Your Life in Words – A Guest Post

creativity man dancing

Welcome back! I’m celebrating my return to the blog with my first guest post from a writing colleague and friend I met over a year ago at a writing retreat. Jaime is working on her first novel, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading a portion of it. 

After a tortuous summer—during which I found writing difficult at best—it seems fitting to look at this often dark side of the creative arts. 

Mental illness

Staring at a blank piece of paper or the insistent blinking of a cursor on the computer screen is a tortuous business. We’re supposed to be writers, or aspiring writers, at least. That means we must actually write something, anything, to fill the page, meet the word count, beat the deadline.

But as all readers of writing blogs know, writing is hard. Taking the same 26-letter alphabet that’s available to everyone and creating something new, different, moving, evocative – not so easy.

Sometimes I wonder if the “torture” we put ourselves through is self-inflicted to draw out our angst and emotion. (*Please note: I understand that true mental illness is not self-inflicted.)

Think about it: many of history’s greatest artists across all genres have been truly tortured ones: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace. And that’s just the writers.

The worlds of dance, music and painting can claim their fair share of men and women burning from the inside out to communicate and, possibly, rid themselves of their demons through various forms of visual, musical or physical expression.

creativity man dancing

Creative Commons: https://vimeo.com/groups/weekendchallenge/videos/135494749

I’ve been a journalistic writer most of my life; fiction is new to me and I’m not very good at it. So to better understand and learn the craft, I follow a few blogs, read or listen to the occasional tutorial, and twice have attended weekend writing retreats (where I met this blog’s host).

Without a doubt, the two most innovative, wrenching and electric pieces I heard during those getaways where written by people who’d endured life-altering loss, neglect or disappointment.

These writers utilized their damaged psyches to thread words in combinations that, like a poke in the eye, force you to see the possibilities you’ve missed but they found. Their pain is a tool they wield to create.

Which makes me wonder: do we have to be damaged to produce great work?

A quick google search of “writers mental health” generates 12.6 million results in less than one second, with a Wikipedia article on “Creativity and Mental Illness” leading the pack. One Indian study from 2007 intimated that writers are more in touch with their feelings than “noncreative” types; perhaps those of us who sit before a keyboard are more sensitive and empathetic than our left-brain peers.

A 2003 article from the American Psychiatric Association goes so far as to investigate the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” essentially saying that yes, there’s a link between mental health and creativity. One blog noted that writers “were found to be 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population.”

Eek! Which comes first, artistic virtuosity or intellectual/emotional instability? Does that mean that a well-adjusted, reasonably happy person should lose hope? If your life isn’t ping-ponging from one crisis or drama to the next, should you shelve your dreams, unplug your computer or toss your journals?

No way.

Because in my decades on this fine planet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that life has a way of evening-up the score, no one gets away unsinged. I doubt that the intensity of injury or history of hurt matters. Whether it was being ostracized at the high school lunch table, weathering a bitter divorce or caring for someone you love who’s in pain, everyone gets burned.

Let’s be honest, pursuit of this craft is itself some kind of crazy – we write for months, edit, revise and re-write with the understanding that rejection is far more likely than acceptance. We’re all a bit nutty.

Our minds are fertile ground. Chances are you don’t have to dig too deep to come across an emotional scar or unresolved personal trauma.

And while it’s doubtful that I’ll ever achieve the agility of language that seems to flow from my favored authors Amy Tan or Ann Patchett, I can still mine the joys and sorrows of my life experience to put words on paper.

I am a writer, beckoned by the blank page and demanding cursor, not tortured by them.

Jaime guest blog

 

Jaime Baum is an aspiring fiction writer and recovering journalist. Currently a media relations consultant for a national PR firm, in the past she’s written for Make It Better magazine and the Sun-Times News Group as a features and business writer.

