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What To Write….

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, there’s no doubt you have a unique story to tell with your very own perspective. For many writers, reliving and retelling childhood stories are common platforms for their work. We often return to those times because they were filled with pain, joy or unanswered questions.

Even though we might have a sense of what story we need to tell, but once in a while we get stumped. Many writers say their best story ideas come to them when not sitting at their desks ‘working,’ but rather when they’re out and about. It’s important to remain alert to those mundane moments in everyday life—odd discoveries and chance remarks made by others in social, work or casual settings. Compelling stories contain snippets of these incidents woven with well-known factoids. That’s one of the many good reasons to carry a notebook with you wherever you go.

My typical day begins with reading the newspaper, either on line or with my morning coffee. An article might spur my interest which would drive me to surf the web for more information. If I am in the middle of another project, I will toss the idea into my “Writing Idea,” folder which contains stories I hope to tell one day. Whether I get to them or not is not important, the important thing is to have that folder for those days when my well runs dry.

Outside of having the “Writing Idea Folder,” when stuck for ideas, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

1)What is going through your head?

2) Who are your villains? Who are your heroes?

3)What are you obsessed by?

4) What inspires you?

5) Where are you in your life now?

6) What stories are you compelled to read?

Whatever you choose to write, you will soon realize that the creative journey is similar to life’s journey—it is unpredictable, unstructured, mysterious and laden with miracles.

In her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood says this, “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”

In Writing (1993) Marguerite Duras says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”

William Faulkner believed that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says, “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” Whatever this dream is writers often lose sleep until the project is completed and this is how they uncover the story they have to tell.

In many ways, writing could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. Franz Kafka summarized this idea beautifully by saying, “I write in order to shut my eyes.” Fiction writers might argue that they write fiction so that they can tamper with the facts in their life and that they have more freedom during the writing process.

Joan Didion says this about her writing, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In essence, we write to know ourselves and to figure out the world around us. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears, can transform themselves to reveal value and meaning in our lives now. And with any luck, for others as well.

A Writer’s Spring Cleaning

For me, springtime is the perfect time for cleaning, not only our physical space, but our literary domains. This could mean organizing everything from our desk to our thoughts to our musings, to our unfinished poems or manuscripts.

In order to initiate this process, the writer needs to visit their favorite writing place. Visiting that special place in the springtime offers a unique opportunity to clean up the clutter sprawled about our literary world.

Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own coined the term, “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf referred not only to the physical room—but also to the figurative room, the places writers go to tap into their subconscious or to find the muse that sparks their creative energy. This is a place writers are safe and happy, whether it is in the confines of their own home, in a coffee shop or in a retreat. Most writers are aware of their “place.”

While in your place, think about simplifying your life. One reason to consider doing this is so that you have more time to do what you really want to do, and that is write. To begin your cleaning, try composing , a literary to-do list. Start by making three columns. The first one could be called,  “Works-in-Progress,” the second could be “Future Projects,” and the third might be called “Back Burner Projects.” Preparing this list  will make it easier for you to prioritize and help you see that all of your projects may not be viable. Springtime gives you permission to make decisions about what’s important.

After preparing your list, go to the right column and start by filing away projects on the “Back Burner.”  Just get them off your desk. Perhaps you will return to them at a later date, but don’t let them clutter your work space. Remember that your goal for spring-cleaning is to de-clutter. Next, put your “Works-in-Progress” and “Future Projects,” in order of their priority. Now glance at your list again. Perhaps you have some insights about your work. This might be the time to crack open a new journal and jot them down.

I think of springtime as a time of new beginnings. Many of you know that I’m a journaling advocate for both the young, old, happy and sad. I believe there is a place for notebooks in all of our lives, whether it’s a small pocket notebook like the one carried by poet Kim Stafford or a larger format like I keep on my desk.

You might choose one notebook to lump all your musings, or you might favor separate ones for different projects. You might considering beginning a gratitude journal to write about what you’re thankful for and what brings  joy into your life, whether it’s people, places or things. Sometimes half the battle of achieving happiness, rests in the ability to verbalize or write down what brings you joy. What makes your heart dance? Writing empowers you to discover your deepest desires.

Springtime is also a good time to shed bad energy. Focus on surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself and those who nurture and inspire the writer in you. Wean yourself from what I call ‘toxic persons,’ who cast negative energy your way. This might be more challenging if those people are family members, as my father used to say, “You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your relatives.”

If you have a relative who you don’t see eye-to-eye with, you might want to consider writing a letter expressing your feelings. Not only will this help relieve some of your stress, but it may also help foster a new beginning in your relationship.

