A Handful of Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature art and image courtesy of Christopher Wiley.

Leo Tolstoy played chess. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Jane Austen played cards. Mark Twain was into scrapbooking and inventing–he combined these two hobbies to invent the scrapbook with adhesive pages.

This week, I want to encourage you to get away from your desk and out of the house. All writing and no living makes for some dull fiction. Hobbies, outside interests, physical activity–all these things will make you a better writer. Some of the best hobbies for writers include reading, traveling, photography, and people watching. Any of these activities will expand your ideas about the world and help you to see the world and the people in it from a different perspective. They will also fill your mental arsenal with images, sounds, and smells.

I’ve lately been fascinated with asking my writer friends what they do when they aren’t writing, and the results both surprised and delighted me. I got a few more responses in recent weeks, so here’s an encore post–five more writers and their other interests. I hope these inspire you to take some risks, take a break from writing, and seek out more fun in your own life.

Linda Romano: Writer, Cyclist & Runner:

Writer Linda Romano escaping her desk for a bike ride.

Observing the environment stimulates my creative process and helps me focus. When an idea feels important, instead of relying on memory, I try to jot it down somewhere. If not in a small notebook that I keep in my car, then texts or emailed notes to my phone. The phone has become an easy way to talk to myself!

Biking, running, and most outdoor activities have kept me sane over the years from events that occurred early in my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in the beginning of Title IX when sports for girls were more available. It became an opportunity to engage in a community activity with a sense of comradeship, especially with other girls and women. Since then, I have learned to use physical activity as an escape to reengage my mind on new thoughts and avoid mental tailspins. More recently it has been an opportunity to engage with people of all ages. When I return to my desk and write, it feels like a fresh start. A sentence can take on a new form. A new idea may be triggered that wasn’t present earlier. Even a walk around the block can make a difference.

When she isn’t taking a spin around Northern California, writer and engineer Linda Romano is hard at work on her memoir.

Joe Garrity: Writer, Director & Improviser:

I got into improv, trepidatiously, as a writer first. Previously I had considered improv a sport only for professional actors, capital P Performers. I learned through watching many live shows during a semester in New York what a wide range of people took part in the practice: introverts, extroverts, listeners, talkers, leaders, followers. And I learned that none of these attributes actually belonged to anyone forever. We each contained multitudes. Shortly after college I stepped into my first improv course, a night class held at the Berkeley YWCA with retirees and computer programmers. I was terrified but slowly became acclimated to the central idea: courting terror. Disarming it. Practicing equanimity. Through one class, into another, from a theater in San Francisco to one in New York, I followed a winding path toward a friendlier relationship with my imagination. It became easier to reserve judgement, to honor feeling, to sit in uncertainty. To really laugh. Now I find myself in Los Angeles, studying at The Groundlings theater just down the street from me, where so many of my heroes have trained. I’m right where I want to be, in a scene I couldn’t have written.

Joe Garrity is a writer, director, and editor originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote, directed, and starred in the award-winning short film Twinsburg. Joe is directing Sunday Night at Jane’s by playwright Emily Powers for this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Tickets go on sale May 1st.

Christopher Wiley: Writer & Artist

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Sensory experiences spark inspiration for me. Creating art becomes tactile, visual and problem-solving encounters for my brain. It is relaxation, a brief vacation from the assemblages of words on a blank page. It encourages uninhibited mind wandering that allows me to tap into unfiltered thoughts, ideas and feelings. Art also makes good practice for experimentation. I’d say that my art is craft-oriented, relying on mostly found objects and materials. Discovering and using found things for art projects gets me to see these discarded objects in a new way. Putting unusual or unlikely objects together in the physical world is a great exercise for expanding a writer’s mind. It cultivates my writer’s third eye that urges me to see—and express—the world clearly and creatively.

Art and photography by Christopher Wiley.

Christopher Wiley’s short play Irreversible Binomials recently premiered at The Post Theatre Company at Long Island University. Several of his poems recently appeared in Bending Genres and Peculiar.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher: Writer, Pianist & Snowboarder:

Playing the piano provides a perfect break when I’m writing. I mainly play the same few pieces (occasionally I learn something new, and an old favorite drops off the rotation), so practicing has an immediate effect; I can hear myself improve. Unlike with writing, I know the notes, so I can change the tone, the pace, the emotion. That resets my brain.

I can’t do this as often, but I also love to snowboard. How else can one access a snow-covered Narnian forest? On snowy tree days, I’m through the wardrobe, which will never stop being my ultimate fantasy. Also, when I’m in extreme terrain, which I prefer, I am one hundred percent in the moment. I’m a chronic overthinker, so the sudden silence in my brain is a tremendous relief. Sometimes this happens when I write, but not as frequently; danger forces the switch. I tend to have lots of ideas after I access that (underused) portion of my brain. And more optimism. At the top of a giant mountain, there’s no past (regrets) and no future (worries)—there’s only that rock and that cliff and that tree.

Lindsay Jamieson Gallagher‘s short story “Family Map” recently appeared in Kelp Journal.

Mick Guinn: Writer, Recording Artist, Gardener, Cyclist, Polymath ….

I was told recently (by a professional who should know) that my curse is I’m a polymath, which has nothing to do with math, which is good because I’m just “okay” at math, unless it’s financial woe math where I’m wont to articulate and exaggerate in great algebraic detail––which still doesn’t make me good at math––but doesn’t rule out the possibility of polymath. It could just be my ADHD. However, if the polymath diagnosis is correct, it may explain why my careers and pastimes are strewn all over the place like socks that never made the hamper.

As a recording artist and lyricist of questionable talent, I often unconsciously create wildly rhyming sentences with cadences like dances that call too much attention to themselves. All the while, pining for something more akin to the liquidity of lyrical prose to drop on the page. Most of the time when my butt is bolted to the chair as instructed, weeds call me out of it. The pullable, not smokable, kind.  Gardening’s in a different part of what’s left of my brain, giving the write brain a rest. I’m particularly obsessed with pruning, which feels like editing. Cycling sans earbuds does something similar. That’s when I hear the voices. I used to throw pots for the same unthinking reason. I guess the best pastimes for me are ones that use the unused parts of my brain.  Or the knees I need to take a walk with now.

Mick Guinn is unsurprisingly unpublished at this time, but currently completing work on a 3000-page coming-of-age memoir titled, Based on a True Story, which he hopes still is.

WRITER TIP: How do your outside interests enrich your writing life? Consider not only the direct connections, but indirect benefits. If running is your thing, you don’t have to come back from a run with a full-blown story idea. As Collin Mitchell shared last week, running and other physical activities release endorphins and keep us mentally and physically healthy. Other activities might exercise our right brains or help us keep our mental edge. All these things will make us better writers and will keep us in top writing form for many, many years.

Writing and Writing on Running

Please enjoy this guest post by writer and runner Collin Mitchell.

Much has been written about the relationship between running and the successful writing life: there are the obvious comparisons between the slog of marathon training and producing a novel, the way fresh air and exertion clears fog from the brain, and the age-old idea that any kind of pain makes one stronger.

Generally speaking, I have no argument with any of this.

