When Beverly Cleary died in March, at 104, the little girl who still lives inside me cried her heart out.
Cleary’s books, along with Judy Blume’s TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING and SUPER FUDGE, were the first chapter books I read as a kid. I remember relating to the Quimby family’s always-tight finances, and the frequency with which Ramona heard her parents struggling with depression, big bills, and unavailable jobs. I’ve never forgotten the agony of squeaky shoes on the first day of school or the horror of throwing up in class. And remember when Ramona broke a raw egg on her head? Ugh. Ramona and her foibles taught a generation of kids that one could endure all that, feel all the feels, and carry on.
Did Ramona grow up to be a writer?
The Ramona books came out in the 70s when the economy was hurting, and gas lines were long. Our parents sighed after reading the news a lot, and they tried hard to find their way. Those days smell like peanut butter sandwiches in metal lunch boxes, leather shoes wet with rain, and school glue. Ramona and I both wore hand-me-downs, chose favorite teachers, and felt big feelings. We were little girls without front teeth, and we, too, were trying hard to find our way.
Ramona’s parents weren’t perfect like the parents in other books. They were often irritable or struggling with their burdens, and getting hamburgers in a sit-down restaurant as a family was a BIG TREAT. There were even lovely strangers in the world who paid for their meal. The way Cleary wrote the Quimbys helped me (and a generation of kids) feel seen and life would be okay.
“I think children like to find themselves in books.” ––Beverly Cleary
A librarian told third-grader-Beverly to write stories. She wrote about her third-grade experiences, writing childhood from the inside out. Eight years old is such a pivotal time for a kid. Eventually, Beverly wrote about Ramona, who was eight, who was read by readers like me, also eight. The result is a bit like Russian nesting dolls, except with a writer, inside a writer, inside a writer. So, maybe generations of kids who nested inside Ramona like me became writers because of that librarian.
I have a hunch Ramona Quimby grew into a woman who still found wonder around every corner, felt all of her feelings, and laughed at her foibles––eventually. Looking at photos of the elderly Beverly, with the glint of Ramona forever in her eye, I’m sure that’s exactly how life turned out. And now, at 104, Beverly has died. But Ramona lives on, in books and in writers like me.
Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia!
Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she’s completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. Lucky for us, she’s also written a series of blog posts on the writing life! She’ll be sharing these here on my blog over the next few months. Today, she’s bringing us her insights on “shitty first drafts” and “writing sprints,” explaining how to use both to help you get more words—and more magic—on the page every time!
WRITING SPRINTS AND SFD’S
by Tia Levings
I’LL NEVER FORGET WHERE I was the day I learned about shitty first drafts (SFDs). The phrase alone got my attention, so bold and borderline-crass in a sea of serious approaches to “craft.” I bought BIRD BY BIRD because I was familiar with Anne Lamott’s blue-jeans-and-bare-feet spirituality. She’s forgiving, likes dogs, and knows how to tame wild anxiety. To me, she is St. Anne, patron saint of nervous writers trying to find their way.
Writing sprints and SFDs changed my writing life completely.
I’d recently decided to write my first novel, based on an idea I got from a travel ad. My two main characters came in loud and clear––travel writers who wanted to kill each other. The problem was, they were married (to each other) and had just accepted a job contract contingent on their union.
I had a premise, characters, a fun working title…and minimal plot. Looking back, I’m not sure I even knew what the word “plot” meant yet. I wanted to write a novel and had no idea how to do it.
So I took BIRD BY BIRD on audio out for a walk. I left my front porch and our cul-de-sac and crossed the street to get on the sidewalk. One square, two square.. “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back,” came to mind. I was on the seventh square of the sidewalk when I heard Anne’s voice describe what she called “shitty first drafts.” Zing! Electricity.
The SFD reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES––the skeletal frame. Anne called it “writing without reining yourself in.” She said it’s almost like “just typing.” You can’t overthink, which is hard for anxious writers who want to get it right. But there’s no pausing for corrections in the SFD. The sentences run on. The ideas flow and wander. You’re writing down the bones of your story, and the pretty fleshy bits come later.
An SFD is more than writing badly on purpose. It’s a flow.
