Wednesday, January 27, 2010

7 things I've learned

 Reflecting on the past - looking to the future. It's a January sort of thing. So join me as I think about the 7 Things I've Learned in my writing life to date.

1. Good support is invaluable - I lucked into an excellent writing group from the get go.  The four of us had been in many of the same writing workshops, so we knew each other and we shared an understanding and vocabulary for critiquing. We knew each other well enough to be kind but honest in giving feedback.

2. Have a thick skin and an open mind – When you write, you’re putting yourself out there. Intellectually, mentally, emotionally. Those words are your babies; of course, they are great. Maybe to you. Not necessarily to the reader. Even with a writing group like mine – maybe especially so – it’s important to remember you won’t always like what you hear.  Like the time one of my writing buddies told me I had a real talent for writing erotica. Except I wasn’t writing erotica. Content. Tone. Timing. What I’d written was spot on and completely wrong at the same time. It took two weeks for me to get past those comments. To realize I had to start again and may as well be happy doing it.

3. Keep studying the craft – I’ve been writing and getting paid for it throughout my professional career. But there’s always something new to learn. The types and uses of prose styles. The strength of a well chosen metaphor. The power of ‘once.’ How less can be so much more. I suppose my writing is ‘good enough,’ but it’s delightful to learn one more thing and become exponentially better. Workshops at the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin and in Des Moines' basements led by experienced, insightful, kind leaders have brought my writing light years.

4. Inspiration and clarity come from walking – Inspiration can come from anywhere, but when I’m stuck on a plot development, when I can’t figure out motivation, when I’m just plain out of creativity, I will almost always find the answer in nature. Fresh air, a sunrise, the call of a bird, flowers in bloom – they perk me up. Somewhere at the end of mile three, it all seems so much clearer. I’m ready to get back at it.

5. Deadlines are necessary – I can dawdle with the best of them. More coffee? Sure! Time to load the washing machine? Might as well. Check e-mail? Every time it blips. If there are two weeks or two days, I’ll use every second. But give me a deadline and watch me focus. When I’m writing fast, I’m writing concisely, hitting the main points, no time for meandering. I get more writing, better writing, done when I have a deadline. So I have to create deadlines if I want to get writing out the door. And it helps when I have to face up to others with the copy.

6. Trust your gut – When my writing isn’t going well, I know it. The words don’t flow. A section just doesn’t feel right. Even when I sense a problem, I often hit ‘send’ and ship the work off to my writing group anyway.  Maybe it’s laziness on my part. Maybe insecurity. Maybe it's not really as bad as I think. That's what I hope, anyway. Invariably, my group points directly to the spots I perceived were problems. I’m learning to acknowledge that if I feel there’s a problem, there probably is. And that I need to do the hard work of fixing it before I send it to the group.

7. Shut up and write – I’ve been a fan since Natalie Goldberg wrote ‘shut up and write’ in her excellent book Writing Down the Bones. Research is not writing. Reading is not writing. Thinking is not writing. Only writing is writing. As some point, any real writer has to commit to chair and keyboard. For a few minutes. For a few hours. Apply the ‘butt glue’ and write. My best, most productive time is 9-noon. Commit to the time, establish a deadline, keep the door closed. Writing will follow.

**I 'borrowed' the idea of reflecting on my writing life so far by focusing on 7 things I've learned from Guide to Literary Agents 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out of the dark

We lost power last night, just as we were finishing supper. Fortunately for me, my husband always knows where the flashlights are. We rummaged up candles and turned on the gas fireplace. You never know how long a power outage will last, but the impact of losing electricity sets in right away.

No TV. No radio. No computer unless you have a laptop. No Internet access. No dishwasher. No clothes washer. No lights, no matter how many times you walk to another room and unconsciously flip the switch. No reading books in weak candle light. Thank goodness it wasn't in the morning - No hair dryer! Life as we are so used to living it just comes to a stop without electricity.

My 90-year-old uncle who grew up on a Wisconsin farm in the early 20th Century says electricity was the most important invention in his lifetime. When my parents moved to our Iowa farm in 1945 there was no electricity. They milked cows by hand. Separated cream by hand. Washed clothes by hand. Dad worked to have the Rural Electric Cooperative get electricity to the farm as fast as possible.

