Write Through This: Strategies for Writing About Real-Life Conflict and Tragedy

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The first time I ran across the Garrison Keillor aphorism “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material” it immediately resonated with me because it so succinctly summarized how I feel about being a writer.

The upside of being a writer is that it’s impossible to ever be bored. You can write about washing dishes, or standing in line, or watching paint dry. It’s all material.

Another perk is that the best material is often found in the downs of life’s ups and downs. Being a writer means you can actually take perverse pleasure in all the hellish experiences of your life—the vacation disasters, the bad breakups, the medical crises—because as bad as they are to get through at the time, you know they’re going to make a good story later. But while some things quickly go from nightmare to comedic gold—like the trip where the airline lost my luggage and I ended up at a hostel that was straight out of Dickens—other subjects can be trickier to handle.

Your job with the boss and co-workers you can’t stand (think: The Office) might be a rich source of material, but everyone knows that writing about work might get you fired. Writing about family and friends is another touchy subject—as much as you might like to relate the wacky hijinks that ensued at this year’s family reunion, even lighthearted teasing has the potential to hurt feelings. So while writing about your dysfunctional family might seem like a great idea in theory, contemplating the potential repercussions can be enough to cause an epic case of writer’s block.

For other events, it’s not the consequences of what you might write that cause the block, but your own reluctance to revisit a painful event. The loss of a loved one, the battle with a life-threatening illness, the lifelong dream that didn’t pan out—all of these events beg to be written about, but at the same time can be so distressing to revisit that you perpetually avoid doing so.

And while we writers know that risky or heartbreaking material can be the most worthwhile to write about—and the most interesting to read about—if we can only get over our blocks, compounding the dilemma is not knowing how to approach these momentous events. Because the things that touch each of us most deeply are often the same things that impact others, many of these topics (e.g. birth, love, death) have been written about ad nauseum. As such, it can be all too easy to slip into clichés, and it’s not an insignificant concern that you’ll end up sounding cheesy when you’re aiming for profound.

While a straightforward personal essay or memoir might seem like the logical way to approach real-life material, if that’s not working for you, why not switch things up and try something different? Here are some suggestions for approaching difficult topics:

Background Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use a pseudonym. Writing under a fictitious name might be for you if your primary concern is the potential consequences of having your writing connected with your everyday self. This approach is popular with academic bloggers who want to connect with other teachers/professors, but don’t necessarily want their students (or employers) reading their blogs. If you’re serious about keeping your identity under wraps, in addition to changing your name, you’ll also want to leave out (or change) other identifying details: names of other people, cities, schools, places of work, etc. The downfall of this approach is that it can be unsatisfying for readers: the more you leave out, the more difficult it becomes for readers to understand what you’re talking about and connect with your experience.

Keep a journal. A private journal is a good option if fears of repercussions are preventing you from being as honest and open as you’d like to be. Do what you need to so that you can write without censoring yourself: buy yourself an old-school diary with a lock, write “Private! Keep Out!” on your notebook, or password-protect your Word document. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by “simply” keeping a journal. Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to fill notebooks for two years before trying to publish, and while you may be beyond this stage, there’s nothing preventing you from “just” journaling about this particular topic, while still working on other projects for publication. Later, your journal may form the basis of a personal essay or memoir. Or, it may become a project in itself—many writers have published excerpts from their notebooks or written books on the writing process based on their journals. What you write now can always be used later.

Wait. While some people have the gift to write about a traumatic event while it’s happening, not everyone is so self-possessed. When you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, the last thing you may want to do is sit down and craft a narrative arc. If you’re afraid you’ll forget important details if you don’t write them down right away, a dayplanner is a low-stress way to keep track of events—you can annotate existing reminders and tuck in accumulated ephemera to create a reference you can look back to when you are up to writing about it. Another reason to wait is that sometimes time is needed for context and perspective. Most childhood memoirs aren’t written until the writers have some life experience behind them (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, for example, was published when she was 36). A memoir written too soon—without the experience to sympathize with the viewpoints of others in your story—may come off as narcissistic and shallow. Simply being observant and waiting for the pieces of your story to click into place in the short term can result in a story with more depth and nuance in the long run.

Try another medium. Sometimes you know what you want to say—but the words aren’t coming together. Working visually rather than verbally engages a different part of your brain and may make it easier to tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need to be an artist. You can draw, paint, take photographs, collage pictures from magazines… whatever works for you. Comic strips are a natural medium for writers since they bridge writing and drawing, and are amenable to simple drawing styles (see xkcd, for example). Working visually is also an alternative to consider if privacy is one of your concerns. Karen Walrond initially kept a journal-style blog to document her daughter’s adoption and first years of life, but was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her daughter as she got older. Instead of giving up blogging entirely, she started a photoblog. By posting photos, she was able to continue documenting her life and family in a way that was comfortable for her. As time passed, written commentary crept back into her posts, and the latest incarnation of her blog incorporates both text and photos (which demonstrates that comfort levels can change over time—so listen to yourself and be willing to adapt).

Write in installments. Beginning to write about a life-changing experience can be daunting, but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once. Another alternative is to write your story as a serial—in the vein of comic strips and soap operas—adding a little bit to the story with each installment. Despite Wired declaring blogs so 2004, they are well-suited to this kind of writing. If you blog you’ll probably also end up with an audience, particularly if you commit to a schedule (weekdays, three days a week). This may sound scary at first, but the feedback an audience provides can be a great incentive to keep writing through the hard parts—a big bonus if you’ve had a tendency to give up rather than pushing through when the writing got tough. If a blog seems like too much of a blank canvas, you might try Twitter (you’re limited to 140 characters per post) or join the 100 Words challenge (write exactly 100 words each day)—or set up your own parameters.

Alternate topics. There’s also no rule that you have to stick with the difficult topic exclusively until you finish with it. Give yourself a breather: write about it, then write about something else. These things might be closely related or more loosely tied. Maud Newton‘s blog is primarily about books and writing, but she has been researching her family history and occasionally posts photos and family stories. Anderson Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge intersperses his own personal tragedies (the deaths of his father and brother) with the tragedies he has witnessed as a reporter. Interspersing personal drama with more prosaic material can also prevent a memoir from becoming too syrupy—and perhaps attract a wider audience. For example, you might alternate revisiting your grandmother’s favorite recipes with your memories of helping her cook, creating something that would appeal equally to people who like to cook and those who are interested in your grandma’s life story.