So why write more about running and writing? What else is there to say, really?

Writers, perhaps more than most people, can appreciate the link between mental stimulation and an agile mind. Riding a bike or people-watching at the mall are decent ways to get words on the page—or at least delay them. We all want something (in this case, writing the Great American Novel), yet it’s the path we choose, or are forced to take, that’s the more interesting point of the story.

So, what of the pursuit of writing a novel, or anything, really? John Gardner has said that the primary subjects of fiction are human emotion, values, and beliefs. Is running an embodiment of this idea while also serving as a means by which to write?

By some stroke of fate, running found me. It’s also one of the few things I know how to do as well as eat or go to the bathroom, so I consider myself lucky that something which fell into my lap has proven to be natural to my disposition. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami intimated something similar in his musings on running. Much in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, appeals to me—the workaday approach to running and writing, the satisfaction with boredom. In short, we both need (more like, crave) the empty, benign space running provides. But here, I’d rather reflect on an anecdote that doesn’t describe me at all. Murakami writes:

I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

Each of these traits is a “no” for me. I began running at twenty-five because a friend, who had just finished his first marathon, encouraged me to give it a try. His accomplishment made me jealous in the best way, and I went for it. I’m still running nearly fifteen years later. My writing life had a similar trajectory. After years of avoiding the desire to write, I finally got started after a friend asked me to contribute something for a zine he was putting together. That same friend, (over years, mind you) cajoled me into working with him on a film, then movie scripts, and finally an animated TV pilot that got some attention in a handful of Burbank production offices. And then, after all that, when this same friend got his MFA and connected me with a paid writing gig, it finally occurred to me (boy, am I dense) that I should take myself a little bit more seriously. Unlike Murakami, I specifically don’t do whatever I feel like and almost always, wait for permission to move forward. Of all the things I wish I could change about myself, this is number one.

So what do writing and running and me have to do with each other? Well, we were pushed together, like reluctant kids at a junior high dance. Over the years we’ve found that if we have to be here (read: in life/on earth) we might as well stick together. Like the scrappy outcasts in an ‘80s movie, we’re gonna get through this and hopefully get to the end, with a pizza and a pitcher of Coors Light to celebrate.

Mostly, I don’t know what I want to do with myself on any given day. If I could walk around the neighborhood from sunup to sundown, I would. But this won’t work with my current lifestyle (marriage/kid), so running has to get the job done—it’s more efficient. Similarly, I would love to read all day, but some priggish sense of duty and productivity doesn’t allow me to do that. So, instead, I do something slightly less indolent, and I write. Which means I have to push a lot of inertia aside.

Running gets my feelings in check, and together we wrangle in the aimlessness of living. Anger turns to indifference, or better, empathy. Frustration turns to mild annoyance. With any luck, enthusiasm raises its eager head.

But more than this, running is about remembering who I am. The real me, or the ideal me. The me who can transform an old story idea into something resembling a plot. The me who has the imagination to finally get some lines of dialogue out. The me who cares enough about himself, even if just for an hour, before the endorphins drop, to make something with my time. This is the me who is ten years old again and doesn’t care about what others think or how much money I’ve made or any of those other distractions.

Running makes me familiar with myself again and asks, gently, if I might want to take a step forward, pursue my wants. For a moment, those narrative emotions, values, and beliefs are in stark relief. If I take a moment, and walk through the mental opening a good run provides, I can have a story to call my very own.


Collin Mitchell is a graduate of the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He contributes to Publishers Weekly and Los Angeles Review of Books, and he lives in Redlands.

More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image courtesy of Mackenzie Kram.

Sylvia Plath kept bees. Madeleine L’Engle played the piano. Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks. Emily Dickinson was an award-winning baker. Franz Kafka collected porn.

I can’t remember what triggered it. I think it may have been a book I was reading, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Whatever it was, I recently began noticing that my writer friends all have really cool hobbies and other creative outlets. I asked them to share how these other pursuits feed their writing. The responses I’ve gotten have been fascinating and enlightening. This is the last of three installments (at least for now) of writers talking about their other interests. Enjoy!

Rodney E. Schmidt: Writer & Hiker:

My writing and pastime activities run on different freeways that never intersect or run parallel. I write paranoid fantasies about Luddites and opportunists who try to shine in a bleak world, while my hobbies consist of me hiking through the mountains or deserts alone. Like I said, binaries. I’ve wandered so miles across this planet, and during that time, I’ve never thought that I needed technology to make my moment any better. Nor has there been a time when I’ve written about a dystopian future filled with nature and solitude. Maybe the dyad keeps the balance in my mind, influencing my plots, placating my fears. In both fiction and reality, I’m allowed to explore. And in both science fiction and nature, forces more significant tower over me. Maybe there’s a bigger connection than I thought.

Rodney E. Schmidt’s short story “Like and Follow” recently appeared in Caustic Frolic.

Paulla Rich Estes: Writer & Nature Enthusiast:

Walking my dog in the woods near my house, I witness the seasonal changes of Maine—the fall colors, winter snows, spring blossoms, and summer growth. But there’s a point on the path, twenty minutes to a half hour in, where something in me shifts. After mentally ticking down my checklist for the day, my brain exhales and I begin to write. Ideas crop up that I voice-text to myself, and I allow nature to help find the book inside me that’s waiting to be written.

Paulla Rich Estes’s essay “Extraction” recently appeared in The Coachella Review.

Writer Paulla Rich Estes and her companion Dinah.

David Olsen: Writer & Surfer

Surfing is an interesting sport. It seems super niche and sort of inaccessible. At least it did to me for years. I started surfing in earnest in my thirties. The ocean’s crushing jaws, great white sharks just beneath the surface—a close friend of mine was even attacked in Marina years ago—made the ocean seem like a counterintuitive place to find solace. But that is exactly what it has become for me. A solace from the land-world. Out beyond the breakers, reality becomes something new, something silent, and something potentially deadly. It is an experience like no other. And it is in this element, this tranquil, glittering reality beyond the breakers, that I feel truly alive. I think everyone needs a space like this, especially creatives. A space where it feels like you can be alone with just your thoughts and connect to the natural world. Sometimes it’s not about the wave riding, it’s just about existing in that realm for as long as you can, before you have to come back to the real world. I am always a little bit disappointed to have to come back. I always want just one more moment, or one more wave.

David Olsen is a writer and the Editor-In-Chief of Kelp Journal. His work has been widely published, including an essay in CrimeReads, “How Surf Noir Changed My Life.”

Mackenzie Kram: Screenwriter, Filmmaker & Aviation Enthusiast:

To me, airplanes represent freedom, creativity, and enlightenment. As a writer, a lot of my stories have been influenced by aviation and airplanes. For example, most of my characters are either flight attendants or in relationships with flight attendants. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Believe you can and you’re already halfway there.” Connecting the dots with this quote, aviation brings me the spark I need in my writing, allowing me to relate to characters and write screenplays with hints of aviation throughout. My screenplay, Airport Mime Hunt, was partially influenced by my love for airplanes and airports, specifically the Portland International Airport. When faced with writer’s block, or whenever I hit a brick wall in my writing, I go out and plane spot. Sometimes, I even spend all day plane spotting at Palm Springs International Airport or plan my schedule around spotting an inaugural flight (new route or new airline).