If you’ve used free-writing and morning pages as techniques to become unblocked, you’re working the right muscles for a shitty first draft. These uncensored lines flow through you, mind to hand. The difference between an SFD and my morning pages is intention; I have an idea with story elements I’m working with on a draft. Otherwise, the sensation while writing is very much the same.
If your shitty first draft is rambling, incoherent, and too-ugly-to-show-anyone, you’re doing it right. You never show anyone your SFD. Showing it off is not the point. You’re just getting the words down on paper—messy, uncramped words out of your head and onto the page. You can edit and revise later, but only if you put the words down first.
I’m no longer a new writer. And in my experience, a gate with two locks guards the pathway to a solid working draft and the Kingdom of Completed Projects. The SFD is one key to the kingdom; the other is writing sprints.
Writing sprints are timed shitty first drafts. You assign yourself a duration, set the timer, and go, much like a free-writing session. When I sprint, I go for fifty minutes, break for ten, and usually do another, sometimes changing projects. The rinse in between is long enough to grab a snack, get some fresh air, and then dive back in with my concentration renewed.
The urgency of the clock is just enough pressure to keep my fingers flying. I’m not stopping to edit and rearrange sentences because I want that word count target. My eye is on the prize.
I write in Scrivener, which allows me to set word count targets against a calendar date. Scrivener tells me how many words I have to write per day to hit both the word count goal and deadline. The alchemy of target, timer, and deadline is the method I use for all of my work now.
Writing sprints are also excellent keys to unlock creative blocks. Choose a writing prompt––Jamie’s tarot prompts work great for this––and set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Just write whatever comes to mind, even if that’s “I don’t know what to write about this.” Sometimes I even type with my eyes closed. It always leads to a discovery. Most importantly, it creates movement, and when I’m done, I’m no longer blocked.
Vocal writing sprints: try talking it out
A few of my author-friends are experimenting with speech-to-text software for their SFDs. Using microphones and dictating their first drafts, they get the words down quickly, well enough to revise and edit in a second sprint. In his book 5,000 WORDS PER HOUR, Chris Fox breaks down his method to increase word count efficiently. It’s working for genre writers I follow online, and if speed an issue for you, dictation might help you battle it out.
SFDs and writing sprints help me overcome creative paralysis and perfectionism. The point, which is a draft that can be cleaned, edited, and improved, makes sound metaphorical and practical sense to me. I still turn to BIRD BY BIRD when I get stuck. St. Anne suggests short assignments, one-inch squares, and making messes. We’ve got to break these enormous tasks into bites we can handle, as the title suggests. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
* * *
I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia!
A FEW WEEKS AGO, I got to discuss both writing coaches and the role of critical feedback in a writer’s life for The Working Writer Podcast with my client and good friend Tia Levings. Tia and I started working together in 2017, when she came to me looking for feedback on her current work in progress and for writing coaching, in general. Like a lot of writers, Tia was juggling too many ideas and didn’t know how to get her books done.
Although she was a prolific writer (yay!), just writing a lot wasn’t enough. At that point, Tia really needed an objective eye to help her see what was going wrong.
A writing coach is a trusted story confidante
Offering quality feedback is a big part of my job. Good writing doesn’t happen in an echo chamber. You know how it goes–-you work hard on a piece and feel like it’s done until that edge of doubt creeps in. “Is it really any good?” “Am I missing something?” “Who can I ask to read it?”
As challenging as it is to find a critique partner, feedback is important. After all, you’ve been staring at those words for so long your eyes now skip right past your errors. You are, as they say, too close to the forest to see the trees. But not all feedback is helpful and not every opinion shared will be useful. How can you know?
There are criteria that separate good feedback from the bad. Some of this comes down to the feeling generated by that feedback. If the suggestions are personal attacks on you as a writer, then they are not constructive suggestions to make your piece stronger. A critique that rips your writing to shreds without practical ideas on how to adjust what isn’t working maybe overly negative and as such, would be of more value discarded and ignored than taken seriously.
And what about the poor newer writer, who finds themselves on the receiving end of that?! They’ve mustered up the courage to have their work scrutinized and bam! I can’t blame them if a bad critique experience makes them want to just quit.