Beginning at the beginning. Instead of jumping right into the dramatic event, go back—way back—and write up to it. When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband, Hugh, was dying, she wrote Two-Part Invention. The book starts with their different childhoods, then how they met, and progresses through the various stages of their marriage, until she gets to Hugh’s illness. Saving the drama to the end not only eases the writer into it, but has the benefit of creating added poignancy for the reader. If you’re writing about a death, in particular, taking time to build up to the loss gives your readers a chance to get to know your beloved family member so that when you do get to the sad part, they will share your grief—in other words, instead of thinking, “I’m sad for you,” they’ll actually be sad. This recent newspaper story isn’t a first-person account, but uses this technique very well.

Write a song or poem. With poetry and lyrics, you can focus on impressions rather than details—a good option if what’s important is capturing the emotion of the event rather than preserving a step-by-step account. It’s also a good way of dealing with an event that might come off as overly sappy or cliched if you document it exactly as it happened. This approach also allows for readers/listeners to have their own different interpretations of the event depicted. For example, the Spirit of the West song “Goodbye Grace” is actually about band member Geoffrey Kelly’s son who was born prematurely—the “Grace” of the song is a hospital, not a person. However, unless you’ve heard him tell the story, you might have a completely different interpretation of the song, the chorus of which goes: “Goodbye Grace / There are no words I’d rather say / Than goodbye Grace / Never want to see your face again.”

Take an informative approach. Taking a more neutral (journalistic/academic) position may help you to be able to write about a challenging topic. Instead of focusing just on your own personal experience, take the pressure off by seeking out the accounts of others who shared a mutual experience (as with a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane) or who have had similar experiences (as with an illness or loss of a family member). Poet Anna Evans recently had a series of medical issues that she thinks were precipitated by the kind of birth control pills she was taking. Evans is working on a memoir about her experiences, but is also soliciting the experiences of others who have had similar problems.

Fictionalize. Although true stories are the trend du jour, fiction can be just as (if not more) compelling. Inserting a narrator between you and your story can make your story easier to write; it enables you to distance yourself from your own pain and see the story from different points of view. Fictionalizing also allows you to fill in details that are unknown or that you can’t remember without resorting to the dreaded fake memoir, and can lessen many of the concerns that writing non-fiction raises (offending people, potential backlash, etc.). For example, after summering at a law firm, Jeremy Blachman wrote Anonymous Lawyer from the perspective of a hiring partner, rather than a memoir from the perspective of a law student. (Ironically, however, before Anonymous Lawyer was a book, it was a blog that many people believed was non-fiction.)

These alternate approaches can work simply as exercises to get the words flowing—or you may find that what results turns out better than the project you originally envisioned. Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on your purpose for writing and who you’re writing for, as well as what your concerns are with writing about the topic in question.

Final Poll Results

Resolve to Evolve as a Writer

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings, was the figure at the center of one of Rome’s oldest cults. It makes sense that the first month of the Roman calendar is named after this mythical ruler of gateways, transitions and change. With one face looking forward and one looking back, Janus, like his namesake January, reminds us that we can improve future possibilities based on what we have learned in the past.

The tradition of resolving to change aspects of our lives also makes sense as we usher in a new year each January. However, resolutions, being the firm decisions they are, are not always the best match for creative souls involved in the creative process, where a little more Eureka!-like unpredictability can be expected (and hoped for).

Yes, decisions need to be made, and acted upon, for our writing endeavors to become finished projects and realized goals. But you might want to carry some of that original Janus mystique with you, too, as you pass through the gateway to your 2008 writer’s life. You can do more than make a resolution—go for an evolution.

If you resolve to evolve as a writer, you’ll be seeking the gradual process of change into a better form, and undertaking the process of adaptation, growth and development. It’s essential that you use the backward-looking face of Janus, to assess where you’ve been and how you’ve gotten there, and at the same time use the forward-looking face to search for new horizons and keep an eye on your destination.

Here are some basic evolutionary concepts that can help you make firm decisions about your writing. A bit of introspection combined with realistic goal setting will help you meet the demands of your life’s priorities without sacrificing the personal aspects of your artistic growth.

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Aspire. To evolve, we identify a need to move onward, toward a new or better form. To what do you aspire, as a writer? Answer this question first and foremost.

If you can’t comfortably speak of your aspiration, or if your answer is along the lines of “I feel I was meant to be a writer, but it seems impossible to achieve,” take some time to look inside yourself without pre-judgment. (Also, look at that last sentence again, and remember, they say everything after the “but” is baloney.)

Consider this inspirational quote by Marianne Williamson, which was used with great effect in the movie Akeelah and the Bee: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. … We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world.”

You need to use that forward-looking face. Try journaling a page of possible aspirations, without regard for plausibility or likelihood. What do you want? Tell the truth. (Don’t be sorry about it!) Own your answers—it’s the “new or better form” you need to be moving toward.

Perhaps your goal is long-term and large, or vague and hardly manageable. If it’s something like “I aspire to have a short story published,” then make sure your aspiration is followed up with a list of smaller steps leading you down that path. It’s a lesson that bears repeating: specificity is your friend when you have admirably giant dreams. Big desires are totally allowed, but they need breaking down into actionable bits. Look behind to where you’ve come from to arrive at this door, and while planning your ultimate destination, imagine the steps you need to get there.

Questions to help you express your aspirations:

  • What would you do with your writing if you weren’t afraid?
  • If nothing were stopping you (including your doubts, your education, your finances, your job, and so on), where would you go with your writing?
  • Exactly what kind of work do you aspire to have published (or published next)?
  • Have you already started writing a story you believe in, and need to get back to? What’s stopping you, and what can you do to work around that obstacle?
  • Do you need to take a class and brush up on the basics of you chosen genre? Should you consider new organization for your yet-to-be-accepted work, to make it more saleable?

Resolving to become a published author is admirable, and it is doable for many people. But evolving into a writer whose work gets published is different. What kind of writer will you evolve into, and what does that kind of writer look like? Whatever your aspiration, you’ll need to guide yourself through the landscape with a route and a plan.

