Friday, June 29, 2012

Get Real: How to Stop Dreaming about Your Writing and Actually Do It

In her brilliant memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the aftermath of her husband's unex­pected death, how she soothed herself with a year of magical thinking: aligning his shoes just so in the closet, ordering the bills in his wallet, in case he returned. A part of her believed these rituals and ceremonies would make the impossible come true: her beloved husband's death would be reversible.

In her memoir, Didion writes how her rational mind came up with rituals and superstitions and magical ideas to fend off going insane from the uncontrollable pain of grief.

Many writers resort to magical thinking when faced with pain in their book-writing journey.

This magical thinking surfaces whenever we feel over­whelmed by our own goals and expectations. Instead of ad­justing the plan or goal, we malign ourselves as bad writers. If you don't believe me, recall your last diet or exercise plan. Maybe you followed it perfectly for weeks. Then a crisis at home caused you to skip your workout or eat ice cream from the container.

"I've blown it big time, might as well stop," you tell your­self. And you stop. When the blocked day, week, or month leads to "I'm never going to get the momentum back, and I might as well stop now," this is also an alarm sounding.

Re­mind yourself that it's unrealistic to blame yourself that way. Unless everything is absolutely perfect, you're not going to be able to write your book? Not true. A functional writing life is about adjusting and accommodating, making changes as we go. It's not an all-or-nothing lifestyle.

A writer who successfully finishes a book expects and allows for the unexpected: getting a winter cold, kids home from school, the dog throwing up on a manuscript, computer glitches, frustrating delays in research.

Five Ways to Stop All-or-Nothing Thinking
These five simple steps work well to create balance, to overcome or outwit writer's block.

1. Embrace Creative Multi-tasking
Multi-tasking has gotten a pretty bad rap. Legions of burnt-out high achievers of the eighties and nineties lived on the adrenaline high of multi-tasking and it will certain­ly wear out anyone if it becomes a habit.

But I discovered it brings welcome stimulation and perspective and lets me avoid the all-or-nothing syndrome. I just train myself to jump subjects.

I learned this in one of my painting classes, when I was struggling with a still life I wanted to kill. Nothing was work­ing; everyone else in the class seemed to be doing beautifully. I happened to be standing next to an empty easel, so I moved my still-life-in-progress to it and started a new painting.

When I took a break, the abandoned still life caught my eye. Suddenly, because I hadn't been glaring at it for hours, I saw what it needed.

I spent the rest of the class toggling between them and produced two good pieces. When I paint at home now, I of­ten set up two canvases at once. My two easels, side by side, let me get unstuck. I switch often. When I come back to the other canvas, the break has refreshed my eye. I see with new enthusiasm the subject that bored or frustrated me minutes before. I now do this with my writing.

I open two documents on my computer and toggle back and forth. While my mind's solving one problem, an idea comes for the other piece. Toggling from a freewrite to a revision keeps me engaged, surprisingly alert, and free of magical thinking.

2. Flex Your Routine
Writers who completely avoid structuring their writing time often never complete their books. There's a deep fear of routine in many creative artists.

No one stays the same throughout the long process of writ­ing a book. Assume you are going to change as a writer. Make your writing structure flexible enough to change as you do.

When I first began writing seriously, routine caused me great anxiety because I thought I had to stick with plans. I thought routine was terribly uncreative-what if an intrigu­ing detour emerged? Could I follow it and still produce a finished piece of writing? Now I know detours are often helpful, but only within a dependable routine to reorient me when I need to remember my original purpose for writing.

I now hold a loose structure around each writing ses­sion, showing up for my planned time, producing pages, re­viewing my goals. I'm now willing to stay committed, but also willing to vary my routine.

3. Use Your Life
A New Yorker cartoon shows a man sitting on a screened porch in front of a typewriter. Crumpled pages litter the floor. Everywhere are dogs--big dogs, tiny dogs, panting dogs, sleeping dogs. The writer's wife stands in the doorway to the screened porch, hands on hips, exasperated at her ob­viously blocked spouse.

"Write about dogs!" she tells him.

What's on your plate? What are you grappling with right now in your life? Maybe you can use it to unlock the block, get you back on the page. Writing about the ordinary, the life in front of you, will help you reconnect to yourself, restore inner balance, and get you back to your book.

