Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Changing Comfort Zones

It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life. ~ Anne Lamott

It's easy to stay in the same place. You know exactly what to expect. From yourself and others. But when you get too comfy, you tend to get complacent, even lazy. When you go beyond your comfort zone you wake-up to your talents, desires, potential, often in ways you never could have imagined.

In a recent writing workshop, an adult student who hadn't written anything beyond a business report in over twenty years, surprised herself by creating a moving piece in just twenty minutes. But it took a lot to get there. First,she had to overcome years of trepidation just to join the workshop. Then she had to conquer her fears to write spontaneously, and she did so in front of others! And while sharing is always optional in my workshops, she braved the boundaries she had unconsciously imposed on herself years ago, and read her work to the group.

By straddling her comfort zone and plunging into a new creative arena she opened herself up to a whole new world of possibilities. Enlivened by the experience, she's now working on refining that first piece and delving deeper into new stories. And she became one of the most enthusiastic and supportive members of the workshop.

So go ahead: take a risk, embrace a new activity, reawaken a dormant dream. But be warned: You may find yourself more alive than you've ever been.

Cheers and onward.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cultivating The Write Stuff

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."-Stephen King

Here's the thing about writing no one ever tells you when you're starting out and probably still in school, ensconced, perhaps in a nice cozy writing program: in the real world writing can be a pretty lonely occupation. And it can often take years before you'll have anything in the way of tangible, earthly evidence to show for your efforts.

Still in? Then get to it. Write, write, write. And read everything you can get your hands on, too. Experiment with different authors and genres. Stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. Go as far as you can without needing a cranial chiropractor.

If you're out of school, you might want to find a writing group or workshop to join. I've been a member and facilitator of such workshops and always find the connections, criticism and companionship inspiring. Even if the group is small or you don't find the critiques particularly sophisticated, you'll get a boost just by sharing your work. Heck, for some folks just leaving the house and talking to people is enough reward.

Seriously, the best thing a supportive workshop or group can do is offer you a space to be heard, encouraged and held accountable. Yeah, I said accountable. Most writers fall prey to procrastination, but with a group's weekly ( or bi-weekly) deadline approaching, you may be pleasantly surprised at your own output.

Spend your time outside the group writing and re-writing, borrowing tricks and insights you picked up from your colleagues. Don't forget to leave some time for reading, too. You'll want to unearth wisdom from professional journals and blogs to share with your fellow writers at the next session. And immerse yourself in fiction or non-fiction that ignites your passion for craft.

Do it again the next week. And the week after that. And so forth until you've actually cultivated something resembling the write stuff. You might even have something to show the world. And you'll more than likely have begun to enjoy the solitary writing life just a little bit more.

Cheers and onward.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

That Age Old Question

"Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
-- Mark Twain

Frank McCourt relished his role as Fitzgerald slayer. The famed high school teacher turned author loved to put the kibosh on F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous line,"There are no Second Acts in American life." McCourt, who published his first book, the blockbuster bestseller Angela's Ashes at 66( followed by 'Tis and Teacher Man) often called the last decade of his life his best.

So I'm sure he'd delight in being my opening salvo in a motivational nudge I recently gave a client deeply entrenched in a procrastinational funk. "I'm too old to start writing a book now," she said, lamenting her approaching birthday. I'm not sure where she got such a silly notion, but she's not alone. I've had many clients and students who think they're too old to pursue their dreams. Unless your dream is to, say, play shortstop for the Mets or dance in the NYC Ballet, I'm pretty sure they are within reach. Think of it this way: you're still--God willing--going to turn 40,50,60, whatever age you deem too old. Wouldn't your rather reach that dubious milestone doing something you love?

The truth is creativity knows no age. Actually, the art of creating helps you stay young, keeping you in touch with the child within, letting you engage in the states of exploration and play. And whatever your age, you've presumably accrued experience along the way. This can only help enrich the art you create.

Besides McCourt examples of late-blooming artists abound. Grandma Moses didn't even start painting until her 70's; her late-in-life career kept her thriving, creating the American folk art that has immortalized her well into her 90's. Maya Angelou didn't publish anything until her 40's. Neither did Ellen Gilchrist;the National Book Award winning short story writer and novelist once said of writing, "it makes me forget I'm not young anymore."

There are examples from the youth-obsessed entertainment industry, too. Noted character actor John Mahoney--famous for his TV role as Frasier's dad (and numerous movie parts)ditched his job as a text book editor in his 40's to pursue acting. Julia Child was over fifty when she published her first ground-breaking cook book; and she was well into her fifties when she stormed the small screen, becoming the first celebrity TV chef. Country singers K.T. Oslin and Buddy Jewel didn't hit the charts until their 40's. And Britain's Got Talent finalist and YouTube sensation Susan Boyle recorded her first album at the tender age of 48. And Pope Benedict signed a record deal in his 80's. Such news is Heaven sent for most folks of a certain age.