Good writing coaches don’t offer feedback as a personal attack
Ironically—and unfortunately—it’s fear of this very situation that causes some writers to skip the feedback step entirely. Instead, they just put their work out there, sending it to agents or self-publishing it online, without ever having a thoughtful manuscript review.Nah, nah, nah, nah … I can’t hear you, they think, with their hands over the ears. And then when their queries go unanswered, their books don’t sell, and their reviews sit silent, they wonder why.
When Tia invited me to be on her podcast, she focused our discussion on a writer’s need for good feedback and the role coaches play in that process. Tia describes a “working writer” as one who takes their craft and effort seriously. While hobbies are great, her show draws a distinction between writing as an occasional interest and writing as a serious pursuit.
I bet there are as many ways to be a working writer as there are writers. Tia has an exciting line up of guests planned, including agents, professors, novelists, editors, and yours truly, her writing coach.
Writing coaches are part editor, part cheerleader
As I mentioned, Tia came to me as a client three years ago—after a Google search and an emotionally difficult experience with another coach before me. Like a lot of writers, she’d been working hard but in circles, not knowing what she didn’t know.
Her previous foray into working with a coach resulted in red-pen words and tears––so not my style. As I wrote in this post about writing coaches, a coach is always on a writer’s side. A great coach will have the chops, knowledge, and experience to effectively help a writer get their books done. Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is your smart, effective writing friend.
Kudos to Tia for trying again—because once we identified where the issues were in her process, she was able to fix them and move forward with her writing career. She now has a completed memoir nearing publication, has co-authored a book on the writing craft, and has several viable fiction projects in progress.
Tia started The Working Writer Podcast in 2020, and every episode pairs with a Companion Guide––a short ebook that further explores the topic of that week’s show. My episode airs on February 10.
Tia’s also written a series of blog posts on the writing life. You’ll see them posted here throughout the coming months.
In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast on Anchor and Itunes, as well as anywhere else you access podcasts. It’s also in video format on YouTube. The Companion Guide for my episode is called Get Feedback on Your Writing, and is available on Amazon.
WHAT IS A WRITING COACH? Someone who helps writers get their books done! Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is always, always on a writer’s side—and she is also someone who has the chops, knowledge, and experience to make her support effective.
Your writing coach is your smart, effective writing friend. Whether you’re trying to figure out which writing project to tackle next, how to plot your story, or how to even handle such a big commitment with so many other demands on your time, she will guide you forward confidently.
She’s traveled this road before, and knows how to get you where you’re going.
While I’ve been coaching writers for well over a decade, and have developed solid strategies along the way, I was curious: what makes a great writing coach? I asked this question of a dozen writers, including several well-published colleagues, a few clients, a former writing coach, an editor, the head of a college writing program, and the creative director of a small publishing house.
If you’re in the market for a writing coach, you might keep their responses in mind.
So, what does make a great writing coach?
Tom Wallace, editor and ghostwriter: Contrary to what many new writers believe, the craft of writing—narrative writing, creative writing—is less an inborn talent than a collection of skills that can be learned. In my observation, the best coaches—great coaches—can not only hold multiple story and character ideas in their minds, but guide writers in applying the skills they need to make those ideas work. A great coach offers both their knowledge and their generous attention to a writer’s creative needs. Working with a coach is an investment in time and energy that can transform a writer’s creative journey and pay off for years to come.
Joyce Sweeney, award-winning author, former writing coach, literary agent with The Seymour Agency: I think, moving past the obvious skill of knowing the rules of good writing and how to apply them, the real talent a great writing coach brings to the table is to be able to read the client’s work and feel the intent. We have to know what this person is doing, why they are doing it, and what is important to them beyond what they have written. What do they uniquely have to say? What undeveloped gifts can we see traces of? We have to somehow see the finished project they are dreaming of, and work backwards from that to what they have put on the page so far.
Tam Cillo, Communications at Club Car: We all have our writing strengths and weaknesses. A good writing coach celebrates the former and helps improve the latter—and she creates an atmosphere of acceptance. When she reviews my writing, she is listening for my voice, my personality. This means she sees what’s possible in even the roughest pieces. Like my favorite scuffed sneakers, my work doesn’t need to be pristine, like out-of-the-box white Keds for her to see the potential.
