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


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.


The magic of making it new

disrupt-it-all (1)

“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.


The river of words


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?


Confessions of an Idea Hoarder


Imagine running out of ideas for your writing. It’s the stuff of nightmares. You sit down at your computer or pick up your pen, ready to leap into a new story, and there’s…nothing. The well has run dry. The spark has been extinguished. The horror, the horror!

I have plenty of challenges when it comes to my own writing, but running out of ideas isn’t one of them. My problem is usually the opposite. I have plenty of ideas. My idea cup overfloweth. Every day I get at least one new idea, if not more. I have ideas tucked into notebooks, written on the backs of phone bills, jotted quickly into Evernote or a draft text. I have ideas that I never got around to writing down, but they’re assembled in the central idea-hub of my brain, hoping to be plucked from the crowd and turned into something amazing.

It doesn’t seem like much of a problem, right? Isn’t it better to have too many ideas instead of none?

Generally, yes. But I hoard my ideas. That idea-hub in my brain? It’s jam-packed, and I’m not sure how much more I can cram in there. My ideas are spilling out all over the place. If I’m not careful, I’ll trip over a pile of ideas while trying to do something important, like cross the street or remember my sister’s phone number.

I don’t want to throw any of my ideas out—what if I lose my best idea ever? What if I need that idea again someday, when the ideas flow more slowly?

At the same time, I’d like to get rid of some of those ideas that—let’s face it—are just not going to work out. I’d like to free up some of my brain to focus on the ideas that I can craft into good stories.

Spring seems like a good time to give my idea-hub a thorough cleaning. I have decided to take the same approach I would take to spring-cleaning my closet: take everything and lay it all out to have a good look, and then divide all the things into four piles (or files, in this case): KEEP, REPURPOSE, DONATE, or TOSS.

Want to join me? Here’s how you can think about what goes in these piles:

  • KEEP: This pile is for those bright, precious, and meaningful ideas that you know will make great stories some day. They have longevity, impact, and potential. Keep these ideas in a file or notebook close at hand. Finish whatever it is that’s keeping you from pouncing on any one of them right now, or make the time to pick one and write it into being. Make a promise to yourself that you will focus on these beautiful ideas, one at a time.
  • REPURPOSE: You might come across ideas that area really not very good, but, when you take a closer look, you will see they have the kernel of something usable. It could be a word, a phrase, or a feeling it evokes—whatever it is, you can use that tidbit. You might also be able to re-work the idea into a different piece, like a poem instead of a novel, or a blog post or a drabble. Stash these ideas away, and see if you can work it into another piece later.
  • DONATE: Could someone else use that idea you don’t care for anymore? Give it away! Share it as a prompt on social media. Use it as an exercise for your writing group. Suggest it as an option for a fellow writer’s WIP. Be a good literary citizen, and support your fellow writers.
  • TOSS: Even the best ideas lose their luster over time. Maybe they are so dated that they are no longer workable. Maybe you came up with these ideas at a different time in your life, and now they make you cringe. You really don’t want your grand-kids to find these ideas in a dusty box in the attic after you are gone. So get rid of them. Delete, erase, bury, rub out, strike-through, burn. Make a ritual out of it, if you like, giving a small prayer of gratitude to your muse for giving you that whacked-out idea in the first place. And then get back to those good ideas.

Hopefully these tips will help you clear out some idea-junk, so you can focus on the ideas you can really work with.

Have fun with your spring cleaning—and your writing!


Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

Filtering out the no(i)se


Did you know that you can always see your nose?

Made you look! Or rather, made you notice.

Your nose is always smack-dab in the middle of your field of vision, but your brain chooses to ignore it most of the time. (You can learn about the phenomenon here.) That’s because it’s expected sensory information. Your brain doesn’t need to register your nose (unless something’s going on with it, like maybe there’s a butterfly perched on it) so your brain filters it out in order to be more efficient. After all, your brain can’t be expected to actively report on absolutely everything it comes across all the time. And you don’t want it to. You want your brain to clue you in to the important stuff, like the sign-post you’re about to walk into, the twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, or the fact that your duck a l’orange is burning to a crisp.

This ability–called unconscious selective attention–means your brain can safely ignore unnecessary inputs so it can handle the important stuff.

(Interested in this concept? Read more here. The invisible gorilla experiment is also pretty cool.)

Unconscious selective attention can help you focus on your writing efforts. Most writers need quiet, calm spaces in which to work, and those spaces are increasingly hard to come by. But this is when your brain gives you a helping hand. You’ll be able to edit out unimportant background noises that might be preventing you from concentrating, like the chatter in your local coffee-shop or the lawnmower outside your window. It also means you aren’t distracted by the colour of the rug, or the hum of the HVAC system, or the fact that you’re wearing slippers.

But you might want to think differently about selective attention in your writing, particularly if you’re writing fiction. This is one place where you want to consciously select the information your reader should notice. It’s your job to point out that background information when it will enhance your writing.

When does this make sense?

  • When you want to make a description of your setting richer. What kinds of sounds percolate through the scene? Is there a unique quality to the light, or a scent to the air? Bring some of that sensory flavour to the foreground.
  • When you want to build suspense. A ticking clock. The lack of birdsong. A hum in the air. The sun slowly going down. Adding these barely noticeable layers to your scene will give your readers a sense that something is about to happen.
  • When you want to slow the pace down. Is your character taking a moment to reflect on a decision or remember the past? Take note of the small gestures and non-critical elements to give the scene a meditative quality.

Take a moment to notice the things that your brain is helping you ignore for efficiency’s sake.


Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.