Thursday, December 28, 2017

Commit to Writing in the New Year

Here's my New Year's resolution...write until the well is dry.

I am convinced we need more writers in 2018; more fearless, more brave, more courageous writers. Not that we don't have them now. We do. But more is better. More is necessary. Humans are meant to tell stories, to shine lights on our lives, our dreams and fears, and shared realities. But to do this, it takes more than simple desire or nebulous inspiration. Writing—fiction, nonfiction, personal essays, memoir—is essentially a hard-won discipline.

I am fortunate to conduct workshops of all kinds from time to time, and much of what I hear from writers and would-be writers is this: I can't find the time. How do you find the time to write?

Here's the answer: There is no time to write. You have to make time. And in 2018, I am kicking all of us in the collective posterior, including myself,
I'm pretty disciplined with my writing but just like you, I falter. There certainly was a time when I would say exactly what many of you say—I don't have the time. Now, writing is a part of my existence. I make time and refuse to wait for "inspiration." If you wait for some higher power, you may never write. For those trying to get to this point, I have a suggestion: In 2018 take part in what I call the Take Ten writing project. It's pretty simple. And even if you already have a disciplined routine, this project might help to renew your commitment. 

Here's how it works in three easy steps:

1. Get a notebook. Something you use daily to dedicate to your writing. This can be a file on a computer or a nice leather journal or even a simple spiral notebook. 

2. Write every single day. I know you've heard this before, but the Take Ten approach is a bit different. This time we want you to focus mainly, at least at the beginning, on simply creating a routine. You want writing to be like brushing your teeth, habitual. Find ten minutes. That's it. Morning, lunch, before bed. Find a spot that yours. On the train, on the couch, at the kitchen table.

3. Lastly, write for those ten minutes and only those ten. Time it on your phone, your watch. Write anything. If you think you can or want to write longer, DON'T. Just write for ten minutes. Then, after ten days or so, write as long or as short as you like. But, and here's the key, from here on out keep writing at that time of day and at that same place. After ten days, the routine is likely to have become sealed somehow. If you set the routine in cement, the writing will come. 

Routine is what you are looking for. It's the bugaboo of the discipline like it is for anything worthwhile and Take Ten helps you to set that routine.

The approach is not unique, but it is simple. And the less complicated, the better. You can do this.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Surrounding the Writer with Great Things

Many of you know I have a writing shed. It's an 8x10 studio in my backyard of my home outside Chicago. Nothing fancy, but it's my singular space. I built the interior myself. It's heated. And inside, I have surrounded myself with wonderful things. Not a lot, but special items that either inspire me, motivate, or simply make me feel creative.

In your artistic space—whether it be where you write, sketch, paint, sculpt, sing, post in your daily journal entries, or mediatate—are you surrounded by beauty, love, comfort, your muse? Without sounding too pretentious, is that space "holy?" Not necessarily a place associated with a divine power, although it can be, but rather a sacred space of pilgrimage? When you enter this place, you should melt into it. There should be transformation. And sometimes the "things" we allow inside that space are what can help do that for us.

Here is what is in my space.

My shed has many books, but not all of them, only the ones that truly inspire and stimulate my own work.

Art from loved ones gives me comfort. The photography is my son Casey's work. The bowl is my son Graham's. The tree painting is Jen's, my stepdaughter. And there's the pen Graham made. I use it to enter notes in a journal.  
There are remembrances. The hat is from the trip to Cuba with my boys; a baseball I caught in the stands at old Comiskey Park along the first base side; a photo of myself with a number of writers honored at the Chicago Library Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards. And an old typewriter just like the one in Hemingway's home in Key West. I found it in an antique shop decades ago. 

On my desk, a watercolor of Dylan Thomas' writing shed above a boathouse in Wales, a gift from Leslie, my wife, that I will forever cherish.

Silly things, too, like a Jack Kerouac bobblehead. I spent three months in 2009 as the writer-in-residence, living at Kerouac's Florida home. And against the wall, one of my two acoustic guitars. It's the old Yamaha I bought when I was 16 with the money I'd saved from delivering the Pittsburgh Press newspaper to my neighbors. The guitar still sounds great.

Now and then I add items, but not many. Recently, I purchased an illustration, a print by my friend and colleague Nick Young. It's a portrait of Albert Camus. Camus' book The Stranger is on my top twenty list of all time. The framed print is on its way by UPS and there's a spot on the shed's wall waiting for it to arrive.

