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!

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10 Writing Reminders You Need Now

Morning Pages at Ragdale
Morning Pages at Ragdale

Optional 7am morning pages

Do you have your calendar handy? Go grab it, I’ll wait…

How many writing slots do you have penciled in? When’s your next class (first class?), weekend retreat, or workshop scheduled? Have you finally booked that AirBnb weekend with the two writers from your group?

I just returned from a three-day StoryStudio Ragdale retreat that I signed up for in January and carefully budgeted each month to attend.

Before you roll your eyes and complain you don’t have the cash or the time for a fancy retreat, I confess neither do I. I made the cash with a second job at Starbucks (don’t ask), and CHOSE to sacrifice other things from my schedule so I could attend.

What follows is just a smidge, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, if you will, of what I got out of my time there. I almost cancelled, but so glad I didn’t.

#10) Make Space for Yourself and Your Work

Literal space in your house. This can be a chair with a TV tray next to it. Bless it, claim it, use it.

Or don’t. The space is yours.

Don’t you deserve a chair?

The Blue Room - Ragdale House

The room most associated with ghosts – and where The Time Traveler’s Wife was written!

 

#9) Yes, You Do Have Time to Write.

If you’re busy lunching with friends, or even working a second job, telling yourself you don’t have time, or you’ll make time soon, QUIT LYING.

For every book that almost got written, there’s a published author stopped at a red light jotting down ideas on a Starbucks napkin.

You don’t need to make time, you need to make choices.

#8) Replenish As Needed.

My week leading up to Ragdale was hellish: A death in the family, out-of-town guests, harried work schedule, funeral, eulogy. A tornado or large scale flood would have topped off the week perfectly.

All of my carefully laid plains to finish a synopsis, revise certain sections of my WIP, went out the window.

Instead, I gave myself permission to do what felt right. I even swapped one workshop for a two-hour nap.

#7) Let Go of Expectations.

I’m all for setting goals. That’s what made my first book possible. But instead of pressuring myself to perform in the evening readings, I allowed myself to enjoy the work of the other brilliant writers who shared.

Was I nervous to share something unpolished or less emotionally intense? Not really. I lowered my expectations and trusted my words.

#6) Write by Hand.

The research is in and writing by hand draws on different connections in the brain. It opens up other avenues. Plus, it’s quieter!

Our instructor required pen and paper in the workshop sessions, though computers were welcome any other time and place during the three-day retreat.

Plenty of current published authors aren’t above a legal pad and pen. Try it – it helps with #9 above.

#5) Don’t Compare.

Thirteen writers shared work generated by the same prompts. Guess what? No duplicates.

Completely different takes, distinct voices, a wide range of topics and themes. There’s room for us all at the table.

Daisies at Ragdale

Ahhhh, summer!

#4) Make Writer Friends.

When your partner tires of hearing about the latest problems your characters pose, or about the theme of your essay, writer friends will listen without vomiting.

They will offer insight, ask questions, care. It’s a fabulous universe to inhabit.

#3) Make Artist Connections.

Our group included a sculptor, a poet, essayists, senior citizens, new moms, teachers, published authors—an amazing array of creative output.

Creativity breeds creativity.

#2) It’s OK to Eat the Chocolate Chip Cookies.

This is a metaphor. Stick with me.

Linda, the Ragdale Fairy Godmother, prepares the most delicious, nutritious meals. Fresh ingredients, amazing flavor combinations (tortilla chip encrusted tilapia anyone?) and a wide variety for all three meals.

But it’s ok to eat a cookie if you’re eating healthy most of the time.

Strive for quality, but have fun, don’t put limits on what you’ll read or write. Surprise is good. Fun is good. Sometimes light is ok.

#1) Walk.

Easy to do when you’re surrounded by 50+ acres of wild prairie. Walking opens the creative pathways.

If it works for Mary Oliver, it will work for you.

Note: this isn’t a command to exercise. Lighten up. Go for a simple walk.

Ragdale House

A truly magical place.

And just in case you’re still making excuses (see #9 above), I got up an hour early to write this post. I’m off to the day job (where they’re debuting my department newsletter, joy), then home to make dinner, do laundry, pay bills, fill out financial aid forms, walk, read, and write.

Care to join me?

*Bonus reminder – I’m human and thought I could get away with not proofreading a second time…argggghhhhh…you can never get away with not proofreading a second time.

2 Thoughts on “10 Writing Reminders You Need Now

  1. “You don’t need to make time. You need to make choices.” The best advice I have heard in a long, long while. Thanks, Suzanne.

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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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Crying in Restaurants

Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil
Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil

Flickr: loungerie / Via Creative Commons

This is going to be my thing: sharing work that’s been previously rejected.

The following is a true story. The idea for the piece came from a writing exercise while on a writing retreat at Ragdale, an artist community on Chicago’s North Shore. Oh, and the title is courtesy of Dani Shapiro.

