Fully Alive

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually                           thrown out of the nest.”   Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron is a wise, well-beloved Buddhist teacher — and she knows the ways of the world. To be alive, to be engaged, to be fully aware of our surroundings, to be in the moment when creating, we must sacrifice the comfort and security that most of us crave.

As writers, we are both the mother bird and the baby — we literally throw ourselves out of the nest and we find the wings to fly. Being in the moment can be perilous, but for us, coming to the page with an open heart and open mind sparks our creativity.

Constantly challenging what we think and what others think is one of the tasks of the honest writer; we can never be totally content with our work: We are always striving, searching, and reaching beyond our grasp for the better word, the better idea, the better story, the deeper truth behind the story.

All this isn’t easy. Stepping out of our comfort zones isn’t easy. Always adventuring isn’t easy. Always honing our craft isn’t easy. And doing all this and then letting go, knowing that we can never attain perfection and releasing our work into the world — this isn’t easy either.

But, oh, consider the joys of it all!

Every day we enter the Land of Possibilities.

Every page is a world we create.

Every problem solved is a world repaired.

Every word is a step toward a mystery.

Every better word brings us closer to home.

Every idea reveals more about who we are.

Yes, we writers are little birds ever falling from our nests. And yet, what would we rather be? What would we rather do? Write on!

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Be Kind

“What greater wisdom can there be than kindness?”   Jean Jacques Rousseau

Just over the weekend, I was trolling or rather, scrolling through my emails when one headlined  “Productivity Tips,” caught my eye. Since, like many of us, I wasn’t feeling too productive, I decided to check out the video it featured . I’m so glad I did! Because it wasn’t about productivity at all. It was about not feeling productive.

It was an honest, candid admission by a writing coach who prides herself on being a highly productive, overachiever about how she just couldn’t pull a productivity tip out of a hat. She’d run into a technical snafu on a project, she was worried about her little son who’s especially vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus, she was feeling overwhelmed.

With all this going on, she really had only one bit of advice to give: Be kind to yourself. And that’s what she was going to do herself that day: Instead of a forced march toward a goal she’d set for herself, she was going to give herself a different day. She was going to take a break — and later that evening, she was going to call an old friend and watch a movie with her and they were going to talk about it over the phone and just have fun. How wise!

In this same spirit, along with doing our best to help each other through these trying times, let’s also be kind to ourselves, let’s also help ourselves as we would a friend:

Let’s be kind to ourselves when we’re not feeling all that productive. If we can’t push through it, let’s just give ourselves permission to take a break and go back later. More often than not, just relaxing and having a little fun will help us get back on track.

Let’s be kind to ourselves when we’re feeling forgetful. Focusing takes a lot more energy these days, doesn’t it? So if you are not on top of everything — if you seem to be more scattered and forgetful, simply be OK with it and go on. I forgot to post a poem I love for this Father’s Day weekend — it just completely slipped my mind. It’s OK, Karin. It’s OK.

Let’s be kind to ourselves when we our usual strategies for keeping anxiety at bay don’t seem to be working. Keeping busy is a way of coping with anxiety for many of us, including the writing coach I mentioned. And myself. And maybe you, too. But sometimes these tools we use don’t work. When that happens, why not admit it and try again later?

And so, because I forgot to share it this weekend, but love this poem, here it is:

My Father’s Hats
Mark Irwin

Sunday mornings I would reach
high into his dark closet while standing
on a chair and tiptoeing reach
higher, touching, sometimes fumbling
the soft crowns and imagine
I was in a forest, wind hymning
through pines, where the musky scent
of rain clinging to damp earth was
his scent I loved, lingering on
bands, leather, and on the inner silk
crowns where I would smell his
hair and almost think I was being
held, or climbing a tree, touching
the yellow fruit, leaves whose scent
was that of a clove in the godsome
air, as now, thinking of his fabulous
sleep, I stand on this canyon floor
and watch light slowly close
on water I’m not sure is there.

Wishing all fathers of our hearts and memories days of sunshine and joy. Write on!

 

 

 

 

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Something Wonderful

 

I Meant to Do My Work Today

But a brown bird sang in the apple-
tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.

And the wind went sighing over the
land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And the rainbow held out its shining
hand —
So what could I do but laugh and go?

— Richard Le Gallienne

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Contest Alert

The deadline is fast approaching for the Writer’s Digest 89th Annual Writing Competition: June 22. There are a wide variety of genres to choose from:

  • inspirational/spiritual
  • memoirs/personal essays
  • print or online article
  • genre short story (think romance, thriller, mystery, sci-fi, etc.)
  • mainstream/literary short story
  • rhyming poetry
  • non-rhyming poetry
  • script (think stage play or television/movie script)
  • children’s/young adult fiction

Prizes

One Grand Prize winner will receive: $5,000 in cash, an interview with the author in Writer’s Digest, a paid trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and Pitch Slam slot.