Whenever I fly, I try to make trip reports whenever I get a chance, allowing me to use my filmmaking skills while bringing my audience along for the ride. Like writing, I always know what I film, when to film, and where to film, giving me the right cues in making trip reports. Now with my new job as a ramp agent, I get flight benefits, allowing me to spend even more time around airplanes and flight attendants.

The photos on Mackenzie Krams popular Instagram have gotten likes from the airlines (AHA!, Allegiant, Frontier, Sun Country, Swoop, and United). The airplane photos below, as well as the photograph at the top of the post (an Alaska Airlines Jet taxiing at the Palm Springs International Airport for an early morning takeoff) were all taken by Mackenzie Kram.

Two Alaskan Airlines jets at Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

An American Eagle jet and an Alaskan Airlines jet side by side at the Palm Springs International Airport. Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

A Sun Country jet making a sunset landing.
Photo credit: Mackenzie Kram

Andréa Ferrell Gannon: Writer, Class-Taker & Verb Hunter:

Kill for time for a hobby…. Before being locked in with teens all week, then alone with my memories and manuscript all weekend, I tried painting and improv. Yes, both are useful for stirring writerly juices. The most surefire way to get me writing though is working under great writer-teachers; I’m a big class-taker.

Looking forward for inspiration, since my life will calm down in June, I’m considering a summer job outside of my current field–something somewhere where gobs of different people are. I just want to stare at them!

And learning the new skills for the new job will give me new verbs. I love me some new verbs for revving up the ol’ writing!

Andréa Ferrell Gannon’s opinion piece, “First Came the TikTok School Shooting ‘Challenge.’ Then Came the Fear” recently appeared in the Washington Post.

L.A. Hunt: Writer & Rebel Flaneur

I see the most extraordinary things on my walks through East Hollywood and Silverlake—nature flourishing, life unfolding, time passing. And sure, I walk for health. But mostly, my mind wanders. And to my surprise, a different reason altogether has emerged for why I walk; it’s the time I get to devote to myself. See, I spend most of my days and nights and early mornings and late evenings, and every moment in between, taking care of other people. I am a mother, after all. And a teacher. Two of the most demanding roles on time, effort, and breath. When I breathe at work, it’s out of frustration or under pressure. When I breathe at home, it’s out of worry or from guilt. But on a walk, by myself, my breath is free, easy. Uninhibited. Of course, as a writer, the benefits of walking are incalculable, for obvious reasons. But I don’t walk for my writing anymore, because even that, in a way, is for something else outside of myself. I walk as an act of rebellion now. I am a radical. No one knows this. But on my walks, every breath I take is because I choose to breathe. I can also choose not to breathe which, by the way, is not recommended by any sane medical doctor or person with a brain. But the choice. It’s mine. I breathe in not because, if I don’t, my classroom will fall apart or my family system will break down. I breathe in because I am in the moment, I am a woman who feels every woman before her who didn’t have the choice to breathe or couldn’t breathe or was suffocated. I breathe in because I relish the choice to do so. On my walks, I smile. I laugh. I think. I cry. I sing out loud. I talk to myself. I argue. And I do it all as me without the external expectations of being a mother, a sister, a wife, a teacher, a writer, or a friend. I walk, and I breathe; they’re both free. Or rather, freeing. I know, radical, right?

L.A. Hunts essay “The Tree of Life” recently appeared in GXRL magazine.

East Hollywood and Silverlake as seen on the author’s walks.
Photo credit: L.A. Hunt

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: For the last few weeks, I’ve been asking my friends who write about the other things they do creatively or just for movement or fun. The first week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing in 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. Last week, we heard from Matt Ellis, Chih Wang, Ioannis Argiris, Sara Grimes, Jaime Parker Stickle, and Ashley Corinne in 6 More Writers & Their Pastimes. Next week, I have a more in-depth dive into the ways running benefits a writer.

6 More Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image of writer & aerialist Chih Wang courtesy of Brandi Cooper.

I got such a great response to my request for the ways my writer friends’ pastimes inform their writing that I thought I’d share a half dozen more this week … and a half dozen more next week! Here’s part two of writers talking creative pursuits, hobbies, and side hustles.

Ioannis Argiris: Writer & Stigmatophile:

Collecting tattoo imagery is a process that inspires my writing work when I’m capturing a mood. I try to find images to connect to that emotion, like courage (panther head tattoo) or anger (dagger), and I think about how the lines and colors that make up that graphic affect my writing. Seeing so many variations of the images expressed by many wonderful tattoo artists helps me find the words I can try out on the page.

Ioannis Argiriss short story “U-Haul” recently appeared in Kelp Journal. His new zine, encinal nights: speculative stories, features four short stories and will be available in April at local Bay Area bookstores and online.

Chih Wang: Writer, Editor & Aerialist:

My other big thing I love to do is aerial hammock, but I’m not sure if it actually helps my writing. When I’m frustrated and feeling low about the progress with my novel, I can sometimes turn to aerial where my progress is much more obvious. Learning a new skill in a one-hour class reminds me that I can still accomplish things and perhaps that bleeds over to my writing morale.

Chih Wang is a freelance copyeditor and is the copyeditor for Kelp Journal. You can reach her at cywediting.com.

Aerialist Chih Wang. Photography credit: Brandi Cooper.

Sara Grimes: Poet & Stand-Up Comedian:

Cutting my teeth in comedy has been a useful tool for developing my poetic voice. When I am feeling depleted in one area of my creative life, it allows me to pivot to another outlet. I have days when inspiration strikes to write a comedy set. On those days, I may be sitting at a coffee shop, and I can feel my consciousness expand and welcome in thematic material to riff off of. It will often start with one joke or idea, and then my writing acumen will come in handy to develop that into a larger bit woven together thoughtfully. This gets the creative juices flowing, and maybe later that day, I will be walking my dog through a neighborhood on the precipice of spring, and I will be inspired to write a poem about it. Then, I will sit down and apply the same balance of craft and lyric flow to my poetry.  There is a sense of rhythm, movement, and pacing to both forms of art.

In this clip, I think the role of emphasis and syntax in both genres is heightened as well: “QR Codes Are the New Classified Ads”

Sara Grimes’s poem “Isolation” recently appeared in The Dewdrop‘s “Isolation Shorts.”

Jaime Parker Stickle: Writer & Podcast Host:

I started a podcast to be able to sit with other artists once a week and talk about all the things, all the jobs, all the money-making gigs we do and have done in pursuit of our careers as writers (and other artists). It really feeds my work as a writer in so many ways–hearing incredible stories from fellow artists inspires me to keep working and not give up. It honestly aids the way I build characters, especially in my screenwriting. I’m often motivated to write characters that I think the actors I have on the show would play with grace and humor and ease. And that is so exciting to me.

The podcast has become such a passion of mine because of how much fulfillment it provides to me creatively, and it keeps me tethered to a community of artists, where I may otherwise feel isolated as a writer. I know my writing is better because of it.