2 Thoughts on “Your Life in Words – A Guest Post

  1. Great post, Jaime & Suzanne! I’ve also wondered about this connection between personal trauma and creativity. Do you have to have suffered in order to have something to say? Can you still write an interesting personal essay, memoir, or even fiction, without having a defining tragedy in your past? I love your conclusion: as humans, we all experience pain at one time or another. The relative intensity doesn’t really matter. It’s more about how you draw on it and express it. (Of course, I can also relate to the nuttiness of simply being a writer!)

    Good luck with your writing projects!

Has This Ever Happened to You?

Suzanne Brazil at Haven Retreat with Laura Munson
Suzanne Brazil at Haven Retreat with Laura Munson

Me at Laura Munson’s Haven Writing Retreat in Montana 2014

Has this ever happened to you?

Life got in the way the last 10 days or so, and my writing ground to a standstill.

No novel revisions, no new words on blank pages, just lots of ruminating in my head. E-readers have evolved but I don’t believe they’re telepathic—yet.

I spent the 10 days tending to family medical issues, financial issues, employment issues, everything except writing.

That happens sometimes. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Life Goes On.

The world isn’t waiting for my debut novel or another of my essays on motherhood, marriage, body image, etc.

But maybe one person out there is waiting for something I have to say or the way I have to say it. Maybe I have the words that help one writer, sitting in their living room, wondering if they should go for it.

So, it’s time to climb back on the horse. Back to work. I’m not going to waste precious time forming the perfect post. My blogging goal was every Monday and today is a victory because I showed up.

Here are a few previous posts that helped guide me back here today:

Avoiding the drift (keeping in touch with your project).

Thinking about writing (sometimes it does count).

Establishing a fall-back point (when life forces you to take a break).

If any of these links are useful to you, I’d love to hear from you.

In the electric words of the late genius, Prince: We’re gathered here today to get through this thing called Life. LET’S GO CRAZY!

Prince

Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons, Graffiti in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain), 2009, Zarateman

 

 

 

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New Stuff to Read!

Bang2Write

Excited to be featured on Lucy V Hay’s Bang2Write site offering writing craft tips for screenwriters and novelists.  Please share if you like the post!

Also, my review for Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story can be found on Blogcritics this week! Stay tuned for a cool interview with the author, Anita M. Cal.

Comments are closed.

How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

You know the feeling. You’re in the middle of a project (a book, an essay, a short story) and then you’re not. You’re on the edges of it or miles away. It shimmers in the distance like a mirage and you’re losing it.

I call it “the drift.”

You suddenly realize it’s been three days, then a week, then a month since you’ve made any progress.

It feels stale. You find yourself bored by the characters. You think it’s a sign you need a new project. A fresh start. So you let more time go by.

The foundation of your sand castle has blown away. One day at a time. One missed writing session at a time.

How does this happen? It happens grain by grain.

How do you stop it? The same way.

Famous authors all have recommendations to write every day or develop a routine. I like Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice: Don’t Break The Chain. Just grab a calendar and for every day you work on your number one project, mark a big red “X” – then just make it your goal not to break the chain.

Girl-Writing-ruifernandes-flickr-creative-commons-375x395

Drop in on your project whenever you can. You’ve got a day job, your dog has diarrhea or  your kid has a science project due. You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.

So do what you can. Drop in on your characters. Reread a page or a paragraph, or jot down some ideas for a scene. I think of it as being less precious about the whole thing. Conditions don’t have to be perfect, you just want to keep in touch with your story.

“Drop in on your project whenever you can.” 

Steal time. Think of it as something you GET to do instead of another task to check off your list. Print out a couple of pages, stuff them in your purse or briefcase. Pull them out on your lunch hour, or on an extra long bathroom break during that interminable staff meeting.

Don’t fall for the allure of the new project because you’ve lost sight of the old. It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice, it’s about action. Whatever you can do, do that. But do something.

sand-castle

“It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice. It’s about action.” 

Stay tethered to the world you’ve built, the characters you’re developing and the story you’re telling. You’ll save time by not having to reorient yourself each writing session. Best of all? You’ll finish stuff.

