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Re-thinking word count goals

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Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Have you ever tried to force yourself to write in order to meet an arbitrary word count? It is a ponderous, painful exercise. I have been attempting to follow an oft repeated suggestion that setting a word count is an effective way to establish a daily writing practice. Not only is it purported to be helpful but should be considered an important guideline.

But learning to develop other aspects of craft can fall by the wayside as you grapple with the energy to meet this goal.

And if you are writing flash fiction, it becomes counterintuitive when trying to cultivate aspects of compression in your writing. Learning how to capture the essence of a situation with a brevity of words is a critical micro skill that doesn’t come easily. Especially to someone like me, who trained academically in another field where being wordy was both accepted as well as expected.

Writing is about showing not telling. Which can be hard to learn to do if you have a tendency to ramble. Sometimes it seems that adhering to goals that no longer serve us should be easy to let go of. But somehow that dark shadow of perfectionism creeps into your head reminding you to achieve a daily word count. If we aren’t mindful of this tendency to hang onto goals that no longer serve our purpose, it can haunt our efforts to learn to tell stories well.

Learning how to use very few words to tell a story that generates a complexity of emotions is more difficult than it sounds. Compression techniques are the underpinning of flash fiction. So my writing goals are evolving from trying to achieve a specific number of words to experimenting with other ways to develop and build my “compression” muscles.

Whether I practice writing 50 or 100 word stories or attempt to create a story in the format of a bingo card, I am feeling more confident with the focus of new writing goals. Learning to honour the elusive art of compression rather than the length of story seems a worthy alternative to monitoring word counts.

And writing goals just like any goals we establish in our lives should serve us in our growth and development. Learning when we have outgrown a disciplined habit requires flexibility and patience.

Now if only I could remember to stop myself from clicking the drop down box to reveal my word count before I leave my computer!

happy writing!

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So why do you write?

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Writing is about getting to know more about the world – both the external world around you and the internal world inside you. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

Robert Lee Brewer

Ever had one of those awkward moments where someone asks you what you have been doing lately and in a moment of excitement you mention that you are writing. Which launches the next question, oh what exactly are you writing? And for many writers who are in mid project, it can be dicey to try and explain succinctly what you are currently working on.

This tough question is often followed by a query about whether or not you are published and if you are, where your work can be found. Small literary journals either online or those still in print, don’t usually lend themselves to brand name recognition. For non-writers at least.

So unless you are discussing aspects of the writing world with a member of your tribe, most well intentioned people politely shift the conversation to something else. Quickly.

Perhaps this type of scenario might cause you to falter for a moment and ponder the question – why am I writing?

Because we all write for different reasons. We might write in order to be published. We might write because we have a need for recognition. We might write to touch the hearts and souls of people. We might be someone who writes for a living. We might write because we have an inner need to express ourselves using this creative vehicle.

But whatever the reason(s) our writing practice is often deeply personal. So to share this path you are on with someone who is not travelling on this journey with you, can leave you in a space where you feel misunderstood or dismissed simply because you know in your heart of hearts that you are a writer.

Writing is about taking risks. It is about having courage to learn to express what resides deep within. It is about having faith in your powers of observation and about being willing to fail when the words don’t line up quite right. Writing is about riding the wave of creative inspiration without knowing where you will end up. It is about a deep and enduring human desire to tell stories.

I am learning as I continue to write stories that this is how I make sense of my life, the world, and the people within it. I recognize that while many of the reasons why I write are fluid over time there is something deeply necessary about expressing myself this way. So for me writing is about growth and discovery and above all else, it is about having hope. Hope that my world will make sense and has meaning.

So why do you write?

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Finding focus…again and again

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Creatives often lose focus when they tackle a particular creative project or intellectual problem. They start with great enthusiasm , certain in their bones that they know what it is all about. Then, even after just a few days, it becomes less clear to them what they’re doing.

Eric Maisel

During a writing class this past weekend, the instructor spent some time discussing how to leave a project you are working on to attend to the myriad aspects of daily life that require we do something other than write. But the challenge is, how do you get back to that magical place where your writing energy was high? That place where the why of what you are doing creatively seems crystal clear and words are rushing out of you. Up until something we are pressed to do elsewhere interrupts that flow.

Finding our way back to that creative focus can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a writer.