Springtime often floods me with memories of lost loved ones and this is a good time to write about them. I like to think of every day as a new beginning, but springtime has its own unique kind of charm.

Enjoy your own writing and springtime!

Happy International Women’s Day !

Today, we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women and  indeed, we have so much to celebrate.

First and foremost, how wonderful it was to see Kathryn Bigelow make history last night by being the first female director in the 82-year history to win the Academy Awards and on top of that it was for a war movie. Bravo Bigelow! Yesterday also marked the death of the oldest living person in the United States, Mary Josephine Roy, who was a sports-loving, card-playing woman and if you can imagine, was born before Henry Ford built his first car. In the end, she outlived her husband by forty years, had two sons, eight grandchildren, thirteen great grandchildren and five great-great children. Now that is quite a legacy, don’t you think?

International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911—even  before women were allowed to vote.

Today, in my journal I am going to take some time to reflect on the most influential women in my own life, both alive and dead.

TO ALL YOU MALE READERS– I just read that in Great Britain, male cosmetic sales are growing at twice the rate of those in the female market. There has been talk about males wanting to keep up and keep young. Perhaps you are all getting ready for your big day – International Men’s Day to be celebrated November 19 — so don’t fret, you will have your turn!

Namaste!

Linking Creativity and Depression

It’s not a new theory that some of the brightest, most creative and influential individuals in history have been plagued by depression – including Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, William Syron, and more recently the novelist, David Foster Wallace. A feature article in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine section entitled, “Depression’s Upside,” by Jonah Lehrer offered a fascinating new slant on the subject. A study by a Yale Psychologist, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, showed that those with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed. I found this to be an interesting factoid depicting those prone to this illness.

Supposedly, Darwin viewed his depression as a clarifying force, which helped him focus on essential problems. Apparently, in his writings, he claimed that sadness “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” In other words, for the creative individual, the darkness can be a sort of light.

The article certainly validated some of my own depressive moments. When everything is going extremely well in my personal life, I am more prone to writer’s block. As a journaling advocate and writing instructor who frequently lectures on the healing power of writing, I was thrilled that Lehrer referenced a recent study citing that ‘expressive writing’ leads to a significantly shorter depressive episode.  Many of us in the literary world are aware of this, but it’s refreshing to see it addressed in this reputable reference, for the masses to read.

In fact, in the journaling classes I teach, I see a major transformation in my students from the first to last class, particularly if they had signed up to find their way out of a crisis. I don’t really need any long-term case studies to convince me of the healing power of the written word. Just by examining my own life and those of my colleagues and students, I can see the pattern. I frequently make students laugh when I tell them that writing is certainly less expensive than therapy and often times, much more effective.

Depression is common in the general public and the article states that seven percent of the population will be affected by depression and this number tends to be higher amongst creative types.  So fellow writers, don’t worry so much about your depressive moments  or disregard your analytical ruminations, because you just never know what the outcome will be! Oh no, a literary drought!

To read the complete article, check out the following link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html?em

Why We Write

As a journaling advocate who has been writing for over forty years, I have often reflected on the reasons why people have chosen writing as a career. My journaling habit has served as a foundation for my life as professional writer. I have a lot of gratitude for those little red diaries with lock and key that my mother gave me each birthday during my childhood.

There are many reasons why writers are compelled to the page, including having a story to tell and the desire to bridge the gap of loneliness. In order to sit down and put words on the page, writers must submerge themselves in a zone which ignites their creative energy and spirit. Sometimes this requires the simple act of closing an office door, making an escape to a writing retreat, or going to a local bookstore or café. In other cases, it might take a more profound removal from day-to-day life. Sometimes darkness is brought on or initiated by something real in the writer’s life.

According to Margaret Atwood, in her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, (2002), “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”

Marguerite Duras, in her book, Writing (1993) says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”

The childhoods of writers are thought to have something to do with their chosen vocation. Although many are quite different, what they’ve often contained, were books and solitude. My own childhood had all the vital ingredients to provide a lifetime or writing. When I was a child, there were no films or theatres and the batteries in the radio always seemed to be dead. Yet, something ever present was books. I had a shelf above my desk and there was also another big one in our living room.

I learned to read at an early age. My mother was an avid reader and inspired the same in me. Each week she took me to the public library and I’d leave with a stack of books reaching all the way up to my chin. Margaret Atwood also spent a lot of time reading as a child. “My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet,” she writes.

As a child, journaling was the only place where I could visit myself and be alone with my thoughts as I tried to make sense out of the world around me. William Faulkner argued that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” That’s why many of us working on longer projects can get by with very little sleep. The demons just won’t let us stop until they are satisfied and there’s no telling how long it will take them to be satisfied.

