Monday, May 21, 2018

Craft Book: Writing Down the Bones

 As part of my dive back into writing, I've committed to reading a number of craft books this year.

The first book on my list is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This is a book I've read before, but it's been many years. I remembered loving it and being inspired to try to fill a notebook each month like she does, but beyond that I couldn't remember much about the advice in the book.

Upon rereading, I I found that much of the advice was still very useful to me, perhaps even more so then it was the first time I read the book. In the last several months I've taken up a meditation practice, so when I read Goldberg's words about writing as a form of practice it really hit home with me. Now, some days when I sit down to practice and I find my mind wandering I take up a pen instead and write in those moments when my mind feels totally distracted.

I found that the short chapters made it easy to either read one chapter or several at a time. What I would do is sit down at my desk with Writing Down the Bones and my notebook. I would open to the next chapter and read it and if that chapter inspired me I would begin to write, but if I felt less inspired I might read two or three chapters before I began to write. I approached these short one and two page chapters as mini meditations so I was able to decide when I would start writing based on what was going on in that chapter and if that particular essay was meaningful to me. Essentially, I used these essays as meditations in the same way that Goldberg talks about writing as a form of meditation practice. Not every chapter resonated with me I don't think that you can expect that every chapter will, but the chapters that did stick with me helped to push me over a hump. They helped to get me writing on days when I wasn't feeling it or didn't know what I wanted to say.

If you are at all interested in writing, in any form but especially fiction or poetry, I think this book can be a really powerful motivator. It's also just a fantastic reflection on the writing process and the reasons why we write and why we become writers. 

This book was written in the 80s so it occasionally shows its age, but I don't think that that takes away from the essential meaning of the text. For example, Goldberg occasionally talks about writing on a typewriter and to most people in the modern audience this probably seems foreign. However, I have a typewriter and I use it occasionally to write fiction. I enjoy the process although it is very slow and noisy compared to using a laptop. 

If you are a writer who is just starting out or you are facing some kind of writer's block, I would recommend that you take some time to read this book and use it as a reflection on your practice. You might just find that you learn something about your process and writing (maybe even about yourself) that you wouldn't have necessarily found otherwise. There are a lot of ways to reflect on your practice but this book offers many opportunities to do that. It's a beautiful book and it helped me write some of my draft that I'm working on right now so maybe it can help you too.

If you've read this book, leave a comment below and tell us what you think. I'll be doing more reviews like this as I continue my journey, so keep an eye out for those.

Friday, May 18, 2018

What I've Been Reading Lately

As you might have guessed, I LOVE to read. I usually have at least one book on hand that I'm in the middle of, though sometimes I have two or three. Since I've read several very good books in the last month, I thought I'd give a brief rundown of the standouts.

Brand New Books
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This adventure-fantasy young adult novel is incredible! It deals with heavy themes in a way that makes you want to keep turning those pages until the very end. The main premise is that Zelie, a diviner, is the only person in the kingdom of Orisha that can bring magic back, but she is racing against the clock and the kingdom guards who would like to wipe out magic completely. There is a lot going on in this five hundred page novel, which is the first in a series, but it is well worth the time it takes to read.

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire by John August
Like Children of Blood and Bone, this is a fast read, and the first in a series. Also like CBB, as soon as I finished reading this book I immediately passed it off to someone in my family who I thought would like it as much as I did. This is an adventure story about a twelve year old kid who discovers that the woods near his new home are magic. Something (we don't yet know what) is special about Arlo, so magical creatures keep trying to destroy him. This is a middle grade novel, but the adult characters have enough secrets and personality that adult readers won't be bored.