And for some unknown reason I have been labouring under the misconception that this particular problem was unique to me. Gazing at the number of notebooks with unfinished stories, abandoned ideas for books, first lines of poetry on my book shelf causes unbidden feelings of frustration, shame, annoyance to surface. And once those feelings emerge they threaten to overwhelm the thinking part of my brain that understands this is all part of the writing process.

In Eric Maisel’s latest book for creatives, titled, Redesign Your Mind, he notes that “the ways in which creative projects can dim, lose their lustre, and shift out of focus are legion”. So learning more about this aspect of the creative writing process seems paramount if one wants to become a writer who “finishes” their projects.

It seems that this is a typical problem that like most aspects of creative work if understood then it can be solved. I was glad to know that it is not just a “me” problem but one that impacts other writers and creative souls.

One of the suggestions that resonated for me was to develop a habit where prior to leaving your desk or computer or your notebook, that you write out where you think you want to go next, to frame questions that you want to consider or reflect on when you return to the page. Sort of a quasi developed pathway in point form about where you need to go next.

And what if you still can’t figure out where you were going with a piece of writing when you are finally able to get back to it? Then it seems best to simply write and keep writing. The magic seems to be in discovering what you are writing by actually doing it. Sometimes where you finish seems far removed from where you began. And really, what is wrong with that!

happy writing!

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Grappling with uncertainty

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If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.

Eckhart Tolle

Uncertainty often manifests itself in our lives as a primary stressor. The longer we experience it, the more challenging it is to learn to embrace it, accept it, or to thrive in spite of it. And the more frequently it pops up in our lives, the more it becomes subject to our innate negativity bias and fills our emotional spaces with worry and anxiety.

The pandemic has fit this bill like a glove. But any situation that is unknown to us especially one that may bring hardship and chaos into our lives quickly shifts into something we wish to avoid. But summoning inner resources and resolve to face tough situations builds muscles of resilience that can help us become stronger over the long term.

So how do you go about finding a way forward and what kinds of tools do you need to develop?

Having a support network of family and friends to backstop you as you navigate the harder things in life has always been a top priority. Learning to use mindfulness techniques to stay in the moment and avoid ruminating about the past or projecting wishful thinking onto the future is often helpful. And at times easier said than done.

But cultivating a state of being curious about what you are facing can help you stay focused on where you need to be.

And curiosity often creates a sensation of playfulness or lightness, helping you stay out of judgment, and clinging to our unhelpful attachments to things. Using statements like “what other ways can I look at this” or “what if” can be useful when you are teetering on the brink and need balance to face what life is bringing your way.

Research shows that curiosity may help build tolerance for anxiety producing situations and encourages unconventional ideas to solve problems.

Being okay with uncertainty, letting things pass, trying to think about how you have both feet on the ground while you walk helps lighten the load when you are facing difficult circumstances. Reminding myself to be curious, to slow down and observe what I am facing, lets me tap into creative responses to life’s challenges.

And right now, I am going to remain curious about whether I can maintain this mindset when I need it most.

stay safe!

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snow covered tulips

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There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

Every time I have checked the news on my computer during the past forty eight hours, I am reminded that we are anticipating a wicked spring snowstorm. Expected to be one of the most cataclysmic snowstorms in decades, it certainly sounds ominous and has kept the journalists busy. Instructions for emergency preparedness and supply lists to keep you covered for a period of 72 hours seem to be everywhere.

Having started to get ready for spring yard work, changed winter tires to summer ones, and finally watched the last of the snow melt leaving behind the proverbial snow mold on my lawn, I am finished with winter. Spring has been slower this year compared to the last couple of years but it is in evidence most places you look.

I have a solitary tulip that comes up all by itself first thing early each spring so it often receives the tail end of a cold, snowy prairie winter. But it keeps coming up, year after year. Actually, it has persevered in spite of harsh weather conditions for more than thirty years.

And I have always considered it a bit of a touchstone or a comforting kind of reminder that in spite of the many challenges we may experience throughout life, we are in fact, resilient and our struggles pass.

So like my stalwart solitary tulip about to get pummelled by a dreadful spring snow storm, it reinforces that I too, am resilient and can weather what life throws my way. Even when the conditions or circumstances threaten to be overwhelming. Like that tulip, if I remain mindful rather than reactive, hold space for hope, then passing storms will move along and so will I.

