initial random snippets and editing drafts).

When I’m not at the keyboard, my writing tool of choice: a mechanical pencil.

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I’m not picky about brand or color or even design (although it does need to fit in my hand comfortably – if I’m noticing that I’m holding a pencil, it isn’t right – and I have to admit, I’ve become partial to those with a rubber grip at the base). It has to have a good eraser, too. But mostly, it’s the lead for me that’s the deal breaker.

This is it: .5 / #2

When I write with a .5 #2 mechanical pencil lead, it’s like silk on silk. The feel of the soft graphite sliding across paper is so sensually satisfying it allows me to – maybe even helps me – focus in on the flow of the story, and in the editing process (which is when I use the mechanical pencil), I’m able to see the excess and the holes in what I’ve written, and I just get immersed. It’s trance-like. A surrender, of sorts.

I can edit with a pen, but it isn’t the same. Using a pen keeps me in my brain too much. But with a mechanical pencil, I engage with the words and the paper in a whole different way. The pen gouges. The pencil caresses. It allows the flow from my psyche to go straight down my arm, into the pencil and on to the page without conscious thought. It’s magic.

While I haven’t pondered, to any great length, why writers have these seemingly quirky requirements for their writing materials, I can’t help but think it has something to do with the fact that writing is not just a mental act, but a physical one. Each writer’s special need when it comes to tools must have something to do with the that writer’s physical make-up and response to tactile sensations.

Whatever the reasons for these special requirements, our fascination with knowing the writing quirks of famous writers is clear. In Alison Nastasi’s article on the subject, we learn about the writing fetishes of twenty famous authors, and while most of us wouldn’t dream of using a fountain pen to write a novel these days (unless you’re Neil Gaiman), thanks to technology, we have even more tools are at our disposal. For instance, Sara Juckes describes, other tools at our disposal to enhance our writing lives: things like CTRL-Z, Sticky Notes, and Pinterest, among others.

Some of us would benefit from other, newer tools that aren’t directly attached to the writing process, but that allow us to get the work done, such as Cold Turkey, a program that locks you out of the internet if your willpower is low, as suggested by Robbie Blair in his article that details “9 Modern Tools Every Writer Should Use.”

Discovering our old-school writing tool fetishes, as well as adapting to and utilizing new-school technological inventions that can make our jobs easier, is just one more facet of defining and honoring ourselves as writers.

In addition to my old-school .5 #2 mechanical pencil fetish, I’d say my current new-school fetish is toss up between GoogleDrive (love, love, LOVE that I can write on any device, anywhere, anytime, and not have to remember to email myself the last draft of a piece) and Notes (so handy when I have an idea and no paper, napkin, or envelope to write in the moment.

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What’s your writing tool fetish?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Know when to quit

Know when to quitWhen many writers talk about writing, they focus on getting the machine started and keeping it running—that is, creating the right mindset and environment to allow flow to happen and actually get words on the page or screen.

But what about knowing when to stop?

And I don’t mean stop, as in quit or give up on writing altogether. I mean, how do you know when to stop on any given day?

Comedy writer Ken Levine writes about this subject and tells us how he and other writers know when to stop. And the answer to this question is most definitely the different-strokes-for-different-folks kind.

For me, as I’ve written in the past, achieving flow is not a problem. I have a busy brain that mutates ideas fractal-style, so I’m never at a loss. (Generally, I have too many things to write about or two many ideas for a story in progress. It’s a good “problem” to have, so I’m not complaining.)

Because I have my fingers in a lot of different things right now, I’m not able to write every day, so I’ve blocked out two full days each week – Monday and Thursday. These days are devoted to writing and nothing else. I don’t let anything interfere. I close my browser windows and leave my cell phone in the other room.

But two days isn’t enough writing time for me, so my tendency is to want to just keep going and going and going when I’m finally able to get back with my characters. I love them, and I love the world we’re creating together. But the reality is, for me, that after so many hours, things start to feel stale.

For instance, yesterday I was working on the beginning of the second act of my screenplay, Miranda’s Garden. I’m working from an outline (I can do this with screenplays, but not so much with fiction.), so I always set a milepost for myself at the beginning of every writing day and decide how far down the outline I plan to work.

Yesterday, about two-thirds of the way there, I caught myself writing scenes that did nothing in terms of moving the story forward. I LOVE dialogue, so I can just sit and listen to my characters perform idle chit-chat endlessly, but if I’m going to sell scripts or get them made into films, or if I’m going to write novels that have a reasonable page count that anybody’s going to what to publish, I can’t do that. That said, though, I never feel the time spent writing unusable prose or dialogue is a waste, as it always gets me where I need to go.

