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Braving the publication journey

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I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.

Anne Lamott

Have you ever finally gotten up enough nerve to send out pieces of your creative writing to literary magazines only to receive a declined notice in Submittable so fast it gives you whiplash?

Or maybe you have a secret list of favoured publications that you dream will one day accept a piece of your best work. So you finally get enough nerve to take the plunge, hit submit but then wait for weeks and weeks. When you are just about to give up, you decide to send a query about the status of your submission. And receive a warp speed response that is a combination apology/rejection note.

Perhaps you have worked hard to complete your edits, have carefully reviewed the submission guidelines, and crossed your fingers (arms and legs) as you hit submit. Then a few days later you take a peak in your Submittable account and discover your work is “In progress”. And you have read somewhere that the longer it takes to be reviewed the better the odds are that you are going to have your work accepted. So having your prized piece of work linger in that state must mean something is going to happen. Right?

You just know that this is it. This has to be your moment.

And then, it happens, the rejection that reads like a form letter. Or worse yet, a hastily written personal email that actually has a typo in it!

So you decide then and there, that you are writing only for yourself, to learn the craft, to honour and express what resides deep in your heart and soul. You will learn to become content to leave the publication racket for those who have more gumption than you have. You know you should have gratitude that you were published some time ago so resign yourself to this uneasy state of acceptance.

And you carry on, writing often but at the same time growing uncertain about what you will do with all of the work that now languishes in draft Word folders.

As time passes by, you forget the sting of rejection and the emotional roller coaster that accompanies the submission process. You have read that all writers go through this and that it should be considered part and parcel of becoming a published writer. A real writer would face the risk of rejection head on, leaning into the idea that this is growth oriented and actually a positive.

So you submit three pieces of flash fiction to a magazine that you respect but you aren’t convinced will result in publication success. But it is part of learning so you treat this as an educational opportunity. You have read that collecting rejections can be an important aspect of the writing process.

Some time passes and then, suddenly in your list of new emails, you receive a notice of acceptance. Unbelievable! Your work will be published in a print literary magazine and you may agree to read your work at the launch. A launch, what!

So you go through a new process, working with an editor to prepare and ready your work to shine in the best possible light in a print publication. Along with the work of so many amazing writers.

And then the day comes, you open the mail and find two complimentary copies of the literary magazine, spring, Volume 13 which contains two of your flash fiction stories. You sit down to flip through the magazine, admiring the beauty of the cover art and the layout, breathing in that new print smell. You close your eyes in order to fully capture this moment. Then you quickly scan through the table of contents and find your name. Twice.

You do that smiling and crying thing at the same time. And a single thought occurs to you – this risk/reward publication thing in the field of writing – it is really worth the journey!

happy writing!

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Priming the Creativity Pump

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Creativity researchers have identified an effective strategy, known as priming, which is a way to jump-start our creative thoughts and feelings.

Trish Osler

Your mind is truly a fascinating space. The relationship between neuroscience and creativity seems both intriguing and worthy of further exploration. Indeed, becoming more mindful of the role that my brain plays in the creation of art could allow me to create distance from that harsh critical voice that chastises me for not writing well or even worse, anything at all.

Often I find myself wondering why it is that some days words flow like a steady stream from my fingertips to the computer keyboard and on others, they remain stalled in mid pose. And why is it that random things like washing the dishes or pulling weeds can precipitate ideas that are startling in their intensity and vibrance.

How is it possible that the mundane aspects of daily living can precipitate the creation of a piece of artwork?

Really, have you ever wondered why some art projects flow like snow melt in the spring and at other times the whole thing just becomes mired in mud.

Fortunately, neuroscientists have a term for this process. Priming. Just like priming a pump, seemingly innocuous events and activities can push your creative stalls into the right place by the introduction of new stimuli. Simple sensory activities like creating an image journal, or listening to music, and mindfulness meditation have been found to function as primers that increase the connections that the brain makes.

And strangely enough, the content and focus of your priming activities do not need to have any relationship to whatever creative problem you might be struggling with. In fact, research has found that allowing your mind to wander afar is more beneficial than intensifying your focus on what you are stuck on.

So being more unfocused allows your mind to do what it needs to do, to wander and play with new ideas, images and sensory snippets in order to move through any blockages to your creative path. If we can stop our tendency to self-shame or blame when we our creative drive veers off course, it seems important to learn which priming activities may help us move forward.

So the next time I feel stuck or unable to write, I am going to try and discover how this aspect of research from the field of neuroscience might “prime” my next creative block and free my brain to move forward in its own unique way.

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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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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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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Boredom: A path to creativity?

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Boredom is your imagination calling to you

Sherry Turkle

Bored. That uncomfortable sensation of inertia combined with an undertone of leg jiggling anxiousness. I recognize the sensation but struggle to grasp the words to define it. My inner voice tells me to just shake it off, haunted by a long past memory of my mother’s melodic voice, sort of teasing, sort of chastising, telling me that I have “ants in my pants” and that I just need to go find something to do.

But that seems near impossible during those interminable dragging moments when everything is tainted by the drab beige colour named, “bored”.

Is it this particular point in the long Canadian prairie winter where it is cold beyond belief that induces this sensation? Or life circumstances beyond one’s control that find us slipping into that place of doing things by rote and routine. Whatever the driver to this particularly hellish place, most of us do whatever is necessary to escape it.