A great writing coach does more than encourage, though. She helps me set goals—and stick to them. She knows that the art of writing takes more than creativity, that I must continue to develop my skills. And when I get stuck, she’s a motivator who helps me move the roadblocks and continue on the way toward my success.
Elizabeth Sims, award-winning author, contributing editor at WRITER’S DIGEST magazine: A great writing coach is first a listener. Tell me your troubles! Then, a permission-giver. It’s OK for you to feel anxious when you do new things. It’s OK for you to screw up! In fact, it’s required! Then, a combination wrecking ball and new puppy. Let’s blast through obstacles without much thought! Let’s make friends out of troubles we can’t break apart! Love the storm and sunshine equally! What a journey!
Reverend Rebecca M. Bryan, minister at First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist: A great writing coach is someone whom you trust implicitly to guide you on the right path. She always tells the truth and holds the success of your work as paramount importance. She’s a consummate professional, who has a way of being kind to your spirit and entirely honest at the same time. Her critique and redirection always resonate and nudge you to the next right step in your writing, while her encouragement is ever-present. You trust her with your craft, which is to say you trust her with your heart and your professional path.
Peg Loves, writer: I had four developmental editors before I realized what I needed was a writing coach. Through my many sessions I’ve found these attributes to be what makes, for me, a great writing coach:
She’s an incubator for ideas. I have brought twigs of ideas into a meeting and left with the frame for a tree house.
She’s an advocate—a champion of the work and ally to my goals. When she pushes back on an idea, but changes her opinion after being led through my thought process, I know I have an advocate. When she doesn’t let me avoid something hard that I’m fully capable of doing, I know I have an advocate.
She has the breadth of a developmental editor and the depth of an investigator, willingly jumping in to help me untangle weak points and suggest strong threads to braid into the story.
I believe, though, part of what makes a writing coach great is the writer. Are you open-minded? Are you clear on your goals? Are you ready to deep dive into the work? Finding the right writing coach is much like dating, trying out personalities, finding which one fits best to foster your productive and fruitful work.
To help develop an appropriate, effective platform
To create a clear direction for your writing efforts and career
The best writing coaches aren’t just editors—they’re guides to the wider world of reading, writing, and publishing. A great writing coach will help identify what’s holding you back, troubleshoot specific writing projects, and offer insider-industry advice to create a pathway to the future you want in the world of writing.
MK Swanson, writer: A great writing coach is …
A cheerleader to speed you to the goalpost.
A best friend for delivering truth gently.
A concierge on whose efficiency you can depend.
A masseuse with whom your creative muscles relax.
A drill sergeant by whose orders your story gets stronger.
A trail guide to lead you past the brink of madness.
A magic hat from which to pull rabbits.
Teri Saveliff, author of SIGNATURES: If you ask a friend, even a well-qualified friend, to judge the quality of your work, you will likely get a supportive but not necessarily accurate response. A good writing coach will tell you the truth. A great coach will tell you the truth in a way that encourages you to jump in and make the changes that will benefit your story—even, or especially, if these are big changes.
If you’re like me, you love words and have an easy time putting them on paper. But maybe the overall arc of your story is weak. A writing coach can tease out the story lines you may have buried in pretty language and give your work some true substance. She can also work her magic on unlikable protagonists and improbable plot lines. Ready to take it to the next level? Consult a writing coach.
Hanna Kjeldbjerg, creative director at Beaver’s Pond Press: When I’m looking to connect authors with a writing coach, the number one thing I look for is heart. Writing is so personal, and manuscripts are oftentimes an extension of ourselves. It’s true that authors need writing coaches for accountability, organization, and an objective eye to help with structural elements like narrative arc. But more than that, writers need a partner who understands their vision for their book, who feels like a friend.
My favorite editing quote is “Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love” (Stephanie Roberts). A relationship with a great writing coach should feel like that.
Megan Cooke, writer, animator, graduate Ringling College of Art and Design Creative Writing Program:
Great writing coaches don’t just tell you to fix something, they explain how to reach your solution.
Prioritization and organization are huge—a great coach will help you focus on what matters most.
A great coach should have your future readers in mind. They’ll catch things that will be confusing or unsatisfying to your audience.