There have been so many great inventions. The internal combustion engine. The cotton gin. Airplanes. Computers. But I'll add my vote to my uncle's. Electricity makes our way of life possible.

We were grateful and relieved when the lights came back on only four hours later. Once we turned everything off and went to bed, I laid there in the dark enjoying the inaudible hum of electricity waiting for me to turn it on again.

Image courtesy of

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Picking up the pieces

Yesterday's hoar frost was followed by freezing rain over night. This morning I'm watching an ice storm wreak havoc outside my window. Limbs are coated with ice. The double whammy of wind and ice is littering the ground with twigs.

We knew this storm was coming, but there wasn't anything we could do to mitigate the damage. If we're lucky, the rain will stop and the winds will be mild, and damage will be limited to twigs instead of large branches or whole trees.

This past month, my book club read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Beautifully and powerfully written, this collection of stories explores the lives of people living in a small town in Maine, all of whom are connected to Olive in some way. One dominant theme in the book is depression. Several people we meet in the book have been touched by suicide. The book jacket description of Olive observes that she is critical of the changes in the world but often doesn't see the changes in the people around her. I wonder if that isn't being unfairly critical.

How many of us really know what's going on in the lives of those around us? How many of us - even when we have some idea of what's going on - know what to do about it? And when we do have a sense of something coming in someone's life, how many of us can effectively do anything about it?

Most often, we meet someone, we chat, we move along. We never know, as Olive often didn't. But even when we see the tension or tears, even when we get that 'sixth sense' of a problem, even when we try to intervene, the hurting person may not be open to help. Then we watch, feeling helpless, hoping the damage will not be too great, knowing we will have to pick up the pieces after it's over.

Just like this storm. Oops. Another branch just hit the ground.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nature's flocking - Enchanting!

Flocked Christmas trees were quite the rage in the 1990s. Maybe they still are. But I was never a fan. The white foam sprayed on the needles  looked heavy, unnatural. It always looked to me as though I'd be cleaning up sticky bits of white paste for the entire next year. Real 'flocking,' the kind we awoke to this morning, is something else entirely.

Heavy fog combined with borderline freezing temperatures to paint every tree and bush with white ice crystals. The landscape was nothing short of enchanting. The White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe did not do it better.

The sky remains flat and gray. A dome entirely without feature. As though someone took a large, white mixing bowl and turned it upside down over us. Since the sun has never poked through, the white crystals cling to many trees. We remain in a winter wonderland where nature shows how flocking is supposed to be done.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What's your passion?

I admire people who know their passion. People with passion get things done, often against tremendous odds. Just one example: Jonas Salk worked for decades, with passion, to find a vaccine effective against polio. We all lined up in the 1950s for the vaccine, and polio ceased to terrify the nation at the onset of every summer season.

But what if you don't know what your passion is? Like me. I don't have a 'passion.' And not for lack of trying. I've participated in workshops to discover what I should be doing with my life. I've thought long and hard to answer the question I've been told will help you uncover your passion: What would you do if money were no object?

My problem is that I am wildly passionate about many things. For about 15 minutes. My prairie. My latest vacation. Flowers. Photography. Reading. Art. A new recipe. Good grief, I can even be passionate about painting the bathroom.

I am fortunate to have discovered a talent as a writer. As a writer, I can indulge my long list of interests while honoring my short attention span. As a writer, I come into regular contact with people who do know their passion. And I can enjoy their passions as I share their stores with others in articles I write.

In the latest issue of The Iowan, I shared two such stories. One is of Kimberly Madison, a talented artist who declares she is 'standing on the shoulders' of her African American ancestors as she creates paintings and uses the proceeds to benefit charitable organizations. The second is Kevin "BF" Burt, a singer who is working to create the unique sound of Iowa blues. Kimberly and Kevin know their passions and pursue them every day.

With each assignment, the more I learn about the passions of the people I meet, the more excited I become. Artists. Musicians. Those who quilt or play Go or restore pioneer cemeteries. It is all intensely interesting to me - in the short term. The world is so full of so many interesting people and activities, how could I limit myself to just one passion?

American author, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman is reported to have said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

In my case, one of the things the world needs - good writers and communicators - is also what makes me come alive - learning about and sharing the lives of others.

As we launch a new year, I can get my arms around 'coming alive.' If money is no object, or if it is, I can get excited about coming alive.