Questions to help you act on your aspirations:

  • When will you write? How often? How many words or on what deadlines?
  • Where will you write? What tools will you use? Can you create a better working environment for yourself, say, by investing in new software, keeping paper files for queries, or creating a cache of internet bookmarks for next month’s research projects?
  • How will you write? Recreationally, enjoying writing for writing’s sake? Inspired by a social element, such as heading out to club meetings, or finding an online writing buddy?
  • For whom will you write? Have you identified a potential market or two for your next project? Do you have all the facts you need about submissions organized, at the ready? Will you only write for pay, on assignment?

Your aspirations are nothing to fear, nor is asking yourself the questions, even the tough ones. There are no wrong answers—in fact, honest answers will help you succeed.

Succeed. You might think this step seems out of order, but it’s not. Evolution is gradual. We need to make changes, and we need to keep going.. For many writers, just getting started is the hardest part. For some, it’s building momentum, for others, it’s the dreaded finishing. In every case, success breeds enthusiasm. You’ve dreamed it, now do it.

Don’t be fooled by the word success—it’s not defined by accomplishing your ultimate goal. Success according to Webster means “the gaining of something desired, planned or attempted.” You get to choose what that something is. Your successes are up to you! Maybe you plan to write for an hour on Tuesday. Do that, and you’ll have your first success. Perhaps you long to attend a weekend writer’s retreat next summer. Make your reservation, and you’ll have another success. With those two successes under your belt this week, you’re sure to have new enthusiasm for your research day on Friday. After all, you’ve been going strong all week!

It can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re working on a goal that seems distant, or largely out of your control, such as becoming a professional writer or selling a screenplay. But if you can succeed in doing something specific, that you yourself desired, you will have that enthusiastic edge. You’re proving to yourself, step by step, that you can do what you decided you needed to attempt, and that’s exciting! It’s a successful manifestation of your aspiring mind. Your writing life evolves as it learns that you are making good use of it. It improves, and so does your outlook, and that confident optimism attracts your effort, and then guess what? Your writing improves, too. Now that’s success.

Adapt. Perhaps the toughest aspect of the making and keeping of any Resolution is the part about how life happens. Try. Try again. Tweak as needed. There, that might work.

We aren’t walking around with fish gills anymore, and we now have these handy opposable thumbs. We aspired to move onward, we tried out some smaller steps, and many of them succeeded. Then, we adapted according to the challenges we encountered on, and the efficiencies suggested by, our new path.

When researching this article, I learned that male genitals are actually not in the best spot, biologically speaking. It all descended a long time ago, as part of a species-wide evolutionary experiment. The body learned that the testes would indeed be physically better off it they were tucked back up behind the urethral tube on the inside, with the pubic bone providing a sort of automatic athletic cup. However, the sperm would not survive there. Now, isn’t that something? One face looking forward, one looking back, right there at the doorway of how man might best adapt to go about populating the earth.

How does this apply to your writing pursuits? Well, you will need to be willing to keep up on your gradual development, consider new alternatives, and still morph into the writer you aspire to be, even when stuff happens. Because, it will. If you’re stuck at what feels like a roadblock, don’t despair, and don’t give up. Just change your mind about your approach. Adapt to find something that works better for you. Transition may take a day, a decade, or stretch out over an entire adulthood. The secret to making positive changes is to… (hang on to your hats here) make changes, for the positive.

Grow. Doors and beginnings. Firm decisions about moving forward. Adapting to a new, better form. Looking behind, looking ahead. Grow, to fill your own writing shoes, for your own gain.

Growth is so individual, it’s not easy to advise on. It starts where you are at, includes where you’ve been and what you’ve found there, and it never ends. There is always unlimited potential for you to grow into and out of the various phases of your life, facets of your self, and areas of your desire. If it all seems too abstract, or these types of introspective concepts leave you wondering what you can actually accomplish as a writer, try this one simple exercise to get your creative juices flowing and your writing self growing.

“Act As If” Exercise (write out answers to any or all of the following):

  • If you were the writer you want to be, what would you do? Like, right now, specifically, what would you do? Would you stop reading this article and go write? Would you call your mother and ask her advice on being a writer? Would you meditate? What? Write all of it down. Then, turn it into your To-Do list.
  • Tomorrow, what would you do? Next week, every week…what about the next time you have a three-day weekend? In the summer? When you have a spectacular idea that you just need to get out of your head and onto paper?
  • What would you do with your writing files? With your unfinished stories?
  • How would your desk look? Your reference library? Would you be learning more about a specific subject or two?
  • How would you arrange your time, if you were already the writer you want to be? What sacrifices would you make? What priorities would never change?
  • What would your book jacket bio say?
  • Would you have a website?
  • Would you read more?
  • Would you keep up on publishing trends?
  • Get an advanced degree?

Your To-Do list will be as individual as you and your goals are. However, every list will always contain one element, no matter who you are or what kind of writer you’re aspiring to be: you will have to delve further into, and extract more out of, your own possibilities. After all, if you are not yet the writer you wish to be, then you have some growing to do in this regard.

Both evolution and resolution will support your growth quite nicely.

“I dwell in possibilities.” —Emily Dickinson

Final Poll Results

Dash Your Dreams: A Guide to Finding Happiness as a Writer

Absolute Blank

 By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Once upon a time, I worked with a bunch of people who disliked their jobs. One guy had figured out the exact number of days left until he could take early retirement. Each morning he would wander in and say, “2,524 days until retirement,” and the next day, “2,523 days until retirement,” and so on. Another guy was a Constant Complainer. Every time he walked in the room, he had something new to complain about. He hated everything. He was miserable. His life was passing him by. He constantly talked about what he would do when he retired (he was only in his mid-40s). One day, frustrated by his constant whining, I asked him why he didn’t do something about it. Look for a different job, go back to school. Something. Anything. “Oh, I can’t do that,” he said. “I’d lose my pension.”

My co-workers weren’t oppressed laborers with no marketable skills; they were educated professionals. If they had really wanted to change jobs or even careers, they could have. But of course, they were never serious about making a change. They were dreamers, and pessimistic ones at that: the kind of people who claim that they want to do this or that but at the same time have umpteen excuses why this or that is not, and never will be, possible. If somehow they had been magically transported to the place that they claimed they wanted to be, they would have found something new to complain about. That’s the thing about dreamers: they’re never satisfied.

Well, they might not have been going anywhere, but I sure was. I moved on, but took with me a valuable lesson: I have no right to complain about things that are within my power to change unless I am actually doing something to address the situation. Not going to do anything about it? Shut up about it, then.