Jaime Parker Stickle is a writer and the co-host of Make That Paper! Podcast.

Writer and podcast host Jaime Parker Stickle

Matt Ellis: Writer, Musician & Air Wave Wanderer:

One of my favorite MFA lecture moments was when thriller novelist Ivy Pochoda likened plot building to releasing a herd of rabbits to run. Her revelation was both mind-blowing and daunting. I’d written long enough to know that once your characters had their own lives and voices, they could drive the story in new and surprising ways. Easy, right? For a successful career, all you need is to create a vast stable of fully realized characters and keep churning them out like a dungeon master with three bags of dice. Oh … but wait … they also need to be both wholly original and identifiable to your reader simultaneously? Reality check, please.

Like many people, I spend far too much time in my car. While switching off the stereo can invite the creative journey that only bumper-to-bumper boredom can bring, getting lost in those mental excursions can invite real-life danger and drama. My solution—reality podcasts! You want authenticity in your writing, let fact drive your what-if explorations. I don’t find the gold in mining sensational stories or the peaks of meteoric rises. Those are already too well known and lean toward the cliché. I’m obsessed with grassroots. Causes that help me shape different effects.

An unusual This American Life profile of an investigator who identifies unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles led me to some profound questions that became my current manuscript. Another led me to a new raison d’être for a critical character that I had to resurrect and carry for two hundred more pages. Need insights into the moral calculus of high-stakes operations for your geopolitical thriller? Tune into Malcolm Gladwell’s exploration of the WWII fire-bombing campaigns on Tokyo in Revisionist History. Got a crime story about street gangs? The Freakonomics crew will tell you the economic reasons many drug dealers still live at home with their mothers.

I’m not saying poach for your prose, but we can all modify a splice of DNA for our own sequencing. Now put on those sunglasses, adjust the seat, and tune your stereo EQ from rock to talk.

Matt Ellis’s short story “Off the Road” was recently published in Kiss the Witch.

Ashley Corinne: Writer, Singer/Songwriter & TV/Film Aficionado:

When I’m not reading or writing, I’m more than likely watching TV or movies or listening to music.

Music is my very first love. I was a singer and a songwriter before I was anything else, thanks to mornings with Radio Disney’s pop jams, princess movies, and Breakfast with the Beatles on 95.5. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of turning the volume up with your headphones in and pretending you’re in a dramatic music video.

While I don’t do so much songwriting these days, and I only sing alone in the car (like my life depends on it), music is the one thing that keeps my brain from folding in on itself. I’m constantly curating playlists for seasons, moods, and feelings or finding film scores to match my reading mood. I just finished putting together my spring playlist, and I’m rather proud of it.

Once I’m finished dancing around my room and performing Ashley: The World Tour for an imaginary audience, my brain is refreshed and full of new ideas for writing.

Film and TV are my other two vices. I’ve always had obnoxious opinions on them, and I’m shocked to read old Facebook statuses where I raved about bad TV like it was a Monet. I do love bad TV, don’t mistake that, but I love so much more about film than my “guilty pleasure” watching (which I do not ever feel guilty about, btw).

I work for a movie studio (an unexpected life turn), where I’ve worked in both film and television, and it’s completely changed the game for me. I not only obsess over storytelling and hot people on my screen, but I’ve become downright geeky about the production process. Writing, VFX, dailies, color and costume tests, MPA rating processes. It’s exhausting and lovely and somehow still one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Watching movies and television allow me to stay close to what I love about reading and writing: storytelling, character, themes, etc, but I’m still able to keep the two separate. And once I’m done with a new show (or an old one I’ve seen a hundred times), I can see my own work so differently. It lets me see that maybe the direction or tone I had started with isn’t actually where the story needs to go.

Ashley Corinne’s essay My Brain Is in a Supermassive Black Hole: A Twilight Reread recently appeared in GXRL.

Writer Ashley Corinne enjoys music, TV & film, and coffee shops.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Last week, writers Amy Reardon, Nicholas Belardes, Anna Reagan, Trey Burnette, Jackie DesForges, and Laurie Rockenbeck talked about the creative pursuits that feed their writing. Read all about it here: 6 Writers & Their Pastimes. What things do you do to keep the creative juices flowing?

6 Writers & Their Pastimes

Feature image “Morning Star” courtesy of Trey Burnette.

I’ve been fascinated lately with the way our creative interests and hobbies play into or support our writing. Nearly all of my writer friends have other interests. Some are creative, some are just for fun, some are more grounding. I asked a half dozen writers to tell me about their other creative or just-for-fun pursuits and to discuss how those things inform their writing.

Amy Reardon: Writer, Dancer & Erasure Poet:

“I make erasure poetry to entertain myself and my friends because I find it relaxing and empowering to pull out a deeper agenda within a text. I attend ballet class because it gives me so much pleasure to be in this group of retired ballerinas for whom it is easy and natural to move beautifully. I love being in the room with the music and the barre and the teacher. I’m often the worst one there–and I am learning the language and the moves so it’s humbling and overwhelming, and I have to concentrate so hard–all feelings I put myself in intentionally to inform my writing. But mostly it’s just the beauty. Bodies doing ballet are about the most beautiful thing I can imagine.”

Amy Reardons essay “Stuck” recently appeared in The Believer.

Nicholas Belardes: Writer, Birder & Photographer:

“Nature trails. Birds. Animal life. Behaviors. Birding informs my fiction writing daily. Everything from the jewel of a Summer Tanager to a coyote gulping down a poor bunny. These moments sneak into my stories, help me illuminate how beautiful and dangerous the world can be. My sci-fi story ‘Sky Seekers’ in El Porvenir, Ya! was inspired by what AI birding could be in the far distant future.”

Nicholas Belardess short story “Sky Seekers” is in the Chicano science fiction anthology El Porvenir, Ya!

Summer Tanager, Pismo Beach Campground. Photography credit: Nicholas Belardes.

Anna Reagan: Writer, Reality TV Expert & Celebrity/Pop Culture Queen:

“My Reality TV pleasure brings me a sense of community with people. Instagram, Reddit, friends, etc. Like with the women in my squad, we had such a good time discussing Love is Blind. After and during the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that I need the escape of reality TV and the drama of people I don’t even know on TikTok. It’s fun and it doesn’t affect me directly. I’ve always loved people and their stories, and though people deem it trashy, I love it!

“I think for Real Housewives in particular there can be very complicated issues at hand and human drama—especially how we react to things—is on display. Dissecting with friends and seeing what the internet has to say is really fun and can lead to really interesting conversations. There’s of course the element of some of it being contrived. Some housewives are AMAZING at stirring the pot and Bravo fans will joke that those housewives themselves are producers when we know they want to keep their jobs. There’s also the phenomenon of the second season housewife who totally changes in various ways to respond to their debut season, which can be fascinating. I could go on, clearly.

“For celebrity culture it’s the same but different. Growing up in LA and being around big names, I’ve had a front row seat to how these people act. For instance I went to school with a now B-list actor’s daughter and the daughter of perhaps the most famous living director. And the director’s daughter was incredibly down to earth while the actor’s daughter made a huge display of ordering take-out for lunch everyday—which is expensive—AND had a town car pick her up. So I learned a lot about how people in Hollywood display their insecurities. So celebrity gossip is sometimes like gossip about people I know. But then I’m also a nosy bitch.