I submitted it twice and received two rejections: one with a personal note that they’d just published something similar; one with some suggestions for changes.

Writing is revision, and I’m arm-pit deep in revising my novel. So I’m not suggesting that we all run out and post our crappy stuff that couldn’t hack it elsewhere.

But I loved this piece. I loved that it happened. I loved writing it. I cried writing it. I’m glad it’s out of me, and I don’t want to work on it any more. I want to share it for whatever it’s worth.

The writing of it was the point. Not the publishing of it. Sometimes that’s enough.

 

Crying in Restaurants by Suzanne M. Brazil

My newly formed writing practice is fueled by a medium iced tea and a shortbread cookie at the local Panera coffee shop. In these two hours carved out of a busy weekend, I aim to add 500 words to the first draft of my novel, and I vow to stay off the Internet. But first, I reinforce my commitment with writing tips and encouragement from my favorite authors.

still writing

I begin with a chapter from Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. In its pages, I see shades of myself in a description of her mother, a frustrated, middle-aged woman, clickety clacking away furiously on a typewriter.

My eyes fill with tears and my stuffy nose blocks the yeasty aroma of the café’s freshly baked bread. These hours with my laptop in the corner booth are my attempt to finally pursue a passion long denied. I’ve written my whole life but never allowed myself to believe I was a real writer.

I’ve written my whole life but never allowed myself to believe I was a real writer

Maybe the catalyst was an emptying nest, age spots on my hands, or preparing to celebrate my own mother’s 70th birthday. Whatever the cause, a few months ago, I realized I had to give writing everything I had, or regret it for the rest of my life.

Still Writing was a reward for meeting my word count goals. It joins Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and other sources of inspiration on my shelves.

For years, instead of writing, I’ve collected lives of real writers; living vicariously through Natalie Goldberg, Brenda Ueland, William Zinsser and many others.

For years, instead of writing, I’ve collected lives of real writers

Long ago, after reading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write, I filled countless yellow pads with morning pages. There were flashes of stories in those pages I didn’t yet have the skill or courage to tell.

Back then, I marveled at King’s brazen recounting of his rejection slip collection. What nerve to believe he had something to say, and how fortunate for his “dear readers” that he never gave up.

I’m part of the tribe because I write

In a later chapter of Still Writing, Shapiro recalls sending an early manuscript to author Tim O’Brien, one of her literary heroes. His unexpected and encouraging endorsement symbolically welcomed her into the tribe of writers.

A chill passes over me. Maybe it’s the air conditioning on this hot summer afternoon, or maybe it’s that this morning my son handed me a copy of his favorite reading assignment for the semester: O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I close Dani Shapiro’s book and open my slim silver computer, prepared to add pages to my rough draft knowing I’m part of the tribe because I write. I allow myself one foray into social media to message the author who inspired my writing session today.

I click on Shapiro’s Facebook page not knowing who manages her account or if she’ll see it. I thank her for Still Writing and confess that reading her words and pursuing my passion has unleashed a flash flood of tears in this very public place.

Hours later, my laptop timer and the condensation on my watery iced tea signal it’s time to head home and make dinner. I’m satisfied with 873 words added to my manuscript. Before packing up, I check Facebook and see the message waiting icon. It’s from Dani Shapiro.

I wipe away new tears and take a screen shot of her generous, encouraging comments. As to my crying in the coffee shop, she empathizes and says she once thought of writing a book based on similar experiences. She’d call it Crying in Restaurants.

Dani Shapiro Facebook Message

 

 

 

6 Thoughts on “Crying in Restaurants

  1. Barbara Armstrong on April 5, 2016 at 7:51 am said:

    This will be copied and added to my files from my WRITER daughter and when she has her novel published, I will show it to her and we will probably be in a restaurant and we will both be crying!!!!!

  2. This is a great piece, Suzanne! I love those seemingly random synchronicities that give you chills. They’re kind of like trail markers, letting you know you’re on the right path. …I’d say you’re not only part of the writing tribe, you’re part of that tribe of encouraging and inspiring writers who welcome others into the fold. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  3. Daisy Wawrzonek on April 6, 2016 at 12:06 pm said:

    What a wonderful story!! Thank you for sharing.

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Foiled by Phlegm

flu

flu

Last Monday, I had edited and readied for publication two author interviews and a long-overdue book review. Filled with hubris at my productivity, I gave a little cough to clear my throat and proclaim my triumph over lesser mortals.

I could not stop coughing for the next seven days. Add chills, body aches, fever, lack of appetite and a general inclination to remain unbathed and you have the puny remains of my flu-ravaged self.

Word count on the latest novel draft since that fateful Monday = 0

Published articles/blog posts since that fateful Monday = 0

Tomorrow is a new day. I’m climbing out of the menthol-vapor soaked depths of delirium. I managed to submit the two interviews, tomorrow will be the book review, and I’ll be up early to add words to the Work in Progress.

