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Posts Tagged ‘Writer Resources’

photo by Ed Yourdon

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)

My GWW creative writing 101 is on the home stretch and will soon approach the finish line. I’ve submitted my last assignment for peer feedback — not without heart palpitations and butterflies launching attacks on my stomach. A couple of good comments from my classmates assuaged my anxiety, but I wasn’t as lucky as some other students who received a “whopping” number of comments – three! (Peer feedback was something I’d really missed in this class.) After the instructor provides his comments on our stories, the course is officially over.

Usually when a course ends, I feel proud that I’ve made it that far and accomplished something worthwhile along the way, but this always comes with an immense sense of relief: pressure’s off, no more poring over textbooks, no more burning midnight oil, trying to get things done by a looming deadline, or at least not until I decide I really need to take some other course. In that sense, CW101 is a refreshing change — I just don’t want the course to end! At the beginning of it, I was enthusiastic, yet dubious about my ability to write a single sentence that could remotely qualify as creative. And despite my misgivings, I fell in love with fiction writing. I am still unsure whether the love is reciprocal. Will I ever be?

So, what’s next on the horizon? GWW offers an online fiction course that spans 10 weeks (with CW101 it was only six), which I will likely take with the same instructor, Chip Livingston, who’s been very supportive and responsive and provided really good feedback (in a sense that his feedback was constructive and helpful.) But that’s almost a month away. Meanwhile, I’d like to go through the CW101 lectures and do some of the suggested exercises that I didn’t have the time to complete during the course, and – fingers crossed – I’ll have enough time and motivation to keep writing.

All in all it was a great course, well worth money, time and effort spent, with a lot of useful tips and inspiration.

Six most important lessons learned:

  1. Treat writing like a job: show up (preferably every day), write on schedule and toward a goal (word count is a good place to start)
  2. Read and learn (any piece of writing, good or bad, can teach something, but good literature is the best source of learning)
  3. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to new experiences and ideas
  4. Assume that the first draft is never good enough – write and re-write, then edit more
  5. Make it a goal not to be good, but to get better, draft by draft, piece by piece
  6. As with any creative pursuit, have fun!

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“… the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.” Dorothea Brande

First, please allow me to explain what morning pages are. In a nutshell, it’s a form of premeditated self-torture — of a sophisticated kind, mind you — for refined individuals like you and me. That is if you look at it from a psychological point of view, because the scribbling of morning pages occurs, as the name suggests, in the morning, first thing after you get out of bed. You wake up 15 -30 minutes earlier than your normal routine (in my case it happens to be 5 am), drag yourself to your kitchen table or your desk, whichever is nearest, and scribble away for 15 minutes while still half asleep. From a technical point of view, it’s free-writing at its finest – as free of inhibition (and sometimes intelligent thought), as a nudist is free of clothes on a nudist beach.

Why not call it journaling then, you might ask. Because there is one significant difference between morning pages and a journal. With the journal, there is no limitation as to when you can write in it. The morning pages, however, must be done in a zombie-like limbo state, before your waking mind hijacks your full attention, and your inner critic starts punching you in the face and kicking you in the butt. Your main objective in this pre-dawn ordeal is to keep your hand moving across the page for a set period of time, writing anything that is not complete nonsense.

Like in free-writing, you write whatever comes to mind, as fast as you can, without giving it too much thought, and you, or your inner critic, are not allowed to correct. That’s why my MPs look like notes of a mental patient. I don’t know about other morning scribblers, but I am never able to decipher what I’ve written afterward. And that works just fine, because you are not supposed to read what you’ve written anyway, at least for several days. But even after several days, I am not inclined to read my MPs, lest I lose heart and  claim those extra minutes of sleep. All I read is usually the title of the previous page. Today it happens to be “Day 59.” Tomorrow, the title will be “Day 60.” No need for dates or re-reads. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps, that’s the best way for me to keep my overactive critical faculty at bay, at least for a short while.

Another rule with MPs that will make you scream is regularity, meaning you are supposed to write your MPs every day seven days a week. I break this rule every once in a while. So what? Do I look like a superwoman to you? I didn’t think so. But writing MPs for 59 days, almost straight, is an accomplishment I am proud of.

By now you must be pretty intrigued. You must also be thinking I am obsessive-compulsive or downright crazy, otherwise WHY on earth would I do it? Well, crazy can’t even begin to describe it. My psychiatrist said… Gotcha! 🙂 Actually, contrary to common sense, writing MPs helps me maintain emotional balance. It is also partially responsible for this blog and my creative writing pursuit.  My morning page challenge convinced me that MPs are a powerful inspiration machine, a perpetuum mobile of creativity. Try it and see it for yourself. The trick is to stay with the challenge for more than 35 days straight, 40 to be sure. It may vary for different folks though. Some say it takes 21-28 days to form a new habit, while others say the magic number is 66. I say 40 days, because this is when I began to feel the effect.  Before the MP challenge, I would sit at my desk, staring at a blank page and asking myself,”What should I write about?” Now, my question is “What should I write about first?” Before, I couldn’t drag myself to my computer to write and would come up with all kinds of excuses, like the need to do the dishes right this moment, or walk the dogs, or make dinner. Now I have to curb the time I spend writing, because dishes need to be done, the dogs walked, and dinner made.

Of course, writing MPs alone won’t make you a new Chekhov or Proust. Not right away. But it will help you establish a habit that you will be thankful for for the rest of your life as a writer, artist, and a creative person.