Stay hopeful, stay safe!

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Finding your voice

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A writer’s voice is the way your personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.

Katherine Schulten

Have you ever wondered how to find your writer’s voice? It doesn’t seem as simple as the voice you bring to the act of singing or speaking. As a beginning writer, there are times when I feel like I am stumbling around trying to find my voice. When I am stuck I find myself worrying about what writer’s voice really is which will send me searching for the answers in craft books or on the internet.

But the reality is, our writing voice lives deep inside of us. The act of creation calls to us to be exactly as we are. Even if we feel like we are trying on shoes that are the wrong size. When we do our creative work, once we allow ourselves to become immersed in it, we often discover that unconsciously we are bringing our writer’s voice to the page.

If we look closely, we can discern the word choices we make, the tone, and our writing style as a reflection of who we are. And over time, this recognition strengthens and becomes intuitive.

When we bring our writer’s voice to the page, we are writing with emotion, passion, and we bring along all of the positive and negative aspects of ourselves. Our dislikes, attitudes, beliefs, wishes and our fears will all show up in what we write. Worrying about what our voice sounds like or is saying will often inadvertently make our words flat, dull, and perhaps unintentionally disingenuous.

Strangely enough, the act of immersion in a piece of creative writing can take us out of our judgemental minds and the less we try to write in a type of “voice” the easier it is to tap into the voice that is your own. Creative work allows us to express what is in our hearts – the pieces we write speak for us in the world. And the more we practice speaking with our authentic voice, it becomes louder and resonates with clarity.

If there was ever a reason to ensure ego doesn’t show up on your page, this would be it. Everything you create with your whole self, with your passionate self, with your true self – is a self-portrait. An unbridled, unfettered word picture of who we really are. And that is the best aspect of the poems and stories we write.

Happy writing!

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Titles: Discovering the soul of your story

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A title has a big job. It is the first thing we read. It gets our attention and highlights the tenor of the piece. It’s shorthand for the tone, perspective, and content.

Bonni Goldberg

Having spent the past couple of days editing, reworking, and in some cases, re-writing pieces of flash fiction that have been languishing in a folder, titled, “not finished”, it dawned on me that choosing a title is a critical part of craft. And it is one that presents as simplistic but is more difficult than it sounds.

For many of the pieces of short prose that I had abandoned, the working titles chosen no longer seemed to fit. Like a broken puzzle piece, a poorly crafted title leaves a gap, a tiny void that grows larger through the distance of time. Flash fiction could be characterized as a full story living in a tiny space where the economy of words requires each choice be meaningful.

And the title is not merely the beginning but should reflect the essence of the story’s meaning or its soul.

So I took time to approach this task with a sense of playfulness – drafting at least ten titles for each story and then leaving it for a day before returning to see how these new possibilities lined up with meaning of what I had written.

My discovery through this process led me conclude that titles are a bit like shapeshifters. Through the kaleidoscope of reflection, there are different ways to present the meaning of your story and titles do in fact, play a leading role.

This seems somewhat parallel to the manner in which we use titles in our day to day lives. We frequently describe ourselves through title, usually with intent to announce to the world our successes or achievements. Rarely do we refer to ourselves based on our relationships, our place in the world, or the things that have the most intrinsic meaning to us.

Imagine attending a meeting, or some type of social event and introducing yourself as who you are – a mother, a wife, a daughter, etc., rather than what you do or where you work.

So if a title reflects the soul of story, whether it is one we have written or our own work in progress, it makes sense that considerable time, energy, and thought go into what it should be.

Happy writing!

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Writing into spring

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There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never know quite where they’ll take you.

Beatrix Potter

There is something magical that happens deep within me at the time of spring equinox. My energy levels lift, the piles of snow that remain in my yard no longer matter, and I feel compelled to plant something. Usually only seeds from one type of plant because in this part of the world, it is far too early to anticipate digging in dirt outdoors.

But still, stepping into springtime simply by looking at the calendar and starting a single seedling plants a much needed sense of hope. And so does being able to resurrect a writing routine.

The promise of warmer weather, budding trees, and blooming flowers seems to serve as a springboard for creativity. Ideas flow faster than I can capture them and write them on a page. When I seem to stall, a quick visit to the outdoors where the sun shines brighter and feels warmer, is often enough to shift gears and prompt me to keep on writing.