 

4 Thoughts on “How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

  1. I love this, Suzanne! Especially this line: “You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.” I need to remember it’s okay to just plop down at my computer any chance I get, and not wait for the so-called perfect conditions.

    …Similar to Seinfeld’s calendar chain, I always glance at the “date modified” for whatever Word document I’m working on. If I at least check in on my project every day, then that date stays current. If not, then it becomes obvious I’m starting to “drift.”

    • Thanks for reading, Jennifer – and what a great idea on the “date modified” as a reminder! That’s how I make sure I’m on the correct version but it’s a great visual aid, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. CathyShouse on November 1, 2015 at 6:41 am said:

    I read these tips a few days ago and have since gotten some momentum going on a project I had drifted from. 1. Once I get started, I find myself stealing more time to keep going. 2. It’s surprising how much I get done when I keep in regular touch with the world I’ve created. Thanks!

    • That’s great news, Cathy! I think it’s physics and most writers are not in love with physics. Still, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, which is why it can be so hard to get going once we stop. Planned days off are ok as long as we’ve planned a re-entry strategy. Thanks for reading!!

When Bad is Good: A New View on Your Inner Critic

Choose Your Thoughts

Several years ago, I won a free consultation from a professional home organizer. Embarrassed but desperate, I revealed the clutter in my disorganized kitchen wondering what, if anything, could be accomplished in one 30-minute session.

This domestic genius took one look around and said “Why don’t we just put this here, closer to where you use it.”

She said it about three times—it sounded more like Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo to me—and soon, papers piled on the table, spices jumbled in a crowded cabinet, and CDs splattered with orange juice, miraculously migrated to their new, logical locations.

I watched in awe and could only think Of course that belongs there. It seemed so obvious once she pointed it out.

Bibbity Bobbity Boo

So what was my problem? Why did this expert instantly see a solution where I saw only frustration and mess?

Perspective. Her view was new and different from mine.

Perspective is everything. This became crystal clear to me recently, during a discussion with a writing mentor.

Rehashing my goals one day, I confessed that I loved the attention that came with publication. How needy and pathetic, right? I even told her my best friend had once called me an attention whore.

My mentor’s reaction changed the way I react to the negative thoughts that come with writing, or any pursuit of passion in life.

“What if your craving for attention is what’s allowing you to do what you feel called to do? What if it’s that drive for affirmation that wakes you up at 5am to work on your rough draft?”

It happened again when I told her I sometimes found myself jealous of the talent of other writers. I didn’t begrudge them their success, I just coveted a smidgen of the talent I witnessed in other, more accomplished writers.

Her response: “Excellent! When we’re jealous, it shows us we’re on the right track. We know what we’re shooting for. So many people don’t have a goal in life. Congratulations, your jealousy is pointing you in the right direction.”

Hmmm . . . maybe there’s something to this. Maybe I had been looking at my negative thoughts and labels the wrong way. As long as my thoughts weren’t manifesting in undesirable actions, maybe they weren’t so bad.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

~ David Foster Wallace

I decided to test my theory. In a post in one of my favorite Facebook groups, a member asked if any other writers sat down to work on their manuscripts each day, riddled with fear.

My response was “Fear is good!” Fear sent a message that what you attempted carried weight and importance in your life. When I mentioned the interaction to my mentor, she practically jumped for joy. “Yes! That’s exactly what it means.”

Of course, fear is also a life-saving emotion pointing human beings to safety and survival. But we’re talking writing here folks, not hiking in the Alps.

This is more than a lame “think positive” mantra. Changing your position and perspective takes practice. Maybe it’s all B.S. but I don’t think so. It’s worked for me.

Time and energy spent doubting abilities or fretting over perceived character defects keeps us from giving 100% to our creative projects.

Next time you’re ready to label yourself, take a minute and question the label. What are the benefits of being afraid, jealous, attention-seeking? Make a list.

Domestic Goddess Kitchen

My organized kitchen (I wish)

Fifteen years later, my spices, CDs and papers are still stored where the expert suggested, I still like attention, and I’m still not-so-secretly jealous of favorite writers. I’ve learned to question my negative thoughts and labels when they pop up.