I read a beautiful novel while I was recuperating. It’s not new, my sister had been recommending it for months, and it was a big hit when it was first released. I will offer that it’s timeless, eloquent, and magical. I cried when it ended. It’s called Peace Like a River and I hope everyone reads it. I also watched Pride and Prejudice again for a gazillionth time. Comfort food.

Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. Creativity does indeed sleep.

 

 

5 Thoughts on “Foiled by Phlegm

  1. Me too! I just got out of the creative dark side of illness. Welcome back!

  2. Sorry to hear you have been sick. I did notice your absence, but thought you were just busy!

    Hope the ‘break?’ has given you much-needed dreaming/thinking time, and turns out NOT to be a waste of time, after all! (Every cloud… )

    Love, Hedgey 😉 xx

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REJECTED: Too Tired to Inspire

Tired kid
Tired kid

Creative Commons Image – Click on photo for source

For about a week, I’ve been contemplating an inspiring post about things that amaze me. But here’s the thing, I have a full time day job, and I’m committed to finishing this latest draft of my novel sooner rather than later. I’M TIRED PEOPLE.

Especially today. My husband and I dogsat last night for my daughter’s two dogs. We love these rent-a-pet opportunities. Throw a stick, scratch a belly, and then wave goodbye.

Thor and Ruger

Last night, her slightly neurotic boxer and fluffy mixed-breed slept over. Thor, the boxer, decided that 2:30 a.m. was a good time to slink over to my side of the bed and lick my hand. I was up Netflix-ing for the next four hours.

But writing this book is something I want to do, so instead of catching up on sleep, I brainstormed the rest of my outline.

All of this whining brings me to the topic of my post today. Sometimes writing things and flinging them out to the universe isn’t always gratifying. Sometimes we’re rejected by the very people who once accepted us and validated our writerly existence.

But I’m trusting all the legends out there,  all the novelists who tell us persistence is the key. So I’m persisting. And yawning. Which is why today, you’re getting a previously unpublished essay instead of my amazingly useful post on wonderous things that amaze me.

This essay was my second submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was rejected. The essay made my sisters cry which is one of my litmus tests. It did not make me cry. Maybe it will make you cry. Maybe not.

Maybe you’ll instantly know why my first submission to the Soup people was accepted and why this one was rejected. Maybe not. Probably not.

I don’t have the energy or desire to resubmit or rewrite this particular piece. I got it out of me and—to paraphrase a lovely novelist I interviewed this week—made it an artifact. This time that was enough.

It’s a true story. Names changed, etc.. I hope it speaks to you.

Remember to just keep “making stuff.” (Yes, that’s from Big Magic by our friend Liz, and yes, I resisted reading it because everyone’s reading it, and yes, now I have bent over every other page because it speaks to me…damn you, Liz!)

Here’s my rejected piece:

Lessons Learned

Had I known that sunny September day would set a course for the next 17 years of my life, I might have thought twice about attending the Parent Volunteer meeting. My brown-eyed girl was starting Kindergarten and I was determined to get involved. I left her two-year-old brother with a neighbor and dressed in my best mom uniform, khaki capris and sandals.

The gymnasium was set with folding chairs and long tables littered with sign-up sheets. There were paper cups filled with lemonade and rows of sparkly sugar cookies and grownups having conversations! I’d escaped the confines of stay-at-home-mom, venturing into the land of Moms Who Help. It was a vast land with its own politics and customs. Our comfortable community in a desirable school district had the unusual problem of fielding too many volunteers. Assignments filled quickly.

Our leader for the afternoon ended her welcome speech by reminding us that there were always areas in need of more help such as the Read-A-Book program. We had a diverse student body many of whose parents did not speak English in the home and did not have access to reading materials. Those volunteers selected would choose books and read aloud weekly to children in need of special attention.

It seemed like the perfect fit. We’d read to our kids from an early age and my daughter would see me helping her classmates. I put my name at the top of the list and selected a few other events as well. I would help stock the Book Fair and come in once a month for Art Parent, whatever that was. I also filled out a lottery form for Room Parent, the most competitive category. Those lucky folks that planned all the classroom parties were chosen in an annual drawing clouded with rumors of fixed entries and other shenanigans.

Throughout the next 17 years, I read to many of my children’s classmates and served as room parent more often than not. I chaperoned field trips to museums and zoos, spotted climbers on the knotted rope in P.E. classes, filled water balloons for orchestra camps, fed referees at wrestling tournaments, grilled bratwurst at football games and demonstrated sculpture to third graders using Hershey Kisses and toothpicks.

The assignment that resonated the most was the reading. It seemed such a simple thing. Each reading day, I’d choose a book from a cabinet in the volunteer room. I’d pull the pocket folder belonging to my student and record the book title. After reading, I returned the folder noting any comments the child made about the book or any requests they had for the following week.

We sat wherever we could find a spot. We’d plop down on big bean bag pillows in a carpeted hallway, a corner of the library, or a special sunny nook with no lockers off the office corridor. Most of the children spoke English but didn’t read much at home either because their parents didn’t have the time or didn’t speak English.