Awesome Audio Book

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
This book is fabulous! It is a comic novel that truly works. It's written as an epistolary novel, so I wasn't sure how it would go over as an audio book. As it turns out, it works quite well as an audio book. Hearing the emails and notes read out loud brings the story to life and often I find myself laughing out loud at moments in this novel. I'm sure that sounds hard to believe, because the story is about the events leading up to Bernadette's disappearance, as pieced together by her fifteen year old daughter, Bee. That's one of the things I love about this novel - it takes a premise that could be quite sad and turns it into a humorous and thoughtful commentary on modern life. I've read the book before, so the audio book is just icing on the cake at this point, but in the process of writing this post, I found out that there is a movie adaptation coming out later this year. I will definitely be seeing it in theaters.

What I'm Reading Right Now

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
I've been hearing this book mentioned casually in various contexts for years. Of course it is the basis for the movie Blade Runner, and the title is memorable enough that it sticks out when mentioned, but I'd never actually read it until now. I've only just started it, but it is certainly making me think about the ways that technology can change our lives.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Designing Your Own Writing Retreat

Photo by Owen Wassell on Unsplash

Once you've become at all established in your writing career, it becomes easier to secure a place in one of those fancy writing retreats where you're provided room and time to write, often with meal deliveries and minimal distraction from your art. However, if you're just starting out and don't have anything published yet which you can point to as evidence of your budding talent, you may need to take matters into your own hands. 

Here are the absolute basics that your need for a successful solo writer's retreat.

A block of time you've set aside for your retreat
The amount of time you set aside depends on a few things. What kind of project are you working on? Where are you in the process? If you're just starting out and you want to kickstart the process, a weekend can be the perfect amount of time. If you're later in the process and you need to make serious headway a week may be better. Other factors that might impact this choice are your day job and your family. If you have small children or a demanding job, it may be harder to get a whole week away. If you commit to an ambitious goal and stay focused, a weekend retreat can work wonders for your project.

A place to stay where you can be alone
Now of course the idea of a retreat is to be alone, so it's important that you have a place you can go where you won't be disturbed. If you're planning a weekend retreat, a hotel room in a city you're not interested in exploring can be a great choice. For a longer retreat, you may want to find a house or a cabin somewhere. Maybe a friend needs a housesitter, or you find a cheap Airbnb. For my own purposes, my family has a shared house near the beach that is often empty in the winter. I like to go up there in the off season to write and my family appreciates that one of us is checking on the house during those months. Win-win. The most important thing is that you're isolated enough that you can get some writing done on your own schedule.

A goal to work toward during the retreat
I find that this is particularly important. If I go off on my own to write for a while, I want to have something to show for myself when I come back. Think about what you want to produce during your time. 10 pages of poetry? 20,000 words of a novel? 2 chapters of a memoir? Act 1 of your screenplay? Pick one and work furiously until you get there.

Minimal access to the internet and other distractions
This is absolutely crucial. If you're writing a piece that requires a significant amount of research,  do the research before you go and make sure you have access to it offline. So often, we get distracted by the notifications and blinking lights on our phones that once we sit down to work, we completely lose our train of thought. Okay, well, I do anyway. That's why I deleted social media apps from my phone, turned off notifications, and keep my phone on silent when I'm writing. And that family house I mentioned? There's no wi-fi there.

A stockpile of yummy snacks
If you're going on a retreat, chances are you'll get hungry from all the furious idea creation happening. Studies show that sugar can give your brain a little boost when it's working hard, so make sure you have a little mix of sugar in with your otherwise totally healthy snacks.

Books to read and draw inspiration from
Definitely bring a few of your favorite books along. I like to bring a novel or two along with at least one craft book. I find that if I hit a rough patch in drafting, taking a break to reread a piece of particularly good writing can inspire me to get over that hump.

These are the absolute basics for what you need for a few days of serious writing time. Next time you have a free weekend, plan it out and see how much you can get done. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you can get done when you block out distractions and focus in on your writing project.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Recommended Podcast: Launch

I first heard about John August's Launch podcast through an ad on Grammar Girl,  so I had a feeling I would like it. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed listening to this podcast on my way to and from work everyday. 

John August is a screenwriter with many years of experience, and Launch is a podcast about his experience transitioning from adapting books into movies to writing his own book for children. The book is called Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire. It's the first in a series and well worth a read.