4. Force Yourself to Have New Experiences
The opposite of fear of routine is obsession with it. If we're not writing, the job is to write regularly. If we are writ­ing about the same stuff, we could be caught in a rut. Too much repetition can lead to creative blocks.

If this happens, you need to (1) recognize it, and (2) force yourself to go out into the world so you have something new to write about.

When I am repeating myself, it may be that the well has run dry. Or life has become too fast to look deeply. I'm living on the surface without time to think, to find the original in myself.

Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way suggests a choosing brand-new place to go for an hour, solo. Use the time to fill the creative well, open yourself to new experiences, expose your senses to something that nurtures in a new way.

Cameron spoke of how regular creative outings were the hardest task she proposed in her book. People loved writing morning pages, doing the other activities, but resisted these dates with their inner artist. Exposing yourself to something completely out of your normal life or to your own inner life-without the speed of distracting activity-can be frightening, but things held at bay suddenly come forward. In a good way.

Some outings to consider: visit a new museum, take a walk in a never-explored neighborhood, go for a hike.

5. Keep Filling Your Well
The writing life requires intimacy with your own self. Intimacy is about getting close and letting go of what stands between you and your subject.

If your writing feels repetitive or dried up, if you aren't writing regularly, consider the level of intimacy you have with your book topic. Are you bored with it? Is it connected with your life?  

Consider filling your well.

I polled published authors: how did they fill the well? Many suggested activities fostering internal slowness.  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  For thirty minutes or so, write about your per­sonal life in each of the areas below. Consider your minimum requirements to feel happy, bal­anced, and healthy. How are you doing in each area? Add any others that are essential to your well-being.
physical (getting enough sleep, regu­lar exercise, eating good food, keeping healthy)
emotional (time for relationships with your family and friends, enough self-care, enough private time)
job/finances/career (meeting your work commitments, bringing in enough money, keeping up with your savings goals)
creative life (learning and growing, explor­ing creatively, staying current with your interests)
spiritual (practicing your faith, having enough private time with yourself, serv­ing in your community)

2.  Take twenty minutes to explore what you need to have in your life, to get your book written.
good, working equipment
flexible schedule

3.  Compare the two lists. Does one neglected area on the life list also show up in the writing list? For example, no privacy?

4.  Starting small, choose one area from the life list and one from the writing list that could improve.

5.  This week, begin one small change.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What Are You Really Writing About? How the First Essential Revision Tool--Content Analysis--Makes Your Book Engaging to the Reader

Publishers buy manuscripts when they communicate passion for a topic, presented in a unique way that speaks to a reader. To get this passion, revision lets the emotional truths we've learned during the process of writing this particular story come forward. We revise to make this truth as unim­peded and clear as we can.  

It's a bit like cleaning a window to let more light in, or as Pulitzer-prize-winning author Wal­lace Stegner said, "All you want in the finished print is the clean statement of the lens, which is yourself, on the subject that has been absorbing your attention."

Another way of looking at this: Revision's goal is to let the manuscript become strong enough to stand on its own without the author having to make any interpretations.

In my writing classes we talk about "getting out of the room" and letting your book and its readers have that wonderful conversation that all good literature fosters. Without you, the author, having to be there to make sure the reader is get­ting it.

This concept was frightening to Tom, a first-time book writer, who wondered, What will happen to my theories if I'm not there to explain them? Or worse: If it changes entirely-will it still be mine? Will revision cause it to lose its original spark?   
This is where Tom was stuck.

Content Analysis--The First Step
For me, the refinement that comes in revision lets in the real music of a book.  There's a sense of multiple sections in an orchestra finally playing together. They create a sound larger than any individual part.

But to get this richness of sound, Tom needed to look at revision in each of its three aspects, and in this order: first content, then structure, then language.

This week's post talks about the first step--content analysis.  To read about structure and language revision, check out chapter 19 in my book Your Book Starts Here.   

Content is the foundation of any book. It's the plot in fiction, the defining events in memoir, the information in nonfiction. There's a certain amount that must be present for the book to make sense to a reader. In a writer's head, the content is there. But when revising for content, you want to make sure it's also on the page.

So we take an inventory of the book's content.

I like to do it in two stages. I start with the whole man­uscript, reviewing the table of contents or my storyboard of topics. Does each larger section have substance?  

If yes, I examine the book's chapters and the material within each chapter, looking for any parts that feel incomplete, where in­formation is missing or extraneous.