There's nothing like immersing yourself in a creative project to infuse your life with youthful energy. So dive into the creative well. It's the ultimate fountain of youth. Hey, what are you waiting for? You're not getting any younger.

Cheers and onward.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rules & Rituals

I'm not a big rules person. Oh, I believe in the Golden Rule and all that other good stuff I learned and have been (trying to) faithfully practice since Kindergarten. But when it comes to writing and life, there is no one size fits all rule book. So my advice to clients and students: forget every rule all those well meaning teachers, friends and self-help articles gave you.

Here's a sampling of some of my favorite iron-clad concepts that I've buried in wisdom's backyard: you have to write every day; never read anything while you're immersed in a project; read every single thing you can put your eyes on, only write what you know; never write from the opposite gender's p.o.v; never write in the present tense; set the scene with explicit physical descriptions; limit physical descriptions; never use adverbs!

The rules are endless. And some make sense for some people some of the time. But none of them work for everyone all the time. And since most of my clients and students are folks who have little writing experience, haven't written in a quite some time or are battling artistic blocks, handing them a list of restrictive rules seems counter-intuitive. What I try to do instead is provide prompts and offer suggestions. I encourage people to try different approaches. Play, experiment, see what fits, what works for you.

While I eschew rules, I am a believer in rituals. Not that there's a rule about it, of course, but I find developing rituals--and for me I often change them to ensure their freshness and effectiveness--help me fall into a positive, creative groove.

When I'm in a writing funk ( yeah even coaches and teachers get stuck), I will fall back on some of the practices I embraced years ago following Julia Cameron's principles in "The Artist's Way." The biggest among them: the dreaded "Morning Pages." When I first started that program, I found it difficult--no--excruciating to have to scribble three long hand stream-of-consciousness pages every single morning. For one thing--despite a checkered radio career that included hosting not one, but two morning drive shows, I am not, by nature, a morning kind of gal. I also found that rather than producing anything resembling Virginia Woolf's famed style, the pages had an early laundry list quality with a disgruntled overtone.

But after a week or so, I got into a groove and the writing started to contain glimmers of meaning and inspiration. Not that I follow this practice religiously. I go through journal writing jags; and when I do it it's usually at night. That works for me. If you're like some of my students who just can't cope with morning pages in the morning, try them at night. See if that works.

Music is also a big part of my writing process. I usually have the radio or a CD on while I'm writing. And often before I start, I'll listen to a particular song. The song often changes depending on the project. For a while, I'd listen to the entire disc I of Van Morrison's "Hymns to the Silence" before even tackling a single word. Somehow this musical meditation lured me into the characters' interior lives. It was a little time consuming, and it may have been a subconscious stall tactic. But for a time, it worked, so I indulged myself.

I've experimented with when and where I write, too. I wrote most of the first draft of my first novel at Starbucks in long hand. Much of the second one, too. I always write my first drafts in long hand. And since I need a Rosetta Stone to transcribe my own handwriting, I am motivated to hit the computer for the first re-write immediately if not sooner.

I've had clients who need to wear a particular sweater, write at a certain time of day, eat the same breakfast, go for a swim or walk before or after writing, surround themselves with good luck talismans, read a bible passage, open a fortune cookie. Hey, I'm from the whatever works school.

Just remember as a rule, there are no rules when it comes to rituals.

Cheers and onward,


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Start Me Up

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. ~ Stephen King

Start with the smell of burnt toast. Or look for a pair of missing earrings. Try falling out of love. Or waiting for an interview for a job you desperately want ( or one you never thought you'd have to get). Start with a line from a song or a classic movie. Look at a snapshot from a family album. Or a photo from the newspaper.

These are all prompts I have used in creative writing workshops to help writers tap into the creative well that is available to every artist. We typically use the first twenty to thirty minutes of each session to just write, write, write. The prompt is merely a suggestion- a jumping off point- which can be used or eschewed in favor of an image or idea rumbling around in a writer's head. The premise: uncensored, uninhabited writing can open the creative passageway often blocked by the raging self-doubt of that pesky inner critic who always seems to tag along for the ride.

After we finish writing, folks can share or pass ( I'm the only one who never passes; I think as the facilitator it is incumbent upon me to share). No one offers criticism. How can we? We know the work can't be very good; it is after all, a very raw, rough draft. People can, however, mention a particular image that stood out, if they are so inclined.

The surprising thing: many of the images, turns of phrase, characters, are often vivid or amusing or touching. Some even serve as starting points for stories and poems, scripts and even books. You'd be amazed at what your inner artist can do when s/he is left to play without fear of recriminations, without that pounding "It's no good," "No one will care," "No one will ever publish this."

These exercises give you permission to try, to play, to experiment. And once you dip into that creative well, you're apt to dip in again and again.

Is something burning? It may be your desire to connect or re-connect with your inner artist. Or it may just be your breakfast. Either way, it's time to get started.

Cheers and onward