Each year, every session started out tentatively as I got to know my students. They’d ask whose mom I was and slowly, over weeks, they’d relax, revealing their personalities. Some demanded the same book each week. Some wanted me to scour the library to find a special title. Then there was Jake.

Jake was in my daughter’s fourth grade glass and according to other classroom parents, was likely to end up in juvenile detention before making it to high school. He was always in trouble. He swore. He was high energy. He received poor grades. He was troubled by most every definition and was assigned to read with me as his parents didn’t speak English at home.

The first day I called his name, he slapped a book off a classmate’s desk on his way out to join me in the hallway.

“Hi Jake,” I said.

“I hate reading.” He said.

“Good, you don’t have to read. You can just listen if you want.” I slid down the wall to the carpet wondering how I got so lucky to have him on my list.

“Maybe.” But he also sat down, three feet away from me as if he might bolt at any minute.

“I heard you like Goosebumps?”

“Whatever.” But he wasn’t punching anyone or trying to run away.

I opened the book and began to read. Occasionally, I’d sneak a peek at him. He had the spiky bangs in fashion with a lot of the boys. He had giant brown eyes and an 18-inch tail of hair down the middle of his back, the rest of his hair cut short to match his spiky bangs. The tail definitely stood out and I learned other students often teased him about it. The radical hairstyle contributed to his aura as the bad boy of the grade school set.

Our first meeting was deemed a success by his teacher. I could see a change as I called him each following week. He no longer acted out on his way to greet me. Instead, he practically ran and sat so close I could feel his warm skin and smell the baby shampoo his mom used on her special boy. He was always cheerful and seemed well-cared for. I didn’t understand the source of his behavior problems. I was just there to read.

One late spring day, we were finishing our last book of the year. I’d bought each of my students a book as a parting gift and I handed him a new Goosebumps paperback. He didn’t say much just twirled the long tail of hair. I took a risk and asked him about it.

“That must have taken a long time to grow, huh?”

“Yeah, my mom won’t let me cut it.” He didn’t let go of it and rubbed his other hand over the book cover.

“Really? How come?” I didn’t want to be nosey but I was intrigued.

“I was really sick as a baby and my mom told God if he let me live, she’d never cut my hair.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and finished reading. When I got to “The End” I closed the book and listened as the muffled sounds of a busy science lesson drifted through the closed classroom door. Other than that, our little alcove in the hallway was silent.

Then I heard Jake clear his throat, “Thanks for reading to me. Maybe I’ll get you next year.”

As my tears threatened to overflow, I risked possible rejection and hugged him. He hugged me right back.

My volunteer efforts on behalf of my two children and several school buildings have had splashier successes. In truth, I’m not even sure that my reading with Jake made any impact on his life other than those few hours we spent together in quiet enjoyment of a good book. What I am sure of is the valuable lessons Jake taught me.

Everyone you meet has a story and usually, you’ll never know what that story is. Secondly, any effort expended on behalf of another human being has the capacity to improve a life. In this case, that life was mine.

11 Thoughts on “REJECTED: Too Tired to Inspire

  1. Well, I liked it Suzanne! A valuable lesson to be reminded of. Who knows what the peeps at Chicken Soup were looking for, anyway? Doesn’t mean they didn’t like it, just that they liked something else better!

    A lovely story, though. <3 🙂 <3

  2. ksamudio on February 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm said:

    Yes, I love it; yes, I did get teary (even before the vow his Mom made to God – it hit me when he sat so close you could feel his warm skin/baby shampoo/Mom’s special boy); yes, I feel confident that you did have an impact on Jake – I’m betting he has never forgotten you, Suzanne the kind reading Mom!

  3. As we ride the life river we pass over stones we may never see again, unaware that our motion has changed their position forever.

  4. That’s a sweet story, Suzanne. I was still thinking about it the next day and the day after that. I think that’s the mark of a good story–one that stays with you! I bet you could find another outlet for it.

    I can also relate to your tiredness and your faith in the power of persistence… in spite of the tiredness and occasional disappointments. It’s all part of the process.

    P.S. I look forward to reading about things that amaze you some other time. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jennifer! I know we all have this limited time and energy quotient to spend on our activities, thoughts, pursuits. How we allocate it can affect what we finish, submit, etc. Pondering the “amazement” thoughts some more. Many thanks for chiming in, especially on the persistence and the process!

  5. Hi Suzanne! I’ve been getting many rejections lately as well! I have to remind myself how many times I have been lucky to get acceptances, which means someone else got the rejections! So I rejoice for those who are getting the “yes” this time around!

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9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

The King and I

The King and I

When I was 13, my mom took me to see Yul Brynner in The King and I at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. She’d been flinging us around the kitchen, belting “Shall We Dance, da da DAH,” for as long as I could remember. Seeing him twirl his co-star around the stage, along with every ballroom scene from every Disney Movie ever made, ignited a lifelong dream of mine to ballroom dance.