It is in content revision that you'll discover if you are a naturally contracting or expanding writer. Do you prema­turely edit your "islands" too much, so that the first draft feels more like a brief sketch, with sentences counted out like coins? If so, the richness of your book's sound may be underdeveloped and content revision will show you where you need to expand your story.

Or maybe you feel unsure about whether your reader will get the picture you're trying to paint, so you add a bit more than is really needed. You sense it doesn't contribute to the story's flow but you're worried about leaving it out. You may need to take a deep breath and choose to delete some content. Less is sometimes more in content revision.

Your Questions List
So, as you read for content, you are going to see prob­lems. You will be tempted to make notes on your manuscript, such as, "fix this description" or "make dialogue longer."  

Don't do this. Why?  

Because it will turn your manu­script into a deadening list of chores that can stop you in your tracks. Instead, craft the problems you see as questions.

The first task I asked Tom to try was the questions list. A list of questions will automatically put a writer in the position of cu­rious observer, the fascinated inquirer. They allow you to become open to new ideas that maybe you weren't ready to grasp during the planning and writing stages of your book journey. And ques­tions always attract answers-in a truly synchronous way.

Some examples of content questions from Tom and my oth­er students:

*   Does the reader need to know more in chapter 2 about listening skills?
*   How does John get from the cabin to downtown Poughkeepsie? Do I need to add a
     traveling scene as transition?
*   Which of Mary's phone calls is most important to the plot? (This writer saw the need to 
     delete one.)
*   How can I best explain the backstory on page 45 in fewer pages?

The Extras File
As I review each chapter during content revision, often I find material that is missing--but equally often, material that has to go.  

All that work! I'd spent weeks on some of those paragraphs.

Rather than just delete them, I open a new document on my computer. I name it "Extras." It becomes the holding tank for excess sentences, phrases, and paragraphs I still love but don't serve the manuscript. (Once I even put four chap­ters in my Extras file!)

It always makes me feel better to know I am not throw­ing these gems away forever. They are safe in my computer, waiting for their right place.  

Not surprisingly, I find myself using them later-during other parts of the revision process, for example, when I need a bit more backstory or another line of dialogue.

Want to hear more about the content analysis exercise, step by step, and what it's done for other writers?   

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Skim through each chapter of your manuscript; then, at the top of the chapter’s title page, write one sentence that describes the meat of that chapter—its purpose in the larger story. Con­tinue until you have all chapters described.
2.  Carefully read these sentences in sequence. Are there any places where you see missing steps or scenes that would be needed to make your story flow better for a reader? Are there any places where you’ve added unnecessary material? This may show you exactly where you need to expand or contract.
3.  Now open to a new page in your writer’s note­book. On the top of the page write “Content Questions.” List what you discovered during your review, but write these problems as questions, as in the examples on the previous page.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Going beyond Critique: Structuring Feedback to Best Help Your Writing

One summer I attended a workshop with an award-winning short-story writer.  His writing astounded me, and his stories were favorites for years as I studied the craft.   When I learned he'd be teaching at a well-respected conference that year, I was thrilled.

We were asked to prepare a short story for critique.  I polished my very best one, which had won a couple of writing contests, and prepared to learn how to take it to the next level.  I looked forward to this great writer opening doors for me, creatively.  But I took a writing friend along, since at heart I was nervous about his feedback.  If it proved heart-breaking, I could cry on my friend's shoulder.   

Each day we listened to this writer rant.  Midweek we began to talk about the stories we'd brought, but he decided only to work on a few stories by previous students of his who were also in the workshop.  Mine got a cursory discussion, as did most of the others.  To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement.  No creative doors were opened for me, but I did learn a lot about the writer's fame and struggles with his own work--interesting to a point but not for five days.  He was not able to give good feedback because his own writing was his only world.   

Sadly, many of us went away from that workshop confused about the writing journey.  Does it really lead to this kind of self-absorption?  Can't writers learn to help each other succeed?  The flatness inside gave me no real idea how to take the next step with my short story.  It found its way to a drawer in my closet and never got looked at again after that summer.     

Critique--Only One Model for Feedback
Many years went by and I learned more about this feedback and especially critique, the academic method for giving feedback.  The goal of critique is to find what is wrong--it looks at writing with a critical eye and the sense grows in the writer that she will never quite be enough.