“And I just can’t be out of the loop about any cultural phenomenon. I’m too interested in the general discourse. I am getting better at being okay with not being in the loop with everything. I’ve stayed away from Euphoria because it seems anxiety producing. Progress.”

Anna Reagans essay “Dear Kobe Bryant: A Threnody: Wake Up. Grind. Repeat. Become Better.” recently appeared in Public Seminar.

Trey Burnette: Writer & Photographer:

“Writing is very cognitive and sedentary, as opposed to photography, which is very instinctual and active. While my artistry and emotion come through my mind with writing, my creativity with photography comes through my body. First through my eyes, and then by a reactive feeling in my body. There is less time to think with photography, one must act on impulse, or miss the shot. Photography is not done sitting at a desk – one stands, sits, squats, climbs, and lies on objects to get the right shot. Both mediums compliment the other; after one is physical and instinctive with photography, there is space for the meditative and heady practice of writing. Photography clears my mind and puts me in the moment. It gives me the space I need to subconsciously process my writing and then return with a fresh view. Writing helps a photographer think about story. Photography helps the writer listen to their instincts.”

Trey Burnettes essay “September 1” recently appeared in Cheat River Review.

“Morning Star” – Photography credit: Trey Burnette

Jackie DesForges: Writer, Artist & Poet:

“For me, being creative has always been about play, to an extent. Trying things and having fun and pushing myself intellectually in an environment where nothing is at stake and where no one else gets a say in what I am doing. Writing used to be like this for me, but now that it is becoming more like work (which, of course, was the goal and I am grateful for it), I need other forms of creativity to fill that void of doing shit for shit’s sake. For me right now it’s getting back into visual art (which I did a lot as a child but stopped for about a decade), and writing poetry, which I always thought I hated and was bad at. Turns out I just hadn’t yet found types of poetry that spoke to me. I also find it helpful to be able to switch to another creative project when I get stuck on another. It feels like a productive way to take a step back until I know how to move forward. And since I am usually working on more than one thing at a time, each of the projects end up having hints of each other.”

Jackie DesForgess essay “How to Build an Artist” recently appeared in Air/Light.

Laurie Rockenbeck: Writer & Fiber Artist:

“I could go on for hours about fiber arts. Planning a knitted piece is a lot like planning a story. Instead of words, the story of a fabric is told in color and fiber. The process uses complimentary parts of the brain that feed my need to create. Knitting uses a different but equally creative part of my brain.  Sometimes when I am stuck on a scene, I’ll pick up the needles to put myself into a different mode.  This change in focus often unlocks a fix.”

Laurie Rockenbeck is a Seattle crime fiction writer hard at work on her next novel. She also makes the best quince liqueur I’ve ever tasted.

One of Laurie Rockenbeck’s fun current projects–a gnome every month in 2022.

Author Laurie Rockenbeck shows off one of her many knitting projects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITER TIP: Scientific studies have shown that having creative interests and hobbies outside of writing will make you a better writer. Hobbies are good for people in general–they support physical health and emotional well-being. For writers, they have added benefits: they get us up and away from our desks; stimulate different centers in our brains; provide us with opportunities to observe people and the world around us; and inspire us creatively. One of my favorite short story writers, Flannery O’Connor, wrote: “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”

Write Hard

I’ve been reading about writing, editing, and creativity lately, and a theme that keeps popping up is the amount of time and hard work it takes to acquire natural born writing talent.

We’ve all read stories of “overnight success”–talented actors, writers, musicians, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere. What we don’t hear about are the years of hard work these overnight successes put into honing their craft, not to mention the innumerable instances of rejection. When it comes to overnight success, what it boils down to is this: when their moment to shine arrived, they were well-prepared. They were ready.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp discusses the phenomenon of the overnight success: “It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. … I come down on the side of hard work.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, widely accepted as a genius whose talent and skill came fully-formed and naturally to him at birth. That’s what this excerpt from Mozart’s Wikipedia page would have us believe anyway: “Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five … .”

The thing is, we are all born with a talent, and often more than one talent. Part of the difference between someone born with musical talent who succeeds, and someone born with the same talent who does not succeed, is the luck of the draw. What the legends about Mozart often fail to mention is the family Mozart was born into. There was a clavier in the house, among other instruments. Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a talented musician in his own right–he was a violin virtuoso and even has his own Wikipedia page. He was a composer, played several instruments, and made his living as (get this) a music teacher. He noticed his son Wolfgang had musical talent when the child was a toddler, and he had the skills and the time to nurture that talent.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791 at age six

I mean, yes, Mozart wrote his first music compositions when he was four or five years old, but so what? I wrote and performed my first poems at the age of six and wrote a complete book series at the age of nine. The question for both of us is this: yes, but how good were they? Tharp notes that, “Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five.” Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that my book series about two frog brothers never found a publisher.

The other difference besides luck, I firmly believe, is hard work. Talent and luck without hard work are candles in the wind, in my opinion–weak, fragile, likely to burn out. This was true even of Mozart, who had everything going for him. “Nobody worked harder than Mozart,” Tharp writes. “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

Mozart acknowledged this himself. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

I thought of these things recently, when I watched the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. As the story tells it, Richard Williams and Oracene Price had two daughters with the intention of raising them from birth to be tennis greats. Both Williams and Price became tennis coaches in order to coach their daughters. They instilled a tremendous work ethic in their daughters, and the Williams family worked hard together and made many sacrifices, each and every day, to achieve their dreams.

Tennis stars Venus Williams and Serena Williams

I can extend this example to Will Smith, too, the actor who played Richard Williams in the film. I once heard actor Penn Badgley (You; Gossip Girl) respond to an aspiring actor who asked him how to break into acting. I wish I could find the exact quote or the clip–if I’m able to, I’ll add it here and share it on Twitter. It was so good. But basically, his response was to keep acting, to keep working at it. To practice. He pointed out that attorneys go to seven years of college before they can practice law, and doctors go to eight years of college and then several years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice medicine. Acting is a career choice, he said, and actors have to put in those same years of study and practice.

Anyway, my point is, Will Smith had been acting for 12 years before he received his first Academy Award nomination for Ali in 2002. That’s 12 years from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to greatness, and he was actually acting even before that, in music videos for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” in 1989 and 1991. Smith was nominated for an Academy Award again in 2007 for The Pursuit of Happyness, and he was nominated this year for King Richard. Perhaps this is the year he will win. If so, it won’t have come out of nowhere. It will have come after nearly 25 years of hard work, commitment, and tenacity.

Actor Will Smith. Photography credit: Lorenzo Agius

 

If hard work = genius, then practice = excellence.

When I was a student in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, I had the incredible good fortune to work on my short stories with Mary Yukari Waters for a year. Waters is an award-winning writer, the author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites, and an exceptional human being. She’s won an O’Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for her writing, and her own stories have been in Best American Short Stories … three times. When I struggled to get my words onto the page in the same brilliant way they came to me in my head, Waters explained not only the importance of practice, but its significance.