Earlier worries during the long winter months about not having enough time or inclination to write no longer permeate my days.

Perhaps over time I will learn not to fret about what seem to be the natural ebbs and flows that are part of my writing practice. Circumstances beyond my control put a halt to my progress learning the craft of writing. So faced with ongoing worry about whether I would get back to the page, many days were spent with loops of thought that in hindsight were actually instructive.

It seems that the lesson I needed to pay attention to through this time was learning how to honour the times when words flow easily as well as those times when they don’t.

Creating a first draft always leads to something more. Especially when you have the time and energy to devote to it. In most ways, this seems parallel to the life cycle of growing plants. There are different periods of time where the act of writing unfolds by planting those first words, nourishing, watering and weeding them, and helping them grow until they are ready for harvest.

So I will take the time to honour the new words that are emerging as I move into spring this year and cultivate them just like seeds ready for growth.

Happy writing!!

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Age: Can it be a state of mind?

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Everyday experience suggests that we often don’t experience aging the same way, with many people feeling older or younger than they really are.

David Robson

Every so often we have those strange moments in life where our experience in some way defies reality. I bumped up against one such an event last week. During a conversation a friend mentioned that someone I have known for years had retired. But I couldn’t believe this because somehow I was locked in prior decades when my mental reference point was from a time when both this person and I were working.

And ever since I have been struck by the fact that the way I perceive my subjective age is quite different than my chronological age.

And when I checked in with other people around me, they echoed similar experiences. What was most fascinating was that the variability in subjective ages most people have also represents their current state of mind. Not only does it vary from person to person but also from circumstance to circumstance.

This gap between a person’s felt age and what is listed on their birth certificate changes as we grow older. Adolescents and young adults often feel older than their true ages while as we start of accrue more and more birthdays, many of us subjectively feel younger. This discrepancy between felt vs. chronological age has been studied for the past five decades.

The expression “you are only as old as you feel” is true for many. Influenced by our inner mental world and the status of our physical health as well current life stressors, “felt” subjective age can be variable throughout our lives.

The phenomenon of one’s subjective or felt age changes the energy that we bring into our day to day lives. I recognize that when I am excited about certain things or people in my life, or when I am high in a creativity cycle that my youthful self seems to be front and center. Conversely, when juggling too many tasks, when life seems overwhelming, or when we experience tragic events, we can feel older than we ever have before.

And healthy sleep has been identified through research to have a huge impact on our subjective sense of age. That resonates – for those among us who have struggled to have a good nights sleep, we often feel weary and older than our years.

When these times emerge, it often signals a time to take rest, to grieve, to simply slow down and pause until our energy levels are restored. So learning to focus attention to these ebbs and flows that may influence our subjective age, seems a skill worth pursuing.

And hopefully the next time I bump up against the commonplace ageisms that are ubiquitous these days, my subjective inner youthful self can quietly chuckle and simply walk away.

Stay healthy and safe!

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“H” is for Hope

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Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.

Desmond Tutu

It is difficult to go through a day’s activities without being impacted by horrific images from the devastating reality of the war in Ukraine. No matter where you are in the world, this awareness permeates the lives of most humans today. And it is also hard not to grasp the degree of faith and hope that the people of Ukraine are bringing forth in order to preserve their land, people, and culture.

Hope is not a superfluous concept. Indeed, the lack of it is a significant barrier to positive mental health and at times, life itself. One of the biggest risk factors in suicide is the degree to which an individual experiences hopelessness. Dreams and beliefs are abstract concepts that live in our minds but hope requires doing something.

Hope is a cognitive practice that can be taught to children and adults and is comprised of intentional goal setting and then working towards them with purpose. So when we watch, read or listen to stories from across the globe of those people who are striving to reach their goals in the most difficult, overwhelming and violent circumstances, and could peel back the layers here, we would find hope at the core.

Hope is not wishful thinking but rather it is action oriented and purposeful.

“Optimistic people see the glass as half full but hopeful people ask how they can fill the glass full” – John Parsi, the Hope Center.

So if we are able to take any degree of action to help our fellow humans across the globe, we too, can touch that place that shapes right minded thought and warms human hearts. And instills belief that humans can have hope that peace will prevail and be restored.

Stay healthy and safe!