Critical feedback has it uses at certain stages.  But it works best if delivered with the intent to open doors in the writer's creative self.  Not close them.  I had made the mistake of thinking that this famous writer would know how to teach as well as how to write.   

That he would be able to help me.  Actually, he was really only able to help himself. 

How Do We Get Help for Our Writing?  How Do We Learn to Give it to Other Writers? 
Writers learn about their writing in several ways.  There's the harsh experience of rejection letters--which tell you everything is bad.  There's the gentle experience of support--which tells you everything is good.  In the middle is constructive feedback.  This points out both strengths and weaknesses in writing.  It lets the writer know the solid ground to stand on, as well as the next step to take to grow.

Most writers aren't born with an inherent ability to give good feedback. Even professional writers, as I learned that summer, can be lousy at it. They don't necessarily offer comments that the writer can actually use. And they give feedback for all sorts of wrong reasons-to show off how much they know, to make every­one aware they'd never be caught dead making a mistake like that, to boost literary egos.

Obviously, this does nothing good for the receiving author-to-be.

That's why I've come to believe that questions are the most untapped form of good feedback. In teaching writing for over twenty years, I've found that questions open door­ways for the writer. They let us see (1) there's something unaddressed or unanswered here, and (2) there are ways to find out what it might be. When we are asked a question, it allows new information to come up organically from our in­terior worlds. A lot of my first-time students don't believe in the power of questions. But after one exposure, they get it.

You really had to be there, to get the full impact of the question, to see the writer light up with new awareness and love for his manuscript, but perhaps some of these questions will trigger ideas on this form of feedback.

1.  What would happen if Jonah didn't say yes to Ann at that moment? (In response to a chapter where two characters fall into a pseudo-agreeability, where they really need to get more separate, this question caused the writer to catapult into an new realization of Ann's angrier side. We'd seen Ann simmering for weeks, but this writer hadn't yet, and it was deadening the chapter.)

2.  What's the most outrageous thing this woman could do? (In response to a stuck character, this ques­tion caused the writer to have her go into a bar and bargain sex for a ride to L.A., a totally unex­pected action that was entirely believable and got the writer excited once again about this person.)

3.  What was always in your mother's refrigerator? (A memoirist suddenly remembered her moth­er's quart bottles of diet Pepsi, which brought the realization that she hadn't yet written about junk food and constriction, an essential theme in understanding her family.)

4.  How does lightning play out in your life? (In re­sponse to a skilled writer's struggle with finding theme in his nonfiction book. He went from writing sequential and slightly repetitive scenes to interspersing musings on the nature of light­ning, personally and topically, which helped his book rise from the ashes.)

Any feedback in class needs to be monitored by an in­structor, who has the welfare of the students in mind. If there are writing classes in your area, try them out. Online classes are easy to find and good forums for learning feedback skills.

Assessing Your Feedback Needs
A writer in my classes was convinced that he didn't need feedback.  He worked hard on his novel and sent it off to a list of agents.  It was agony to watch him get the rejection letters--not one even read more than a couple of pages.

I suggested he spend some time getting feedback--finding out why.  Because the submission process had flattened him, Noah was more willing to try peer review now.  He found a writers' group in his Detroit neighbor­hood, one he's been with now for two years. He learned to ask good questions and he learned that careful and constructive feedback made his writing improve steadily.  He sees the group members for coffee and chapter exchange one Sat­urday morning each month, and each writer has grown tre­mendously from the feedback.

At first, Noah said, the group was large and not very committed. Over time, the original ten members shrank to five steady writers who showed up at each meeting. Those who didn't submit work eventually dropped away. Noah's writing was gently critiqued, chapter by chapter, until he col­lected good feedback on his entire book. He now knew more clearly why agents never got past chapter 1-and he's hard at work on a more informed revision.

To assess your feedback needs, spend some time with your writer's notebook or journal today. As you think about where you are in your manuscript revision, make some hon­est notes about your concerns and eagerness for feedback. Then, when you feel you're ready, take one small step toward reaching out.

Go on line, visit community bulletin boards in your lo­cal bookstores, or make a call to the English department of a nearby university or college. Research some possibilities for a manuscript exchange with a writers' group, writing coaches, or writing partner.

