How to use friends and family in your fiction without pissing them off

One of the most frequently asked questions students ask in my fiction writing classes is, “How do I write about my life–my friends and family–without pissing them off?” Let’s be honest, the usual fiction disclaimer, All characters are a figment of the author’s imagination, any resemblance to real people living or dead is blah blah blah, just doesn’t cut it.

Everything is food for our fiction, including people we know. The good news is, much of real life is fairly boring; fiction spices it up. So here are 6 things you must do if you want to use people around you for, ahem, inspiration:

1. Ditch the guilt. You have to be willing to take risks on the page. Guilt will hold you back and stop you from digging into the deep stuff where the real stories are. Let it go.

2. Change names and details. The sooner you change Aunt Mabel the crazy quilter into Joey the crazy biscuit maker, you free yourself–and your character–to be who he/she really is. If you’re writing about a friend who picks their teeth with a toothpick when nervous, think of another odd habit that “your character” has. That’s our job, to make shit up, so be creative.

3. Change your mind. Stop thinking of the friend or family member and start thinking of the character with a life, feelings, hang-ups, shortcomings and bad habits of his or her own. When you are fully immersed in your characters, they will become more real to you than the people who sparked your idea for them in the first place.

4. Air out the story. Choose a few select folks to read a draft as soon as possible–preferably not the people you are writing about. If you can read it aloud in front of an audience, even better.You’ll know you have some rewriting to do and where.

5. Don’t remove; rewrite. Writers reflect what they see, but that doesn’t mean we have to expose the people we care about to humiliation or shame. Only you can decide if a line has been crossed. Before you delete, rewrite. That’s what revision is for–shaping raw emotions like humiliation and shame into good fiction.

6. Check your motives. Are you writing for yourself or for your audience? Are you writing to hurt someone else or to work through your own hurt? Words are powerful. Use them wisely.

Now, quit worrying and start writing!

Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.

When you hate writing (but you have to do it anyway)

I hate monkeys. No offense to monkeys or monkey enthusiasts. They seem so smart yet unpredictable and mean. Once a monkey tried to pee on my kids and I through the zoo cage. When I have a bad dream, monkeys are always there, lurking, biting or chasing me.

I am telling you this now because whenever someone says to me, “You’re a writer? *shudder* I hate writing!” It’s hard to fathom anyone hating something I love so much. Then I think  of monkeys and I understand. People fear writing almost as much as they fear doing their own electric work on their homes. You could die by touching the wrong color wire. No one is going to die by writing the wrong word, but you’re just as vulnerable. Will it hurt? Will people laugh (when you’re not trying to be funny)? Does it say what you want it to say? Will you sound like an idiot? Are you an idiot?

Here are five ways to less your writing anxiety and hopefully hate writing a little less:

#1 First drafts are like first loves. Remember your first romance, when you’re intoxicated by the possibilities? First drafts can be like that–you’re excited about the idea, you see the potential, it seems absolutely perfect–until you pick up your pen and start to write. Don’t let that stop you! Let the words pour out. Turn off your censor. Let it rip. See where it takes you. You and I both know that somewhere down the line, your head will need to step in and help your heart sort it all out. But not here, not in the first draft. OK?

#2 Revision is like plucking weeds. I used to think that anything I wrote was perfect the first time I wrote it, exactly as I wrote it. But seven years of MFA training taught me that the first draft is simply planting the seed. Revision is growing that first draft by watering it with a strong editor’s eye, plucking out the dead spots, spraying for bugs that eat at the heart of the story and fertilizing what’s left until it’s the envy of all your neighbors/readers/other writers.

#3 Writing is yoga for your brain. It lets your mind breathe. It makes your brain more flexible. It keeps your linguistic muscles limber. A little writing a few days a week in or outside the office can help you feel more comfortable in your skin, especially when you have to write. If you only write once a quarter, of course you’ll feel rusty, hesitant and uncertain. The sound of your own voice on the page will be like hearing your voice on a recording–weird, unnatural and not at all what you thought it sounded like. It would be like jumping into an advanced yoga class when you’ve been a coach potato your whole life. So practice once in a while, even if it’s just a Facebook status update (it counts).

#4 Feedback is like foreplay. Too much, too soon and your mojo is out the window. Not enough and you’re left unfulfilled and pissed off. Good feedback starts small–you share your work when you’re ready with a small, trusted group. If they don’t laugh at the right spots–or the wrong ones–or if they fall asleep in the middle, then see #2. Revise. Try again. When it works, your audience will laugh, cry, nod their heads voraciously or gasp in surprise, you’ll get off on getting the reactions you wanted. Soon you’ll come to love how the right feedback pushes your work forward, inspires new ideas and honey, you’ll want more more more.

#5 There are worse things than writing. Speaking of getting the reactions you wanted, my friend Kim recently told me about a zoo that had an “issue” with monkeys throwing their poo at visitors. No sh*t! The over-reactions of patrons made the monkeys throw more poo. Eventually the zoo hired actors to stand in front of the monkey cages and not react when they got smacked by monkey poo. Soon the monkeys got bored and stopped flinging their poo. What’s a little writing compared to a sh*tty job like that?

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