Your coach should know what hard decisions need to be made. A coach can help you make tough decisions—sometimes even suggesting “killing your darlings”—that will benefit your entire story.
A good relationship between you and your coach makes all the difference. Our stories can be very personal, and a great coach will understand what matters most to you. They will encourage you and push you to produce your best work.
Scott Dobbins, aspiring futurist; founder/CEO, Hybridge:Any writing coach must have the experience and knowledge to provide perspective and insight to their writers. But that is just a part of it. A great writing coach must have the ability to engage with their writers on many levels—personally, intellectually, and spiritually. This forms an authentic bond, one rooted in mutual trust and respect.
With this foundation, a great coach may be empathetic and supportive in one session and no-nonsense and directive in another—whatever the project and writer require at the time. A great writing coach knows when to push you and how to pull it out of you. They are both your cheerleader and your challenger, your accountability partner, and your friend.
IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR. You’ve probably heard that at least a thousand times. But it’s true. And that toughness can lend a dark and uneasy tone to our lives.
But here comes Thanksgiving to remind us of our blessings. And why not? Even if there’s no turkey (bird or vegan) for our tables, even if our families (of origin or choice) are unable to join us to raise a glass, even if we have sustained devastating loss over the last few hundred days, still, we can—if we wish—look around and find something to be thankful for.
And doing so seems to be good for us! According to an article in FORBES, focusing on gratitude improves not only our psychological well-being, but our physical health. Feeling thankful may also help us sleep better and think better. And, certainly, it inclines us more positively toward ourselves and our fellow humans.
Writing prompts for gratitude
We writers often make sense of things by writing. So here are a handful of prompts to support you if you feel the need to shift your gaze from what’s not working to what is.
1) Start a gratitude journal. Making a daily list of three to five things we’re grateful for is a simple but effective way to keep gratitude alive in our hearts.
2) Write about a time when something wonderful happened (expected or not). Remembering any boon—from the timely discovery of a much-needed twenty-dollar bill to learning that a loved one’s health concern ended up being nothing for concern at all—reminds us that, like rays of sunshine, moments of well-being can break through the cloudiest of times.
3) Create a dour character who, like Eeyore, sees life as an endless series of difficulties. Put that character in unavoidable proximity to a person you might call a “Pollyanna,” someone who is unremittingly cheerful. Perhaps they become roommates or cubicle mates; or maybe Pollyanna marries into Eeyore’s close-knit family. Or they’re stuck in an elevator together! Or on a “three-hourtour“!
However you glue them together, let Pollyanna’s sunny outlook eventually push your Eeyore to a change of attitude. (This may take considerable doing. All the better for dramatic tension!)
4) Write about a random act of kindness and its unexpected, far-reaching effect. This can be something you did for someone else, or a kindness you received. You might also use this idea to launch a short story!
5) List your own good qualities, attributes of yours for which you’re grateful. Dig deep! Don’t be modest. In addition, you could list the ten best qualities of some of those closest to you. Bonus: Make any of these lists into a poem!
These prompts are just jump-starts, a handful of ways you might incorporate gratitude and thankfulness into your writing. They aren’t (necessarily) meant to elicit high literary art. They are meant to remind you of what’s going right in your world and send you into your day (or into your dreams) with a lighter heart.
And that’s something to be thankful for.
Here are some books I turn to when I need to boost my gratitude practice. In them, you’ll find folks whose compassion and generosity and appreciation of the everyday world make their own and others’ lives better.
I ASKED MY GOOD WRITER PAL MK SWANSON to share her magic. You see, MK writes consistently, creatively, and to completion. Currently, she’s preparing two novels for publication (watch this space!). But whether she’s got a book launch in mind or not, she successfully makes her way through big drafts of complex, full-length manuscripts—and tells excellent tales, at that!
I’ve watched MK work this literary magic for years. As someone who helps writers deal with serious stress about getting words on the page, I was curious about MK’s process. How, I wondered, does she get it done so well and so effortlessly. So I asked. And this is what she had to say:
I rarely have writer’s block. It’s my superpower.
Sometimes, I’m inspired. I dream a crazy story-line, read an enlightening science article, remember a strange episode, or just think of an idea. But for now, I’m between muses.
So how do I start a story—or keep one going—with no gentle voice in my ear? How does my superpower work?