Fill your space with what invigorates, soothes, or stimulates you, and rid it of anything that takes you out of that experience. Build a place for solitude and daydreaming, where you can get out of your own head. Eliminate the distractions and embrace the creative.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”  Take his advice and paint your space with all that triggers the beautiful, the daring, the expressive.

Friday, December 15, 2017

How a Detox Cleanse Helped My Writing

My wife and I recently went on a cleanse. It consisted of two weeks of greens, very few carbs, no red meat, a mind-spinning number of salads, plenty of fish, no dairy, tons of water, and no alcohol or caffeine (which we cheated on a bit). We tolerated broccoli for breakfast and endured absolutely no chocolate. But we made it. 

For me, the first few days induced a carb-crash. I was irritable, tired to the point of being weak, and even dizzy. I missed toast with my coffee. I missed my occasional scone. I missed my sandwich with thick bread for lunch. But I got over it. After 4-5 days in,  it was a breeze. Energy was back and even renewed. When I struggled, Leslie shined and was incredibly supportive, making nearly all the meals and preparing my food for away-from-home lunches. Now, a week after the cleanse, we are accepting and embracing a new way of eating. It wasn't as if we were daily burger eaters, fast-food junkies, or Twinkies addicts. But this new commitment to eating leaner and simpler foods, and focusing far more on whole foods rather than processed, is a distinctly new discipline for eating, especially for me. 

So what's this have to do with writing?

As I was chewing on another Brussels sprout, (which I love, by the way) I also considered how the choice of what we put in our bodies is much the same as the many choices we make when writing. We all know that certain words are better than others, a major factor in good prose. "Processed" words—that is to say words that are overused, pretentious, or pompous, words with too many junky "carbs"—are bad. Look for lean, simple words, "whole" words that are distinctive and clean. Don't over-garnish your meals or your writing. Too much sugar makes for an over-sentimentalized story. Too much "salt" leads to water retention and bloated prose. As writers, when we overdo "red meat," it can lead to "clogged arteries" and the story (our blood) struggles to flow with any ease through our vessels. Our hearts—and the hearts of our stories—suffer.

Go on a writing cleanse. Rid your writing of excess, waste and empty energy. You'll not only feel better, your writing will be better, too.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Evidence of Flossing: Review

I am not a student of poetry, meaning I am not an academic of verse. But I am a lover of poetry and those who write it well. William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Mary Oliver, and my modern day favorite, Billy Collins. Poetry is personal; it is visceral. If I feel something when I read it, then it has done its job. If it makes me cry, smile, or laugh out loud, then it has cracked the space between poetry's far-too-often perceived pretentiousness and given me art, art for the heart.

Much of what one finds in Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind by Jennifer A. Payne, does just that. The collection is a mixture of photo art, journalistic photography, and verse that runs from social commentary to wide-eyed and microscopic observations. The poems are mostly about connection, how all of us and everything in the universe, even flossers, those weirdly shaped do-dads we use to clean our teeth, are part of the human condition. One of the themes of the book is linked to photographs of found flossers—in parking lots, on grassy knolls, next to a cigarette butt and to vegetation in a nature preserve. In mostly succinct verse, Payne wonders about the universe, the threads that connect and bind, and how even the most obscure items—like flossers—blend into our being, and at the end of the day, belong here just as all of us. I don't like to compare the works of authors to others, but I could not help feel and read the similarities in the themes to those of Patti Smith's M Train. Smith's wonderful book is not poetry,  but it is about the ephemeral and the everlasting, the threads between modern life, people, art, nature, and the spirit. Payne takes on the same themes and includes, as Smith does, the photography of what one might call "the instant." Photography that is of the moment, unpretentious, real, and utterly of the world.  

And the verse? Payne has a keen eye and a warm, tender heart. This is evident in poems like "The Times They Are a Changin'" and "Grocery Store: November 2016." Payne reveals an almost spiritual connection to the lives of others and proves how observation can unfold someone's story. In "Time Peace," she wonders about our unbearable links to the clock, how the man-made construct is capable of throwing us off the personal timepiece that ticks inside our souls. Payne takes on nature in several poems, but particularly in "Carpe Diem," where she touches on the fleeting nature of the natural world and how inattention to wonder—like the flight of a butterfly—can only diminish our well-being. 

Other poems like "First" and "Sustenance" are less impactful, falling a little flat for their subjects, but none-the-less important to the overall tenor of this otherwise thoughtful collection, a beautiful undertaking that is more than just a book of 'poems, but an artful, multi-layered statement about our very humanness and the universe. 

The French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo, wrote, "The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God—that is love." Jennifer A. Payne expands on those words with an unflinching account of our unshakeable relationship to the modern world around us, God, nature, and ourselves.