Shortly thereafter, I joined an online writing community and the rest, as they say, is history. Since that time, both at the site where I started out and here at Toasted Cheese, I’ve witnessed many people—who started out just like anyone else, posting and critiquing on forums—achieve various successes as writers—publishing short stories, embarking on MFA programs, writing books, etc. Some have had novels published. I’ve also seen many people who never seem to make it past the newbie phase, who remain perpetually stuck at “I want to write” or seem to have only ever written one piece that they re-hash repeatedly. The difference between those who can confidently call themselves writers and the wannabes is no big secret: the writers write. Wannabes are dreamers. Writers are doers.

Now, I’m not going to tell that you should be writing. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Unless you actually have a deadline to meet (do you?), no one cares whether you write or not besides you. There’s no “should” about it. However, if you talk about writing more often than you actually write and perhaps continually feel guilty about that or if you’ve come to view writing as a necessary evil to be endured because somewhere along the line you put “write a novel” on your life goals list or if your writing is so stagnant that your plan for the year consists of buying lottery tickets (when you win, you will rent a house in Tuscany, be inspired by the food, and write a book about it—oh, wait, that’s been done…), I encourage you to stop, take some time to reflect, and think about why this is so.

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There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason.

An excuse is an obstacle that you put in your path so that you don’t have to do something you claim you want to do. Switching jobs might have set my complaining colleague back a little, but no one was going to take away the contributions he’d already made to his pension. That was an excuse, not a reason, for his inertia.

The major difference between reasons and excuses is that reasons are temporary, while excuses are forever. Let’s say you fully intend to do NaNoWriMo this year, but while taking your kids trick-or-treating, you slip on some ice and break your arm. That’s a legitimate reason why you might not meet your goal as planned. But that broken arm only postpones your conquering of NaNo; it doesn’t prevent you from ever winning.

“I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” are not reasons; they’re excuses. This isn’t to say that you’re not tired or busy. You probably are. But unless there has been a recent, unexpected change in your life, you knew how tired and busy you’d be when you set your goal. And you also probably know that tired and busy aren’t going to go away any time soon. If you really wanted to accomplish what you say you want to, you’d figure out a way to make progress despite being tired and busy.

Unlimited time to write is not all it’s cracked up to be.

One thing I realized when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time is that having only a little free time to work with is a blessing, not a curse. For one thing, it forces you to organize your time. If you want to write, you have to put it into your schedule and do it at the appointed time, otherwise it’s not going to get done. If your entire day is free, it’s too easy to say, “I’ll write later.” For another thing, when that time’s up, if you’ve kept your appointment, you can cross “write!” off your To Do list and forget about it for the rest of the day. No guilt and a sense of accomplishment. What could be better?

A lack of time is rarely a valid reason for not writing. What we really mean when we say that we have “no time” is that we’re brain dead, we can’t think straight, we would rather just veg out in front of the TV or the computer or read a book or go to bed. Which is fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s your life; do what you like.

But be honest with yourself: if a vast swath of uninterrupted writing time dropped into your lap, would you use it in the way you dream you would? How many times have you taken a writing project with you on vacation only to bring it back in the exact same state it left, justifying your lack of progress with: “I deserve a real break.” Again, you probably do. But if writing is something you truly want to do, think about why—given unlimited free time—you’d still rather be doing something else.

Passion for the journey is more satisfying than passion for the destination.

Often people who express dissatisfaction with writing seem more enamored with remote possibilities (acclaim, wealth, fame) and perhaps the mystique and accoutrements (pens! notebooks! black turtleneck sweaters and geek glasses!) of being a writer than they are with the actual writing process. It’s fine to want to emulate your favorite writers (or their cinematic counterparts), but when you nestle into that comfy chair at your favorite coffeeshop and pull out your laptop, is it to open your work-in-progress or check your email? Do all your daydreams segue from first lines to book signings? If that’s the case, then perhaps you find the image of The Writer more appealing than the reality of being a writer.

To become skilled at anything, you have to practice. Putting words down on paper is a writer’s practice. Yes, it can be arduous at times, but we do it anyway—even when we know the entire day’s work will end up in the recycle bin. Sometimes you have to write 500 words of crap to get 50 good words; that’s just how writing goes. And on some level, you have to enjoy this, even as you’re tearing out your hair or pacing away from your keyboard in frustration.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas are or how much you want to hold a finished copy of your work-in-progress in your hands, if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you’re going to eventually burn out and do whatever you can to avoid it. If this sounds like you, ask yourself: Why do I want to write? When you “should be” writing, what are you doing instead? If you enjoy whatever that is more than writing, it’s quite possible that your passion lies elsewhere. It’s also possible that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for writing because you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Fiction is not the holy grail of writing.

Not every writer’s talents lie in fiction, yet nobody puts “write a feature-length article for The New Yorker,” much less “write a weekly gardening column for my hometown newspaper” on their life list, they put “write a novel.” The pervasive sentiment is that novelists are the real writers and everyone else wants to write a novel but just hasn’t got around to it yet.

This is silly. There are plenty of talented writers who have never written a word of fiction and have no intention of ever doing so. This doesn’t make them lesser writers. Have you been trying to write in a particular genre—be it fiction or poetry or something else—and it’s just not working? Instead of beating yourself up about it, try writing something completely different. Keep trying new things until you find something that clicks.

If you are a writer, something will click. The words will flow better; the sentences and paragraphs will be easier to arrange. Sure, you’ll still have moments of frustration, but writing time will become something you look forward to rather than dread. If, on the other hand, you still find yourself spending more time doodling pictures in the margins of your spiral notebooks than writing, consider the possibility that you’re really an artist at heart.

Writing is work, but it’s not scrubbing toilets. You should get some pleasure out of it. If the thought of writing makes you miserable and all you ever do is complain about it, then something’s not right. Stop and take the time to figure out why you are dissatisfied. You’re not a prisoner chained to your laptop. Take charge of your writing life and change what isn’t working. Finding happiness as a writer is within your power.

Final Poll Results

The Writer’s Notebook

Absolute Blank

By J. Walke (jaywalke)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ll begin with a confession: I have a stationery problem. It started small, ring binders mostly, but as the years went by I began to hit the hard stuff: leather covers, gilt edges and heavy stock. I had outdoor journals for writing in the rain, little pocket cheapies for a quick thrill, and others so pretentious they refused to go out of the house unless I wore my blazer with the leather elbow patches. All of them, however, shared the same difficulty—they arrived empty. That creamy blankness daunted me like a young boy facing a centerfold. It was beautiful and I knew I was expected to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. So, the fear of creating something trite or useless kept me from writing anything.