So what does this have to do with writing? Turns out, just about everything.

Most creative pursuits happen in the face of fear; all are driven by action. Whether you want to dance, play an instrument, learn to draw, or write, here are a few things you can try to jump start your 2016:

Action 1: Identify Resistance and welcome it as a guide. According to Stephen Pressfield in The War of Art:

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Resistance manifests as procrastination, doubt, and sometimes physical anxiety. Treat yourself to Pressfield’s book and learn to recognize resistance as a sign you’re on the right track.

Action 2: Make a Vision Board. Sure, might be corny, but research proves we’re more likely to achieve things we’ve envisioned and documented.

Neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action.

There are many ways to practice visualization. Doing something concrete matters. Here’s a picture of my vision board for 2016. For some other great visualization techniques, check out this article in Real Simple Magazine.

Vision Board

Three days after making my board, I received an email announcing a humor essay contest. If you zoom in, you’ll see the following on my board: laugh, contest, we have a winner!

Action 3: Choose a word of the year. I first saw this on Author Jennifer Davis Hesse’s blog and I thought it was genius. She cites Christine Kane as the inspiration behind this movement. Did you know that by January 17, most of us have abandoned any resolutions we’ve made?

Go with Kane’s plan and pick a word or theme instead. Easier to remember. My word for 2016 is “Do.” It appears prominently on my vision board.

Action 4: Leap. In Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, she encourages readers to take an action for which they believe they’re not quite ready. Hang gliding might not be the best example of this.

Instead, send a story to that lit mag you’re not quite ready for, make one call to volunteer to teach a class, or sign up to read a poem in public. My January leap was to lead at least one friend in a visioning exercise. It was a blast!

File Folders

Action 5: Take up space. Claim a spot for your writing. Stock it with colorful files, inspiring quotes, and your favorite books. I love TJ Maxx for great deals on journals, note cards, and unusual office supplies.

Action 6: Schedule Your Year. Hang a calendar and load it with writing events. Block out time for morning pages or your work in progress. Schedule at least one weekly writing-related activity such as a class, a live reading, a retreat, or if you’re on a budget, a podcast or video lesson. Again, better to have too many things to choose from than too few.

Action 7: Develop a Growth Mindset. Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Seriously, or get the Audio CD. We all have the ability to substantially improve in any area, provided we foster a growth mindset.

Change your mindset, change your life. It helped me to earn my degree, complete my first 5k, and get off the junk food. Writing my first novel was just a bonus. It’s not magic, it’s hard work. But it’s possible.

Action 8: Pick a number, write it down. Send in that many submissions this year. Better to shoot high and fall short than to aim too low. Shoot for the moon and all that but really think about it. If you write down 10, and you do 9, not bad, right? But what if you write down 25, and send in 11? That’s more than 9. See, I’m good at math!

Action 9: Find Your People. Contact one new acquaintance each week this month who shares your passion. Call them, email, or connect via social media. Invite someone for coffee. Exchange links to helpful articles. This is a trial and error undertaking but we all have to start somewhere.

Boldness required. Don’t worry about how others respond. Just do the action. Check libraries, the local paper, bookstores, online groups, or form your own on Meetup.com

Broadcast your desire for a network and you’ll manifest one. Tinker, revise, and keep building. Groups have a shelf-life. There’s one out there for you.

Dream, but don’t stop there.

You don’t have to try all 9 actions. Even doing one or two will propel you into motion. Don’t forget to celebrate each attempt.

Sleeping Beauty

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/292030357059749178/

If you look off to the right on my vision board, you’ll see a picture of dance shoes. Last Friday, I waltzed. Sure, I was wearing jeans instead of 500 yards of satin, but I waltzed.

My husband and I never got around to ballroom dancing lessons before our daughter’s wedding last June. A few months ago, I asked him if he’d be interested in going. He was less than enthusiastic, and it was my dream not his, so I went without him.

Voila, within 40 minutes, a charming instructor named Zach had me twirling around the dance floor, making another of my visions a reality.

I perspired a little, I cried a little (happy, joyful tears). I think I made him nervous, but he hid it well. My audition for Dancing with the Stars is a long way off, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. (Turns out, I’m “advanced.”)

imperfect-action-better-perfect-inaction-motivational-daily-quotes-sayings-pictures

We’re all energy in the universe, and I believe that Law of Attraction stuff is for real. DO ONE SMALL THING.

And don’t forget to pass it on. Encouraging others and celebrating their successes will bring you closer to your own dreams. You never know who you’ll inspire. Someone is looking up to you.

What will you start today?

7 Thoughts on “9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

  1. Uplifting and thought-provoking as always, dear Suzanne! Or should I call you ‘Twinkle-toes?’ 😉 xx

  2. YES! This all rings true. There’s a lot here to consider and delve into. I need to claim and pretty up my writing space, schedule my year, and network more…among other things.

