Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

Aha moment Do the work

Hard hat

You have questions.

And the internet is a rabbit hole of answers.

When is the best time to write? How do you tackle revision? Should you write in the morning? Do you need a Mac or is Windows still ok? Word or Scrivener? Music or no music? What kind of music?

Suggestions are everywhere.

Truman Capote only wrote lying down. Philip Roth writes standing up. Writing in long hand boosts creativity. Your desk should face the window. Your desk should never face the window.

How do you know you’re doing it right?

On a snowy night in late March, I  sat with two other writers in an Irish pub discussing our works-in-progress (all first novels, two Women’s fiction, one hard Sci-Fi).

We all needed answers.

I had a new chapter to workshop. The Sci-Fi guy, a proud new dad and entrepreneurial mogul, was making progress but wanted to write more consistently. The other WF writer, an MBA and busy VP Marketing executive by day, had just finished her rough first draft and was “stymied” by revisions.

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We tossed around suggestions over appetizers and a vodka tonic (don’t judge—the drive in from the suburbs was horrendous).

Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method which I saw him describe in a TV interview, struck a chord with Sci-Fi guy. I’d brought along four books on revision to help MBA tackle her second draft. Sci-Fi guy produced a three-foot long stapled printout from Scrivener illustrating how he kept track of character arcs and timelines, because I’d lost count of the draft I was on.

This was good stuff. Stuff we could act on.

Aha moment Do the work

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Still, we pondered. Were we doing it right? Maybe we should try that new book or class! Then Sci-Fi guy said something that we strained to hear over the music and revelry of the pub:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

My eyes locked on MBA’s, and together we turned to Sci-Fi guy, not sure we’d heard him correctly.

The look on his face was what I imagine Ben Franklin looked like when his uncredited minions helped him discover electricity. It was a literal “Aha” moment.

I resumed my book recommendations, pointing out a chapter MBA might like on setting. Sci-Fi guy grinned at us (I’d say maniacally but, you know, adverb) for a few seconds. Then he interrupted, louder this time:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

No problem hearing him this time.

MBA: “Wow, this meeting just took a turn.”

Jack Nicholson The Shining

We all laughed, until he said it again.

Sci-Fi guy: “I’m serious. We need to just do the f$#king work.”

Maybe a rowdy Irish pub wasn’t the best place for a critique group, now that we thought about it.

Fast forward two weeks to a snowy April night (that’s right, snow in April . . .my kind of town, Chicago is…), MBA and I sat in the same pub and shared an order of fries.  She provided specific, generous insight that helped me interpret feedback I’d received from a professional editor

Then MBA said she had a question for me.

MBA: “What notebooks do you use? Like, how many different ones and how do you organize them?”

I laughed out loud, repeated Sci-Fi guy’s memorable suggestion and then said, “No, seriously. I have like one for the novel, and another for interviews. . .”

So what’s the point? The point is you have questions. You need advice. You need to learn craft. And you will find endless answers. That’s what fantastic blogs like Writers Helping Writers and Womens Fiction Writers and Bang2Write and are for.

The point is no matter how far you are into your essay, or memoir, or novel, you may always feel you’re doing it wrong.

The point is no matter how many books you read, or how many lists you study, or how many podcasts you listen to, no one way works for every writer.

In an interview on Writers on Writing, Author Sari Wilson put it this way:

“The process has its own intelligence. Committing to the process through all the different obstacles that are presented has its own logic and its own power, and it will take you through the process. There will be an end.”

In other words, the doing of “it,” whatever “it” is, teaches you how to do “it.” You have to DO. You have to mess up.

All the “Habits of Great Writers” lists and viral posts in the world can’t change that.

Sometimes you’re just scared and stalling. How can you tell the difference? How do you get from stalling to writing?

Just Do The F$#king Work

Here’s the best of what’s worked for me:

Set a goal. Any goal.

What should yours be? Who cares? Time spent, words added up. It doesn’t matter. My first one was 500 words a day/5 days a week (flexibility was key).

Refer to a few trusted guides (don’t overload).

Go for tried and true, review recommendations. In the end, the voice that speaks to you matters. I like Wired for Story, Immediate Fiction, and Stein on Writing.

Stay in touch with your project as often as possible.

Don’t fall prey to the drift. I like Seinfeld’s approach. When I had the flu, it all went to pot. Touching it every day makes it easier to get back in. Staying in touch can mean reading a paragraph, or rewriting a whole chapter. You decide.

Practice. Reading about how others do it isn’t enough.

Find a suggestion that resonates? Put down the damn book and go try it. Then and there. Share what worked and what didn’t with your peers.

If you believe you don’t have time to write, keep a time/activity log.

I claimed to want a writing life as I munched on popcorn watching The Voice for the third time in a week. That’s not writing, that’s lying. Make your intentions match your actions.

Make contacts with writers you admire who will call you on your BS.

Go out on a limb. Take a class. Go to a conference. Be brave. Be bold. Have business cards or a pen and notepaper (you’re a writer, after all). Get contact information. Email people. Invite them for coffee. Bam!

Eventually, as Sci-Fi guy knew, we all just have to do the f$#king work. And that’s the only answer you need.

Are you ever guilty of avoiding the work? How do you get back to it? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.




4 Thoughts on “Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

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Mom’s Annual Back-to-School Nag



Each new school year brings with it a desire to set a new course, to orient our family and our kids on the right path. Nowadays, we’re beyond choosing the right markers and school box. But the urge to guide persists.