Discover how constructive feedback can help you take your manuscript to the finish line-and the publication that awaits there.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Spend a few minutes today writing about how you feel about your book, right now.  Are you excited, overwhelmed, discouraged, skeptical?  Describe the feelings as specifically as possible:  "They feel like . . . " or "I feel like. . . "

2.  Now switch to assessing what might help you most at this place.  Begin writing again, finishing the sentence:  "I think I most need . . . "  Repeat this prompt 5 times, answering it differently every time.

3.  From this exercise, make a list of three things you need most to move forward right now.  They can be specific issues with your book or overall needs you have for support.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Listening with Your Whole Self: Writing from Both Sides of the Brain

Jess is a smart and polished lawyer who was a dedicated student in my writing classes. After hundreds of law briefs and legal articles, she was attempting a novel, a love story. She had crafted a hundred pages, but she hated what she’d written so far. What was wrong?  

We looked at the chapters she had created from her scenes, following her storyboard’s map (see this past article on my blog for a refresher on the storyboarding process).  

The basic story idea was good, the plot interesting and well structured. But the writing was way too linear for a love story. Written law-brief style, with romance plugged in, using dry language that sparked no emotion in a reader, even the writer herself was uninspired by it.  

But Jess was one persistent woman. She was committed to her story. She knew she had a great book idea. The prob­lem, we realized, was with her writing. She needed to learn how to show, not tell. Training her to listen to the creative side of her brain wasn’t easy. It bucked her natural preference for logic and analysis, for telling.

I proposed a plan to loosen her up.

     Pay a lot of attention to the senses-taste, touch, sound, smell, sight

     Go on solo outings to places inspiring these senses and take notes on what
     you see, smell, touch

     Begin a touch journal-jot down what things feel like

     Read novels and short stories that are strong in images

     Watch romantic movies instead of the documentaries you prefer

     Begin having fresh flowers in the house and eating home-cooked food

     Take long walks and afterward write down favorite images

     Listen to music-different kinds than you usually listen to

Jess was dubious. She cited no time for walks, music, flowers. She said I was asking her to change her life.  

Yes, I told her, I was asking her to change but not her life, rather her very left-brain approach to life. I told Jess to get a copy of My Stroke of Insight, by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. In this short but stunning memoir, Dr. Taylor reveals how after a sudden left-brain stroke shut down her left brain, she learned what it was like to operate just from the right brain.  

For hours after her stroke, Dr. Taylor was aware only of what the right brain delivers--sensory details, images, wholeness of being. In the bliss of right-brain beingness, she was barely able to save her own life.

Her left brain, which is home to ordered, logical thinking--the kind necessary to pick up a phone and call 911--had been all but annihilated by the stroke. It would take years of rehab to bring it back to life. Dr. Taylor had to learn all over again how to read, to add, to make decisions.

This dramatic experience of losing her left-brain functions changed Taylor’s entire approach to living. She slowed down, did less, but much to her surprise found she enjoyed life more.  

As Taylor says, we tend to use more of one side of our brains. We need both.
This is especially true for writers. We often miss the full potential of our book-writing journey by not tapping into the right brain. Our manuscripts develop primarily from the voice of our dominant hemisphere, which for most of us is the left. Blind spots appear on our book map because of this, creating unnecessary roadblocks on our journey. We get stuck easily.

Alone, neither the linear left brain nor the image-rich right brain can create a complete book. Using the whole creative self delivers both coherent structure and emotional engagement. Both sides working in concert turn every book into a more complete vision.

Jess took up the challenge of freeing her right brain. The newly embraced creative self began to speak up. Her writing changed. Novel scenes, very good ones that packed an emotional punch, emerged.

What Happened Next
I didn’t predict the next event, but I wasn’t surprised. Jess fell in love. She sold her practice, and she and her lover moved to another country. Falling in love is very much a right-brain activity. A person in love suddenly appreciates detail, especially sensory detail. Love changes your percep­tions about everything.  

I thought that was the end of Jess’s novel. But six months after her move, a chapter arrived by email. I couldn’t believe the difference. Here was real romance! The writing made my heart jump.

She was listening to the right half of her brain-and it changed not only her writing but her life. To date, the book is still in the works. It’s going to be wonderful.

“Share this story with your classes,” she emailed me. “If someone like me can make this change, anyone can.”

Do you have to fall in love to change your habitually left-brain approach? No. You just need to be willing to ac­cept the parts of your self that don’t make logical sense. Learn to balance the strengths of the organized left brain with the whimsy of the right. Learn to structure your wild imaginings so you really communicate your book’s message.

