Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Dreams

Not easy to find the balance, for if one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being. —May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

People who record their dreams and goals are better able to achieve them. They are also happier and healthier. Record your visions, dreams, and goals for the New Year. Sometimes the best way to do this is to complete a sentence repeatedly until you run out of ideas. It may take five minutes (or more) to discover what you really want.

Try completing these sentences:
*In the New Year, I want to give up . . .
*In the New Year, I want to take on . . .
*In the New Year, I will write about . . .
*In the New Year, I will rock my life by . . .
*In the New Year, I will strengthen my body and spirit by . . .
*In the New Year, I will work to change my world by . . .

A word of warning—this kind of dreaming can change your life! Try it and see what happens.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Reading Day

In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.  . . .  If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. —Nicholas Carr, The Atlantic, 2008

In Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains, Carr confessed, “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” In the article, Carr noted that he had lost the ability to read for hours. After reading just a few pages of text, his mind would wander.

I’ve noticed the same problem when I read and write. And, like Carr, I attribute it to the amount of time I spend online, taking in information. I’ve tried to keep strict boundaries between my writing life and the Internet. I don’t go online until I’ve finished my daily writing. I won’t leave open my email or
Twitter and Facebook feeds while I work— even if I am doing a relatively boring task. I don’t use my smart phone to surf or text in the car, when I exercise, or when I am with family or friends.

That said, I spend hours online every day. Whenever I need a piece of information for an article, I do a Web search. I read a good amount of research and creative writing online. I frequently visit social networking sites. In the evening, watching television or reading a magazine, I’ll frequently go back online to get more information on something I’ve read. Thanks to smart tags, many of my magazines now interact with online sites. By the end of the day, I experience what I call cyber-induced monkey mind. Long after I’ve turned off the computer, my brain is flitting between ideas and my long list of tasks. This impacts my writing.

I don’t know about you, but my writing depends on quiet spaces to think up and spin out ideas. For that reason, I am taking a reading day twice a month. On those days, I pretend I am on vacation. I do not check email, update my Facebook status, or check in on Twitter. Instead, I sit in my favorite chair and read. In between pages, I jot down quotes I want to remember. In between chapters, I daydream and nap a bit. At the end of the day, I feel rested and less anxious about what I need to produce.

Writers, give yourself the gift of a reading day. Reading offline will deepen your writing. Time away from your work and the computer will refresh you. New ideas will take root inside of you. When you return to your writing desk, your attention span might even be a smidgen longer! Now that’s something to celebrate!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Purposeful Fallow Time

Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the ploughshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring. —Henri Frederic Amiel

I reached my National Novel Writing Month word count on Friday, November 26 and, on the same day, jumped into an editing project with a pressing deadline. I planned to use last Friday morning to finish the editing project, work on my Web site redesign, and write several of these tips.

It was not to be. I could not focus. I could not find a topic. I could not get interested in writing anything! Instead of lamenting my laziness, I decided I was simply tired. My brain needed rest. Instead of writing, I grabbed a book and a blanket and nestled into the couch.

Writers, we cannot produce work 24/7. We need to have both fallow and productive times in our writing lives. We understand what it means to produce work. As writers, we work hard to stay productive and get published. But what does it mean to engage in fallow time?

Farmers regularly let fields lie fallow. The old saying goes, “Farm the best. Conserve the rest.” Allowing a field to be fallow for a season or two prevents soil erosion, provides food for wild animals, and prepares the land for future plantings. Yet, when demand for food is high, farmers can be tempted to forgo the fallow field and farm all of their land.

As writers, we need fallow time, too. Sometimes when we think we are experiencing writer’s block, we are really tired. We need rest. We need time to step back from the relentless pressure of producing finished work. Time away from constant deadlines prevents us from producing work that is boring and predictable. It provides time to explore and nurture new ideas. The time away can also prepare us to launch a new project.

For many writers, fallow time just happens. We finish a big project or a series of small projects, and we stop writing for a time. Or, we hit the holiday season, and we do not have time to write. People and life demand our attention, and we give it. Soon, months have passed, and we have not written. But we also have not rested.

Our writing would be improved by introducing purposeful fallow time into our lives. We can practice fallow time for a day each week or a week each quarter. During our fallow time, we purposefully engage in activities that help us to recover from the relentless pressure of daily deadlines. We read, rest, and gather inspiration. We might walk or write in a journal. We may go to the movies in the middle of the day. We might even bake bread. At the end of the time away from work, we feel rejuvenated and ready to write again.

This month, I will be exploring some of the ways writers can use this purposeful fallow time. Tune in next week for more ideas about how fallow time can bring you inspiration!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What You Can Learn from NaNoWriMo Participants

National Novel Writing Month ended on Tuesday night. Those of us who were NaNoWriMo winners finished writing our 50,000-word novels in a month or less. But all of us who wrote are winners. Anyone who did their best to amass a crazy amount of words in a month is a winner to me. Congratulations.

Several years ago, I interviewed NaNoWriMo Winners by email. Every writer can learn something from the success of these writers. Here are my favorite tips:

1. Busy is not an excuse. In fact, many of the NaNoWriMo Winners keep  chaotic schedules. Winner Elizabeth McKinney from Winston-Salem wrote her novel while also writing professionally for her full-time job. Winner Nicole Gustasa from California said, “Not only did I finish National Novel Writing Month last year, but I did it while I was moving, finalizing my divorce and working a 60-hour a week job!” Never whine about being too busy to write. If you want to write, you’ll find time to write.

2. No MFA? No problem. Many of the wannabe writers I meet put off their  writing careers until they can get more education or experience. Don’t wait.  Educate yourself by reading and attending workshops. Get experience by writing.  Winner Susan Drolet said, “When I actually finished an entire novel, I realized  that you don't have to be a professional writer or have a degree in journalism to put words together to make a coherent story. I am so proud of my accomplishment!” 

3. Success creates success. All the NaNoWriMo winners I talked to were proud of their 50,000-word accomplishments—and they should be. NaNoWriMo success boosted the winners’ writing confidence and spilled over into other areas as well. Winner Kristine Augustyn said, Because I actually completed the novel I feel that I can do many more things. It has given me greater confidence and inspiration and in turn I have inspired others to try things. Kristine gained the confidence to start a new business, Badge of Intent. For me, the discipline of writing supported my daily discipline of walking. 

You don’t need to be a National Novel Writing Month winner to know what successful writers know. Take a look at your own writing successes. Perhaps you committed to and finished a journaling program. Maybe you got that first big article published. Or you kept your commitment to write every day. Good for you! Now ask yourself, “What practices led to that success?” Make a list. Do more of the same—and you will be more successful. It’s that simple.