Why I Write: Find or Reignite Your Creative Fire

creativityThis is for anyone who creates, used to create, wants to be more creative, or wants to start creating something new or different. We all create things. Some of us make art, new recipes, or clothing. Some of us build businesses. Raise children. Creativity takes many forms. But life and time takes its toll. Our creative pursuits often fall to the wayside or we get burnt out, especially if we have to be creative for a living.

I once worked with a group of senior citizens in an assisted living center as a volunteer to help them write their stories. In the first session, there was a lot of silence until one woman finally said, the only thing I’ve ever written is a grocery list! The others laughed. I said – that counts! Because it does. (And yes, we got to their stories.) The ways we share our words and stories may have changed with social media. But any effort to capture our ideas, thoughts, plans and vision matter. That’s why we should do everything we can to make time to create and stay fired up about our creative passions.

One way to do this is Continue reading “Why I Write: Find or Reignite Your Creative Fire”

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the power of objects: the anti-Black Friday

057When I studied fiction in graduate school at Columbia College Chicago, we focused heavily on objects. When brainstorming or warming up for writing exercises in our four-hour evening classes, after long days at work and home and caring for families and tending to our lives, we were asked to visualize what objects were in a given space that we wanted to write about.

This is how I came to see the power of objects in fiction and life.

Disclaimer: I am not one who saves things. I am the one who always smacks myself in the head three days after pitching something I realize I needed. When I was young, my mother gave me objects to show her affection. It was her way. A Virgin Mary statue that she made in ceramics. A coffee cup with my name on it and a different adjective for each letter in my name (still have that one). Bookmarks. We had a difficult relationship. I came to see objects and gifts as something to be wary of.

Continue reading “the power of objects: the anti-Black Friday”

Simplify your words. Simplify your life.

Do you ever feel like life has just gotten way too complicated? Between juggling 98 work projects, 5 conference calls daily, piano lessons, soccer practices and games, carpool, birthday parties, lunches and dinners for a family of four 7 days a week, dog groomings/shots/weird emergencies (MOM! The dog ate the nail clippers!! Again!!), kid emergencies (middle of the night throwing up, strange rashes, best friend drama, teen drama, crushes), homework assignments, permission slips, parent-teacher conferences, 400 email passwords, and 4 email inboxes bursting at the seams…let me just tell you that a ‘simple’ trip down the laundry detergent aisle of my local grocery store with 17 different detergent options made me recently abandon my shopping cart (there were no cold products in it, I’m happy to say) and walk out to my car and just put my head down on my steering wheel for five full minutes.

Continue reading “Simplify your words. Simplify your life.”

What your email signature says about you

As a writer, I notice little things. As a marketer, I notice little things, too. One of the biggest little things I am actually paid to notice is your email signature–the way you sign your emails as well as the block of information that may or may not be included after it. People like me are sometimes referred to, semi-jokingly, as the “brand police” who send fellow employees notes about how their email signature is “not in compliance” with the corporate standard, i.e., no Dilbert cartoons on email sigs, buddy!

You can tell a lot by how someone signs their email. Here are four of the most common signatures I come across, see if any of these sound familiar:

1. The Initialer. You only sign emails with initials: first initial only, first and last initial only, or the first, middle and last initial. My favorite letter is a little “e,” it always makes me laugh. I have also seen a double EE, which makes me think of the word “EEK!” I would like to change my name to Quinn or Quest so I can sign my emails “Q” which is infinitely more interesting that “c.” My cousin Barb S., a professional clown, can sign her emails BS. That’s fine for clowns, but certainly not the rest of us.

This is like being Keisha, Cher and Madonna–you are so popular and famous, you don’t need a full name. That’s for boring, average people. Do you think Lady GaGa signs her emails LGG or LG? Or just “ga” ? Maybe she’s “The Ga,” like The Godfather. Oh, who are we kidding, she doesn’t email, that’s for average worker bees like us. 🙂

2. The Tagliner. You feel compelled to include a phrase, quote or other message after your signature. Often, employed folks come up with their own snappy taglines–which makes the marketing folks roll their cynical marketing eyes and bemoan to the marketing gods, WHY?? Why do they try to write their own taglines when we have a perfectly acceptable brand tagline that we spent 700 hours and 97 rounds of review on?

The most annoying of all? The uber-positive tagline. “Have a super-duper positive absolutely best day of your life, Mr. Sunshiney Face!” Often accompanied by an emoticon smiley face. *sigh* These days, emails are mostly a big fat to-do: something you should do, something you need to do, something you will never do, or something you don’t want to do but will probably do at some point when someone sends you enough emails telling you to do it. So please, don’t tell me to be happy about it, OK?

3. The Lonely Signature. You either don’t sign your emails or you sign it with your name only–no quotes, no taglines, no info. Who are you hiding from? And why are you not taking advantage of this fabulous opportunity to tell us who you are? Oh, right, you’re a “private” person. Sorry, we missed that Facebook status update. And the tweet. And your foursquare location update. Our bad!

