My Happy Place

I haven’t been to Monterey for more than three years now, but I’m dreaming of it lately, and I hope to get back to visit soon. Monterey is the place in the world that feels most like home to me. It’s the place where I feel most like myself and where I feel most inspired to write. I want to talk to you about Monterey because it has contributed so much to the way I write. I credit my time in Monterey County for my passion for place in my writing. I’m wondering whether there is a place in your life that helped to create the writer you are, too.

Visiting Cannery Row always spirits me back in time, not only in my own life, but in the lives of my ancestors and others who were drawn to this place, like John Steinbeck. You don’t grow up in the Salinas Valley without having at least a little something in common with Steinbeck. My family emigrated to Monterey County from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, just like the characters Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

My grandmother Rubye never read a Steinbeck novel, but she came to California from Oklahoma as a child, and the language was in her bones. She once wrote this in her journal: “My first schooling I ever remember was in Moss Landing, California, and we lived in a very little house and our bedroom went out over the water. When the tide came in, it was so very cold and we would watch [the ocean] down through the big cracks in the floor. The little house was back behind Johnny’s Fruit Stand. My father and brothers, Grover and Peck, picked apricots, and my mother and sister Pete cut them to dry in a shed. … After the jobs ended, we put our mattresses, pots and pans on top of two old, open touring cars and headed back to Oklahoma.”

Eventually, my grandparents moved to California permanently. My mother went to high school in King City, where Steinbeck’s East of Eden is set, and I was born there. As children, my siblings and I visited both sets of grandparents in Soledad, the setting for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. We played on the banks of the Salinas River, just beneath the Soledad overpass, in the same spot where George and Lennie have their last talk.

Salinas High School, where John Steinbeck graduated in 1919, and
where my girlfriends and I hung out to meet boys in the 1970s.

 

I read my first Steinbeck books in junior high, The Pearl and The Red Pony. I went to North Salinas High School. Steinbeck went to Salinas High–they were our rivals in football, but we drove slowly past the school when we cruised Main Street, or we hung out on its grassy lawn if we were on foot. I was a young mom when the film version of my favorite Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row, premiered in Salinas, complete with red carpet, flashing cameras, and Hollywood movie stars.

Someday, I hope to spend a month writing in John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio or Cottage, both of which are available to rent on Airbnb. It is one of a handful of things on my bucket list.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” Steinbeck wrote. “Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.” (The opening paragraph of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945).)

Cannery Row is my favorite Steinbeck novel not only because of the story, which stands alone, but because I am intrigued by the very real characters behind the story, including Cannery Row itself. Cannery Row is more than a setting. It became the title of the book for a good reason–it easily takes its place next to Doc as one of the main characters in the novel. Steinbeck was passionate about place, too.

John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio in Pacific Grove, California

 

Steinbeck was also passionate about people and marine biology. The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist. The friendship and marine science work of Steinbeck and Ricketts are well-represented today at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and throughout Cannery Row.

“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable … that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” (From The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (1951).)

Steinbeck incorporated all the things he was passionate about into his writing. Those things make his writing transcendent and evocative. Capturing a sense of place in your writing is just one way of adding texture and layers to your stories. Pay attention to the ways your favorite writers incorporate place and setting into their stories. Think about the places you love, and take a crack at describing them in such exquisite detail that you give your readers the gift of experiencing them, too.

The Calm Before the War

Last week, I wrote about The War of Art, a book by Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book was recommended to me at just the right time in my life. I finished my MFA last year and came out of it tired, but promptly enrolled in two more year-long programs and launched a book coaching and editing business, while continuing to work at my full-time day job. A little over a year ago, I was up before dawn, writing three to four hours each and every morning before my day job even started. So I know I can do it. But over the past year, I’ve mastered every excuse for not writing or for promising myself I’ll get back to my old writing routine “starting on Monday.”

Pressfield’s book was perfect for me. I was well-positioned to write for several hours a day. I just wasn’t doing it. My only obstacle was myself. So I needed someone to tell me to stop mucking around and do my work. Thanks to Pressfield’s advice, I am beginning to think of myself as a professional writer and to behave accordingly.

But as I read, I also thought about the fact that not everyone is as privileged as I am. Not everyone can climb out of a warm bed in the morning, turn on a light, make a cup of coffee and a slice of peanut butter toast, boot up a computer, and write for several hours, without worrying about anything or anyone else. (Which makes my neglect of my writing all the more shameful.)

I was gradually reminded of “prosperity theology” (abundance as a sign of divine favor) and “limiting beliefs,” a philosophy that blames any lack of success on a person’s mindset, despite the person’s circumstances.