Which Side Do You Favor?
 As book writers our first task is discover which side is taking up the most room in our creative process. Asking good questions can help you learn which side you are favoring, and which you are ignoring.

Good Questions 
If you are naturally ordered in your writing, ask ques­tions that propel you or your character into awareness of senses, which comes from the right brain:

What did it smell like?
What sounds did you/she/he hear?
What time of day was it?    

If you tend toward the meandering and random, ask questions that track time sequence or logic, which comes from the left:

What happened right before this?
What will up the stakes right now?
What could happen next?

Our second task is to train ourselves to use both, to switch readily between them, using our whole creative selves and making our books publishable.

How many writers are able to seamlessly switch from ordered to random and back again? It often depends on how we approach our daily lives, how fluid we can be. When I surveyed my book-writing classes, writers were visibly uneasy at the idea of such fluidity. (Let’s not forget our culture is very left-brain oriented.)  

“My material is way too emotional to access all the time,” said a new memoirist. “It’s a wild animal; I have to keep it contained.” A skilled essayist and mother of three said, “I stay in left brain to survive. If I let myself get dreamy, I get instant chaos at home. I want to write this book but not if it means giving up control of the rest of my life!”

This is not about giving up anything. It’s about open­ing up to more, it’s about trusting the part of your creative self that gets less air time. If you’re naturally organized, keep the left-brain control, the structure-it’s essential. Just add in the beauty your nonlinear right-brain self can contribute. If you’re one of the rare right-brain dominant, then you will need to learn to embrace a structured writing system that can help bring order to your freewheeling words. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This exercise allows you to access both sides of the brain, back and forth, and strengthen your ability to switch between them, via sensory memory and physical, present-time body sensations.  It's great training for any writer.

1.  Find an event from your childhood that evoked strong emotion.
2.  Write about it for 20 minutes, using the sense of sound as much as possible.
3.  Pause and close your eyes.  Briefly scan your physical body for any sensations that might have arisen as you wrote--are you feeling a bit dizzy, nauseous, euphoric?  Do you have a buzzing feeling in your head or a tightness in your throat.  Write about your present-time physical body sensations for a few minutes.
4.  Now go back to the childhood memory and continue writing, using the sense of smell.
5.  What differences do you perceive in the second writing session?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Simple Cures to Writer's Block: Fresh Writing and the Brainstorming List of Ideas

Writers produce writing.  We wait for inspiration, yes, but we eventually write.  Writing is not about the waiting; it's about the actual words on the page.  

And if you're contemplating a book, you need pages of it, produced regularly and methodically.   

So there must be writing practice as well, and good methods to overcome the negative self-talk of the Inner Critic, for your dream to be realized.   

Happy is the writer who has this rhythm.  She or he can click along, getting the writing done.  The pages pile up; there's a real sense of accomplishment.   

Then the writer hits an obstacle.  It might be as simple as starting a class where you find yourself in deeper water than you're used to swimming.  Maybe you have to share your raw efforts.  Maybe you are asked to read a good book and it puts your own writing in a different light--"Listen to that dialogue!  I'll never be able to write like that."  You compare yourself to your dream, and come up lacking.   

Slowly the regular writing rhythm changes, and the pages each day get shorter.  Ideas seem to dry up.  Eventually, if this isn't caught early, the writing stops.

We're all familiar with this infamous disease.  It's called writer's block.  After a few days of it, a week or a month, it's hard to even remember how to craft a sentence.    

Cures to Writer's Block Are Pretty Simple 
Keeping your creativity alive and flowing is the best cure to writer's block.  I've learned that even more important than production of pages, the successful writer must find a way to tap into this creativity each day.  This is actually what holds up that nurturing rhythm, that allows you to produce those pages that eventually become a book.

The goal is to learn how to keep the well filled, without exhausting your creative energy.  

Sounds like a no brainer.  Often, it's terrifically hard to put into practice.   

But I've found two techniques that allow me to pay attention to the internal process behind the writing:  techniques that keep me open to explore all the new avenues that my book journey presents.

My two techniques are:

* fresh writing every day
* keeping a brainstorming list of ideas 

Fresh Writing Every Day 
Even when I am knee-deep in editing a book, I try to produce fresh writing every day.  It keeps my Inner Critic at bay.  It keeps me alert, energized, and discovering.  Basically, it makes sure most of my writing is reasonably good. 