4. The jpeg-inator. You simply must have a .jpeg or .png photo in your email signature, despite all advice to the contrary. It could be your cat, your favorite beetle, a logo, or maybe even your entire block of Follow Us icons. So every time you send an email, the code behind those links breaks apart, resulting in this messy business:

We also see six attachments on your email, five of which are pictures while the sixth is the Very Important File you wanted us to review immediately, which we didn’t see on account of it’s buried amid five other attachments.

So go ahead. Tell us about your favorite email signature.

Sincerely, your friend in all things bloggy and brand-y and super duper fun,
c

postscript: exactly eight days after this post, my son–relatively new to cell phones and texting–sent me a text and signed it for the first time. With his first, middle and last initial. For the record, he does not read my blog.

How to stop hating someone who is more successful than you?

So last weekend I’m at the bookstore–remember those? so quaint! so old-fashioned!–checking out the Best American Essays and short story collections when I see it: a black soft cover book with cool illustrations in embossed ink on the cover. The kind you just don’t see anymore on books (or maybe you do only it doesn’t look as cool on an iPad or Kindle or the Nookie, as my technology virgin sister calls the Nook).

I picked up the book. Cool illustrations, cool title. And then I see the author’s name and I think: A**HOLE!!

I know. Hardly my proudest moment. But it’s the first thing that popped into my head, unprompted, unwanted, unexpected. No, he wasn’t an ex-lover who did me wrong. It’s much, much worse. We were in graduate school together, he’s younger than me, he’s had three books published and is a professor of fiction. He’s everything I thought I wanted to be when I grew up. Every. Single. Damn. Thing.

Jerk.

Three books! All with similarly cool titles! The kind I wish I’d thought of! And quirky, deep characters! With interesting plot lines that peel back life layer by layer! And best of all, prose that I admire, with sentences and descriptions I read twice or more just because they were THAT good!

*sigh*

He has glowing recommendations from the New York Book Review, the New York Times, blah blah blah. And he deserves every single bit of praise. So why do I hate him? Where is all this hostility coming from, anyway?

Wasn’t I the one who, just two weeks ago, responded to someone who asked if I still wrote fiction ‘on the side’ that “my day job writing is enough for me?” Wasn’t it moi who told a friend I was OK with not picking up where I left off on my last book because I feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say??

I don’t really hate this guy, but for the sake of my sanity and for fun, let’s call him BoBo. I actually like BoBo. He was very nice in the classes we had together; he accepted praise for his work with humility; to pay for school, he worked a couple of menial, low-paying jobs that gave him time to write. BoBo was smart, funny, and wicked with words on the page even back then. Everyone liked him. Even me.

I don’t regret him an ounce of his success. (Mostly.) It’s just funny, because every time I think I’ve finally gotten to the point in my life where it’s OK if I’m not writing, BoBo pops up with an interview in the literary section of the Chicago Tribune, or at an alumni reading, or on the damn bookshelf in my local bookstore, or winning yet another literary contest, reminding me of something I left behind that maybe–just maybe–I’m not ready to leave yet.

Damn you, Bobo.

Years ago, I remember asking an older copywriter (40-something, ha ha! I thought that was so old when I was 23) that I worked with whether she still wrote fiction or poetry. She said, “Nah. I finally gave myself permission to let that go, and I’ve been much happier ever since.” As I get “older,” I come back to her answer now and again, thinking–is this the year I can cut myself some slack? Is this the year I’ll be able to let go of what feels like an outdated dream so I can move on to something else or just be happy with where I am?

And then I see another book or interview with BoBo and I want to rip his eyes out all over again. This can’t be healthy. After I calm down, I realize, wait, maybe I do want to go back to that book project. Maybe there was something to that short story I abandoned like last night’s leftovers. Maybe there is still hope for me to write more of my own words and less of someone else’s. Maybe I can see BoBo and congratulate him on his hard-earned success instead of bemoaning my unfinished business.

It’s different too because, at 42, I’m halfway through my life (if I’m lucky and don’t get hit by a bus tomorrow, in which case, this would be  a crappy last blog post, I would prefer to go out on a high note not some rambling bitch fest). If I want this to happen, I need to get on it already. Or let it go gracefully.

Am I the only one who feels this way? I can’t be. There are millions of people out in the world–that’s a lot of unfulfilled, unrealized dreams haunting the universe. Sure, OK, we all make choices. I remember the moment in my sophomore year in college when I switched majors from creative writing to professional writing, thinking–I want to be able to support myself and never have to rely on anyone else ever again. And I like to eat, so I better do something where I can actually get paid. Fortunately, I realized this dream–being able to support my family with my words in today’s unpredictable business landscape feels less like a dream and more like a gift. But it was my choice. And it was a good one, for me and for my family.

So I’ve decided that starting today, I’m going to try to stop beating myself up, redirect my anger, stop hating on BoBo, and revisit my personal writing projects. I’m also going to read BoBo’s latest book and see what that crafty little devil is up to now that will inspire me. And maybe secretly I hope that every time I loosen my grip on my dream, BoBo will pop up again, reminding me of what’s important and why it matters that I pay attention when I get so damn pissed off about something. Reminding me that maybe I have something left to say after all. Or at the very least, that I can someday see his name on a book cover and think, “Way to go, BoBo!” and not, “Again?? You bastard!”