    Good luck with the humor essay contest (I see you have comedy on your vision board too!), and congrats on following your dream to dance! That’s awesome.

    Thanks for the shout-out too. 🙂

  3. Thanks for remembering, its one of my very favorite memories!!!! Love you….Mom

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Yes, You Can Write Without This

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

You’ve read countless author bios that include some variation of this:

I’ve been making up stories in my head since before I could read. My parents said I lived in a dream world. Characters come to life in my head and speak to me, I see whole worlds before I even start to write.

This isn’t me, and it got me doubting. Again. Can I write fiction if my mind doesn’t work like this?

Writers often obsess over the processes of other writers. When do you write? Where do you write? Do you use a laptop, pen and journal, retro typewriter? It’s as if we think adopting the traits of those that came before will improve our own odds of success. How do you do it?

If we don’t do it the way Author X does, we must be doing it wrong. If it doesn’t come easily, we’re not talented. My comfort zone with writing is non-fiction: essays, news features, memoir, commentary, humor, etc.. Writing in these forms is reflexive for me.

I’ve always written stories as well, just not naturally or easily, or sometimes competently, as it turns out. Enrolling in my first fiction workshop stretched my writing muscles, occasionally resulting in a cramp.

When I started this blog almost two years ago, I wanted to share my journey as a newly committed writer. I wasn’t new to writing, I was just new to allowing it to take up space in my life. I reviewed over 100 of my previous posts and found a lot of them were thinly veiled attempts to quiet the voice of self-doubt.

Today I came across a blog post by a lovely writer waxing on about her imaginary worlds peopled with fascinating characters that talked to her and interacted as if alive. She couldn’t remember a time when her imagination was without a menagerie.

My heart sank. This isn’t how things worked for me.

I almost accepted it as another sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on fiction. Despite a novel in revision and numerous short pieces, my dream of telling absorbing, made-up stories felt threatened.

Then I remembered the freewriting exercise I did before bed last night. I didn’t have made up worlds and people living in my imagination for days prior. But, as my black Flair felt-tip flew across the pages of my notebook, a movie unfolded in my head.

Full Moon

Full Moon Silhouette. © bilbord99,

Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw Donald, a naughty little boy, as he tip-toed out of his house, without permission, to gaze at the glowing cheese moon up close. I smelled the cigarette smoke from Donald’s next door neighbor, ancient, senile James, and heard the creaking of the old man’s webbed lawn chair as he rocked back and forth. And I felt my chest tighten when a cold, rough hand closed around Donald’s ankle and pulled him off the wood pile. I swallowed a lump as another hand closed over the little boy’s mouth.

Donald and James arrived in my notebook, without making any previous appearances in my head. They’re not moving around there now, and if they’re talking, it’s not to me. I think they’re just waiting in Donald’s back yard where I left them.

I may return to them. I may not. I’m asking the what-if questions. My objective is to bring them to life in the mind of the reader.

Podcasts, blog posts, and social media links promise a magic tip or trick that will confirm we’re doing this writing thing right. Or, more in line with our anxiety, that we’re doing it all wrong. We’ll switch tactics and that will be the missing link in our quest to get published, score 5-star reviews, or sell our screenplay.

Maybe this is just another form of self-doubt, our inner gremlins trying to keep us safe in the land of the easy: Don’t try fiction, it’s too hard. You can’t make up stories if you don’t do it this way.

All the good stuff exists beyond the boundaries of the familiar, the comfortable. Does it matter that I don’t have entire worlds in my head? For now, I’ve decided it doesn’t. Fiction is challenging, it’s exciting, and I don’t want to stop yet. I’m learning to tell stories my way.

This is how it’s working for me. One writer’s process. My plan is to keep learning, keep seeking, keep writing.

You’ll find no magic tip here, just gentle encouragement. Your way is the right way for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Yes, You Can Write Without This

  1. Oh, this SO resonates with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing a post that validates ANY method we have as writers for getting words on the page. Sometimes my characters are there in my head, and I can watch them in motion. Other times, I need an inspiring snippet to read in my research to get them started. Sometimes, they disappear for days and weeks at a time, while other parts of my life take up so much room I can’t allow them to be part of it. Yes, I’ve made stuff up all my life, but not full stories. Adaptations of other author’s work. Mostly, I’ve imagined writing. Over the past year, though, I’ve let writing become a fuller part of my life, internally and educationally. I’m slowly going through the process of “becoming” a writer. It’s both the hardest and must gratifying process I’ve ever engaged in, besides parenting.

    • Your comment resonates with me, Wendy! At a time in my life when many contemporaries are enjoying down time from parenting, just relaxing, I find myself gearing up and taking on this huge writing challenge. It takes hours and hours every week. You put it well “the hardest and most gratifying process besides parenting.” I think that’s how we know it’s ok to keep doing it! Write on, sister, write on! And many thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Thank you for the encouragement, Suzanne! Your words are so reassuring. There is no right or wrong process when it comes to writing. …I know this is true, but those darn doubts can be so persistent. I’m glad you decided to share your journey!