I am uneasy with descriptions of things like drug addiction, chronic illness, and tolerating abuse as products of a mind trying to avoid creative work. I’ve been guilty of allowing life’s unnecessary dramas to keep me from writing, and that, I agree, is disrespectful of my life, my dreams, and my talents. But there are things which are not so easy to set aside or escape from. I don’t believe that someone who is in an abusive relationship or battling illness or addiction is allowing limiting beliefs to keep them from realizing their potential as a writer.

I do believe writers can find greater success by changing their mindsets and by developing professional work habits. We can be limited by our beliefs. For example, we might believe we aren’t worthy of good things in life, when we most certainly are. Or we might believe we can’t wake up a couple of hours early to write before work, when we definitely can make that shift in our schedules. But it’s a mistake to say we can’t also limited by our individual circumstances. To believe otherwise is a limiting belief in and of itself, a way of shirking our obligation of love toward our fellow human beings. It’s similar to victim blaming–a way of shielding oneself from fear by thinking, “That could never happen to me. I would never end up like that, I would never find myself in those circumstances or in that situation, because I would never do the things that person did.”

I’m thinking now of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the most basic and accepted psychological theories, usually depicted as a pyramid:

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that human beings must have their basic needs for physical well-being and safety met before they can worry about other needs. In other words, if a person is homeless, cold, and hungry, their focus is going to be on finding shelter, warmth, and food. If they’re experiencing those circumstances, and they also have children in their care, or are struggling with a drug addiction or physical abuse, they face even more difficulty. In the meantime, they probably aren’t going to knock out the great American novel. They’re not going to move up the pyramid. They’re not limited by their beliefs; they’re limited by their circumstances. They’re limited by their need to spend their waking hours looking for food, or housing, or a job, or a place to sleep or shower. As you can see, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities,” is way up at the top of the pyramid.

Do people write novels under adverse circumstances? Yes, they do. We’ve heard about the outliers, like the woman who wrote an unbelievably successful book about a boy wizard while she was a single mother, living on government assistance in a rodent-infested flat, and hiding out from an abusive spouse, or the highly successful romance author who wrote all her books late at night after putting her seven children to bed. Stories like these can make us feel ashamed that we aren’t as industrious or as dedicated. But if someone doesn’t produce art while setting mouse traps in the kitchen, applying for restraining orders, and enduring rude remarks in the checkout line as they pay for their groceries with food stamps, to say that person is being held back by a scarcity mindset is a surface-level oversimplification. Even with the outliers, if you look at their stories more closely, there is almost always a little luck or privilege involved, as well as some access to support and options not everyone has.

I’ve had some rough circumstances in my own life. I’ve overcome some tremendous odds. Statistically, I should never have even graduated high school. And yes, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been stubborn. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’m also mindful of what part of that wasn’t earned, but was luck mixed with privilege. I’ve met other women who’ve experienced similar circumstances and who, for whatever reason, were broken by them or didn’t survive them in the same way. I’ve known women who didn’t survive at all. When I was in the worst of it, I was not brave or tenacious or resilient. I wasn’t writing. I was barely getting by. I didn’t do anything special to have come out okay on the other side, and the others didn’t do anything to deserve not coming out okay on the other side. I was lucky, and I was more privileged in some ways, and they were not as lucky or as privileged. Life, in that sense, isn’t fair. I’m quite aware things could have gone a completely different way for me, and I’m mindful that I didn’t do anything to earn the fact that they didn’t.

I was lucky for a long time before I found myself in a position to be able to build on that luck with my own hard work. I survived the storm and came into the calm. Only then was I able to begin to think about anything besides battening down the hatches and bailing the boat nonstop with a thimble.

I know this is kind of rambling. I guess what I most want to say is to be kind to yourself, but also be kind to other writers. People are struggling in more ways than we can begin to imagine. Be a warrior for yourself and your own writing, but also be a warrior for those who need a boost. If you are struggling, rather than shame yourself, consider what is holding you back–I think there is a lot of power in just knowing what we are up against. And then, please, ask for help. With any of it. With all of it. There are people who will help you reach the calm so you can have peace and begin to think about other things. After that, ask for a notebook and a pencil–writing will save you. And if you’re already in the calm, if you’ve had a bit of luck, enjoy your success, but then lift others up behind you.