With a newlywed daughter who graduated in 2013 and a son in the middle of earning his degree, I find myself thinking about bigger things than the right binder to finally keep them organized. That battle has been fought and lost. Still, a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.

I wanted to write this as an open letter to my kids but I no longer hold the power to make them read my ramblings. So I offer up the following thoughts to the universe: my kids, your kids, and even adults contemplating new beginnings.

While taking a walk through the neighborhood the other night, we ran into some parents we knew from our kids’ high school.  We shared the normal updates on how the “kids” were doing in college, their chosen majors and eventually, the exorbitant costs and declining value of a bachelor’s degree.

Then the dad surprised us by saying he was disappointed his son wanted to change majors from accounting to something much less lucrative.  The father’s reasoning?  His son had already decided on the model of car and the size house he wanted, and he wasn’t going to get there with this new major.


We walked away and I felt a little sad and vaguely guilty.  Why?  Because I fear that during leaner years, in an effort to hang on to our comfortable surroundings in a highly desired school district, we may have given our kids the impression that a nice car and house were the desired outcome of a worthwhile life.

I’m haunted by the idea that we would instruct our kids to spend four of the most formative and exploratory years of their lives studying for a job they might hate based simply on the type of car they would drive and the square footage of their first house.

“We may have given our kids the impression that a nice car and house were the desired outcome of a worthwhile life.”

After 49 years on this swirling blue marble, I’ve spent many joyous moments traveling ‘round it.  I’ve experienced thrills, excitement, rapture, passion, kindness and many other positive things. Not once during joyful times did I ever think to myself  “This would never have been possible without that BMW or McMansion.”

I’ve broken down on the highway during a Chicago Winter because of a crappy car (1977 Green Mustang II – not one of the cool ones).  I’ve also been the proud owner of a brand new car (once) and now drive what most would consider a nice SUV—bought used, without a lot of bells and whistles.

We live in a modest, older ranch home that we’ve spent our free time and money working to improve.  I’ve often complained about the outdated kitchen (somehow lost that renovation battle to the garage).  I’ve also been proud to help install our own wood floors and design a custom vanity with soapstone countertops.

These “things” have made us more comfortable and made our surroundings more aesthetically pleasing.  Yes, they would have happened faster had we deeper financial resources.  To paraphrase some wise folks “money can’t make you happy but the lack of it can make you miserable if you let it.”

So why this particular nag, this particular school year? Because my used car and still unfinished home are worth every second I got to spend with them after school, making lunches on days off, picking dandelions at the bus stop, and thousands upon thousands of other moments we’ve shared.

Making the decision to give up one income so our kids wouldn’t have to go to daycare for 10 or 12 hours a day has cost us financially.  There were some pretty lean years, and retirement is a distant dream at this point.  A financially secure future is a worthwhile goal, but should it be the sole purpose in choosing what we study or do for our life’s work?

I sure hope not.  Security can be a prison.  Some parents spend more time commuting than they spend with their families each week.  Trying to keep up with the Jones’s rarely brings true happiness.  I am not naïve enough to suggest that having enough money to live comfortably is a bad thing.  It is my assertion that a picture of the vehicle you use to run errands is a sad goal if it’s the only goal.

Why become an accountant/dentist/engineer/teacher/belly dancer?  It should be because we love numbers/teeth/equations/children/bare midriffs; not because we want the super X version of the latest model car.  Unless your passion is cars, that just seems sad.

Go, be free.  Make mistakes, change your course of study.  Take a year off.  Write bad poetry and sing off-key around a campfire.  Grow your hair too long and take a smelly backpack somewhere off the beaten path where I will worry about your safety.  You will get a little hungry, you will waste a year of earning power and lose compound interest.  You will meet fascinating undesirables.

Please come back (don’t miss Christmas!) and finish college.  Not because I think your degree in contemporary art history will get you that car or house.  Finish so you learn to complete things.  For those recently graduated: go, be free; make mistakes, take more courses if desired; take a year off; write bad poetry and sing off-key around a campfire.

One strange wild ride on the blue marble – that’s what we get.  Make sure to grab for something that matters.  A nice car and a nice house for those without may mean all the difference in the world.  For most of us, they shouldn’t be the only stuff dreams are made of.

When you graduate and go to work, if you have a 401k, please promise to contribute the maximum.  But in the meantime, reach for a bigger goal.  Explore a more profound dream. Do scary things.

9 Thoughts on “Mom’s Annual Back-to-School Nag

  1. CathyS on August 31, 2015 at 10:20 am said:

    My family and I have travelled a similar road as yours, from the ranch-in-need-of-updates to the used SUV. lol There are many ways to reach a desired destination and I wouldn’t want to judge the choices of others. I’m simply grateful to you for expressing so well the motivations and sentiments for the decisions we’ve made along the way. I needed the validation today. 🙂

  2. Inspiring, honest, and very human; as per! 😉


    Happy new school year, one and ALL!

    love from The Hedgehog. xx

  3. I love this, and I completely agree. While of course it’s important to be financially responsible, there are things in life that are worth more than money. If we relinquish life in pursuit of material things, as you said, “Security can be a prison.” By the way, I think you’d love the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. It’s a beautiful expression of what you’ve related here. You’re right on. Keep living life to the fullest, and God bless you! Audrey

  4. Very inspiring – I would like to use it as an open letter to many people — not just kids. Thank you!

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