It took a Rorschach test to snap me out of it. I received an expensive journal as a gift and refilled my fountain pen to write something inspiring on the first page. I hovered too long and a drop of ink fell, creating a blot that soaked through to the second page. It was ruined. It was a catastrophe. It was a giraffe with a glandular problem. Turned sideways it was the profile of an angry woman. She set me free. Since the beautiful blank page was “ruined” I had permission to fill it without worrying about how it would look. I had finally gotten past the notion that I had to write something worth reading every time my pen touched paper. My notes would never see publication, at least not in a recognizable form. That is what the drafts are for, and the time at the computer. The purpose of my notebook became collection rather than creation.

Background Image: Garrett Coakley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Do me a favor. Take out your notebook (I am assuming you have one, be it gilt-edged or not). Lay your pen across the top. Now put a screwdriver and a hammer next to them. They are all simply tools. Do you lament the screws unturned, the nails unpounded? Perhaps you shouldn’t sweat the words unwritten. They are everywhere. Say it with me: “They are everywhere. “Life offers you a multitude of truth at every turn, but (and here is the magical part) it is your job to capture it. Best of all, there are no rules on how you go about it! No grammar, no spell-check, no outline necessary and it need only make sense to you. Just grab them; the bits of conversation, snatches of reality, pieces of pain. Scribbling and doodling are encouraged. Write down story ideas before they evaporate, argue with yourself, list life goals, books to read, and what you need from the grocery store. Cut out a page with a penknife to leave a love note on your significant other’s windshield. Write imaginary letters to Attila the Hun and your favorite auntie. It is just a tool, and you can’t use it incorrectly unless you try to be someone you are not. A straight read of your notebook may well get the relatives together for an intervention, but you can’t worry about that because it is not for them. It is yours, and you are busy pouring ink onto your life to preserve it until you need it.

Let me elaborate on that last thought. Imagine a canvas. It’s modern. If you mailed it, it would be post-modern. It’s white, objectively speaking, with no frame. Closer inspection reveals three tiny red dots lounging in the upper left corner. Can you see it? Now, answer a question for me: Is it still a white painting? Why? Do the red dots make it red, or do they simply point out the whiteness? This is the part in the show where you ask yourself: What does this have to do with writing? The point, if there is one, (and I think by this point we all hope there is one) is that miniscule dabs of color can create art. Just as a few red blotches can make you realize the value of white, a few drops of reality can ground your fiction in a manner impossible by imagination alone.

That is where my notebook serves me best. I steal dots for my art. When I see things that move me, or read or hear words that are alive I try to capture them in scrawl. Here’s a representative puddle of my brain leaking onto the page:

  • NYT printed on leftover cockroach DNA
  • 45 billion billion molecules in one cubic centimeter of air
  • energy is liberated matter
  • chiropractor’s office: purple carpet, lime green walls, stuffed rhino collection, elevator music—”Please sign in and get ready for a superspectacular adjustment!”
  • graffiti on a newspaper machine—”LIES”
  • graffiti on a telephone switchbox , white paint only one foot off the ground—”Mutate or die”
  • heard from one aisle over – “You best stop messin’ with them snack cakes. You know I’ll whup you in the grocery store.”
  • “Laughter is the psychical discharge of energy.” —Freud.
  • Ducklings following their mother across the busy road during commute. Confused, scared (anthropomorphism), trapped on the concrete median. Wanted to stop. Hesitated and went on. I can’t stop thinking about them.

Any of these could be the basis for a story. It is obvious, for example, that my home town has some opinionated gnomes with spray paint. Even if the bits do not stand alone, they are grist for the mill of other works. It is not the normality of life that is memorable, it is the strangeness. Which character is more vivid: the drunk, bald man in a white sweater, or the drunk, bald man who eats the dip at a party by scooping it up with his hand? [That little tic, by the way, is courtesy of a fellow at college who was possibly raised by raccoons.] The important thing is that they moved me, and when I finally sit down to write I want to use them to move my reader. They are the notes that ring true and convince the reader that they are indeed listening to a fellow traveler on this wobbly voyage.

So, here is the homework assignment: take a notebook with you everywhere. Carry two writing utensils. Live with your senses wide open, and when something makes you laugh, cry, vomit, love, hate, bridle, sweat, whatever… write it down. Do it for a week. Then sit at your computer and leaf through the ramblings. Ignore the chocolate smears and drops of… is that blood? Where have you been? Never mind, never mind… just give it a shot. Remember, you can’t be wrong. Now get out there and do your job—collect some truth.

I can’t promise this will work for you as well as it does for me. There are no guarantees. However, even if it doesn’t work, look on the bright side: you have a neat new notebook and you have finally stopped eating dip with your hands.

Final Poll Results

Starting Will Always Be Hard: What Running Taught Me About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In April 2002 I started running again after a long hiatus. This summer, I ran in three 5K “races.” I didn’t set any records, finish first, or even win my age group. But it was an accomplishment that I’m proud of nonetheless.

Now, I’m sure that there are more than a few people who upon reading that first paragraph thought, “That’s it?” Yup, that’s it. You see, the idea of entering an event before I knew I could run the entire distance without walking was as much of an anathema to me as the idea of soliciting agents with a half-finished first draft of a novel. I wouldn’t do it. It’s just not the way I operate.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never do things quickly. I’m a slow runner—it takes me 30 minutes to run 5K, about twice as long as the fastest runners—and I’m a slow writer. I will never churn out three novels a year. Angst and perfectionism are real speed bumps. But that’s okay. It may even be better than okay. When I get discouraged at my pace, I like to remind myself that the tortoise won.

The point is, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Other people’s ways of getting to the finish line may appear more efficient, but you’re always going to be slamming up against roadblocks if you try to emulate a way of being that you’re uncomfortable with. Stumble often enough, and you’ll probably quit. It’s human nature.

Background Image: Peyton Smith/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Consider this: the prevailing philosophy amongst the running crowd is that beginners will quit unless they join a group, that it’s impossible to start running and keep it up on your own. Notice I didn’t say difficult, I said impossible. Lots of people really believe that. Lots of people would be wrong.