Consider this: Babies spend their first three years learning to talk. They begin making sounds at around six months. By the age of nine months they can understand a few words and begin to experiment with making many sounds. From around their first birthday to the age of 18 months, they learn to say a few words. By the age of two, they can string short phrases of two to three words together. By the age of three, they have a rapidly expanding vocabulary and begin to string short sentences together.

Although babies can only speak a few words at the age of 12-18 months, they can understand many more words–around 25 according to experts. Although they can’t speak sentences until around the age of three, they can understand them and respond to them. Last night, my granddaughter Louise, who is ten months old today, was trilling her tongue and saying, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da-da-da” on repeat. She was practicing. She can’t say the words, but she uses sign language to signal when she wants to “eat,” when she wants “more,” and when she’s “all done.” No, she can’t say the words, but she understands the words and their meanings. It’s all in her head, although she can’t articulate it in speech yet.

It’s the same with writing, Waters explained. When it comes to writing, we are like babies, with ideas in our heads, but without the ability to articulate them. The words are in our heads much sooner than we’re able to express them fully on the page. We are baby writers, and with practice, the words we write will more and more closely resemble the ideas we picture in our minds. It takes practice to get them from our brains and into our writing.

Mary Yukari Waters, author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites

For a writer, perhaps nowhere does the hard work of writing show up more than in a writer’s devotion to rewriting. Revision. Self-editing. Hard work. In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell recalls: “There is a saying: Genius is perseverance.” Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, she writes with admiration about the intense work Fitzgerald put into the novel. She calls the novel “a tour de force of revision,” and she means that as a compliment of the highest order. Commenting on the words critics use to describe the novel, she concludes: “Careful, sound, carefully written; hard effort; wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised; structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to willful editing.”

The bottom line is, excellence in writing (or in anything) is more a matter of hard work than innate talent. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome after reading your contemporary literary heroes’ latest work, like I am, think about what it took for them to get there. You have those same tools at your disposal–hard work, dedication, persistence, perhaps a stubborn streak and a thick skin. Excellence and genius and mastery reside in you, too. Add hard work and practice, shake well, and pour it onto the page.

WRITER TIP: Perhaps no one acknowledges the need for practice more than golfers. Ben Hogan and Gary Player are generally considered to be among the greatest golfers of all time. “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good,” Hogan said. Player put it this way: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Keep in mind that what we call genius is made up mostly of hard work, daily practice, and stick-to-it-iveness. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

 

Believe in Yourself

I want to talk to you today about a Flavorwire article I read eight years ago. It’s an old article, yes, but (1) it’s still relevant today, and (2) it made such an impact on me that I’m still thinking about it eight years later. I also want to point out that, while the 2014 article spoke to gender disparity in publishing, the lessons I took from the article apply not only to women writers, but to any marginalized writer whose confidence in submitting to literary journals or querying agents has taken a hit.

The 2014 article is called “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count.” As its title suggests, the article is about two literary magazines included in the 2013 VIDA Count. But what I found shocking when I read the article eight years ago was not so much the VIDA Count itself, although that is fascinating too. What I found more surprising was something it unearthed about the ways marginalized writers internalize and respond to rejection.

The VIDA Count is a look at disparity in the makeup of contributors to magazines and literary journals. The Count is undertaken by the VIDA organization. In 2013, VIDA’s focus was on gender inequality, but today, VIDA’s mission is more inclusive and intersectional:

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) is a non-profit intersectional feminist literary organization dedicated to creating transparency surrounding gender imbalances and the lack of diversity in the literary landscape. VIDA also aims to amplify historically-marginalized voices, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); writers with disabilities; and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals.

The VIDA organization tallies the makeup of contributors to top literary magazines and journals. In 2013, it did so in terms of men and women, tallying their numbers in terms of bylines, reviewers of books, authors of books reviewed, interviewers of authors, and authors interviewed.

One of the journals featured in the 2013 Flavorwire article, Tin House, did well in the count. The other, The Believer, did not do so well. Tin House published its last issue in June 2019, and The Believer is set to publish its final issue early this year. Both of these journals are quality, well-respected literary journals. The contributions of these two journals have been life-altering to the literary world, and their presence will continue to be missed by readers and writers alike far into the future. The Believer‘s legitimacy and commitment to do good were never in question. Rather, the article points up how insidiously disparity can creep into the most well-intentioned of organizations.

In 2013, The Believer‘s overall count was more than 65% men, less than 35% women. A pretty even split between men and women in the interviews and interviewees category helped it out. Drilling down, 82% of its book reviews were written by men, 72% of the books it reviewed were written by men, and 72% of its bylines belonged to men. No one was more surprised by this than The Believer itself. Its editors said:

We were totally thrilled and honored to be included in the VIDA count because we read it every year, and every year we’ve wondered, ‘how would we fare?’ We always thought we’d fare pretty well. Our masthead is 40% women, and one of our driving editorial principles is to produce as diverse a magazine as we can every month. So we were surprised when we saw our VIDA numbers.

It’s important to note that, since 2013, The Believer has worked to steadily flip those numbers. In the latest VIDA Count (2019), The Believer‘s overall numbers were approximately 58% women, 40% men, and 2% non-binary. The Believer should be applauded for its efforts–it’s easy to talk the talk, but it takes dedication and unwavering commitment to undertake the real work of creating lasting change. The Believer will retire this year with an admirable and inspiring legacy.

But what I found most shocking about the 2014 Flavorwire article were the statements provided by Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House. While Tin House did very well in the VIDA Count, Spillman pointed out some interesting challenges the journal faced in achieving its good numbers:

At Tin House we take a conscious, systemic approach to gender balance. In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out.’ But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men. There were many factors contributing to this, including that males submit 100% of the time after being solicited, versus 50% of females, men are four times more likely to resubmit after an encouraging rejection, female agents send more male submissions than females (go figure), when given the option both men and women writers chose to write about male writers 80% of the time, etc.

To its credit, Tin House had done its homework and had then gone out of its way to achieve gender equality, which is absolutely necessary when disparity is so deeply ingrained.

Spillman explained the steps Tin House took to reverse the trend:

[W]e made some systemic changes–soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.

Reading that article in 2014, I realized that, yes, the changes in the publishing industry must come from within. Change doesn’t just happen. The steps Tin House took to solicit and encourage women writers and the steps The Believer took to turn its numbers around had to be taken in order to break the cycle. Those steps need to be taken with writers of color and other marginalized writers as well. It feels hopeful that, today, publishers are beginning to take them.

The thing is, extra effort must be made to encourage marginalized writers to continue to query agents in the face of rejection and to keep submitting to literary journals and magazines because, all too often, these writers rarely see themselves in such publications, so why would they submit to them? It can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s encouraging to now see literary journals offer free submission portals or free submission periods for writers of color or to offer submission periods during which they only accept submissions from writers of color. They are showing their commitment to publishing writers of color.

