Prompts, part 2: A different approach

You might want to read Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick? before you wade into today’s post. I’ve been told that part 1 was cranky; part 2 is, well, crankier.


To repeat from last Thursday’s post: A prompt—in the context of writing—is a short sentence or phrase used to help a writer get started when a writer is stuck and can’t write. A prompt supplies an idea to work with, just to grease the brain-wheels so it’s possible to get words onto a blank page or screen. The theory is that once the words start coming, the words will keep coming.

For this trick to work, quantity is necessary: the writer needs choice in order to find a prompt that beckons, resonates, piques the interest. If you have fifty prompts to choose from, chances are that one of them will grab you enough to start you writing something. Hence the popularity of long lists of prompts online and in books.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a student in an English class and the teacher puts only five prompts on the blackboard, it’s very possible that none of them will grab you. Five options aren’t a lot of options. Frustration with writing is sure to follow—exactly what the teacher was probably trying to avoid by offering prompts in the first place.

Now I’m going to come clean: I do not like the idea of anyone supplying prompts for someone else. It’s akin to handing a friend a load of nicely cut firewood when you should have taught your friend how to cut logs since she’s going to have to make more than one fire if she’s going to keep warm in the future.

understand that in an environment in which writing has become so accessible that almost anyone can try to be a writer, there will be writing aids under every rock and all a would-be writer has to do is turn over the right rock to get some help. But I don’t like it.

In fairness, I need to make a distinction between kinds of writers: professional and nonprofessional. Nonprofessional writers may make use of any old thing they like in order to enjoy writing—prompts, software, games, even the appalling National Novel Writing Month (better known, adorably, as NaNoWriMo).

But professional writers had better think twice before engaging in reductive practices.

What exactly is a professional writer? I’m afraid that by current definition payment and publishing are the two main qualifications. My definition, however, is this: a professional writer is someone who takes the work seriously, gives it time and attention, and continues to do these things regardless of payment and publishing.

Back to prompts, so I can tie all this together: Professional writers do of course get stuck and need pushes out of the dead air of doldrums and into the fresh air of invention. But I’d be willing to bet money that there aren’t very many professional writers who use websites or books full of prompts to find that fresh air.

What professional writers do is think. Or dream. Or daydream. Or back off and allow ideas to arrive in their own good time. Or they jot down ideas. Or read books, take walks, ride bikes, play music, or do nothing. They also complain, wail, moan, see therapists, drink, cry, decide to stop writing, decide to become brain surgeons, and drive their friends loony. Some stop writing altogether.

But the ones who begin writing again and who regard writing as an imperative, whether they love or hate it, eventually sit down at the blank page or screen and do some work.

What, after all, is so daunting about a blank page or screen? Why is the blank page or screen so panic-inducing?

A blank screen or page does not represent emptiness; it represents potential. View it as a calm, quiet field in which to let your fantasies meander. Constant stimulation is not necessarily productive; being empty and even bored is not necessarily unproductive. In fact, research shows that boredom contributes to creativity; see “Bored at Work? That’s Not a Bad Thing” in Slate via Inc.

Instead of following the herd to the long lists of prompts that other people have invented for you, consider making your own extremely personal list of prompts. And let us stop calling them prompts, a term that carries the unpleasant aura both of nudging and being on time.

Let us call them ideas, because that is what they are: ideas you are perfectly capable of finding for yourself and turning into writing.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

M.Judson Books, Greenville, SC

Books on the Common, Ridgefield, CT

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA

Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick?

Two linked issues in this and the next post: First, do writers actually need prompts or are prompts just another cute trick for lazy wannabes? And second, if a writer does need a prompt, where should it come from and how is it found?

PART 1 today; PART 2 on Monday.



As far as I can figure out, “prompt” is a fairly new word in writing terms. It refers to short sentences or phrases that are used to prod writers into writing. Like these:

  • Write about your first day of school. 
  • Who do you like better—your mother or your father? 
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Write about an accident you saw or had.

The notion is that you sit down with one of these prompts, of which there are thousands and thousands already floating around online and in books, and you “get your creative juices flowing” by using the prompt as a starting point. That way you don’t actually have to face a blank page or screen, heaven forbid, and you don’t have to think too hard about what you should write because the prompt gives you a topic.

Professional writers write because they have something they need or want to write about; historically the reason for writing is having something to say. It is not the reverse: that is, wanting to be a Writer and therefore looking for the ignition that will lift you off the launch pad.

To put it slightly differently, somewhere along the way the order of importance got reversed for a lot of people: first they decided to be Writers, and then they wondered what they should write about.

When no subject matter presents itself quickly or easily, some would-be writers imitate the writers they admire. Some latch onto the familiar—family recipes, World War II, illness, divorce—regardless of whether they have anything interesting to say. Some try classes in journaling, short stories, novels.

The popularity of the idea of being a writer plus the extreme change in writing technology (the ease of writing on a computer; the proliferation of writing software) plus the availability of writing classes and writing workshops plus the accessibility of self-publishing has turned what once was a rigorous life-choice into something anyone can do. Or try to do.

All of this may have contributed to the birth of the prompt. The connection is clear, isn’t it? If you’re dabbling in writing, by definition you don’t have a piece of work you feel compelled to pursue. So you may need a jump-start: a list of prompts that someone else came up with.

And that’s why I ask the question: Do writers actually need prompts?