Writing and Warring

I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). At the risk of oversimplifying, the book’s advice boils down to this:

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

Writer: “But–“

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

I enjoyed the foreword by Robert McKee immensely. McKee is an author, lecturer, and story consultant, perhaps most famous for the “Story Seminar” he developed and taught at the University of Southern California and for Brian Cox’s portrayal of him in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. “Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me,” McKee writes. “He undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for procrastination.” McKee is funny–his foreword made me laugh out loud.

Pressfield starts out strong. The first section of his book defines what we writers are up against. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he writes. “What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Yes! Resistance stands between “[t]he life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Yes! “[T]he battle must be fought anew every day.” Yes, yes, yes! I felt seen as I read the opening pages of The War of Art. I’ve often wondered what goes on in my mind when I come up with excuse after excuse not to sit my butt down in the chair and write. Now I feel I know.

The second section was my favorite. It discusses becoming a professional and applying the same kinds of principles to our writing that we apply to our day jobs, like showing up each and every day and doing our work. Pressfield is right–I show up at my day job every day and do my work. I stay at my job all day long, whether I want to or not. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I don’t employ the same kind of self-discipline. If I called out from my job as often as I call out from writing, I wouldn’t have to worry about it, because I wouldn’t have a job anymore. I’d never thought of it this way.

The third section explores muses, angels, God … “the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.” The book leans a little heavily into religiosity toward the end. I am spiritual, and beyond that, I strongly believe there are forces we can’t begin to imagine, not to mention little-used parts of our brains, at work when we write. Many times, I’ve been surprised by the ending of a story I am writing–an ending that comes out of nowhere and writes itself. Countless mornings, I’ve awakened from a good night’s sleep with a solution to something I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the day before. Frequently, when I’m out for a walk or shopping for groceries or enjoying a few minutes’ peace in the carwash, an idea will pop into my head unbidden, when I am thinking of something else or nothing at all. So spirituality and these kinds of concepts speak to me personally, but they may not be for everyone. To his credit, Pressfield acknowledges this.

The War of Art is 167 pages of no-excuses advice for writers and other artists. I respond well to this kind of upbraiding. I need a kick in the pants now and then. This is what I needed to hear. It works for me. My writing life will change because of it–I’m turning pro.

My only criticism is that the advice sometimes comes from a black-and-white, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps perspective that fails to consider systemic racism, ableism, and poverty, as well as the disparate treatment of people based on age, gender, or sexual orientation. For Pressfield, no excuses means no excuses. Again, this works for Pressfield, and it works for me. But I think we must recognize that it doesn’t work for everyone. We aren’t all on a level playing field. It is much harder for some to work toward or realize their dreams than it is for others. The solutions Pressfield offers may not work for every person at every point in their life. I recommend the book with that caveat, and I’m going to write about limiting belief theory for next week.

5 Things I Learned About Writing from AC/DC

When I was 19, I was way into AC/DC. I wouldn’t date a guy who didn’t own Highway to Hell on vinyl or cassette. Not because I was a spoiled brat, although I suppose I was at 19. But because the album meant so much to me. If we didn’t connect on this most basic level, what was the point? I’m no longer 19, but I’m still an AC/DC fan, and I have been for more years than I care to count and through untold ups and downs.

I was thinking about this the other morning–what hooked me about this band and this album? What could I learn from that? And how could I harness the power of AC/DC’s effect on 19-year-old me in my writing?

I still own Highway to Hell on vinyl, so I listened again, and here’s what I came up with:

1. Simple does the trick. When I wanted to learn to play the bass guitar, my drummer friend Mark W. told me to start with an AC/DC song. “Their songs are so basic,” he said. American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine recently wrote: “AC/DC’s rock was minimalist–no matter how huge and bludgeoning their guitar chords were, there was a clear sense of space and restraint.” In a 2008 article for The Guardian (“Things really must be bad–AC/DC are No 1 again“), British rock critic Alexis Petridis wrote that AC/DC’s music is “wilfully basic,” a band to turn to “when the world appears on the brink of chaos.”

Listening again, Mark W. and the critics who recognize AC/DC’s intentional simplicity are right. And yet, the simple notes and chords and beats are strung together in ways that are sometimes thrilling, sometimes harsh, sometimes sexy, sometimes menacing, always charged with electricity. Always powerful. AC/DC’s songs aren’t complex or fancy, but they don’t need to be to move listeners. And writing doesn’t need to be complicated or sophisticated or grandiose to move readers.

Photo Credit: Jim Houghton

 

2. Readers are loyal. When AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott died in February of 1980, my friends and I were distraught. Our friend Cary H. rode his motorcycle in the pouring rain to Hartnell College in Salinas, California, to pull me and my best friend Kathy W. out of typing class. He wanted to break the bad news before we heard it somewhere else. We all gathered in a friend’s garage to jam all night and mourn together. We loved Bon Scott and knew no one could ever replace him, and AC/DC felt the same way.