It starts with attention. Or perhaps inattention? (Looking directly at the problem is ineffective.)
I turn my head away from my computer screen and stare out the window. I’m drawn to a colorful flying creature, a moth or a wasp, maybe; I can’t tell from this distance. It could even be a beetle or a damselfly.
Bees are hovering, too, even though it’s late in the year, getting their nectar before the flowers thin out during a Florida winter.
I’m reminded of the big freeze of 1983. When the freeze destroyed our orange grove, my mother told me how, when she was a child, she helped her father light the grove heaters and keep them stoked all night.
I could write an imagined story of my mother and grandfather, allied in purpose just this once.
I think of crickets at night, a low hum and rise to crescendo, before falling again, a sound I’ve heard less as the city encroaches. What would the world be like without bees and butterflies? Dragonflies and moths?
The absence of buzzing and the brush of wings made a summer’s day hurt the ears.
Frogs, too, are scarce—Cuban treefrogs have displaced the delicate green ones that liked to rest in the furl of a palm frond, and I rarely hear carpenter frogs, spring peepers, or leopard frogs.
I think of a poem about disappearing species, but instead I return to my fluttering insect, available only in memory now.
The bee, or beetle, or maybe moth, lit on a Turk’s cap’s never-opening red petal, slipped over the edge and into the throat of the flower in an indistinguishable blur of legs.
Who is watching the insect? Is this a protagonist in a story I’m already writing, or a new someone?
Helera directed her attention to the insect, commanding her cybernetic implant to focus telescopically on the details—multifaceted eyes, six legs with barbs designed to keep nectar attached, incidentally lifting pollen to father other plants in Utheria’s garden.
A bee, she thought triumphantly, and searched her database for its exact species and role, until she felt an elbow jostle her mechanical left arm.
“Stop it, Hel. This is a garden, not a machine,” said Utheria.
And just like that—a turn of my head, a window, an insect I can’t identify—and I have the beginning of a semi-biographical essay, a line of post-apocalyptic poetry, and a science fiction scene.
My process isn’t unlike meditation, improvisation, or a shamanic journey; I have to look and listen. And then write it down.
1. EVERY STORY IS A STORY OF SUSPENSE. I wish I could recall where I heard this. It’s been invaluable as I help writers get the most power from their stories. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, remember that readers are held fast by suspense. Give your story stakes by making your readers care about a character or an anticipated event—and then create suspense by threatening that in which you’ve gotten them to invest.
2. But how do you get started? Crime novelist Lawrence Block says, “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
3. And if you get stuck? Speaking to the power of the unconscious to provide elegant creative solutions, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Saul Bellow says, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
4. In her guide to finding your most authentic voice, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, poet Pat Schneider explains this further: “Never underestimate the power of sleep. Leading a disciplined writing life is not all about work. It is also about sleep. Entering and staying in the mysterious place where daydream meets night dream is important to the writing life. Our deepest writing, our genius, requires an engagement of the unconscious mind.”
5. Writer Brenda Ueland, author of the classic IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, finds another way to unravel a tangled tale. A fiend for walking to find creative gold, she says, “I will tell you what I have learned for myself. For me, a long five- or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day.” (Personally, I manage two miles a day—and consistently find at least one crystalline, often startling, solution along the way.)
6. And then there’s the question of what you feed your writer self while it’s walking and sleeping and spinning out the threads of suspense. Best-selling author Stephen King, never one to beat around the bush when offering writing advice, says this: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
7. Poet and novelist Natalie Goldberg, who has encouraged at least one generation of writers to settle into a meaningful writing practice agrees. In WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says, “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”
8. Sometimes, though, we need to remind ourselves why we write. Diarist and novelist Anais Nin says, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach, Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know, Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
…. And I realized [Tan says]: This is what the character is about. No, more than that: This is what my writing is about. This is what my whole life is about.“
10. Tan’s conclusion, that her whole life reflects Whitman’s idea that we must travel our road ourselves reminds me of another quote by Natalie Goldberg. Speaking of her desire to write a novel after her well-received books on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND, were published, Natalie says,
“I [had] a story I wanted to tell, something I’d half lived and half felt, and I needed the big space a novel afforded to tell it. I was a writer and liked to keep my hand moving. The road was out there and I wanted to ride it.”