While being bored is an uncomfortable emotional state for most of us, it does have a silver lining. Research show that tasks that would meet the criteria as “boring” or “mundane” often cause a cognitive shift from lack of stimulation. This place that most of us either try to avoid or struggle with provides a unique opportunity for our imagination room to play, grow, and expand.

Children who are bored seem more easily able to launch themselves over this hurdle than adults. Most parents have endured that grating whine about being bored only to discover that their children have solved the boredom problem quietly on their own by engaging in some manner with their creative impulses.

Maybe adults lose their play touchstones as they grow older or maybe the sheer number of activities that seem like dreary tasks on a never ending to do list thwart our creative, joyful inclinations. And the more of these tasks we have to complete, the further away we move from that place where play and creativity can be launched.

Some of us are fortunate enough to find solace in daydreams that spur on our creative energies. Others are able to parlay the boredom state to a place where they create art, music, photography or to write. Neil Gaiman said, “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”

So the next time you feel bored pay attention to where your mind wanders and see if the state of boredom recedes into the background and creativity emerges to take its place.

Thankfully, studies show that most of us can’t stay in the boredom state for long periods of time. Finding the patience to use those times when we are so bored we can’t stand it may lead us to a place where we are able to find and embrace our creativity that we thought was far away and out of reach.

Stay healthy and safe!

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Write vs. Edit

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Writing is 10 percent about writing first drafts and 90 about editing. If you feel like inspiration is hard to come by, that means you get to focus on the things you already have.

Danez Smith

When you are stuck, it can be a relief to realize that you have lots of other writing work that you can tackle. For many of us, editing can be just as difficult to begin but if you develop a routine for this part of the work, it helps you with the toughest part of the job – finishing a piece of writing.

Creating a new piece of work is exciting, words that come rushing out in a torrent following those initial moments of inspiration are often exhilarating. But writing anything in a rapid manner will mean that time must be spent in careful editing mode at a later date. And often we need to let those initial ideas we have ferment like kimchi or sauerkraut.

If we develop a practice that includes times for generative writing, times for reflection and reading, and times for editing, we can move forward at the right pace for our creative energy levels. But that means developing an understanding of how the flow of your practice works for you at different times in your life.

Sometimes it is easier to put a piece of creative work aside and return to it when you have both the time and the inclination. But what happens if these inspiring moments are left to languish in a notebook or maybe in many notebooks. At times, we are easily able to return to words previously written and flesh them out into full fledged pieces of work.

If we don’t, all is not lost. Those words can be a bonanza at those times when you think you can’t possibly write about anything at all. Return to them, play with them, move them around this way and that. See if those words that once energized you, that were shaping up to tell a new story but stalled either through the business of daily life or simply inertia and then left to linger untouched, can become new again.

Dividends may pay off at those frustrating times when you can’t think of anything to write about. See if those older words can come alive again in new forms or repurposed to tell new stories. Writing isn’t always about that flash of creative spark but also about nurturing times to edit or to recreate those words you laid down before.

It can be amazing to discover that there are many pathways to getting writing on the page.

Happy writing!

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Take your creativity for a walk

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Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz (2014)

Stumped by a much needed revision of a piece of flash fiction I had written sometime ago inadvertently led me down the “rabbit hole” commonly known as the internet. And I happened upon a fascinating study about walking and creativity titled “Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking” by Oppezzo & Schwartz (2014). Further descent down the internet rabbit hole, revealed a wonderful Ted talk by the lead author which was inspiring and provided food for thought.

Using an experimental design study, these psychologists were able to quantify what many writers and other artists already know. That walking stimulates the creative process and often may be the best mechanism to become unstuck when you hit a roadblock in your work. Studying how the activity of movement can stimulate a brainstorming approach to creativity that is intentional can form a valued part of your artistic practice.

These results differ from what is known as the “shower effect” where an idea just comes to you from out of nowhere. What the researchers were focusing on was the relationship between movement and creativity and how this may contribute to better brainstorming approaches.

There are some steps that they suggest one consider to achieve the most optimal impact:

  1. Setting an Intention – choosing a problem you are facing and would like to solve will prime your brain to consider various solutions (brainstorming)
  2. Walk at a comfortable pace – or choosing any physical activity that doesn’t require a lot of mental focus
  3. Generate as many ideas as you can to solve your problem while you are walking
  4. Recording (using your phone) the one or two ideas that you believe would fit best and that you intend to pursue when you complete your walk or other activity, and
  5. If nothing comes out of your internal brainstorming process, leave it and come back to it at another time.

What I found most interesting in the study results, (given that I live in a cold winter climate for many months of the year), is that even walking on a treadmill while looking at a blank wall had an impact. Although being outside sitting and simply enjoying nature has cognitive benefits, this research demonstrates that the act of walking or slow movement itself may promote a creative mindset for problem solving.

Which was great news because when wicked winter weather strikes in the Canadian prairies, walking on the treadmill is usually how I get my exercise. So when I am home bound due to winter windchill temperatures in the -40’s and -50’s, it is heartwarming to know it is still possible to open up the flow of those creative ideas on the treadmill!

And once I finished learning more about how the relationship between movement and creativity works, I promptly went out for a walk to try it out. And I did manage to make some progress in my revision work as a result. Further self exploration with this over time will tell if this is something to intentionally build into my writing practice. Who knows, maybe there are some benefits to procrastination!

Stay healthy and safe!