My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:

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1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips? 

Perfectionism and Pomodori

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If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re not alone. Most writers I know have faced that wall many times and surmounted it. Some people find themselves at that wall over and over again.

Sometimes this happens because you’re not sure how to move your story forward.

Sometimes this happens because you’re terrified of failing.

If it’s the latter, you may be a perfectionist. One understanding of perfectionism is that it’s a psychological mechanism by which you attempt to prevent failure by being “perfect.” And one of the symptoms of perfectionism is procrastination, a way to avoid engaging with perfectionism’s relentlessly harsh taskmaster by…not writing.

Writing and Life Coach Hillary Rettig discusses this tangled web of fear and diminished productivity in her fantastic book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. She presents lots of ways to tackle perfectionism and become more productive, the chief among them being a mental attitude of “compassionate objectivity.” You might think of this as the voice of the loving (grand)parent, the wise mentor, the friend. It might be the voice of your writing partners or critique group (that’s certainly true for me), who say, “Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this.”  It’s very different than the nasty voice of perfectionism, which hisses, “Why did you ever think you could do this? You’re a total failure. Quit now.” One of the ways Rettig proposes writers develop the compassionate objectivity and resilience they need to become prolific is through extremely short timed writing.

I taught creative and expository writing for many years, and I often asked my students to free-write for fifteen or twenty minutes. I was inspired to do this by Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones, in which she extols the virtues of free-writing and cautions: Don’t let the hand stop moving. Rettig’s important twist on this practice is that if you are suffering from writer’s block, you have to start small. Laughably small. If you’re blocked—either by perfectionism or because you don’t know where to go with your piece—start with five minutes of writing.

FIVE minutes?

Five minutes.

If you’re blocked, you’re probably thinking: How the @&?!*%#$! is five minutes going to help me? I have a 400-page novel to write! Tell yourself Rome was not built in a day. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott says, to just do it “bird by bird.” And then give this practical technique a try.

Get a timer. Rettig suggests using an old-fashioned kitchen timer. I tried this and it made me feel like a bomb was about to go off under my desk, but if it works for you, go for it. I like the free app called Pomodoro (more about the Pomodoro technique & other apps here). You can set up the timer for up to five intervals, each one lasting from five to twenty-five minutes. You can also create a break between your sessions, however long you wish, which are perfect for rewards (see below).

The idea is to write for a very short time. Set an interval that makes you say: I can definitely write for X minutes. Then choose any part of your story and write for X minutes. The idea is to not worry about quality at this point. And if you get stuck trying to write the story, Rettig recommends you write about the story, or about the problem you’re having with it.

Five minutes. Then stop and celebrate. Reward yourself well—you must treat yourself way better than you think you deserve for writing for five minutes—and then, when you want to write again, do so. But only for five minutes.

Short, timed writing—what I think of as micro writing—defeats the perfectionist nay-sayer and stops procrastination. It’s only five minutes, after all. And, as Rettig points out, as you use this technique you will find that your sense of accomplishment returns. And when that happens, you can lengthen your timed sessions: fifteen minutes, forty minutes, four hours.

It’s very simple and very powerful. And if the panic sets in after you get going with this, and it probably will—“Yes, yes, I was writing nothing but I’m still only writing 2,000 words a day and it’s not nearly enough to finish my 400-page book!—gently go back to timed sessions. Trust the process to get you back on track so that you are once again writing without fear.

Pomodoro by pomodoro: which is how I wrote this post.

Explore Hillary Rettig’s methods (time-management, helicopter writing, back-to-front writing and more) on her website and in her excellent book.

 

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still does. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy set during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Keeping the Words Flowing

Back when we were the age of the kids we write for, summer used to mean long, hot, lazy days filled with reading, outdoor fun, and friends. But for writers, summer can be a huge time of distraction.

hilarity-1349125_640Schedule changes like vacations and having kids home from school for the summer months can really eat into my writing time. So I asked my fellow Winged Pen members how they keep writing through the summer chaos – or any big schedule changes like moving, a new job, a new baby or family visiting.

Here are their creative suggestions to keep the words flowing.

Julie: After basically not getting to write a word for a couple of summers, I vowed last year that I’d make time for writing. Then I overdid it and spent too much time at the computer and not enough with my kiddos. This year, I’m hoping for a bit more balance. First, I’m going to keep up my early morning writing habit. Second, I’m going to scale back my expectations a bit. I’m lucky this summer because my son needs to do an entire school year’s worth of math so that he can enter an accelerated program in middle school next year, so I will be able to slip in writing time while he’s busy with Khan Academy, but that still leaves my daughter. I’ve got some art and writing projects lined up to keep her entertained and both are avid readers, so hopefully that will be enough time to help all make it through the summer with smiles on our faces.

Laurel: I’ve used the 15 minute plan a lot. If you have a brainstormed scene list (however sketchy!), you can pick a scene to draft, mind-map the characters until you find the conflict, set the timer for 15 minutes and write like mad. If you don’t have a scene list because life is tooooo crazy, you can try a prompt. Once you have enough “sand” you can review it and see if there’s a castle in there somewhere. My most effective book for prompts (to use with or without a current project) is Roberta Allen’s THE PLAYFUL WAY TO SERIOUS WRITING.

My kids are older so it’s more of a people suddenly need me for something and interrupting myself. I had really good luck with Joanna Penn’s calendar method earlier this year. And then we went away for a week and I’ve never quite gotten it back on track. I’m trying to get back in the groove before school gets out for my youngest.