I'd been looking for a good podcast about writing fiction and being an author, so when I heard about Launch I thought I would give it a listen. Now, this didn't really fill my wish for a podcast about the writing process, but it was intriguing to hear about the side of writing I know less about - publishing the manuscript.

Each of the episodes of the podcast focuses on a different aspect of the publishing process - landing an agent/editor, printing the book, dealing with the specter of Harry Potter (he's writing middle grade fiction), choosing a voice actor for the audio book, going on a book tour. These episodes are quite engaging, but I found that it often felt like there were parts that were being glossed over. I kept wanting more information, and quickly found myself at the end of the season.

One reason that the podcast seems to move quickly is that for August the process went quickly.  As someone with a huge repertoire of films, he already had some contacts that were able to speed the process along. Does that mean the book wouldn't have sold without his name attached? I'd say no - I've since read and enjoyed the book - but it certainly didn't hurt him. He addresses this question in one of the episodes, and acknowledges that for someone starting out fresh the process may be different.

One thing that sort of gets danced around but never directly addressed is that the podcast itself serves as advertising for the book. For example in the Q&A episode, he answers a question about the sales and marketing team and talks about how in recent years publishers have tried to rely too heavily on authors social media profiles. He also talks about how this is not his first podcast, so he already has a fan base built up. 

I would be interested to see the numbers of how many people (like me for example) went out and bought this book simply because the podcast made it sound so interesting. I don't usually read middle grade fiction since I don't have children and I teach at the high school level, but I was curious so I bought and read a copy. 

If you're at all wondering what it's like to take a book from fledgling idea to finished product, I'd recommend you listen to this podcast. I enjoyed it and I think other aspiring authors will too.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Walk A Day Keeps Writer's Block Away

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the value of his morning walks in Walden, Or My Life in the Woods. In author interviews you often hear more modern writers admit that they take a stroll each day as well. Why? Because a daily walk is invaluable the creative process. 

Writing is an unfortunately sedentary job (unless you're like Ernest Hemingway and write at a standing desk) so it's important for your health that you get out and get moving once in a while. Sitting for too long has been linked to things like heart disease which are best to avoid if at all possible. So a daily walk will first and foremost keep your ticker ticking so you can write more fabulous words for the rest of us to read.

But a daily walk can also serve in other truly important ways for a writer as well. When you're out walking, you may not be distracted by other things like Facebook or Candy Crush like you would be in your office, so you can spend the time thinking about your project. Giving your ideas time to marinate while you're out on a walk will help you when you get back to your desk because you'll be itching to write down all the things you were just thinking about. 

On the flip side, sometimes your brain just needs a break. Maybe you've spent too long thinking about this project and you just need to space out for a bit. Going out for a walk gives your mind and body some time to decompress from the stress of trying to meet a deadline or smooth out a plot hole.

Most often when I go out for a walk in my neighborhood, I like to go without headphones. This allows me to listen for the sounds of nature, like a squirrel eating a nut or a woodpecker high up in a tree. Where I usually walk is along the river, so I have occasionally seen beavers and heard them chomping on branches. I like to pay attention to these moments so that I can add in those quite details to my stories when I get back to my desk.

As you can see, there are many ways to benefit from adding a daily walk to your routine. Scope out a route in your neighborhood, or find some bike or hiking paths close by and make it a point to take a walk each day. At the very least, try going for a walk the next time you find yourself stuck in your writing. You just may find a way to move past the writer's block once and for all.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Simplifying My Wardrobe

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Over the last several years, I've been making an attempt to weed things out of my life that don't hold meaning for me. Now of course there will always be things I have to do, and obligations I can't get out of, but I've been trying to be more conscious of what does and does not hold meaning for me.