So yesterday, when I found myself acting like a person who was just hanging out with her friends rather than a writer telling a story, I stopped long enough to think about what I needed to accomplish to not just move the story forward, but to deepen character development and the relationship between the characters in the scenes I was working on. I did this knowing that on Monday when I sit down to work on it again, I will, more than likely, need to revise that section. I prefer this, though, as it gets my head back in the story and back with the characters. Then I’m off, writing forward until I start to go stale again.

Another way I know it’s time to stop is by listening to my body. If I’ve sat in a chair tapping away at the keyboard long enough that my back, neck and shoulders ache, it’s time to quit. Sometimes, though, I just have to forego the pain a while longer so I can get to the place that feels right. So I can start in the right place the next time.

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How do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

 

Read

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One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read other writers. By reading the work of other writers, we can gain a multitude of benefits.

Reading fiction is like taking a vitamin for your brain, psyche, and soul all at the same time.

Besides creating something in our brain called grounded cognition, literary fiction also increases empathy because it helps us to “understand the emotions of others.” And specifically literary fiction, because it “has more depth,” is better for us than mainstream fiction. It’s like the difference between organic food and fast food for our bodies. The fast food might fill us up, but it won’t give us the same nourishment or have the same lasting beneficial effects as the organic food.

 

While these benefits can be had by anyone who picks up a novel or a short story, for writers, the benefits don’t stop there.

When we read other writers, it causes us to step outside our tried and true habits, go-to word choices, and predictable rhythms. Can you imagine having only one window from which to view the world and never being able to go outside?! Reading other writers affords us the opportunity to look through many windows and expand our view of writing and of the world.

Expanding our vocabularies is also important, as is studying how other writers turn a phrase. And we can reap the benefits by reading fiction both mindfully and unmindfully.

By reading mindfully, I mean that we can choose a particular book with the sole purpose of studying the mechanics of it to find new ways to freshen our own writing, which is not to say we should be moving away from our own voices that took so long to find in the first place, but being aware of how others utilize the language, approach story, and tend to character should be a regular exercise for any writer.

Likewise, reading unmindfully, just reading for pleasure, can also benefit our writing because it wakes up our imagination, works on our subconscious, plants seeds for future use that we aren’t entirely aware of.

And lastly, reading diversely is also important. Life is busy, and our days are full. Finding time to read our favorite authors is hard enough, but it’s also important to read authors who aren’t our favorites. Or authors we’ve never heard of. Especially under-represented authors. Filling our heads with as many voices at possible, letting them hang out together and talk to each other will only add to the rich cacophony of possibilities in our own work.

On my nightstand right now
Mythic Imagination by Joseph Campbell
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

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What are you reading?

 

 

 

 

Nobody does it like you: develop and know your process

For me, the hardest part of writing is getting my butt in the chair. Once I’m there, and I begin, everything flows.

When I’m wrapped up in a story and a character, I’m unable to turn it off, even when I leave said chair. Images and dialogue (mostly dialogue) filter through my mind, and if I’m not at my desk or near it, I have to put these fragments down. Otherwise, they fade away, like a dissipating puff of smoke.

Before iPhones, I collected the pieces of stories that landed in my brain like jigsaw puzzle pieces on napkins, old envelopes, concert program notes… Anything that was handy. This was especially true when my kids were little and writing time was a premium. I also carried a small hand-held tape recorder with me everywhere I went.

Now I use Notes and Voice Memos in my iPhone, but I still do a fair amount of scribbling on random remnants of paper and other things when I don’t feel like thumb typing. Then, eventually, I organize them in a digital file and keep it on Google Drive (along with the piece I’m working on) so I can access it wherever I am and no matter which device I’m using.

For me, it’s typical for this stage of jotting down random snippets to continue throughout the writing of an entire piece. Once the substantial writing begins, another process takes hold in which I do a fair amount of moving forward, then backtracking, adjusting so that what I’ve set up in the past makes sense for what I’m setting up now.

In an interview, Margaret Atwood describes this as the rolling barrage technique.

She also says she uses “a sharp object with a pointy end” (pen or pencil) and whatever flat surface is nearby when the beginning of a new novel comes. As she progresses, she uses sticky notes and a bedside notebook.

Knowing your process is crucial to your production. If you know your process, the writing will come more easily, and you won’t find yourself staring down the snout of the mythical monster called writer’s block.

As Atwood says, “If you’re not finding this happen somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity.”

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I do a different kind of writing at the keyboard than I do by hand, and both approaches served different functions.

By hand

initial random snippets
editing drafts

Keyboard

mind dumping big thoughts so I can organize
writing the story

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Do you start with pen/pencil and paper or with the keyboard? Do you know why?

If it works and you don’t find yourself sitting, stuck, that’s great!
If you do find yourself stuck, try changing up the way you work.

