The myth of the lonely writer

Find your tribe!

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.

Jessamyn West

If you’re a writer, you might have a reputation as a bit of a loner. It’s true that writers generally need quiet and solitude to do their work. This has led to some interesting prejudices about writers. For example:

  • Writers are introverts.
  • Writers are eccentric.
  • Writers can often be found staring off into space.
  • Writers talk to themselves, and the imaginary voices in their heads talk back.
  • If you tick off a writer, they will put you in their next book–and your character won’t end well!

I’m not saying the above aren’t true in individual cases. And the same could be said for other people who do mostly-solitary work, like indexers (I’m one of those too) or different kinds of solo freelancers. We do tend to stay head-down, reading or writing, absorbed in our separate text-based worlds.

But despite this reputation, writers belong to a huge global community, and companions are–quite literally–at our fingertips. Working alone doesn’t mean being lonely.

Whether you’re an emerging writer who wants to learn from more seasoned writers, an established writer who wants a sounding-board, or anywhere in between, there are many ways you can make connections with your peers.

Here are some tips to help you find your tribe:

  • Get out of the house: Set up your laptop (or your pen and paper) at a local cafe. Wander around a bookstore. Skulk in the reference section of the library. Hold your copy of Steven King’s “On Writing” and be open to chatting with whoever comments.
  • Participate in a group: This could be a virtual group, like those on Facebook or Twitter (find them using writing hashtags, like #WritingCommunity) or purpose-built platforms like Scribophile. You can also look for an in-the-flesh group that meets at a local coffee shop. How do you find these groups? By asking around, and checking out your local community newspaper.
  • Volunteer: Those associations I just mentioned? They are always looking for people willing to lend a hand. It’s a great way to network with people who are into the same stuff that you are.
  • Attend a conference or a workshop: Associations and schools often have their own annual big conferences, where you can hear from rockstars of your genre and get to know your peeps. There are numerous independent conferences you could look into as well; one popular option is the Surrey International Writers Conference. If big conferences are out of your budget (they aren’t cheap!), see if your local library or distance learning provider has any upcoming options.
  • Attend an event: Many communities hold or host fun festivals for readers and writers. Word on the Street–a Canadian celebration of literacy and writing–is held in multiple cities across Canada. Other big events include the Ottawa International Writers Festival, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Smaller communities host their own events too–Nelson, BC’s own Elephant Mountain Literary Festival is one of the best in Canada.
  • Connect with authors: There are plenty of authors just like you who want to connect with readers and other writers. This is especially true for local authors. Attend their book readings and signings (and buy their books if you can), review their books on Amazon, sign up for their newsletters, and follow and engage with them on social media. Be respectful, honest, and helpful.

And finally:

  • Talk to people. Writers are everywhere. Don’t be shy about talking about your writing—you never know who else is also working away at a Great Canadian Novel or a Facts & Arguments essay in their spare time. And chances are, they want to talk to other writers too.

Happy connecting!

Make it messy

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There are two bits of advice about writing that I return to time and time again when I am feeling stuck with my work.

The first: “Write drunk, edit sober.” This saying is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that master of brevity and flourish-free language.

And the second: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” This piece of advice is from Natalie Goldberg in the classic Bird by Bird.

Both of these insights speak to me, because I have a tendency to clam up before I really get going. Maybe you have this tendency too. I am often so caught up in the desire to tell a great story, to dazzle my readers with wit and charm, to surprise them with something unique, that I find it hard to get going. The pressure gets to me, and hello writer’s block. I get stuck striving for perfection and elegance right out of the gate, instead of doing the actual work of writing.

Writing a “shitty first draft” (Goldberg’s term) and writing drunk are not excuses for me to churn out bad, careless work. But it does mean that I have the freedom to write the raw material of the story that I need to write, without the fear of judgment. No-one will see my first draft except me. I have to remind myself to simply get the story on paper, in all its beautiful, terrible, first-glimpse glory—and then shape it into something that someone else might want to read.