This takes us far from the idea we started with—that suspense is what keeps a reader turning the pages and that, implicitly, we bother to write at all so as to be read. In searching out quotes that were meaningful to me, however, I seem to have taken myself on a winding journey. And here is where I end up: Maybe we don’t always write to be read. Maybe, at least sometimes, we write because we are creatures who have something to say, who have a head full of words to say it with, and who have a road before them just waiting to be illuminated by those words.
SOMETIMES, WE’RE MUTE, we writers. Sometimes, we drift, dream, words floating above us, like sunset clouds in fantastical shifting shapes—now a ship, now a sheep, now a swan and his wife. Sometimes, it’s twilight, and we’re quiet, content. Sometimes, we choose not to cast our nets to capture those words, glittering like so many stars in the broad night sky of our imagination.
My writer friend and co-author Tia Levings signs off emails with this quote:
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they may think their dreams into reality with open eyes. —T.E. Lawrence
So, yes, sometimes, it’s enough to read what’s in our own hearts, and let the words build castles and angels and half-memories, undisturbed. Sometimes, we have no need to chase them and jar them, like fireflies, but, instead, simply watch the words flicker into tiny, brief constellations that mean just what they mean to themselves, while we allow them—and ourselves—to be mysteries that remain unsolved. At least for now.
These may be times to read fairy tales or peek into other writers’ journals to see how they dream and drift on the page. Here are some stories and pages that may flutter beside your own quiet heart right now.
IN TAROT CIRCLES, the Hierophant, also known as the Pope, can get a bad rap—for being an uber-conservative, repressive, by-the-book sort of guy. But, really, he might just represent any clergy person, mentor, or teacher—however rule-bound or not. And I’ve had some great teachers!
My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Nethercote, for instance, gave me props for my mad reading skills. The next year, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith (who looked like Aunt Bea from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), thought I was a fine communicator and took the time to introduce me as such to my third-grade teacher, who subsequently always listened to what I had to say!
High school was tough, but my tenth-grade English teacher, whose name is lost to memory (and to various adolescent indulgences), was a bright light, encouraging my poetry-writing. In Seattle, at Shoreline Community College, theater instructor Charlie gave me a directorial role, saying she thought I had leadership potential.
As I make this list, other teachers—a horseback-riding instructor, an art teacher, a math professor—arrive at the threshold of my mind, nodding approval across the years. Their long-remembered encouragement has boosted my self-esteem and bolstered my belief in my own abilities when I’ve needed it most.
This, then, is a thank you to them all.
Revisit your memory of a supportive teacher—or create such a champion in the life of a character who could benefit from one just about now.
Alternatively, if your life has been stingy regarding mentors, consider this your chance to rewrite history and provide yourself one you wish you’d had. Once you’ve got him or her on the page, let your self-created mentor provide a bit of guidance. Chances are it will be some of the best advice you’ve ever received!
When I told my art pal Paula Jeffery about this prompt, she shared this poem with me:
Just Words by Paula Jeffery*
Before home time, every day, That sleepy, can’t-write-any-more Time of day, Low sun picks out chalk dust Suspended in air, over kids, Who only want to meander Across the park, For tea and Thunderbirds.
Most kids. Not all kids. Not us kids. We were Mr. Gardener’s kids, And the slowest of us perked, Eyes bright, legs crossed At the end of the day, Warm with anticipation. Home was not pressing On our nine-year-old minds
Unexpected Mr. Gardener, Generous, mild, and Gentle sharer of knowledge, Balancing on the brink Of retirement, Who, at the Christmas concert, Awed us, floored us With soaring solo Emmanuels.
Before the bell, we gathered round. He held the book aloft and cracked open our little worlds With Beowulf. No diluted, convoluted picture story form, This was all bloody battles, Dragons, a severed arm. A teacher transformed Animated, passionate, Mr. Gardener Held us all in thrall
We went home through the cloakroom, Summer air heavy with the smell Of plimsolls and sour milk, Minds alive and buzzing with heroes and monsters, Chasing sword play across the park.
I thought, Imagine. You can have all that
With just words.