Rethinking them has made all the difference.

Don’t be so quick to beat yourself up. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Don’t waste time fretting over imagined inadequacies, and instead, get down to what’s guaranteed to make us all better, no matter the endeavor: practice and hard work.

Blue Moon Update

Blue Moon (Montana)

Blue Moon (Montana)

Today is Blue Moon Friday. It’s been a busy, if weird, month. It seems fitting just to take stock and see where I’m at.

My husband turned 50 which is making me not look forward to my half-century celebration in just a few short weeks.

Spending three days at Ragdale was like time traveling. And psychotherapy. Writing about “real” stuff always makes you dig deep.

Submitting 20 pages to my Novel in a Year class has me on edge. I’m up for critique next week and I’m quaking with insecurity.

I’ve worked on a couple of Flash Fiction pieces and entered one in an online, quarterly contest that provides feedback. The feedback was 2/3 great and 1/3 I’m the world’s worst writer.

Did not make my goal of finishing the 2nd draft of my WIP by the end of the month. Too many major plot questions, too little skill. But I’m soldiering on.

I did submit a few pieces, finished a couple of interviews, read some great books. Just don’t know where the time goes.

Summer is fleeting and hot! I’ve been eating like a college kid on summer break and not working out at all. Just grocery shopped – all fish and produce starting tomorrow.

A second full moon may be weird, but not all that rare. According to Google, it happens once every three years or so. I hope next month is more productive and less weird, and maybe less blue.

 

 

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What We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer

open books Chicago

Open-Books author event

Wine and Books, Books and Wine. Beautiful words together or apart. I’m thrilled to be part of

“What We Can’t Wait to Read this Summer”

wine & books night @Open Books

Think of an “Ultimate” book club where four Chicago authors (Suzanne Brazil, Sara Connell, James Kennedy, Ross Ritchell) will share their “Top List” for summer reading followed by wine, light snacks and discussion/mingling with the authors.  The event is being hosted by Open Books (Awesome new West Loop Space).

open books Chicago

Bring a friend or group and join us for an inspiring and entertaining evening celebrating books, summer reading and our obsession with a great story!

The event is open to the public, to register, call or email:

tel  312.475.1355

http://www.open-books.org 

Event is free. Wednesday July 1st6:00-8:00PM

2 Thoughts on “What We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer

  1. Sounds fun!! Sadly Chicago is too far for my little stumpy legs to manage. 😉 Good luck with it though, Suzanne! <3

    Lazy Hedgehog x

Why Writers are the Best People

Avy
Avy

Ana’s beautiful pup, Avy

My commitment to living my life as a writer has brought me into contact with some interesting, creative, impressive and kind people. One of the many writer friends/mentors I’ve been lucky to meet is Ana Hays McCracken. She writes a whimsical and lovely blog about her dog, Avy and other curious things.

She has written professionally for many years and has been published in two Chicken Soup books. She also has an insightful, entertaining essay in “Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 51 Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection.

Nothing But the Truth Book

Recently, she gave me a shout out on her website for which I am eternally grateful. I am moved to do the same.

We had lunch not too long ago and reminisced about meeting on a Haven retreat in Montana and how we’d love to have more writer-y experiences where we could talk books, write in a cabin in the woods and sip hot cocoa around a fire. My writing community is growing and that’s a great thing!

Ana Hays and Suzanne Brazil

Another exciting mention came from Laura Munson! She was kind enough to link to our interview in her Haven Newsletter. For inspiration and news about Laura’s retreats and her books, visit her website.

Writers never get tired of talking about books and writing and books and writing. Most are helpful and most love animals. See, they’re the best people. How have you been growing and tending your writing community?