Don’t worry about perfection or form or style or commas. Produce the beginnings of something that excites you. Write fast and sloppy. Let your characters do whatever they want. Use simple language and un-fussy descriptions. And write every day or as often as you can manage it, until you have a lovely messy first draft in your hands. Save the polish until later.

Writing is hard. Getting started is harder. Allow yourself the freedom to churn something out, poke around in the mess, and see if you can create something shiny and beautiful from it.

Give it away now

Romantic gift box

In a previous blog post, I talked about my tendency to hoard my ideas.

I have a similar tendency with pieces of writing that I have developed to a stage where they have some potential.

Just last week, I had been working on a poem that I thought was promising. I revised it and got it into reasonably good shape, but I never felt like it was at that stage where I could consider it finished and submit it. The ending felt slightly off, and I wasn’t satisfied with the rhythm. It was so close to completion—but I couldn’t let it go. So I abandoned it and moved onto another project.

When I stumbled on the poem the other night, I realized I might never feel 100% happy with it. So, instead of closing the file and saying I would deal with it another time, I committed to finishing it and submitting it by the end of the night. I gave myself until 10:00pm before I had to “give it away” and submit it to a journal.

It worked. And it gave me the motivation to solve the niggling problem that I couldn’t quite fix before. After playing with the form for an hour, I was inspired to turn it into a flash-fiction story. It was an “a-ha!” moment that gave me the push to finish it and send it out on submission.

Will it be accepted? Maybe. But in the meantime, I can move on to my next project, satisfied that I had finished something, and that I had done what I could.

What’s preventing you from sending your writing out into the world?

  • Fear of rejection. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told no.
  • Fear of not being perfect. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told that my writing is not good enough.
  • Fear of running out of ideas. “If I never submit it, I’ll always have this idea to fall back on.

We writers must learn to let go of these fears. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we can’t allow these thoughts to keep us from finishing our work and sharing it with potential readers. Giving your writing away is a habit that can be picked up over time. And you might even find it energizing. My own experience with calling something “done” and submitting it has given me the motivation to do it again, with another almost-finished piece.

This same intent—of not keeping your writing to yourself—is expressed in a quote by Bill Moyers I found a few days ago:

You must never think that your most recent idea is your best or your last. You must be willing to keep searching your imagination and intuition for new versions of that idea.

Be generous with your writing. Don’t keep it to yourself. Finish it, and give it away.

Maria

Lather, rinse, write, repeat

Toy yellow duck in the bathroom on a light brick background

I get my best ideas in the shower.

I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s the repetitive routine of my morning suds-session that frees up my left brain. Could be that the shower is one of the few places I can’t wear my glasses, and I’m not distracted by the world around me. Or maybe the soothing lavender smell of my new body wash leads my mind to far-off places.

It’s backed up by science. One study showed that 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower.

Whatever it is, I wish I could bottle it and use it whenever I needed it.

Some people get their inspiration being active. One friend of mine gets magnificent ideas whenever she goes for a run. Honestly, when I’m running, I’m concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I wish it were not so—I’d love to be brilliant whilst burning calories. (Although this study by Stanford University suggests that maybe I should try walking.)

I’ve heard of writers who free their minds through cooking or baking. For me, that’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t have the skill necessary to whip up a killer guacamole and a surprising plot twist at the same time. Can you say ka-blooie?

I suppose I could try meditation, which is recommended to boost creativity at work. I could get into the deep breathing, the soft Enya-inspired music, and a scented candle or two…ha! Give me 60 seconds of that and I’m off to dreamland. Meditation may not be the best path to inspiration for the perpetually sleep-deprived.

So my solution is to hop in the shower. Making a slippery trail from bathroom to desk, I race to record those fleeting moments when I come up with something precious.

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Make mine a loofah.

What about you? How do you find inspiration?

Maria

Adapted from my original post on the Restless Writers blog, August 28, 2009. Photo by Depositphotos.