Post script: As I checked out, the clerk looked over the cover of the book and said, “Interesting.” I said, “Definitely. I went to school with that guy. He’s really good.” Would have never happened if I’d just downloaded it on my Nookie.

Are you writing about things that matter? 5 questions to ask yourself

The first time I read my writing in front of an audience–not just my class, but a venue full of strangers–I was 26 years old and I was terrified. I was in my first graduate course of my first semester at Columbia College Chicago, and it was required that all students read from their work at open mic readings sponsored by the department. Our professor said only this: If you’re not scared before the reading, then you haven’t picked the right material.

I was just starting my MFA studies, so I was confused. The right material? I was lucky I had any material. But after I read my work in public a few times, I began to understand. When I chose material that I felt was a “sure thing,” the audience response was…polite. When I chose material I felt uncertain about–maybe I had gone somewhere deep, taken a risk, hit a truth on the head–the audience response was immediate. Electric. People sat up straighter. Leaned in. The applause was genuine. People sought me out afterward, asked questions, shared their stories. That was the right material.

So how do you know whether you’re working on the right material, or merely skimming the surface? If you really want to know, ask yourself:

Are you scared? If you feel a tingle of fear, anger, resistance or any other strong emotion, you’re on the right track. Be brave. Go for it. You can do this.

Will someone be mad at you? Good. That means you’re not playing the people-pleaser, you’re digging into hard truths and reality. When I was 12 and going through my existentialist phase of writing, my mom used to wail, “Why can’t you ever write about happy things?” You can write happy stories about unicorns and rainbows. But if you want to write real, deep, authentic work…you have to take a chance that not everyone is going to love what you have to say.

Is it forbidden? Explore it creatively. Secrets and lies fester in the dark. Shine a light on those negative spots so we can see what you see.

Are you terrified you’ll fail? Clearly you have something at stake that’s worth exploring. Ask yourself what “failure” looks like. What’s the worst that can happen? Write it down. Read it. Now burn it and get to work. You have to be willing to make a mess if you want to get to the good stuff. Creativity is a messy business. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Is the universe dropping hints? An old friend mentions a topic that you’ve been thinking about writing about. You see a newspaper article with a different angle on the same topic a few days later. Then you meet someone new who happens to be dealing with the same issue. If you find yourself toying with an idea and it keeps popping up all around you in unexpected places, your creative work is calling you.

If you find yourself distracted and avoiding your creative work, ask yourself: am I working on what really matters?

Writing process: How to get unstuck and have spanking clean toilets too

I have a book manuscript that I’ve dabbled with on and off since 2005. I recently cleared out my creative space and once again opened up the box with everything related to this project: a folder bulging with first drafts and revised drafts, research books, notes, email print-outs, three or four different outlines, story ideas, suggestions, schedules.

So many false starts, hopes, plans, dreams. All incomplete. Where to begin??? Like so many times before, I slapped the lid back on the box and shoved it back in its corner under my desk, out of sight but never out of mind.  My sense of failure was palpable.

Why can’t I finish this damn thing? Was it time to give it up? Had the moment to tell this story passed? I continued to berate myself as I threw in another load of laundry then headed upstairs to make dinner and clean the bathrooms, which is way more fun than feeling like a failure. I might not be able to finish this story, but by golly, my toilets will sparkle and I’ll make the best damn Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff ever!

The thing is, every time I return to this project, I get stuck right here. It didn’t help that I had some chapters in one computer file, others on a USB stick, still more on a disk, and multiple print-outs of copies and versions of drafts. I am organized in every aspect of my life, what the hell happened here? How would I know what was what? Where to start?

And then, shortly after the family was full of stroganoff, the toilets were sparkling, kids were in bed, and I was just about to overindulge in chocolate, I had an epiphany:

I could start over.

I sat up straight on the couch and put my chocolate down. Who said I have to try to put the pieces together from the way I saw this story five years ago? I always knew what the problem was: my story needed a skeleton to hang on, but every time I went back to the pieces, I was forcing the pieces to fit a structure that wasn’t working. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time?

Yep, I’ve been driving myself crazy. But just like that, I gave myself permission to try a new structure. It seemed so simple, but I guess I had been so focused on making the square peg fit the round hole, I didn’t think to look for a new peg.

So, I’m starting fresh. I’m actually pretty excited about it, because I feel like I have a new skeleton that can work. I will pull details and scenes from the 200+ pages I’ve already written when and where it makes sense. That might sound depressing to some who aren’t used to the writing process, but sometimes you have to write a lot to find out what you have to say and the best way to say it.

If you’re stuck, consider clearing out your creative work space to make room for new ideas. Spend time in your creative space. Look at your old drafts. Don’t force  yourself to solve any problems. Try not to berate yourself. Read. Think. Ponder. Simmer. Just show up every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and see what happens.

As for my book, I don’t know if this new insight will solve everything. I hope I will finish this damn thing once and for all. Mostly, I feel pretty good. I’m trying. I’m writing again.