At a recent seminar I attended, an older, white, male writer bemoaned the fact he’d received a rejection from a well-known journal with a note indicating the journal was currently focusing on amplifying the voices of writers of color. He felt it was unfair. Shouldn’t my piece be judged on its own merit? he wondered. Not by the color of my skin? Ironic questions, really, considering the state of the world. But the fact is, white writers, like me, have had the advantage for a long, long time. So yes, as we work to level the playing field, we are going to (hopefully) lose that advantage. Tomorrow, as the publishing industry makes room for others, it will be a little more difficult for a white author to get something published than it is today, and the day after tomorrow, it will be a little harder still, until someday, it’s equally as difficult for all of us, and we can all bemoan our rejections together. We have to be so much more than okay with that because it’s so much more than fair and so long overdue.

But I digress, and here’s the biggest point I want to make for any marginalized writer out there who is struggling with rejection: Spillman’s comments reminded me that no one needs to break free of systemic constraints more than we do ourselves. Generations of conditioning have taught marginalized groups not to enter the race. I can easily imagine the paralyzing doubt or fear that may play into, for example, a woman’s failure to resubmit to a journal after receiving an encouraging rejection. I’ve felt it. Did they really mean it when they asked me to try again? Are they just being nice? Can I write anything better or more suitable than the piece they already rejected? Can I rise to the occasion?

I have no doubt that centuries of being collectively told we are less than is deeply ingrained in our psyches and plays no small part in our reactions to rejection or our inability to fully believe or accept any encouragement that accompanies that rejection. I am reminded that, while we absolutely can’t do this without the commitment of publications like Tin House and The Believer, we have to continue to step up in the face of fear and self-doubt and rejection because all of us belong. We must enter the race.

WRITER TIP: Make a commitment to yourself to believe all the good things people say about you, to accept praise and encouragement, and to say yes to opportunities. If an agent declines to represent your novel or memoir, send it out to another. Just like in any true love story, your perfect agent is out there waiting for you and your book. If a journal sends you an encouraging rejection, send them something else during the journal’s next submission period, and keep writing and sending them something each submission period until you get that yes. Don’t bombard them, but don’t convince yourself you’re not worthy and ghost them either.
2022 goals, New year resolution. Woman in white sweater writing Text 2022 goals in open notepad on the table. Start new year, planning and setting goals for the next year.

The Power of Persistence

Over the past month, I’ve been setting out the steps for turning your writing dreams into attainable goals:

1.  Set your dreams down in writing (The Power of Words);

2.  Create specific goals (The Power of Goals);

3.  Create a plan to reach your goals (The Power of a Plan);

4.  Focus on one goal at a time (The Power of Focus).

And now:

5.  Reaffirm your goals on a daily basis and never give up. This is the power of persistence, and it’s the final and best step in any successful plan to reach a goal.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff. And then gradually, you get better at it. That’s why I say the most valuable trait is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler

Once you’ve set a goal for yourself and designed a plan for reaching it, the secret to getting there is to keep going and never give up. Take steps toward that goal each and every day. In football terms, keep moving the ball forward. You might periodically re-evaluate your goals and re-work them or revise them, but never forsake them. As long as you keep moving toward your goals at a steady pace, you will eventually reach them.

I firmly believe persistence is the most powerful element in turning a vague dream for the future into a tangible goal. Some people in my family might call it stubbornness, but when I have a setback, I generally (after the appropriate amount of whining) try and try again.

To be persistent, you have to be ready to weather periods of discouragement. I assure you there will be days when you return to your previous, negative patterns of thinking and convince yourself you will never achieve your dreams. The key is to be tenacious, to ride out those bad days, and to wake up the next morning with renewed resolve.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge

Let’s take quitting smoking as an example. Some smokers joke, “I can quit smoking whenever I want. I’ve quit 236 times!” It’s kinda funny and sorta sad because it plays on how addictive tobacco is. But actually, quitting smoking over and over again is the key to eventually kicking the cigarette habit for good. Quitting smoking is an area where persistence really pays off. Studies show that the more times a smoker tries to quit smoking, the more likely it is they will eventually quit for good.

So, if quitting smoking is your goal, it’s possible you may quit smoking for a couple of weeks and then relapse and smoke a cigarette, or two cigarettes, or even binge on a full pack of cigarettes. The key to eventually kicking the habit for good is persistence. This means not using relapse as an excuse—give it your best effort without keeping relapse in mind as a possibility. But if you do relapse and smoke again, don’t give up. Wake up the next morning resolved to quit again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. You resolve to quit smoking every single day, however many times it takes, until it sticks.

It’s the same with any goal. For example, if you dream of becoming debt free, your first goal might be to freeze your level of debt by developing the habit of not incurring new debt. Your second goal might be to reduce spending to free up more cash to repay your debts. Your third goal might be to start an emergency savings account so that you aren’t forced to borrow when life’s emergencies come along. A fourth goal might be to earn a little extra income so you can pay off your debts more quickly.

You will likely face some setbacks, especially in the beginning. You might have to charge a necessary auto repair to a credit card because you don’t yet have enough in savings to cover it. You may spend unbudgeted money on dinner out because you haven’t yet developed a strong habit of planning ahead for meals at home. You might skip a deposit to your new savings account in favor of buying those fabulous new shoes with the kitten heels you saw in the Avanti store window. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep trying in the face of obstacles and to forgive yourself for mistakes. The fastest path to giving up is to dwell on past mistakes until you are too discouraged to keep trying.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” –Octavia E. Butler

Persistence is a secret weapon. Persistence will turn any dream into reality. This is especially true of writing dreams, because writing can be one hell of a rollercoaster and often consists of a whole lot of rejection. Artists often suffer from imposter syndrome–when you convince yourself you aren’t good enough or you don’t belong, it’s easy to convince yourself to abandon your dreams.

If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you have to develop a thick skin and learn to slough it off when you’re rebuffed. In the writing business, rejection is not personal. It’s just that—business. And it means nothing more than this: you haven’t yet found your perfect fit in terms of a market, agent, or publisher. Remember that your very best writing is perfect, just as it is, for someone.

Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Even more importantly, don’t listen to negative talk from others–it’s amazing to me that the most supportive friends and family members in a writer’s life often have no problem discouraging that writer’s dreams. Be determined, keep at it, never give up. If you do, you will eventually reach your goals. That’s a promise.

I return to this video time and again when I’m feeling discouraged. If nothing else, it puts a smile on my face:

WRITER TIP: Keep trying. Persistence is nothing more than trying over and over and over again. How do you become persistent? You get up every morning and do it again. The more days you do that, the more proud of yourself you’ll be, and the easier it will be to do it again the next day. Another good idea which I’ll blog about soon is to develop a plan for those days when you’re not feeling very tenacious or motivated. What can you do today toward your goal, even if you don’t feel like doing anything?

The Power of Focus

I’m a big fan of dreaming without limits. But something I’ve learned the hard way is that, if you ever want to reach your dream life, it’s important to focus your efforts.

Focus, visualization, and determination are powerful tools that will help you to reach even the most seemingly impossible goals. Rather than spreading yourself too thin and going after many goals at once, prioritize; focus on one or two of your most important goals, and put your time, energy, and effort into achieving those goals.