The magic of making it new

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“The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” Anaïs Nin

One of the great joys of being a writer is to look at the world from a fresh perspective; to take in an everyday scene and make it new.

Take a look around. Reflect on the moments in your day. What richness surrounds you! A story emerges from every corner. A woman orders coffee at her local java joint. A man opens his front door after a long day at work. Someone picks up the wrong package at the post office. A company lays off half its workforce. A family in your town wins the lottery.

You get to take these everyday moments and interactions, and with your words, reveal something astonishing or disturbing or hopeful. Something that moves your reader. Something that is true.

Keep your senses open as you go through your day, and take note as those familiar scenes unfold. Take one that catches your attention, but change it. Swap the characters. Shift the setting. Explode the ending. Make it new.

That’s when the magic happens.

Maria

The river of words

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Some days, the words come easily.

It can happen when I am indexing a textbook, critiquing a story, or working on my own writing. I am the grizzly bear in the river, plucking words like salmon as they hurtle past. They come fast and furious, and I must rush to catch as many as I can. The challenge is to not let the meatiest ones slip past un-scooped.

Other days, I am the salmon swimming up the river. I strain against the pressure of the work, the weight of the text, the burden of expectations. I try to find the path of least resistance. Each surge forward is a herculean effort, but somehow I make headway against the flow.

I have come to value both kinds of days. The former shows me the joy of what it’s like when the going is easy, and the latter teaches me that I can persevere even when it’s not.

Grizzly bear or salmon—which one are you today?

Maria

Conquering distraction

A huge pile of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink and on the co

Dirty dishes are my kryptonite.

After moving to a new home in a new city across the country, we didn’t have a dishwashing machine right away. I grumbled a bit, but took on the mantle of Dishwasher-in-Chief. Despite the chapped hands and time spent elbow-deep in sudsy water, I found hand-washing the dishes to be extremely meditative. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and helped me start or finish my day on a squeaky-clean note.

It also came in handy as an excuse not to write. How easy it was to turn to the sink instead of my work in progress! But the dishes have to get done, I thought. I’ll write when they’re all done.

I should have been glad when the dishwasher was finally installed, right? I was, but I found myself mindlessly puttering in the kitchen once the dishwasher had been filled or emptied, as if I was looking for more dishes to do.

I had duped myself into thinking that doing the dishes—or doing anything, in fact—was more pressing than writing. Despite thinking I was a pretty disciplined person, I had slipped up and let my distractions get the better of me. I had a minor a-ha moment, shook my head, and powered up my laptop.

There are still some days where I think I would much rather clean out the cat’s litterbox (gross!) than write. Some days, I tell myself that it is absolutely critical that I use the Magic Eraser on those baseboard scuff-marks right away. As a writer, I am not proud of those days. As a regular human person, I am still vulnerable to them.

So how do I conquer those distractions? Here’s what I try to do:

I show up. I kept telling myself that I was “writing in my head” while I was doing all those dishes. But I wasn’t writing! It was only after I got my butt in my chair that I was able to ignore the pull of that particular distraction and puts one word after another.

I identify what I what to accomplish. I identify a word-count goal, a scene, an outline, or a character study—whatever I think I can reasonably accomplish in the time I have set aside.

I set priorities. If I have three things to work on, I prioritize them in a way that works for me. And I don’t beat myself up if I don’t finish everything on the list. That just leaves me with a starting-point for the next day.

I recognize my fears and barriers. Something is making it awfully easy for me to focus on household chores, instead of my writing. It’s important that I take a moment to reflect on what is keeping me from writing the next sentence, the next scene, or the words, “The End.” I acknowledge how powerful those barriers might feel. But I know that my impulse to write is just as powerful.

The dirty dishes, the neglected laundry, the dusty windows, the gross litterbox—these things will never go away.

But time will. More quickly than we can imagine.

What will you regret more at the end of the day? That you didn’t finish the dishes? Or that you didn’t write the story that only you can tell?

Write first. The dishes will still be there when you’re done.

Maria

Photo from Depositphotos.