 

“I just have to plunge into it.” – Margaret Atwood

 

 

 

 

Feel the flow: Write with your whole self

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Creative writers know that feeling of being in the zone: the wheels are turning, placidly moving you and your characters forward so you’re in the flow, the outside world falling away, and this imaginary world you’ve invented is sparking every one of your senses and the outside world has become nonexistent. It’s trance-like. And it’s only after this trance-like state of mind has occurred that we become aware of it because to be conscious of its presence in the moment would send it back into hiding like an owl at the first blush of dawn.

Virginia Woolf writes about this phenomenon of getting lost in the creative process in To the Lighthouse:

“Can’t paint, can’t write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modeled it with green and blues.” (18) Susan Perry, Writing in Flow

Writers yearn for these slippages in time because it’s during this boundary-less, water-like immersion with our characters, their world, and our subconscious that we tend to get our best work done or at least get most of our work done. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as flow. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: ‘It was like floating,’ ‘I was carried on by the flow.’ It is the opposite of psychic entropy… and those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy has been invested successfully in goals they themselves had chosen to pursue.”

In her book, Writing in Flow, which is the result of Susan Perry’s in-depth interviews with several well-known writers, Perry says that experiencing flow typically occurs when writing creatively, such as fiction or poetry, rather than journalistically. Clearly, it happens when the writer unhooks from her reality and crosses the threshold to her subconscious, the all knowing place we possess deep within that gets muted by the racket and responsibilities of our daily lives.

Perry also says that while most writers can’t explain how they achieve flow and don’t have a specific method for achieving it, they agree that something different happens in their minds and in their writing when they reach this dissociative state. While anyone who has ever experienced it can attest to something happening in the mind, I believe something happens in the body, as well.

As a college writing professor, I always encouraged my students to write with their whole selves, rather than cutting themselves off at the neck and writing only from their heads, which seems to be the inherent project of academia. I wanted my students to engage their hearts, too, but not in a sentimental way. I wanted them to throw themselves into the mosh pit of discourse on their topics of interest with every ounce of passion they could draw up.

I now know that I was intuiting this process I’ve developed called Writing Through the Body™, although I hadn’t even an inkling then of how to explain it to them, or to myself, for that matter. Whenever I made this statement to them—Write with your whole self—a few nodded in agreement, but most of them looked at me blankly. It wasn’t until I had the revelation that my Divination Deck (created in 2005) and these writing workshops I’d been tossing around in my mind even longer should be combined. That’s also when I realized that the magical experience I had had years before when writing my novel, Miranda’s Garden, occurred because I had achieved a massive unblocking of energy, and I was able to enter and access my subconscious in ways I had never done before. With the coalescing of these seemingly separate ideas and projects, Writing Through the Body™ was born.

When I posted a notice on social media in the Fall of 2013 announcing the beta test for my first online Writing Through the Body™ workshop, someone responded and expressed interest. He quickly realized that the “TM” near the title was the trademark symbol and didn’t stand for “transcendental meditation,” as he had first imagined. When I explained the concept of the workshop, this was his reply: “I might be more interested if it involves meditation. Not sure I want to get into the chakra stuff.”

Unfortunately, some people have a negative view of the chakras, if they have one at all, thinking they are an off-shoot of the new age movement and nothing more than new age vernacular, but people like Caroline Meis and Deepak Chopra have helped normalize the misconceptions of chakras and demystify their meaning by introducing them into the mainstream. We still have much to learn, however, about these powerful energy centers—or color wheels, as some refer to them—in our bodies so we can use them to their full potential.

Chakras are not a new or faddish creation. In fact, they have a long history in Eastern ideology, having first been realized in India.

As the Western world has progressed in its thinking and has become more aware of the connection and fluidity between our simultaneous existence in both the material and spiritual realm, and that we are not bodies and minds separate from our souls, the line between spirituality and science has also begun to merge.

Before her death, which came far too soon in 2013, neuroscientist and pharmacologist, Candice Pert, had made significant strides regarding the understanding of neuropeptides, which are, as she explains to Bill Moyers, strings of amino acids that encase every cell in our bodies and which led her to what she called a “unified theory of emotion.”

In an interview with Adam Omkara, Pert discusses her revelation, as a researcher with a hard science background, that these energy centers she had been studying show up in the body in the same locations as the chakras. She says, “I realized in 1987 that areas along the axis, from the top of the forehead to the base of the spine, these classical chakras areas corresponded to what I called ‘nodal points.’ Places where lots of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides were released.”

Pert doesn’t distinguish between the mind and the body. She refers to what we all possess as the bodymind: one entity with no separation. She says, ““The mind is not confined to the space above the neck,” and “The ‘me’ that’s you is your whole body.”