The power of focus is that, once you set your mind on a particular goal and keep that goal in your sights each and every day, you will suddenly find yourself moving toward that goal in leaps and bounds. It’s amazing! You will achieve your goal much more rapidly than you ever will if you go after your goals in a scattered way or give them only a fraction of your time and attention. I know it sounds simplistic, but all things being equal, it’s true.

Also, once you achieve the first goal, you’ll have a powerful affirmation of your abilities … and of future possibilities. Achieving one goal will set into motion a cycle of success after success, and you will soon be checking goals off your list right and left.

Here’s an example: I once dreamed of living near the beach in a place with an ocean view. At the time, I was living in a home I had purchased some years earlier in a hot, dry, mountainous area of the county, about thirty miles inland from the beach. I was unhappy for many reasons, but location and weather was one of them. I have always been happier when I can walk on the beach and am in a cooler climate. It improves my health, relieves stress, and puts me in a better frame of mind.

The house was badly in need of repairs before it could be put on the market, and there were lots of other obstacles standing in my way as well. I didn’t have the money or the necessary skills to make repairs. I was depressed and unmotivated. There was so much to do before I would ever be able to live my dream life. It seemed impossible and overwhelming at the time. I felt stuck.

But to be honest, the biggest obstacle was that I was doing nothing to move toward my goal, other than vaguely wishing each and every day of my life that things were different. I finally realized I had to start moving toward my goal in some small way or I would be stuck forever. My dream wasn’t going to happen all on its own—I had to do something to make it happen.

I made a list and decided that selling my house in the mountains was the first thing I needed to do in order to begin moving toward my bigger goal of living closer to the beach. So, I decided to focus on that goal, and that goal only, and to forget the rest for the time being. As the old saying goes, “How do you move a mountain? One rock at a time.”

One obstacle was the fact that I was a working single mom, with limited time to focus on much more than getting through each day. Also, it’s hard to get yourself moving when you’re depressed. I had to put some serious time management skills to work in order to reach my goals. Once I’d organized my time a little better, I reminded myself each morning on my drive to work that my only current goal was to get that home sold. I stopped thinking about all the rest and focused on that one goal. Every evening on my drive home from work, I thought about what I could do that evening to move toward my goal.

For the time being, I didn’t allow myself to get overwhelmed by thinking beyond selling that house. I reminded myself that I was wholeheartedly committed to reaching that goal and made a list of the things I needed to do to get there. During evenings and weekends, I began doing something, anything, no matter how small, toward the goal of selling my house. I began painting, doing yard work, and making whatever small repairs I could do on my own. I began investigating what was needed for the larger repairs and researching costs. I began familiarizing myself with the housing market in my area and making phone calls to realtors about putting the house up for sale. I started getting the word out.

The power of focus is amazing. Within one month after I began putting all of my time, energy, and effort into the single-minded goal of selling the house, my next-door neighbor called me. He told me he’d heard through the grapevine I was interested in selling. He offered to buy the house in its current condition. Escrow closed within a month after he first called. During escrow, I started looking for a new place to live.

Less than two months from the day I made my decision to focus on selling the house, I was living in a townhouse less than a block from the beach with views looking out over the ocean. Some people may think that this was mere luck, and they may be partly right. But, I strongly believe we have to help luck along with our own efforts. Had I not started moving toward the goal of repairing and selling the house, I have no doubt I’d still be sitting in that house feeling sorry for myself.

Once the original goal of selling the house was met, my other goals began to fall into place. Had I continued to look only at the big picture, had I continued to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of everything I wanted to accomplish, I would never have been able to accomplish anything. By focusing totally and completely on one goal at a time, I was able to achieve a number of big goals in a matter of a couple of months. This is the power of focus.

What does this have to do with writing? you may ask. Everything. I didn’t start making progress as a writer until I started pursuing my writing goals with the same focus I used to sell my house. Two and a half years ago, I hadn’t published a thing. I saw other writers I knew posting on social media about their publications, and I couldn’t imagine myself ever getting there. My dream of being a published writer was a hazy one. But when I started focusing on one goal at a time and taking small actions toward my writing goals each and every day, things started to happen. Before I knew it, one writing dream after another became a reality.

WRITER TIP: From your list of goals for 2022, pick one writing goal to focus on. Make it a habit to think about your goal for a few seconds every morning when you wake up and again every night before you go to sleep–remind yourself that this is your focus for now. Try to do something small each day to move toward your goal. Your dream life may seem far away, but you can change your entire life one goal at a time.

The Power of a Plan

Last week, I wrote about setting goals for your writing and mentioned a famous quote from Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

A man, a plan, a canal—Panama. This is much more than my daughter’s favorite palindrome. It’s a blueprint for success.

When Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of building a canal through Panama, he didn’t just pick up a shovel and start digging a ditch. He seized an opportunity and made a plan. French efforts to build the canal had failed miserably. After years of digging, the French had spent nearly $300 billion on the canal. 20,000 French lives had been lost in the work. After all of this, the French had only 11 miles of canal to show for their effort. When the French abandoned the canal effort in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of building a canal across Panama.

In 1902, after becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt negotiated the purchase of the canal property from France. He then came up with a plan. Roosevelt first studied the reasons the French effort to build a canal had failed. He then used what he had learned to create a workable plan which included addressing the previous obstacles to building a canal across Panama. He negotiated a treaty with the country of Panama and obtained their permission to build the canal, as well as their cooperation. He enlisted the financial backing of some of America’s richest and most powerful citizens, including J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt then organized a building effort and hired qualified people to oversee various aspects of the construction. He hired Chief Engineer John Stevens, who designed a plan to clean up the canal zone. He hired Dr. William Gorgas to oversee sanitation, including the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitos. He provided workers with comfortable housing and good food. He later hired Stevens’s successor, Thomas Goethals, who carried on an organized and persistent building effort.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” –Yogi Berra

In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, forever revolutionizing international travel and trade. But Roosevelt laid a lot of groundwork before he started work on the canal. He visualized where he wanted to be, then he figured out how to get there.

Coming up with a plan is the first step to building your dream writing life. Where do you want to end up? Visualize your desired end result and work backward, writing down a list of steps to help you reach your goal. Then, pick something from your list you can do right now. Today. Do you want to write your first novel? Write down what they call in the movie industry a logline or tagline: In one or two sentences, what is your novel going to be about? Or start an outline–a map within a map! Are you writing a historical novel or a novel that will require some research? Spend an hour doing some preliminary research that will make beginning the writing of your novel easier. Do you want to get a short story published? Research ten “markets” (literary journals or magazines) where your story would be a good fit. Are you struggling with writing consistently? Set up a dedicated writing space and a writing schedule—will you write three pages each morning? or write for an hour each evening? Whatever it is, start building the habit of consistency.

Do your homework, decide what it will take to achieve your dream, and then map out a plan that will lead you to your ultimate destination. If you follow your map, you can’t help but reach your destination.

WRITER TIP: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Goals can seem overwhelming when you only look at the big picture. “I want to publish a bestselling novel” is a daunting goal. But when you break it down into its tiny parts, you can get there, one step at a time. As novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”