The First place winner in each category will receive $1,000 in cash

The Second place winner in each category will receive $500 cash

The Third place winner in each category will receive $250 in cash

How to Enter

  • All entries must be submitted online.
  • All entries must be in English. Only original works that have not been published in print, digital or online publications will be considered. Self-published work in blogs, on social media, etc. will be considered. For the script category, only unproduced scripts will be considered. Entries in the Print or Online Article category may be previously published.
  • Entries exceeding the word, line or page limits will be disqualified. Type the exact word count (counting every single word, except the title) at the top of the manuscript.
  • For more information visit Preparing Your Entry Page or FAQ page.

If you have a project you’ve polished until it sparkles, why not consider throwing your hat into the ring? Write on!

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“So Good”

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”   Steve Martin

A story: The late Barbara Jordan, once a Congresswoman from Texas, was nationally known and admired for her powerful and elegant speeches. “When Barbara spoke with that deep, booming voice, it was though she as speaking from tablets of stone. She had a presence few people do,” recalled former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.

During her long political career in public service, Barbara achieved an impressive number of firsts. In 1966, when she was elected to the state Senate of Texas, she became the first African-American member since 1883 and the first African-American woman ever elected to the Texas Legislature. In 1972, she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South.

But Barbara’s storied career at the top started on the bottom — on the lowest rung of the political ladder. During her climb, her skills as an orator opened many doors to her and won her attention and admiration. “I worked for the Kennedy-Johnson campaign in 1960,” she once recalled. “They put me to work licking stamps and addressing envelopes. One night we went out to a church to enlist Negro voters and the woman who was supposed to speak didn’t show up. I volunteered to speak in her place. Right after that they took me off licking and addressing.”

Later, in a highlight of her long career, Barbara delivered an inspiring keynote address at the 1976 Democratic convention and to play the same stellar role in 1992.

From licking stamps to delivering a keynote address at a national political convention – what a huge leap! And it all started with Barbara’s bold decision to speak out and make herself heard in a church somewhere. When she did, she was so good, the people around her couldn’t ignore her.

We can make the same choice in our writing! We can choose to work so arrdently and tenaciously that we push our work to another level – that it demands attention and then speaks for itself.

We can volunteer our services and meet people who can help us get where we want to go. We can put ourselves out in the world so people have a chance to see what we offer. We can have the confidence and faith in ourselves to believe our work is so good it deserves to be seen and enjoyed by readers everywhere.

“Be so good they can’t ignore you” – now that’s writing dangerously! Write on!

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“Illuminating” Incidents

From Edith Wharton’s slim and provocative guide, The Writing of Fiction:

“At every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casement of fiction, it’s vistas on infinity. They are also the most personal element in any narrative, the authors most direct contribution; and nothing gives such immediate proof of the quality of his imagination – and therefore the richness of his temperament – as his choice of such episodes….

“At the conclusion of novel the illuminating incident need only send its ray backward; but it should send a long enough shaft to meet the light cast forward from the first page, as in the poignant passage at the end of ‘L’Education Sentimentale’ where Mme. Arnoux comes to see Frederic Moreau after long years of separation …. She asks him to take her for a walk, and wanders with him through the Paris streets. She is the only woman he has ever loved and he knows it now. The intervening years have vanished, and they walk on, ‘absorbed in each other, hearing nothing as if they were walking in the country on a bed of dead leaves.’ Then they return to the young man’s rooms, and Mme Arnoux, sitting down, takes off her hat.

“’The lamp, placed on a console, lit up her white hair. The sight was like a blow on his chest…she watched the clock, and he continued to walk u and down, smoking. Neither could find anything to say to the other. In all separations there comes a moment when the beloved is no longer with us.’ This is all; but every page that has gone before is lit up by the tragic gleam of Mme. Arnoux’white hair….

“The illuminating incident is not only proof of the novelist’s imaginative sensibility; it is also the best means of giving presentness, immediacy, to his tale. Far more than on dialogue does the effect of immediacy depend on the apt use of the illuminating incident; and the more threads of significance are gathered up into each one, the more pages of explanatory narrative are spared to writer and reader.”

The “illuminating incident” – what a powerful concept for creating meaning in fiction – and how artfully Wharton presents it! Here, in a short but compelling discussion, she’s described a tool that beloved novelists use and then shed light on it with an illuminating example. What wonderful writing!

This whole concept of using illuminating incidents – moments when everything in a story shifts into place — and we see as readers everything in a different light is such a useful one. Consider a story that truly touched you and the scenes with special impact – what a useful exercise as we all write on!

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Muse Magnet

For the longest time, I wrote in fits and starts — whenever inspiration struck. A great idea would hit me, I’d jot it down, then tuck away my piece of paper with a feeling of accomplishment. However elusive my thought, I’d captured it. Satisfying as these moments were, they were fleeting. My output was often minimal and my results, uneven. I never quite seemed to get my creative writing truly under way and finish anything. Except, of course, when I had a deadline.

All this changed when I hit a major roadblock in a play I was working on. Frustrated by my lack of progress, I was seriously thinking about abandoning the whole project. Out of desperation, I decided to change my MO and devote a few hours every Monday to working on my piece. This approach seemed to unplug things a bit, but nothing spectacular
happened; doggedly, I persevered.