Just to make one thing clear before I wrap it up. As you might rightfully suspect, I didn’t come up with the idea of morning pages myself, and I resisted it for quite some time. I made three attempts at it over several years, but each time I would quit after seven days of writing MPs. I’ve learned from my mistakes and finally found the format that works for me: I do it in longhand, there are no computers involved, because when I use a computer I tend to re-read and correct what I’ve written. I also write no more than 15 minutes on weekdays, because I don’t want to be late for work, and a little longer on weekends.

Three books that gave me this wonderful crazy idea:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge

And if you are a morning scribbler yourself, I would love to hear about your experience.

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Taking creative writing classes has been my longtime desire, but until recently I haven’t had the courage to act on it. Unlike many aspiring writers, I never claim to have wanted to be a writer ever since I learned my first letters. Although I remember writing poems in secret. Once, in a summer camp, I wrote a poem and put it in my drawer; another girl found it and said it was no good. My feelings were hurt beyond measure. After that I only wrote poems-parodies and shared them with a few friends. I even attempted to write a sci-fi story and sent the manuscript to a youth newspaper — the story never got published. Over the years, I’ve come to think of myself as a “visual” person, rather than a “word” person. But life happens, changing the way we see the world and our place in it. So here I am, hooked on writing at 44, venturing into the wonderful world of fiction not as a spectator, but a storyteller. And, oh boy, is this fun!

I am now two weeks into Creative Writing 101 offered by Gotham Writer’s Workshop. It’s an online course, and my classmates and instructor are all connecting from different locations and time zones. Once a week, we receive a lecture and, using a discussion board and live chat, discuss among ourselves what we’ve learned. Our weekly material also includes an array of writing exercises for practice and one assignment that we turn in by the end of the week for instructor’s feedback. The course is well-paced and fits into my busy schedule nicely. It gives me enough breathing space, so I can focus on my writing assignments without feeling overwhelmed or pressured. Although it’s still early in the course, what I’ve learned so far has already changed the way I read fiction. I began to pay more attention to the aspects of language and storytelling that I often took for granted. In that sense, I can say my reading experience has acquired a new dimension and is becoming more enjoyable the more I learn about creative writing process.

What I find especially enticing about this course is an opportunity to learn from a master of the craft. My course is led by Chip Livingston, author of Museum of False Starts; his next book is slated to come out this spring. Without doubt, I am impressed with Chip’s accomplishments, but most importantly, I appreciate his leadership and active engagement in the class. I also find his timely feedback on our assignments invaluable, unlike some other programs I took in the past, where I had to wait for instructor’s feedback for weeks.

To my utter delight, Chip kindly agreed to do a short interview for this blog. I think it might be of interest to those of you who are passionate about writing. I also think it is only fair to give you an opportunity to take part in it. So, you are welcome to submit one or two questions about writing (via comments to this post) that will be used in our interview with Chip. Questions in the interview post will be properly attributed with a link to your blog, or to your Twitter/Facebook account, in case you don’t have a blog. Below I included one of Chip’s prose poems from his Museum of False Starts book, which he shared in our class.

I am also planning on sharing more of what I learn in the class in my future posts (within Gotham’s guidelines, of course.)

Stay tuned and I look forward to your interview questions!

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Yesterday my father was dying
by Chip Livingston, Museum of False Starts

Yesterday my father was dying, and he asked me why – in a voice so hoarse and dry I had to lean in close to hear him – why I flew two-thousand miles.  I asked myself: about the odor from the cracked shell of his skin; about his breath, which smelled as if he’d crawled from underneath the house, or drifted up from ocean’s depths, like the one I flew across, only to borrow the truck he could not drive, and race to a gas station for cigarettes, when I had not smoked in years.

I sit out on his front porch swing, another thing untouched since I’ve been here, and watch a trail of ants raise a cricket from the ground.  Paralyzed, swollen, and I hope numbed, she drags her egg stick on the cement like a broken magic wand, her feelers twitching uselessly as they lift her up and carry her – like the clumsy paramedics hauled my father to the funeral home.

We’re all alone, I thought, that cricket and my father’s wife and me.  And we can’t grasp what carries us.  It isn’t grief, at least not mine, that moves us to another’s house, for days or weeks, a time of strangers leaving chicken made in casseroles, and frozen, labeled with dates, names, and numbers, like toe tags, so we know where to return the clean dishes and Tupperware.

I sit and smoke and stare in space, watch the insects scale the bricks, not knowing if the cricket laid her eggs, or where the ants will carry her, or if I give a damn what they do with my father.

How would I know what he wanted?  I wasn’t here, and we weren’t close. His wife should know better than to ask me if I care if she buries him in her hometown three states away; or if she keeps the urn; or if I want to share his ashes.

Though, maybe I do.

There is a hint of rain in this morning’s humid air, and the ants have moved the cricket to the concrete’s edge, where she teeters before falling in the weedy flower bed.

I find their nest.  The sandhill’s higher on the western side to keep the rain from rushing down and flooding them.  The hole, too small to fit the carcass underground, is perfect for a final cigarette.

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A "blocked" writer

Photo credit: OkayCityNate (Creative Commons)

I bet every writer — from a student working on a school paper to an accomplished master of the art — can confess to have been depressed, intimidated, or even enraged at least once in his or her life by a blank page. This nasty phenomenon, the paralyzer of thought, the loser of productivity, the miss-er of deadlines, the knott-er of stomach, the bringer of misery, and destroyer of hope is known as writer’s block. Just writing about it gives me the willies. It’s like Cerberus, the mythical multi-headed hound guarding the gates of the Underworld, except in this case it keeps vigil over a well of inspiration. “No trespassing. Beware of mutant dog. Muses, keep out.” (more…)

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