Like the idea of running with a big sweaty talky group of people who are probably all faster than you? I didn’t. It made me cringe. You just know that someone would be designated to hang back and “cheer” you on because if you’re at the back of the pack that automatically means you’re having difficulty, right? Well, no. Sometimes it just means you’re slow. And then there was the fact that most of these groups seemed to meet at 8am Sunday mornings. Um, no.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of socially ingrained notions about what “good” behavior is. Everyone’s heard tales of people who get up at 5am to write or work out. What dedication! Getting up early is touted as the sign of productivity. Staying up late? Well, that’s merely decadent. Not to mention, you must be procrastinating if you’re leaving something to the end of the day.

Well, I won’t deny that I procrastinate. I do. But that’s beside the point. The point is: Don’t try to be a morning person if you’re not. No, really, don’t. This is huge. If I had tried to be an early morning runner, I doubt I’d have made it a week. I’m stiff in the morning and I need at least one cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. Instead, I usually run in the early evening, before supper. At that time of day, I look forward to it. This is key. The same principle applies to writing. Schedule your writing time so it’s something you look forward to, not dread. You know when you’ll be most productive. Don’t fight it; work with it. Setting the alarm an hour early just so you can hit the snooze button six times isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Now running, being what it is, is subject to the weather. There are always going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the summer that means it’s too hot; any other time of year that means it’s too wet. This is the West Coast, after all. And there are days when I think, “Bleh, I don’t want to go out in that.” But you know, shit happens. Deal with it. Running when the weather is inclement is what differentiates a real runner from a dabbler. So it’s hot or wet. Go anyway. Of course there are limits. It would be stupid to run in lightning or extreme heat. Similarly, if you’re sick or injured, it’s okay to take time off. The important thing is that if you do have to break an appointment—for a valid reason, not a mere excuse—you have a plan in place for getting back on track.

Just as a real runner runs in any weather, a real writer writes even when uninspired. If you’ve made an appointment to write, keep your appointment. Maybe all you’ll write is crap that day, but so what? Everyone has bad days. At the same time, if you do miss an appointment, let it go. Don’t dwell on your “failure”; concentrate on making the next one. Developing a routine is great, but even more important is being able recover from an interruption to that routine.

I mentioned dabbling. Before I restarted running, I tried cycling and swimming and yoga and hiking and well, you get the picture. Before I restarted writing, I did much the same thing only with photography and graphic design and such. These things were fun; I enjoyed them; some I was even quite good at. But the problem with trying keep up a multiplicity of activities even when they’re fun and you’re good at them is that ultimately they’re all unsatisfying because you never feel like you’re getting anywhere.

However, sometimes it’s precisely that dissatisfaction that’s the kick in the butt you need to quash your inner dabbler and make a decision. What’s your passion? What do you really want to do? Focusing means putting some of your other activities on the backburner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do anything else. Cross-training is great; it keeps you from being bored, it exercises different muscles. But cross-training is different from dabbling. With cross-training the other activities support your vocation; they don’t overwhelm it.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to focus on, keep it simple. When I started running, I wore an old pair of shoes, old T-shirt, old shorts. I did not dash out and purchase an entire wardrobe of hi-tech running clothes before I’d lifted a foot. There’s nothing more dorky that the person who’s all kitted out but completely inept. You can start writing with a nothing but a pen and a piece of looseleaf. Or type, if you prefer, but don’t worry about special software; Notepad works just as well as anything to start.

And just as a beginning runner should concentrate on breathing, gait, and pace, not looking pretty, a beginning writer should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and spelling and tell stories in a standard, straightforward format, not waste energy developing her “style.” Once you’ve mastered the basics and proved your commitment, you can add to your wardrobe—or your style repertoire—as necessary.

One mistake that beginners (at anything) almost always make is to set goals that are too lofty. Start small. Set realistic goals, that is, ones you know you can meet. Otherwise, you’re just sabotaging yourself.

When I started running my first goal was to run one minute, walk one minute five times. Doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I could do it. And because I’d planned to run-walk, walking wasn’t a failure; it was part of the plan. Once that was easy, I set a new goal, and so on. I also made it a rule that if I ran one day, I got the next day off.

Which brings me to: schedule breaks. I knew if my initial goal was “run 5 minutes,” I could probably do it, but I’d be exhausted and flopping all over the place by the end. By running in intervals, I maintained my form throughout and I felt a lot better about my performance than I would have if I’d pushed straight through.

If you’ve set aside one morning a week to write, instead of planning to plant yourself in the chair for the entire three hours, plan to take regular breaks, say write for 15 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes. But I’m on a roll! That’s great. Stop anyway. When your break is up, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to write next and you’ll be eager to get back to it.

And speaking of goals: Don’t rely solely on external gratification. Set goals you have personal control over. As a runner, I set goals to run a particular time or distance, not to finish in a particular place. Placing is completely dependent on how others do—you don’t have control over it. That’s not to say it isn’t nice to finish in the top whatever, but take that as gravy, don’t make it your goal. Like I said, my goal in my first event was to run the entire distance. I did, and that’s a big deal considering two years ago running one minute was arduous. Sure it took me a while to get there. But I did, because I set achievable goals along the way.

Achievable goals: Write for 1 hour on Saturdays. Finish this short story by the end of the month. Enter 3 contests this year. Query 20 agents about my novel. On the other hand, “Get my novel published” is not. I mean, yes, of course that’s what you ultimately want, but unless you have a lot of clout, you can’t make someone publish you, and if you’ve set that as your goal, when you’re rejected (over and over) you’re just going to end up frustrated. Whereas if your goal was to send the queries, you can think more along the lines of, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”

What is next? Well, like my running events, your first brush with publishing is likely to be something small: a story in an ezine, an article in a newspaper. And I’ve noticed that people have a terrible tendency to downplay these accomplishments: “just a little magazine” “just paid in copies” etc. But yeesh, how do you think most writers started? Getting a big advance for one’s first novel with no previous credits as unlikely as picking a marathon as your first event and running it in under three hours. You need the “little” credits. They’re perfectly legitimate and they’re important. Don’t damn them with “justs.”