Then one evening as I was taking the bus from my hometown of Montclair into Manhattan for my playwrighting class, a beautiful scene just fell out of the sky and into my lap. I could see it and hear it as if everything was unfolding right in front of me. It was something new
and fresh. Grabbing my pen, I began writing down the dialogue I was hearing in my head in the margins of a magazine. The scene came to me whole, no straining, no effort – a gift from the universe.

Only later did I realize that intention triggers inspiration and not the other way around. My Monday work plan signaled to the universe that I was serious about my project. And because I was showing up, it responded by dropping a precious gift in my lap. To receive it, I had to push forward instead of pulling back. And when I did, my muse met me halfway bearing a hidden treasure.

Here’s what I learned from this: Waiting for inspiration to strike invites inaction. Just get to work at your desk or wherever you write, so fresh ideas and inspiration know where to find you. Your muse shows up when you do. Write on!

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Patient Pace

“Accept the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.”   Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. A.A. Milne

Patience – it’s one of those traits that’s often undervalued and yet it’s a quiet strength that many of us probably wish we had more of. I know I do! As sheltering at home lingers on and days grow longer, staying inside and isolated takes more endurance, more patience. And changing what needs to be changed in the larger world will also demand it.

And the same is true, to my mind, when it comes to writing. Patience required! So let’s unpack this quality a bit. My handy Century Dictionary offers some help. It defines it as “calm and uncomplaining endurance;” “quiet perseverance;” “forbearance, or tolerance;” “patient willingness to wait.” How can any or all of these support our writing?

Calm and uncomplaining endurance – Sometimes getting where we want to go in our writing life is all about staying calm and enduring what comes our way. Staying the course we’ve set for ourselves despite confusion, frustration, and rejection. Coming to the page day after day, when we don’t seem to be making progress. And doing it all without complaining – remembering that having the time and space to write is a precious gift.

Quiet perseverance – Surely there’s no greater asset in the writing game than perseverance – the drive and willingness to push forward in spite of whatever pitfalls we face or circumstances life throws our way. “Don’t quit, can’t fail” is one way to capture this vital quality. With it, we can overcome anything; without it, we’re likely to fold our tents too soon when we hit resistance.

Tolerance – Our ability to absorb and accept the problems and we face isn’t something we pay much attention to most of the time. Yet our tolerance level – how much we are willing and able to handle when we hit rough patches has a lot to do with our success.

Willingness to wait – We live in a world of instant access to information and quick fixes. Everything around us seems to shout “get it now,” “you need this,” “this will make your life better right away.” Resisting all this “nowness” and remembering that you can rush creativity can be hard. Waiting is never easy. And yet, sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for in our writing. We need to wait for ideas to ripen, for a new plot line to develop, for a better way to express something, or for a new character to emerge.

“Accept the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” Powerful wisdom to apply as we all write on.

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Something Wonderful

I May, I Might, I Must

If you will tell me why the fen

appears impassable, I then

will tell you why I think that I

can get across it if I try.

— Marianne Moore

 

 

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Pitch Perfect

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”
Anne Frank

Reading these lovely words made me think of the beautiful Anne, since today, June 12, is her birthday. This led me to The Diary of A Young Girl. Open to any page, and Anne’s voice leaps out at you:  funny, fresh, passionate, real. Anne was fierce in her likes and dislikes, from first to last. Consider how she describes two of her schoolmates:

“Jacqueline van Maarsan is supposedly my best friend, but I’ve never had a real friend. At first I thought Jacque would be one, but I was badly mistaken… J.R. — I could write a whole book about her. J. is a detestable, sneaky, stuck-up, two-faced gossip who thinks she’s so grown up. She’s really got Jacque under her spell, and that’s a shame.”

How alive Anne is! How we can almost see her in her classroom, fuming about the “sneaky, stuck-up” J.R. and her “two-faced” ways. In a few strokes, like Rembrandt, she paints us a picture — not just of her friends, but of herself as well. What marvelous writing! Anne made me think of other narrators who tell their own tales: Holden in Catcher in the Rye, for instance, and Pip in Great Expectations.

Thinking about all these personalities, real and imagined, made me ponder once again that mystical writing quality called “voice.” It’s so elusive and yet so emphatic and energetic. As readers, we respond to it instantly, embracing characters who’ve been conjured up as if we might meet them tomorrow on our doorstep. But as writers, finding that pitch-perfect voice can be so challenging!

I recently heard Madeleine Miller, the author of Circe talk about writing her best-selling novel. One of her comments about penning this wonderful book really caught my attention: During her interview, she said that it took her five years to find Circe’s voice. Five years!

Of course, finding your voice through a character in the first person is one thing and finding it as a narrator recounting a story in the third person is quite another, but in the end, it all comes down to one thing: believability. Even an unreliable narrator can be made believable in his/her unreliability in the hands of a skilled writer.

How amazing all this is: How we conjure up whole lives with a handful of words. Write on!

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