In many ways, writing and psychotherapy are both healing and could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped.

Soren Kierkegaard describes what it is to be a poet: “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music….” The way I look at it is that we are all blessed to be writers.

Joan Didion in her essay, “Why am I a Writer,” says, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

As expressed by these exceptional writers, in essence, we write to know ourselves. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears can transform to reveal value and meaning for us. And with any luck, for others as well.

Forgetfulness

I wrote this blog in honor of my cousin, Jed’s 55th birthday. (Happy Birthday, Jed!)

Most of my favorite poems are found on the pages of Billy Collins’s poetry collections. So many of his sentiments and images resonate with me. If I had to chose one poem to share, it would be, “Forgetfulness.” The main reason is that this poem inspired me to rediscover the poet in me who had been dormant since childhood.

This is how it happened. It was 2003 or 2004, and I was in the charter class of Spalding University’s low-residency program, working on my MFA. Our class was invited to a Billy Collins reading at a neighboring university. It was just after Billy completed his term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The university auditorium was packed and Billy read many poignant poems, including “Forgetfulness.”

I vividly remember chuckling to myself throughout his entire reading. It was just about the time of my fiftieth birthday and I was beginning to forget more than I remembered. Billy received a lot of laughs during his reading, but with an audience filled with baby boomers, I think he got the most chuckles while reading this poem. If you have ever heard Billy read, you understand his talent and dry voice. In his poem, “Forgetfulness,” he incorporates his classic teasing technique told in a conversational and accessible manner. His imaging is extremely clever and it continues to resonate with me this many years after that first discovery.

I rarely will choose to spend the time to stand in line for an author signings, but after Billy’s reading, I purchased all his books piled all the way up to my chin and decided to wait for his signature on each one.  I didn’t care how long it took me to reach the front of the line. I knew that his reading would launch the new poet in me and I wanted to avail myself of the opportunity to read the poems of a giant.

You can hear him read on u-tube or you can read it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrEPJh14mcU

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

The Month of Love

This month presents a few issues to contemplate on the subject of love – a perfect discussion to fill up the pages of your journal. I will share my entries with you here. It’s interesting to study the evolution of love and relationships. No matter where you live, whether in an urban, suburban or rural area, you can hardly get through February without being reminded of Valentine’s Day. This was a holiday we always celebrated when I was growing up because my father managed a general merchandise store (akin to Woolworth’s) and Valentine’s Day cards and gifts were already displayed the moment the Christmas aisle was cleared. So, my beloved father, was reminded every working day to bring home Valentine gifts for my mother and I. Each year he bought me one of those padded chocolate heart boxes filled with assorted chocolates and a card which read, ‘To My Daughter.’ Even though I knew lots of other daughters cross the country got the same, I appreciated his loving gesture and came to expect it.

Needless to say, I continued this ritual with my own kids, although my husband is not a great fan of this universal holiday when card and flower companies dictate that it’s time to celebrate our love. He believes the commercialization has gotten out of hand and on some level I agree with him. He will make his point by buying me flowers or a card either the day before or after February 14th, but not every year – and only when the whim strikes. That man has always kept me guessing!

This makes me wonder, also, about those who do not have romantic love in their lives. How do they cope with cupid following them around the stores for six weeks after the Christmas season ends?

Yesterday, the New York Times feature an article entitled, “Better Loving Through Chemistry,” which addresses the new way of finding love through internet dating services—which as many single people are well aware, has become an online task. (In fact I have two cousins who found the love of their life through such services.) The article discusses how a handful of dating Web sites are competing to impose some science or structure on the quest for love using various kinds of tests in the selection process. For example, ScientificMatch.com created romantic chemistry via genetic testing. The site matches couples based on certain genetic markers for their immune system, believing that we are attracted to those with different immune systems. Wow. This is amazing. Companies like eHarmony suggest potential matches based on areas of compatibility, such as values, beliefs, important experiences, family background and personal values, which they believe are all predictors of successful relationships.

Chemistry.com, on the other hand holds yet another view. As I think about those I know in successful relationships, I find this to be quite accurate. They say those with decisive, straight-talking temperaments, called ‘directors,’ tend to be attracted to empathetic, intuitive types, called ‘negotiators.’ Spontaneous types, called ‘explorers’ tend to be attracted to their own kind, and traditional pillars of society called ‘builders’ also tend to be attracted to their same kind. Think about this and let me know what you think. (I’m not telling you which category I fall into, but those who know me can probably guess!)

When you think that this is a $976 million annual industry, you realize that people do want love in their lives. So, this year, let’s take the time to bring love and caring into another person’s life, whether it is for a moment, a day or a lifetime.

Happy V-Day!


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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