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Christmas of Sloth or You Won’t Find this Post Useful

Suzanne as Sloth

Suzanne as Sloth

Writing a blog means writing a blog even when you don’t feel like it. Scratching your head, coming up with topics that at least one person finds interesting or useful.

It means putting ideas down on the screen with an ice storm pelting your windows and the Christmas tree desiccating in the corner.

I was going to write about goals achieved: Five bylines for the local newspaper, a book signing for charity, my first author panel at a big city bookstore.

Then I was going to choose favorite posts of the year, but the ones I think were my best aren’t the ones most people cared about.

So instead, I’m going to talk about what I got for Christmas. And by “got,” I mean unwrapped – not family love, peace, and harmony, blah blah blah, though fortunately I received that as well.

Christmas 2015 was the Christmas of Sloth.

By request, I received 4 or 5 bubble bath/body scrub products.

I received two magazine subscription renewals: Entertainment Weekly  (lots of book reviews), Writers Digest. And a few others including Flow, which is a magazine for paper lovers, weird, I know. And Poets & Writers.

Books! I got books! I’m almost done reading Descent by Tim Johnston which was a request of mine. I have The Virgins by Pamela Erens waiting in the wings. This novel was a recommendation from a writing teacher.

Using some gift certificates, I’ve ordered three other books that should arrive by tomorrow: Eats, Shoots and Leaves (yes, it’s a book about punctuation), the latest Stephen Hawking, and a book on the law of attraction.

Candy, candles, football tickets, a 2016 Sister calendar, new bras in my stocking from Victoria Secret (an annual tradition). So many other cool things but for now, I’m focused on the relaxation of it all. Ooooh, a pedicure gift certificate.

Almost forgot. My sister just sent me a new karaoke machine. I have one in the kitchen but the microphone is going. This new microphone is pristine, and now, if I feel like it, I can have a friend join me for a duet.

Basically, I’ll be laying in a hot tub of soapy water reading for the next six weeks. When (if) I emerge, I will put on new stretchy clothes, and sing to my heart’s content.

I’m filling up the well, reading Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, reading great novels, and allowing myself to write what I want. Notebook is next to the bed for ideas visiting at night, laptop is charged.

Soon enough, my sloth stage will pass. A new correspondence course on Story as a State of Mind awaits when I’m ready. And my novel. My novel is calling.

What were your favorite gifts of 2015?

2 Thoughts on “Christmas of Sloth or You Won’t Find this Post Useful

  1. That sounds like a lovely Christmas, Suzanne. My favorite gifts are the “pampering” kind of gifts too–self-care, relaxation, sloth… it’s all good. 🙂 And now I want to check out all those books you mentioned!

    By the way, I can relate to that “head-scratching” feeling of trying to come up with a blog post every week. You’re doing a great job!

    • Hope you got some pampering, Jennifer! I’m in the middle of doing some writing exercises so the blog posts get challenging when you feel like all your good ideas get used up 🙂 Refilling the well helps, doesn’t it? Thanks again for reading and Happy, Healthy New Year!

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Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

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Sawyer Writing Collective - Warren Dunes, MI

Google “Retreats” and you’ll find price tags ranging from $499 for a budget plan to the $3,000 range for deluxe accommodations. Excluding travel costs. If you need to get away on a budget and aren’t looking for a guru or instructor, try a DIY Retreat.

A weekend away with acquaintances who share a common goal can be more regenerative and productive than a best girlfriend getaway. Whether you’re in need of a yoga/fitness intensive, a relaxing spa experience, or a creative workshop weekend, you can save a ton of cash by planning your own.

Last month, I spent a perfect weekend with two fellow writers I met in a novel workshop. Elaine, Puja, and I shared a rented cottage on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan for 2 ½ days and spent an average of $106 each (excluding food).

Suzanne Brazil DIY Retreat

By the time we packed up for the late Sunday drive home, we’d already decided on a name for our group and plans to squeeze in another retreat before year-end.

Here are our Top 10 Tips for a Perfect DIY Retreat:

Once you’ve agreed on a date, schedule a meeting to decide the following and then confirm one way to communicate, email, text, Facebook, etc.

#1 Communicate vision or goals: Each attendee should be up front about what they want out of the time away. For example:  I want to walk outside and would love company; I want to hole up in my room and not come out unless I’m hungry; I’d love to share ideas.

As writers, we all craved uninterrupted writing time for our current works in progress. We originally decided on a group sharing for our second night. As Saturday approached, we were all making progress and wanted to stay focused on writing, so we cancelled the reading.

Lake Michigan Dunes, Sawyer, Michigan

#2 Decide on a budget: Be honest! The idea is to save money by arranging a DIY retreat, don’t lose sight of your spending limits. Your budget will likely determine the distance you’re willing to travel and preferred locations.