When I ran in my first event, I ended up right in the middle of the pack. The middle! I’m sure no one has ever been happier to find out she was average. Of course, with running, average exceeded my expectations; with writing, I expect more, but the truth is, whatever the game, most of us are somewhere in the middle—maybe a little above, maybe a little below. That doesn’t mean we should give up. You can be successful without coming in first, without being the best writer ever, without writing the Great [insert country here] Novel. It’s okay to simply be good at something. The current media trend to label everyone who doesn’t finish first a “loser” is ridiculous.

If it matters to you, do it, even if no one else cares or they think you’re silly to keep at something that seems so hard. Running is hard. Writing is hard. But that’s why they’re so rewarding. If they came easily they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Probably the most important thing that running has taught me is that no matter how long you’ve done something and how much you love it, starting will always be hard. Start anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never get to experience that moment when everything clicks and you’re sailing: your feet are flying across the pavement or your fingers are smoking over the keyboard. And afterward, when you’re done? Well, that feeling is sheer euphoria.

Final Poll Results

Unblock Thyself

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Writers are emotional. In fact, we strive to put that emotion into words and transmit our feelings to others. We do it as often as possible and we love doing it. It is our sacrifice for our art and we pay the price with each carefully constructed phrase and each coyly placed period.

But every emotional well sometimes runs dry. Like a drought, we feel our strength is sapped and our will to carry on and through is gone. We have given and given and now we feel have nothing left to give.

Background Image: Sharon Drummond/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Perhaps it was nothing more than a bump in our story. We can’t think beyond the character’s next move or we can’t see beyond the poem’s next line. We can no longer see the finish line and we’ve lost our way.

Perhaps it was a rough critique. We bled on the pages, and they were torn to shreds by uncaring claws of the jealous and the snobbish. Our readers misunderstood what we were trying to tell them.

Perhaps it was the real world intruding into our creative world. Cries from our children, our spouses, our parents, and our siblings: they all need attention and they need it right now. They demand the writing be set aside in favor of them; that the bond you have to a piece of paper is nothing compared to your love for them.

We know we must move past these obstacles, but we can’t find a way. Here are a few ideas that might just help you push past your emotional block and get you back to the work you love.

Story problems can be overcome. It doesn’t seem like it right now, but they can be. Set the work aside and work on something else. Try writing something fun, something without real ‘meaning’. Take a writing class. Write in a new setting. Write every possible outcome for the situation your work is stuck in, choose one, and move on. Believe you can do it, and you can.

Critiques are meant to help. Read them a once, then set it aside for a few days to think about it. Read it again and analyze it. Did the critique mean to harm, or to help? Which parts do you agree with? Which do you not? Discard what you can’t use, accept what you can, and adjust the work accordingly. Chances are it wasn’t as mean as it originally sounded; someone was just trying to help.

Real world issues are a lot harder to deal with. Find a good friend and pour out all your woes and maybe even have a nice cry. Write in a journal or diary and shed your emotional trials. Talk to your family and friends and be honest about the importance of your writing and ask for compromises and find solutions. Be true to yourself and to your writing, and find a way to work through it.

If nothing seems to be working, try riding the wave. If you feel sad, play depressing or wistful music for a few days and just sit and stare at the walls. If you feel uninspired, read a book or two or three. If you feel stupid, watch insipid programs on television, like game shows or soap operas, until all hours of the night. If you feel drained, take a day trip or an outing.

When you feel up to it, open your work. Heck, open it when you feel like you never want to see it again. You might find it the most interesting thing you’ve seen in days. Perhaps something you saw or did sparked an idea you didn’t know was there. Perhaps the solution to the problem presented itself. Perhaps you gave up finding the perfect phrase and found instead the phrase that worked.

There is no shame in taking a break from writing. Just remember to come back.

Final Poll Results

‘Tis better to have written…

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

“The first key to writing is to write, not to think.”
—from “Finding Forrester”

I am a banker.

At least that’s the technical term for my 9-to-5 job, working for one of the world’s largest financial institutions. All day long, I sit in a cubicle, just another mindless drone in a Dilbert world.

In my heart, though, I am a writer.

I haven’t been published, save for a few non-paying e-zines. I don’t write for the glory. I certainly don’t write for the money. So why do I write?

The answer is something I borrow from one of my college professors, something that just rang so true that I’ve kept it with me all these years.

I write because I must.

Background Image: Karin Dalziel/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had stories inside me just bursting to come out. In elementary school, it was being stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In junior high, it was a soap opera about my friends’ angst-ridden love lives. And now, everything around me begs to be written down.

I have notebooks filled with ideas, fragments of stories begun in my computer. I have endless first lines and last lines, just waiting for me to sit down and complete them. I have a little notebook in my purse, and I’ve been saying for years that I was going to by a mini tape recorder, to grab onto the thoughts as soon as I have them.

Every now and then I finish something. And this past year, I’ve even managed to submit a few for publication or competition. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but a few nicely worded but stinging rejections.

The problem is that I let myself go for long lapses without writing anything at all. The solution, really, is simple. I need to write—to find whatever time I can, and write.

“But I’m tired,” I whine. “I don’t have time to write.”

I go to work every morning at nine, come home around six and make myself dinner. Some nights I watch a favorite TV show, or hang out with my boyfriend. I clean my room, chat with my roommates, call my mother. Anything but write. In fact, here I sit two days before this article is due, cursing myself for volunteering to write it.

The one thing that comforts me, somewhat, is knowing that I’m not alone. In his book If You Can Talk, You Can Write, Joel Saltzman addresses the problem.

“Strange as it seems, writers love to bitch about writing and they will do anything to avoid it. They’ll check the mail, do the dishes, check the mail again-anything to not have to sit down and actually get to work.”

We all do it. We all make excuses. But the fact of the matter is this: the only way to be a writer is to write. Stephen King wrote his first two novels in the laundry room of his double-wide, after teaching high school English all day. John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill longhand on yellow legal pads during courtroom breaks.

In order to quit whining and start writing, we need to figure out what’s stopping us. I know for me, one of the biggest obstacles is fear; the fear that I won’t be any good. What if I try and I fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do? This fear manifests itself as “negative self-talk”. In other words, we convince ourselves that we’re no good before we even get started. If we want to get anywhere, we need to shut off our internal editors long enough to write something.

Another common obstacle, which Saltzman addresses in his book, is the drive to be perfect, to “get it right the first time.” His advice? Insist on not being a perfectionist. Too much focus on getting it perfect results in writing paralysis. No one gets it right the first time. Even award-winning authors have to rewrite.