How much is enough? New writers can start out writ­ing a couple of paragraphs, building gradually to two pages, about 500 words, per sitting. Two pages is just enough to engage the creative self but not overwhelm it. It's fine to keep the pages unpolished--and eventually you'll get into a rhythm of lightly revising as you go. The goal at first is simply to build stamina for your writing practice.  The momentum of the practice gets you enthused, and once you are producing 500 words regularly, you might find yourself upping it to 800. How about 1000?

Fiction and memoir writers might spend their two pages on a short scene, a description of character or setting, or even a list of unanswered questions about their story. Nonfiction writers can use this time to build research facts into interest­ing prose, or develop anecdotes to illustrate a theory.

Note to those who love to edit their work:  It's important to make sure revising time doesn't replace fresh writing. If you find yourself wrestling word choices, try a freewrite to get the creative flow moving again.

Getting started can be a challenge.  Anne Lamott, author of the modern classic on writing, Bird by Bird, has an empty one-inch photo frame on her desk. When she sits down to write, it reminds her "all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame." Once you start with enough fresh writing for this short assignment, you may find yourself easily writing more.

Don't worry if it's any good--we often can't tell when we're producing writing that's fresh. We don't have the per­spective because we're too engaged. Plenty of time for the editor self to judge that later.

Your eventual goal is simple: two pages, every day, with depth and meaning. You'll be amazed at how quickly they become enough to make a book.

The Brainstorming List of Ideas 
One of my students is a professional journalist, with many awards behind him.  He's writing his memoir now, and when he got really stuck a few months ago, I suggested he begin a list.   

He was to write down all the top­ics he might want to write about.  Important:  Don't edit or censor them, and include the ones that terrified and bored him.  Even topics that might not end up in the book.  Everything went on the list.

He did.  With some reluctance.   

Once he had the list in hand, he found himself adding to it quite often.  He still was stuck, but his imagination was getting involved again.  After a few days of jotting down ideas, he had over thirty.  And there were a few he couldn't stop thinking about so he sat down one morning before the family got up and jotted down some notes.   

Of course, you know the end of this story.  The notes got him more interested.  And soon he was writing.   

And he still is.  He hasn't gotten writer's block again since.  He told me the list insured he always had something to write about every day that was relevant to his memoir.

He gave me permission to share some of his list.  Although it won't make sense to anyone else, it gives you an idea of the kinds of things that can be included:

red flannel shirts with leather elbows
disgust with spuds
Uncle S. and his smelly pipe
laughing too hard at the dinner table
rain on dirty windows

I recommend all book writers start keeping a brain­storming list. It is the key to connecting your current life, your interests, passions, fears, and hopes, with your book. It enlivens the material with you. And best of all, it keeps you writing regularly.

Brainstormed ideas don't have meaning at first--not until they're written about. As E.L. Doctorow said, "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your head­lights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Like imag­es caught in headlights as a car passes by, or like notes taken from a dream fragment, certain phrases or words encapsulate complete scenes you'll develop later.

Note: For the list to work, you need to jot down enough to jog your memory.

Keeping a brainstorming list is an ongoing task. I sug­gest adding to it at the end of each writing session. Use it throughout your book journey. The last few pages of my writ­ing notebook are reserved for my list, where it's easy to lo­cate. Some writers start a computer file for their lists, adding one or two new items every writing session.

It's important not to censor your list or eliminate top­ics that don't seem to "fit" the book. This is not the time to decide. Often your Inner Critic is talking you out of a deli­cious clue from the right brain: an insignificant image that finds its way to your list may become the very thing you need to bring emotion to an otherwise dull scene.

Ready to try it?  Here are the steps.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Get out your writer's notebook or open a new document on your computer, saved to your desktop or some place you'll see it frequently.

2.  Write down 5 topics you're interested in writing about, that could possibly be part of your book or current writing project.  Don't censor the ideas that come--even if they seem off base right now.

3.  Save this and walk away for an hour.  Come back and add 3 more ideas.  

4.  Do this until you have 25 listed.  

5.  Pick one topic from the list and set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes.  Begin freewriting on it, again not censoring what comes through.  

6.  Repeat each day for 1 week.  See what you get.