April 28, 2010

Finding a Mini-Writing Retreat

Kathryn Haueisen Cashen wrote an article recently for Writer’s Digest called “Create Your Own Mini-Writing Retreat.” She defines a mini-retreat as a quiet place where you can write uninterrupted for a short period of time. It’s a great idea. I sometimes get away from my home office to write in my car near the lake, but after reading the article, I decided to broaden my options and write at someplace new each week. But where?

I began the venue quest a few blocks from home at a McDonald’s restaurant. It was just before 8 a.m., and I ordered an Egg McMuffin and a large hazelnut iced coffee. (Those things are huge! Have you tried one?) I settled into a booth in the back near the restrooms, I booted the laptop and started to write. A Mickey D’s employee showed up with a broom. “Could you lift your feet, please?” she asked. “I’d like to get at those.” She pointed. I looked down at my moccasin-clad feet and realized that they were planted on a handful of smooshed, catsup-covered fries. “So, what are you writing?” She handed me some napkins so I could wipe the catsup off my shoes. She said she was a poet and suggested that maybe I could help her get published. Just then, a school bus loaded with kids on a field trip showed up. Everyone needed to use the restrooms, and my mini-writing retreat flooded with the sounds of raucous teenaged chatter and constant flushing. Not what I had in mind for quiet creativity, so I moved on to Plan B, the public library.

The third floor of the library is the quiet floor. There’s not much up there except old reference books and some nice, comfy reading sofas. It was still early, and I was the only one there. Perfect! I chose a sofa near a window and started to write. I heard the elevator door open. Coughing. More like retching. It was heading toward me. Did I have my cell phone on and could I grab it fast if I needed to? The cougher was a greasy-haired, bearded guy who smelled like cheap bourbon. His clothes looked, well, let’s just say they looked slept in. “You gonna be here long?” He eyed my sofa which I decided was his. "I don’t think so,” I heard myself say. He stared at me with glassy eyes. “I’m just packing up,” I added, already stuffing my laptop into its bag. I got out of there in a big hurry. So much for Plan B.

Plan C was the local nature preserve. I wasn’t dressed for hiking, but I knew about a path in the woods that led to a quiet picnic table near a stream. I walked the quarter of a mile, and before long, I was writing peacefully surrounded by all kinds of nature. Now, anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m a nature nut. All I need to see is the edge of an unfamiliar fleeting feather, and I’m off on a mission to find out not only what kind of bird it is, but also the sound of its call, its summer and winter habitats and its migration schedule. There were plenty of birds in my retreat spot, and I needed to get up close and personal with and Google all of them. I didn’t get much writing accomplished, but I came away proud of myself for seeing several White-winged Crossbills.

So, here I am in my home office writing a blog post. I haven’t given up searching for an ideal, or even so-so, place for a mini-writing retreat. I’ll try again next week. Maybe then I’ll go to the new trout hatchery or the "Streets of Yesteryear" exhibit at the historical museum. The possibilities for distraction there are endless, but sometimes it’s distractions that breed ideas for great creative writing.

Where would you like to write?

April 13, 2010

Writing: Stages of Development

Over at Writer to Writer, Cec Murphey is wrapping up a ten part series on article writing. He ends today’s post with: When you say, "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development," you give yourself permission to stop.

In the youthful stage of my writing development I rarely said, “This is the best I can do.” Back then, I soaked up writing advice like a wheat field gulping rain after a summer drought. I sucked in every drop of classes, workshops and books about writing. I read novels and memoirs until my eyes burned. Hour after hour I struggled to emulate famous writers, never allowing myself to stop. What I learned from that stage was that when writers get too saturated with the craft of writing they risk over-revising their work. I didn’t know what I was doing back then. I followed all the rules. Whenever I wrote, I thought about the skillfulness of my writing. I might be halfway through a paragraph and then stop to rewrite it, naively editing out some of my best words.

It was years before I moved into the next stage of my development and separated creativity from skill. I discovered I needed to put craft and creativity in separate compartments in my brain. If I didn’t, the craft of writing threatened to swallow my originality and imagination. I decided obedience isn’t an admirable trait for a creative writer. Moving from one stage to another, I gave creativity its rightful place taking precedence over craft. I kept my hand moving and wrote from my heart allowing words to bleed out on the pages. My writing at that stage was raw and unrefined -- but in a good way. I knew when creativity had done its best. Then I buried the manuscript for a while. I gave myself permission to stop before I unleashed the craft to edit.

Today, as a freelance writer, I don’t have the luxury of stopping. Freelance work comes with tight deadlines and not enough time for manuscripts to set for weeks or more to be examined with pure eyes. At this stage of my development I give my best effort, but I hesitate before I hit the send button in my e-mail program and propel the manuscript off to a client. Is my writing good enough? Craft is the frontrunner now. I battle with creativity wishing I could let it out more, like in the old days, to run uninhibited. I'm still learning to say, "This is the best I can do," and let go.

We writers set boundaries allowing ourselves permission to write wildly from our hearts and also to stop and let things settle. In the editing process, we stretch, reach for fresh words and search for new ways to use them. We struggle to stop, often doubting that what we’ve written is good enough. We are works in progress. The one thing that never stops is the often surprising and unpredictable stages of our writing development. The American writer and editor D.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”

What have you learned from your writing stages? Can you comfortably say, "I've done my best," and give yourself permission to stop?

April 7, 2010

Ten Things Writers Can Do To Get Ready For Summer

Spring is here. It’s time to toss out the winter blahs and air out your office. Plan for the summer months with these ten spring housekeeping tips.

1. Weed out your portfolio.
Replace tired, old writing samples with fresh ones.

2. Update your resume.
Add recent projects. Don’t forget to include statistics if your books have sold well.

3. Revamp your writing space.
Cleaning your office is like a fresh start. Go through old files, and get rid of the clutter. Set up your desk near a window so you can enjoy the sights and sounds of summer. HGTV has some good tips for decluttering, cleaning and organizing a healthy workspace.

4. Overhaul your online presence.
Join LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Plaxo. If you're already a member of these sites, make sure your profile is up to date. Update your web page, or create a new one.

5. Make new contacts.
Commiserate with other writers through associations, message boards and social media sites.

6. Reconnect.
Look through your list of contacts. Reach out to say hello. You never know, a simple inquiry might lead to a summer writing gig.

7. Stretch beyond your comfort zone.
If you're stuck in a writing rut, plan to dabble in a new genre or take a summer writing class.

8. Brainstorm.
Make a list of topics that you would like to write about this summer.

9. Make a summer reading list.
Choose five books to read this summer. At least one of them should be about the writing craft. Try one of these:

On Writing, by Stephen King;

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan;

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser; or

Old Friend from Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg.

10. Find a summer getaway spot.
On warm summer days when you want to be outside, where will you go to write? Find one or more places conducive for summer writing. Put together a writing bag stocked with a notebook, pens and maybe even a snack or two. Keep it ready for those times when you need a quick getaway.

What other suggestions can you add to the list?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”