Here's an example: for five years, I worked at a clothing store that as the years wore on became more and more deeply entrenched in the fast fashion model. We went from getting new clothes every five weeks to getting something brand new in nearly every weekly shipment. As our business model changed, I felt more and more pressure to be constantly shopping while at work, not only so that I could actively sell clothes to my customers, but also so that I could model the clothing in a more passive sales maneuver. The problem was that I saw no point in this constant attempt to keep up with the Joneses.

While all of this was going on, I was also in a teacher preparation graduate program that was giving me tremendous value. I didn't much care what I wore to those classes so long as I looked presentable and professional. Around this same time I was also getting ready to interview for teaching jobs and I knew that trendy clothing from my fast fashion job wouldn't necessarily impress potential employers.

So, I began simplifying and cutting down on the items that I was buying. I decided that I would not buy anything with a loud print and I would keep basic pieces to black, gray, white, or navy. Any items I already owned that met this criteria stayed in my closet. I took a look at what I had left and noticed that I had many floral print pieces, many pieces in shades of pink and red, and a variety of other pieces that didn't seem to go together and weren't necessarily flattering or attractive to me anymore.

I kept most of the floral prints and a lot of the pink and red items, along with one or two dresses in other colors for special occasions. Everything else I donated to charity or re-purposed the fabric. Ultimately, I found that the pieces I kept were high quality items made with natural fibers and since then I've tried to be selective with what I buy. I rarely buy new clothes now (about a year and a half since quitting my retail job) and when I do, I buy from retailers that don't use the fast fashion model. I try to only buy items made of natural fibers (cotton, wool, linen etc). (Of course I'm only talking about work and casual clothes here - gym clothes are a different story.)

Since I started this process, I have culled my wardrobe quite a bit, and I truly enjoy wearing all of the clothes that have made it this far. I haven't quite gotten to the Project 333 level and I'm not sure that I ever will. I like having choice and variety without feeling like I'm wearing the same shirts every week. That's not to disparage people who have participated in Project 333 and enjoyed it - in fact I admire their commit to simplicity - it's just that I know I would feel too constrained by the limits of that project.

At the point I'm at right now, I have choices I like in my closet and there's almost always an outfit that jumps out at me in the morning when I need to get dressed. I don't have to think about what to wear, but I also don't feel confined to wearing certain items over and over again.

For me, this work has been freeing because it has allowed me to remove things from my life that aren't important and it's given me room to add things that I like better. Since January I've been meditating for ten minutes every morning. In part, I am able to do this because I have cut down on my clothing choices so it doesn't take me as long to get ready in the morning.

Not only do I feel more in line with my values in terms of the clothing I wear, but I've been able to add meditation to my routine which helps me clear my mind in anticipation of the day.

On my journey toward simplicity, I started with my wardrobe because it was the thing that felt like it was taking up my time and mental energy, but this may not be true for everyone. Find the thing in your life that's taking up the most time and energy without delivering true meaning and see if you can't cut back in order to make time for what truly matter to you.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Recommended Podcast: Grammar Girl

If you're at all interested in writing, then chances are good that you've either heard of or listened to the Grammar Girl podcast. 

If you haven't listened to it, it's a show about language,  etymology, and grammar (duh!). The episodes are short and informative without being overly formal. I like it because it gives quick little tips and bits of trivia that help me improve my work as a writer.

I've been listening to the podcast recently for two reasons. One, because I want to improve my own writing in the hopes of publishing soon. Two, because I am currently teaching a writing class and I want to be well informed for my students. So far I've learned some interesting things and had a few things cleared up for me so that I can better teach my students. I've even occasionally assigned an episode of the podcast or a post from the blog as homework.

One thing that I don't love about the podcast is that some segments are written by other contributors and when that's the case it is generally not announced until the end of the segment. As a listener I feel a bit mislead when I get to the end of a segment and find out that it was written not by the creators of the show, but by a listener like me. This is a small thing though, because the valuable information provided by the podcast is easily verified by other sources and the segments that make it on the show are generally very well-written.
If you're interested in writing well and learning some linguistic trivia to share at parties, I strongly recommend you listen to this podcast. 

Never stop learning!