Additionally, Pert discusses unexpressed emotion in an interview with Lynn Grodzki, and says, “I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged lower in the body.”

As writers who take on the task of being the purveyors of our characters’ humanity, it is essential that we dislodge as much stuck emotion as possible, allowing it to move through us so we can best express our characters’ motives from an emotional and psychological standpoint. This is flow. When we block emotions, we block our chakras, and this truncates flow.

With this in mind, I created the Writing Through the Body™ process for fiction writers, which utilizes the chakras of the body to help writers access and enhance the kind of deep character development that quality, impactful writing requires. As writers, we need to have intimate relationships with our characters, which will in turn allow us to write deeper fiction, which will in turn create greater self-awareness in us.

Creative writers are, for the most part, sensitive souls. We see what many others do not. We see the veiling of human existence and sense the emotional aspects of life vibrationally. We think more deeply about life and the human condition than most. For this reason, life can be a brutal assault on our senses. To manage this assault, we must create protections for our own emotional survival, and they can become second nature to us. To write effectively, we need to be able to let down those protections, remove the blocks that we’ve so deftly put in place to self-protect, and let flow occur in the safety of our own sacred writing spaces.

This is what the Writing Through the Body™ process does. It helps writers clear energy centers and stuck emotion, which leads to a triple-faceted benefit: 1) by taking part in a meditation for each chakra, writers will begin the process of clearing each, one at a time, to allow the flow of emotion necessary for the tapping of the subconscious required to write deep fiction, 2) by focusing on a particular chakra and its positive and negative manifestations and answering a series of questions specific to each, writers can delve deeper into their characters’ psyches, giving them the ability to render their characters with more complexity, and 3) while engaging in this process, writers will realize the personal benefit of becoming more grounded and more aware of themselves and the world around them. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts:

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.”

As writers, our “consciously chosen goal” is to write characters with depth that take our readers to places they otherwise would not go, to connect with them, to make meaning of life. Imagine the difference we can all make by enhancing our ability to get into flow, to access the depths of our subconscious and render more complex and meaningful stories while simultaneously enhancing our own sense of well being.

What do you do to achieve flow?

 

 

 

 

Fall in love with your characters

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You know what it’s like. You’re chugging along with a story, all’s going as planned, the wheels are turning and placidly moving you and your characters forward so you’re in the flow and the outside world has fallen away and this imaginary world you’ve invented is sparking every one of your senses and you’re not even aware of time and then all of a sudden

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A character has stopped listening to you. She’s veered off and has yanked you from your creative cocoon with the thin, silver cord that tethers you together. At first, after you’ve regained some sort of cognizance about what’s happened, you let her go. You want to stay open. Magnanimous. But then it starts to become clear. She won’t – or can’t – do what you had in mind.

You might start to feel confused. Frustrated. Angry, even. But if you know anything about interpersonal relationships, you know the best way to scare off another person is to use anger or control to muscle them into doing what you want. And you don’t want to scare away your character. You don’t. Because if you do, she’ll sink deeper into your subconscious, cross her arms, and you’ll be caught in writing purgatory.

Sometimes writing isn’t just about putting words on the page or screen. Sometimes it’s about stopping and having a heart-to-heart with one of your characters. The way you would someone you deeply care about. Someone whose heart you want to know and understand.

We have to be in love with our characters the way we’re in love with our kids, with our best friend, with our partner or spouse. If we can’t love our characters this way, if we can’t know and understand their hearts, we’re not going to be able to tell their stories with the unflinching and honest integrity they deserve. Even if they’re exhibiting behavior we don’t understand to show us their dark and secret wounded selves – and maybe especially then – it’s our responsibility as writers of their stories to make them real, no matter how unreasonable or shameful their actions or motives may be and no matter their role in the story. We are their mouthpieces, the purveyors of their humanity.

This means we have to be able to love even our antagonists. We have to become the interpreters of their soul path in life, even if their behavior is despicable. We have to help our readers see the humanity in our characters because life – especially in fiction – does not happen at opposite ends of a light vs. dark spectrum.

When you take the time to discover the deeper reasons why your character is laughing instead of crying at her mother’s funeral, why she lies or hurts herself and those around her, why she can’t stand up for herself, when you climb inside her skin, sink into her psyche, and enter her heart, you become her, and when you become her, you’ll learn what she’s afraid of. Chances are, whatever you find there might just apply to you, too.

And this is the thing about writing fiction. It makes you vulnerable. And you have to be vulnerable if you want your characters to be vulnerable. Just as in real life with real people. And with that vulnerability comes compassion. And with compassion comes a deeper understanding of people and the human condition.

And with that, you’ll be a better writer.

And a better person, too.

 

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Do you have a character who needs clarity?

What’s her/his name? Who is she/he?