 

4 Thoughts on “Why Writers are the Best People

  1. Kathy on April 27, 2015 at 7:24 pm said:

    Thanks Suzanne for stirring my pot of memories! Spending time with you, and all of the talented writers in the Montana woods fed my soul! I am enjoying your journey, and feel blessed to have participated in a sliver of it. <3

    • Thanks for reading, Kathy! I have a feeling we’ll be thinking of that time many years from now. I know I will…thought of you often as I walked on the beach looking at rocks yesterday 🙂

  2. Hi Suzanne!

    Avy Baby here. Mommy was so excited to see a post about herself on your website today. (She’s so vain.) And I was thrilled to see my picture hers and my hike this weekend. Arf. Hope you and Mommy can find that cabin in the woods soon so you two can continue chatting about books and writing. Maybe the cabin allows dogs. Arf. Arf.

    xo Avy

All the Stuff in My Brain

Brain communication

Brain communication

I started blogging last year about writing. Finally pursuing my passion, I sought to be of service to new writers without a clue how to start on their own journey.

Truth is, there are literally thousands of writing blogs out there that do a great job of providing how-to articles. I wanted to share my specific journey step-by-step as an example for someone else.

too many wordstoo many wordstoo_many_words

How useful is that? Does anyone need to know about each restaurant review I get published in the local paper?  My guess is no.

I’ve read more well-established blogs where the author informs readers that he/she will be making a change. Taking a different road. Posting other things. And that’s what this post is about.

Changing Directions

Writing isn’t all I do. It’s how I do all I do. There’s a difference. It’s how I process my world and always has been.

Future posts may include more about that world and my crazy brain. For example, I love dinosaurs and tornadoes. I haven’t written about them yet, but I might. You’ve been warned.

dinosaursTORNADO 5-3-99

 

All images used under creative commons – click on photo for link to site.

 

 

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Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing Raises over $500 for A Safe Place

Chicken Soup for the Soul Book signing
Chicken Soup for the Soul Book signing

Me at the table – nervous!

We had a great turnout this week for my Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom book signing. We sold over 53 books (still counting) with $10 from each book sale* going directly to Lake County‘s domestic violence crisis center A Safe Place. We sold books from Norway to Indiana to Texas!

Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing

Family, friends and volunteers from the organization all pitched in and were hosted by the delicious and festive On The Border restaurant in Vernon Hills. They also graciously offered to donate 10% of food and beverage sales for those attending the event. We are waiting for the final results of their tally and then they will also be sending a check to the organization.

A special thanks to Dr. Ingrid Weimer, a long-time volunteer board member at A Safe Place for helping to organize the event. Ingrid and I have been friends for years and she was super supportive of the idea for a benefit. In addition, she brought along information on the organization and the serious issue of domestic violence. For more information, please visit their website or call their hotline 800-600-SAFE. They can do a much better job of educating you on the issues and help available.

To my friends who helped spread the word, take pictures, buy books and offer encouragement when my enthusiasm was lagging, THANK YOU!

Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing    Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing   Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing

Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing      Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing        Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing

To my brothers Mike and Joe – for either sharing my updates (with a side of sarcasm which we all appreciate) or texting support – love you both!

To my little sister, Brenda, thank you for your big heart, unique perspective, the beautiful flowers and for making me believe you’re impressed by me…even when I feel like a fraud!

Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing

To my big sister, Melanie, for schlepping boxes, handling money, and keeping me organized–but mostly for being a permanent life fixture, for great Mom advice, and making me be brave when I don’t want to.

IMG_94445021268742IMG_1812_2-1

To my husband Tim, daughter Emily, and son Jeremy – you three provide the material and inspiration for all of my stories (true or not). When I was 16 – I dreamed of having a family like this….thanks for making it come true.

And, of course, Thanks to My Mom, Barb Armstrong, for being extraordinary.

*The Chicken Soup for the Soul family provides books at cost (including free shipping to contributors) for fundraising efforts on behalf of non-profit organizations. If you’re interested in holding a benefit for your group/organization please contact me for more information.

One Thought on “Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Signing Raises over $500 for A Safe Place

  1. barb armstrong on April 30, 2015 at 7:01 am said:

    You make me cry which makes it very hard to read!

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