AC/DC considered disbanding after Bon Scott’s death, but ultimately knew that’s not what Scott would have wanted. They chose a new lead singer who, Angus Young said, was not “just a perfect imitation of” Scott, but who had similar qualities and who was someone Scott had actually admired. Scott is the one who’d told them about Brian Johnson’s distinct voice, and Johnson was an Australian who embodied Scott’s spirit, as well as the band’s. They recorded Back in Black with their new vocalist, released it in the summer of 1980 with an all-black album cover, and dedicated it to Scott’s memory.

What can writers learn from this? If you’re honest with your readers, respect them, and give them what they are looking for, they will be loyal to you and will follow you wherever you go. For AC/DC, this meant fans mourned Scott, but embraced Back in Black and AC/DC’s new lead singer because they trusted AC/DC to be respectful of Scott, thoughtful about the way they moved forward, and considerate of the fans. For writers this means that, if your readers trust you, and if you respect that trust, you can try new things in your writing and lead your readers in new directions.

Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images

 

3. It’s all in the voice. The things AC/DC writes about–sex, rock and roll, flaunting convention, misbehaving, partying, being badass–aren’t all that unique. What made AC/DC special in 1979 was the band’s heavy rock guitar, courtesy of brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm) and Angus Young (lead); Bon Scott’s unique rasp and growl; Phil Rudd’s measured involvement of the kick and snare drums; Cliff Williams’ rhythmic downpicking on bass. What makes AC/DC special in 2022 is the same, except that Malcolm Young’s nephew Stevie Young has replaced him on rhythm guitar (RIP Malcolm) and the unique rasp and growl belong to Brian Johnson (RIP Bon). Scott’s and Johnson’s voices are different, but similar enough to capture the essence of what AC/DC is about.

A writer’s voice is what sets them apart, too. “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” (“Writer’s Voice: ‘Intolerance and Love in Jamaica,'” by Katherine Schulten for The New York Times.) It can take many, many years for a writer to find their voice. But with practice, it will come, and that is when the writing really takes off and becomes something special.

 

4. Writing is for the readers. Like I said, AC/DC’s song topics aren’t unique. Their songs embody the usual teenage anthems, but they encapsulate the kind of powerful calls to action that remain meaningful to us, through adulthood and beyond–no matter our ages, we remember how it felt not to be beholding to anyone or anything, and we yearn for that kind of freedom again. AC/DC gives listeners what they want.

Successful authors don’t write to the market. They remain true to themselves and their own voices. But if they want their stories to be read, they remember that they aren’t writing for themselves alone. They are writing for their readers. So they don’t write in a way that is cutesy or condescending or shuts readers out. They write in a way that lets readers in, makes readers a part of the action, allows readers to feel something. It’s that connection and partnership that build a bond between writer and reader.

Photo Credit: Josh Cheuse

 

5. It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Actually, after AC/DC formed in 1973, it only took them three years to become one of the most popular bands in Australia, score a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and get worldwide distribution of their music. But they’re the exception rather than the rule, and that doesn’t mean those three years were easy. For a musician, “overnight” success is particularly grueling–it means nonstop touring, starting in their hometown and gradually expanding out to other venues. During those early years, AC/DC played live shows every night, giving their all even in seedy venues with few patrons. Next year marks the band’s 50-year anniversary, and they’ve toured hard for most of those 50 years.

Bon Scott, Angus Young, and Malcolm Young wrote “It’s a Long Way to the Top” in 1975, to commemorate those early years. Scott taught himself to play the bagpipes–he played them on the recording and live in about 30 performances. Out of respect for Scott, Brian Johnson doesn’t perform the song.

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll
It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

If you think it’s easy doing one night stands
Try playing in a rock-roll band

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

Most artists spend many years painting, sculpting, or writing in solitude and without acknowledgment, and enduring a great deal of hardship, before they reach a modicum of success. It takes a special kind of tenacity to become a successful artist, as well as an understanding of what success means to you. And it takes hard-rock stamina to maintain and to keep building on that success. The lesson to take from AC/DC, writers, is to give it your all, each and every day, to be consistent, and to keep working hard even when you feel discouraged. Keep the faith, and trust in the process–if you continue to put in the work, you will get there. It probably won’t happen overnight, but that will make it all the sweeter when it does.

This is the official video for AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It’s one of my favorite AC/DC songs–the call and response between the bagpipes and guitar is amazing!

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.