WHILE WRITING CAN BE A FORM OF SELF-EXPLORATION, it is also a way to communicate our thoughts and stories with others. About this, my novelist pal MK Swanson says,
There is no writer without a reader. Writing is a performance art. When I was little, I used to make up stories that my girlfriends and I would act out—sometimes with puppets, but usually with our bodies. One time, Kori and I pretended to be in the Nautilus, being dragged down into the depths by a great sea creature, a story inspired directly and entirely by the sound the washing machine made as it shifted cycles.
We performed as if someone was watching and applauding. I thought I was the most talented, funniest writer in the world, as I directed my friend and myself to run around the porch, captaining the submarine. Now, when I try to make something new, and I don’t think anyone will ever see it, it falls flat. An audience pulls art into the third—or maybe the fourth—dimension.
I agree with MK. When I write with an audience in mind, it gives my work a sense of purpose—traction, focus—that it lacks when I am writing only for myself.
In SHOW YOUR WORK! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered (see a list of those ten ways, below*), author Austin Kleon discusses the many benefits of sharing our creative work with others—especially how doing so can make us “findable.” Reviewer D. Bivins says of the book, “This is a refreshing kick in the butt about believing in yourself as a creative person and jumping in with both feet. The basic idea is to put yourself out there even if you (or your work) are a work in progress.“
And while we may not currently be availing ourselves of pre-Covid in-person opportunities to show our work (remember open mics and free, monthly bookstore writing groups?!), there are myriad contact-free ways to offer our writing to the world.
You could always start a blog, join an online writing group, or send out stories to literary contests—all great options for sharing your work. You might also try one or more of the following suggestions if you’re seeking fresh avenues to show your writing to others:
Every August, there’s an event called the Postcard Poetry Fest. Essentially, once you register at the site, you’re sent a list of addresses. You then write a (possibly terrible) poem each day for August’s 31 days and mail it to one of the 31 recipients on your list.
Can’t wait until August? A friend and I used to declare an arbitrary period our own personal Postcard Poems month. Then, for the next 31 days, we would email daily mini-poems back and forth. Often goofy, sometimes poignant, our “poems” generally started with a place name (fictional or not) and were written from the perspective of an imagined persona who was there visiting. Here’s an example:
I’m in Quincy, Alabama, and the almond trees are in high bloom. So are my allergies. My nose, red like a rose, won’t win me any suitors. But my days and nights are full enough without thoughts of another to cloud my view of the stars.
Wish you were here.
Throw a Zoom! prose-and-poetry party
Back in the day (basically, pre-February 2020), friends and I used to gather regularly to eat, chat, and read our work to one another. Zoom! makes this even easier, now. No need to arrange a ride—or even wear proper pants. Just find your tech-iest friend and get them to make it so.
Publish on Medium
If you don’t know about Medium, I’m about to make you very happy. Medium is a platform for writers. And readers. Here’s their mission statement:
Medium is not like any other platform on the internet. Our sole purpose is to help you find compelling ideas, knowledge, and perspectives. We don’t serve ads—we serve you, the curious reader who loves to learn new things. Medium is home to thousands of independent voices [um, that means “independent writers,” which, by definition, could include you!], and we combine humans and technology to find the best reading for you—and filter out the rest.
Submit to THE SUN MAGAZINE‘s Readers Write
A well-regarded, ad-free, glossy print and online monthly, THE SUN magazine not only publishes poetry, interviews, short memoir, short fiction, and fabulous black-and-white photographs, they also open their pages to their readers!
In their Readers Write section, they publish twenty or so short nonfiction pieces each month. These pieces are written to themes (like “ghosts” and “getting started”) listed on the website. As their Readers Write submission guidelines say, Topics are intentionally broad in order to give room for expression…. Writing style isn’t as important as thoughtfulness and sincerity. There is no word limit, but we encourage you to familiarize yourself with the section before you submit.
And if your piece is chosen for publication, you’ll receive a six-month subscription to the magazine!
More ideas for showing your written work
You’ll find more ideas and resources in A Writing Coach’s 5 Simple Tips for Sharing Your Writing on Social Media. Choose an approach from those choices, or from any of the ones listed above. But whatever way suits you, do as Austin Kleon suggests and be “open, generous, brave, and productive [… and] share something small every day.”