We chose the Harbor Country area near the Indiana/Michigan border. We divided the original cost of an available house by five people (the original number interested in going). We ended up with three writers and stayed within our budget, we just downsized the house.

Sawyer Writing Collective Writers' Retreat

#3 Book your lodging: One person arranges, collects the money, acts as liaison for booking, etc. For their trouble, they get first choice of room or the master. Alternatively, agree on sharing the researching duties and draw straws for the top spot.

Elaine emailed us with a few choices from the Airbnb website. We voted, Elaine booked, and we paid her via PayPal or personal check.

#4 Confirm meal arrangements: Plan on at least one communal meal. Depending on your location, you may decide to venture into town for one or more meals. As for groceries, everyone bring what they want but be willing to share. Label if it makes it easier, confirm what’s off limits and what’s open season.

We originally agreed on grilling Friday night and dining in town on Saturday. We brought our own entrees, shared salads and enjoyed a great meal. The next night, only two of us went out because the other writer was on a roll with her project. It worked!

#5 Discuss sleep schedules: Is one of you a late riser who needs morning quiet? Are you a confirmed snorer? Bring ear plugs and respect everyone’s preferences.

I was up early, Elaine had to have 8 hours, and Puja was at the mercy of her dog’s schedule.  First one up agreed to get the coffee brewing.

Warren Dunes, Lake Michigan

#6 Discuss bathroom arrangements: Know the quirks of your home for the weekend. Agree on a schedule if necessary.

As first one up, I showered while the others slept which gave the hot water tank time to refill (per our hosts’ instructions).

#7 Discuss house rules: Do you have smokers in your group? Pets? What about TV and Music? If you aim to be as courteous as possible, the others will reciprocate. Aim for inclusion, consideration, and respect for privacy.

We all traveled with earbuds and our laptops, went TV-free, and kept conversation to a minimum unless we were all on a break together. Elaine and I accompanied Puja when she had to walk her dog late at night. Puja knew I was skittish around dogs so made sure to sleep with the door closed and the puppy safe inside.

#8 Mark the opening and closing of your retreat: Don’t run off to unpack in your rooms the minute you arrive. Take a moment to toast the time you’ve carved out of your overstuffed lives and maybe even write down what your goals were when you booked. Post this somewhere in the common area so you’re all reminded why you’re there.

Elaine wanted to reach 10,000 words on her rough draft. Puja wanted to incorporate the various pieces of her project into one coherent document, and I wanted to revise chapters 1-5. We wrote this on a piece of paper and kept it out on the dining room table.

Sawyer Writing Collective - Goals

#9 Exchange something: Going away with others offers something a solo retreat does not, the opportunity to learn, interact, and share energy for a common interest. Think of one thing each of you can contribute: i.e., a new pose, a healthy recipe, an inspiring quote, a book recommendation, or a playlist geared toward your activity.

One of the benefits of having a hive mind is the serendipitous ideas and tips that arise. Be open to bumping into someone in the hallway and trying out an idea. Consider sharing a trinket of some kind to mark the occasion, it adds a little something. I had a variety pack of three notebooks with fun sayings on the cover. Cost? Less than $4

Writing Retreat, Sawyer, Michigan

#10 Evaluate Post-Retreat: Agree on follow-up questions ahead of time. Would you return to the same location or prefer someplace new? How did the meals work out? Did your group share great chemistry? Would you want to add or subtract attendees next time?

We each reached our goals and gave our retreat 5 Stars!

The Sawyer Writing Collective’s second retreat is scheduled for next month and I can’t wait. Our cost this time is only $86. T-Shirts are in the works, and we’re considering new members.

Books on Sawyer Writing Collective Writing Retreat

We came away with new books to read, interesting angles on our stories, and a deeper camaraderie around our passion: writing.

Have you been itching to get away? What would you like to accomplish or focus on in the last quarter of 2015 or the start of 2016? Why not find a yoga partner, classmate or acquaintance with similar interests and suggest a DIY retreat? If you follow the steps above, you’ll have a blast, and return to your regular lives refreshed, energized, and with cash to spare. Don’t you deserve it?

You can read more about my first retreat experience here.

Elaine Richards has an MBA, and a degree in journalism from USC. She is at work on her first novel. Connect with her on Twitter @Elaine_yr

Puja Mojindra is a graduate of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)’s MFA Acting program and is currently at work adapting her one-woman play, A Great Dive, into a novel. Follow her on Twitter @PujaMohindra

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

  1. colleen on October 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm said:

    Great post, Suzanne! So glad you got to get away. So important to do. :O)

  2. My friends do this often just for getaways – I don’t know why I never thought of doing this for writing!

  3. Hello Suzanne, I’m revisiting this piece in advance of a retreat coming up in April. I’ve read several build-your-own retreat articles and your’s is still one of the best. Simple, thoughtful and obviously written by a writer who’s been there. Thanks again.

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