Gita: I’ve been struggling to get my work done and the 15-minute plan (or, for me, the 500 word plan) works because it’s just enough writing to keep my head in the game. And I don’t judge the quality of the work when I’m only writing 500 words. It’s just getting words on paper until I feel better/have a longer chunk of time to work AND not letting myself get psyched out that I’m not writing. If I skip a day I’m lost and it’s twice as hard to get back into it. Timed writing also works.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf says, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” And I think if she’d had children, she would have said that some of the money is for summer camp or babysitters.

When my son was little, I pooled resources with another friend and hired teenagers to play with him and his buddy in the mornings so I could work. Now that he’s older he sleeps in, so I force myself to be productive at that time. This year: 3-week sleep away camp, a gift from his grandparents. Really, though, it’s about finding bits of time and defending them—not letting them get used for anything but writing.

Rebecca: I know I do better with a couple big blocks of time then a lot of small ones. So Tuesdays and Wednesdays are my writing days. The benefit is not just that they are big blocks so I can make some significant progress on a revision, but also that they are easy to defend. These are always my writing days, so I might schedule a tradesman that needs access to the house (reluctantly) but I push off any guilt about bills, groceries, laundry, etc. For drafting, I switch up to shorter chunks of time over the summer because I can’t write new stuff for 8 hours straight.

Halli: I also try to fit in 15 minutes a day at the minimum. Whether the kids are home or we are on vacation. Sometimes it has to be something completely new if my current WIP is on the computer and I can’t get to it (for example screen time is shut off for the whole family) then I will write something with pen and paper. It also helps with keeping my mind active and the creative juices flowing. I find that in the summer when the kids are sleeping in and husband is at work, I get some good productive time in.

Karin: Summer camps = writing time! All four kids are going to sleep away camp this year for the first time! Okay, it’s only for a couple of weeks, but still it will be exquisite. I won’t have to worry about cleaning and cooking and entertaining them. Of course, we will do fun stuff but it will be great to have this quiet time to write. Then they have a couple of weeks of local sports or music camps. The older ones (8th and 10th grade) can bike to their friends now and even hang out at the community pool on their own.

Kristi: I wish I had a suggestion… I just end up throwing my hands in the air and passing out i-pads and typing in the password on the computer and telling them leave each other alone and give me an hour…

Sometimes life really does demand that you take a break. But if you’re struggling to stay in your writing groove this summer – or any time during the year! – try out one of these suggestions and let us know how it goes! And if you have any other ideas, comment away!

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Unlocking Our Creativity

As writers, we spend so much time developing our craft, but at the end of the day we still need something we can’t seem to control—our creativity.

Or maybe we can. At least a little.

Author Jarrett J. Krosoczka said in his keynote speech at the recent NESCBWI conference that you need to be bored to spark creativity. He’s right, but maybe it’s more than that. So much of our time is spent worrying about stuff that has happened in the past or stuff that’s about to happen in the future. These thoughts jam our creativity. When we connect to the present, we clear these thoughts and free our minds to channel new ideas.

But how do we get our busy monkey minds to stop jumping from the past to the future and just chill out in the here and now? I think we can do it by connecting to our senses. That’s one reason everyone gets many great ideas in the shower. It’s such a sensory experience, and the warm water feels so good that it anchors us in the present, and our thoughts melt away, leaving us in that space where ideas seem to come out of nowhere. It worked for Archimedes in the bathtub…

There are many ways to connect to our senses and free our minds, including walking, running, cooking, and gardening. One way I do it is through yoga. In yoga class, we stretch, twist, invert, and balance our bodies into lots of yoga poses from downward dog to eagle pose. The yoga teacher reminds us to breathe through each pose and to notice the sensation of the breath going in and out. The noise in my head quiets. And suddenly I realize something about my main character that I can’t believe I didn’t see before, or a new twist in my plot.

As the mom of four, I don’t always have time to go to yoga class so I do one or two poses next to my desk. I find balancing poses especially calming. I might do tree pose or Warrior poses. Maybe we should call it Writing Warrior Pose as we have to overcome so many obstacles in order to write from time, self-doubt, and the publishing process. If I’m feeling really distracted, bouncing around social media instead of #amrevising, I might even try alternate nostril breathing. It works, I swear! Check it out here and see for yourself.

Walking also helps me get into a creative state of mind. I let my busy thoughts cycle through, until my surroundings poke me out of my thoughts. The wind flicks my hair, I notice how the light through the gray clouds makes the trees look florescent green, and I start to let go of my stuff. I feel connected. And then suddenly I come up with a new idea for a picture book.

It’s odd that our senses, which are so grounding, are the key to our expansive creativity. But when we feel, taste, hear, see, and smell the world, we unlock our creativity. When we connect to our senses we connect to the universe, and it rewards us with a feeling of peace—and creativity.

So whether you practice yoga, or walk, or meditate, or garden, or take baths, or sip mint tea while gazing out the window, I hope you feel your moments and find your gateway to limitless creativity!

Namaste!

In addition to being a writer, KARIN LEFRANC is a certified children’s yoga teacher. Born in Sweden, she went to five schools in Lebanon, South Africa and England before coming to the US to attend college. She now lives in Connecticut with her French husband and four kids. She self published her first picture book A QUEST FOR GOOD MANNERS. Her first traditionally published picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. She’s currently stomping through the dark ages in a middle-grade novel about trolls and giants. You can find her on Twitter.