It’s simple, really. The more we write, the better chance we have of writing something good. In Saltzman’s words, it’s like this:

“Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.
Blah, blah, blah……GOLD!”

Write a whole bunch. Write some more. Then throw out the crap and keep what’s good.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he advises us to set aside a place for writing, and to be willing to shut the door and write. Writing is a job, and it needs to be treated that way. As King says, “don’t wait for the muse.” Just keep writing.

Does it take discipline? Patience? Sure it does. Doesn’t anything worth doing? But once we start writing, I believe we’ll find it’s easier to write than to NOT write.

So next time you sit down to write, do these things:

  1. Shut off your “inner editor”
  2. Don’t try to be perfect
  3. WRITE!

Everything else will come with practice.

Now maybe we’ll never be as rich and famous as King or Grisham. Maybe we’ll never win a Pulitzer like Toni Morrison. But at least we’ll have written. And for a writer, having written is the best feeling in the world.

Everyday Inspiration

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I write a lot of unusual stories. For example, “Freedom Dance” is about a married woman desperate to leave a dance bar. Awash in a sea of pick-up lines and staggering drunks, she does everything possible to escape her situation while the crowd, and her friend, does everything to keep her there. The colors and sounds are alive and vivid in the story, the terror real and tangible.

Well, they should be. I was this horrified woman.

A single friend of mine hates to drink alone and wanted to try a “new” place. I’m a fairly game girl and went along for the ride. I ended up in a personal hell, and a writer’s paradise. I sat in a corner with a drink (okay, several) and wrote down every terrified thought, every sarcastic comment, and all the detail I could. Including how everyone stared at me as I wrote in my notebook.

Most stories come from real life inspirations like this. A random comment can become the plot for a murder mystery. An unusual landscape can be used as the setting for a fantasy short. An old man walking his dog might become a background character in a piece of literary fiction.

But where and how can YOU find everyday inspirations?

Background Image: Robert Parviainen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Write everything down. Have some kind of paper, and something to write with, with you at all times. Consider a pocket diary, a 5×7 notebook, a small amount of loose paper, a bunch of 3×5 note cards, whatever works best for you. Keep them all in the same pocket of your purse or handbag, so you can find them when you need an idea.

I have a blank diary, just big enough for my purse. It has a very permanent and literary feel to it, and it’s a lot harder to lose than a 3×5 card. Besides, it was a lot of fun to pick out one that reflects my personality. I use my pen as a bookmark so I know where the blank pages are, and where the pen is. When something strikes me, I can instantly jot it down.

Have an adventure. This doesn’t mean you should take the first flight to Brazil. Well, if you can fly off to a foreign country, go right ahead. The important thing is to get up from your computer or desk, and get out into the sunshine and the rain and the snow. Experience weather, traffic, crowds, and lines.

Take yourself or a friend out to coffee. Go to the library or your favorite bookstore and sit for a while. Visit friends or relatives at work or at home. Take a sandwich to the park or have a picnic at the zoo.

Don’t use your car. If you need to go across town, try using public transportation. Walk up to the store instead of drive. Ride your bike over to a friend’s house or up to the park.

Ask questions. Look at everything with wonder and curiosity. Ask yourself where people are going, what they will do when they get there, what is inside their bags and boxes, where they started out, and just what is their biggest problem? Try asking the same two questions for every person in the room, on the bus, in the car next to you, or wherever you happen to be.

“Why is this guy alone on the bus with two cans of Dr. Pepper and a coconut?” my notebook asks me. I can see him now, awkwardly juggling those two cans and shifting the single coconut around. From this simple question, I might get a great story, or a novel. I know I have a great joke already, or an anecdote I can somehow put into an article I’m writing.

Listen harder. Really hear what everyone around you is saying. Your friend makes a sarcastic comment. You overhear a pithy saying. A guy at the bar tells you a ribald joke. Put them all in your notebook. You never know when a single statement will spark off a story, but it sure can.

We found a broken and useless gun in a box in our attic when we moved into this house. The police were called and it was taken away for ballistic testing, “Just in case it was used in any unsolved murders.” As he stowed the item in his trunk, the policeman said, “How can anyone lose track of a gun? I know exactly where mine are at all times. It just doesn’t make sense.” He was appalled, but I was inspired. What if someone had MEANT to leave it behind? From his off-hand remark, I had a great story.

Look deeper. The best writing has realistic details and descriptions. Capture a beautiful sunset on the beach or the dirt and grime under a bridge. Describe your house, yard, or neighborhood. Write down what color shoes the woman on the bus wore, or how much makeup she wore.

Take a few trips back and forth into time while you are at it. What did that look like when it was new? How will it look to your children’s children?

“Freedom Dance” is about how a married woman perceived the bar. The neon glare and flashing lights, the too-short skirts and too-tight pants, and the wiggles and swaggers. If I hadn’t written down gems like, “The black pants, the white shirt, the black vest, the black cowboy hat, the red steel heart reflecting gently on his breast. The sheriff of love.” I couldn’t have captured the flavors of that bar and shared it with my readers.

Fear nothing. Don’t be afraid to write down anything you want, anytime you want. If it was funny, if it was cute, if it got your attention, write it down. Worry about how you “look” later.

Your friends will understand if you jump up and take down what they said. Heck, they will usually repeat it if you ask. They like to be noticed and remembered, even if it’s only in your notebook.

People will stare and wonder what you are doing, but they can’t read over your shoulder unless you invite them to. Or unless your best friend shows the notebook to the guys you were just describing. Remind yourself that the fellow with the coconut doesn’t know who you are, and won’t be calling you later.

Don’t worry about libel because by the time you are published, they won’t remember saying or doing anything of the sort. Don’t censor yourself because of a “what if”. It probably won’t happen.

Prepare yourself. An unusual activity, like writing, will generate questions from the crowd. It might be easier on your ego and psyche if you already have some answers ready to the usual questions. “What are you doing?” “Why?” “What have you written?” “Are you published?” “What kind of writing do you do?”

I answer with honesty if I can, and with a lie if I’m annoyed. “Writing a letter to Grandma,” can be less threatening than, “Writing down the fact that you picked your nose,” to a stranger. Especially if he happens to be dubbed, “The Sheriff of Love.”

Be inspired. Story ideas are all around, if you know where to look for them. So get up and get out. Bring a pineapple and treat yourself to a pina colada. Someone else will have the coconut.