Last November I gave a talk at the New York Society Library, about being stuck or having “writer’s block.” It was based in part on a TBUHB post called “Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck.”  In that talk I succumbed to the temptation to offer stuck writers a list of possible writing topics. Prompts, in effect. I called them “jolts,” since the goal was to shake up a stuck writer and jolt her into writing again—the way a wallop of electricity can jolt a stopped heart into action. Here are a few of them:

  • Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  • Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  • Write a biting political satire.
  • Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.

In retrospect I’m sorry about this. Instead of giving a list of jolts, what I should have done was ask the members of the audience to look inward and come up with three or four very personal prompts. That leads us to Part 2, on Monday.


SIDEBAR: True writer’s block, which is rare, cannot be cured with prompts; it’s a different, deeper, more intractable problem than the much more common predicament of being stuck. But any writer who’s not blocked but is stuck might have a chance to get going again with prompts; it’s worth a try. Please read Part 2 for a new and different approach to finding the right prompt.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Barner Books, New Paltz, NY

Village House of Books, Los Gatos, CA

Letters Bookshop, Durham, NC

The memoir-novel–or the novel-memoir?

What accounts for our current—or recurrent—fascination with memoir-novels? That’s the question posed in the NYT “Bookends” feature of December 23.

Two very good writers take it on: Leslie Jamison (of The Empathy Exams) and Daniel Mendelsohn (essayist, book reviewer, memoirist). Their points are interesting, Mendelsohn’s perhaps a little more than Jamison’s if you’re looking for an answer to the posed question, since he addresses the issue more directly.

Both Jamison and Mendelsohn write about the memoir-novel from the reader’s point of view. Jamison says, for instance, in an analysis of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, “We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.” Reader’s POV.

Mendelsohn writes, in dissecting the slippage between memoir and fiction, “What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by [James] Frey and others: They came for ‘redemption’ and they got it, even if it turned out to have been provided by fiction rather than fact.” Reader’s POV.

Either Mendelsohn or Jamison could easily have discussed the memoir-novel from the author’s point of view, but that was not the question with which they were charged. They did their jobs; now I’m thinking about my job, which happens to be writing a memoir-novel. Or—more accurately—a novel-memoir.

It is not splitting hairs to reverse the order of the terminology. At least, not in my own case.

There are writers who quite deliberately translate memoir into thinly-veiled fiction, and there are legitimate, even good, reasons for doing this: taking a small step back from reality may allow more clarity of thinking; it may also give the writer the freedom to adjust history a bit, for whatever personal requirement—reconciliation, perhaps, or even fear of lawsuits.

The difference between a memoir-novel and a novel-memoir is this: in a novel-memoir, the claims of novelistic thinking come first. A novel-memoir, no matter how closely it is or isn’t based on a “true” story, must work first as a novel. If you have a “true” story to tell in fiction and you cling to the “truth” instead of thinking like a novelist, you may find yourself sacrificing good writing to the demands of your own psychological needs.

Too rigorous? Then don’t write a novel-memoir; write, instead, a memoir-novel, in which you will more easily be able to justify clinging to what (you think) actually happened. You will more easily allow yourself to maintain loyalty to the “truth,” rather than loyalty to good writing. You will not think first like a novelist; you’ll think first like a memoirist.

Of course, if you do that you may risk losing narrative steam, arc, good dialogue, action, depth, breadth, and a dozen other novelistic options. On the other hand, you may feel better about the story you’re telling; you may feel you’re conveying the “truth” with more integrity.

But the novelist’s responsibility is to the novel.

On a small scale, this injunction to think like a novelist brings us back to that annoying “kill off your darlings” concept. Annoying because the phrase is used both to intimidate and chasten writers, when all it really means is that a writer does well to consider the design of her entire novel rather than become attached to small baubles that shine for only a moment and do not add to its overall quality. If the “darling” works, fine; if not, let it go.

So on a larger scale, if a memoiristic point enhances your novel, fine. If not, let it go.

This is what I think each day when I work on my novel: What actually happened was traumatic enough for one person to live through, and writing about it has not so much helped me as given me permission to stay with it and relive it as much as I need to. But when that phase is over, then novel-making must begin in earnest. I must take myself in hand and rethink all the parts that wallow in memoir and undermine the novel.

Writing a novel is a matter of artistry, not therapy. The creation of a novel-memoir may have to pass through a stage in which the therapeutic outweighs the artistry; it may, in the end, coincidentally, be therapeutic. Yet (with rare exceptions) a good novel-memoir transcends that private state of self-healing and expands enough to include the reader.

Questioning is the primary lesson I’ve learned—am still learning—while trying to nail this novel-memoir. That was not how I started out: I started out by spilling my guts onto the pages. When I’d had enough of that, I tried—am still trying—to be my own reader for as long as it takes to get to a complete first draft. It’s edifying. And it’s not even that difficult.

Disconnect just enough to read the pages as if you were someone else. Not a hostile someone else, not your partner or your mother, not the New York Times reviewer, not a reader who’d never in a million years buy your book or take your book out of the library. Think of a reader much like yourself, with the same expectations of fiction that you have, and read through her eyes. Let yourself know when your novel-memoir has turned in on itself and become, mistakenly, memoir-novel. Then fix it.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

Orca Books, Olympia, WA


Writers & habits

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There’s a wonderfully interesting article by Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called “The Habits of Highly Productive Writers.” The subhead is this: “There are no tricks to make writing easier, just practices you can develop to get it done.”

Ms. Toor discusses twelve habits, and you’ll want to read what she says about them; this post will make a lot more sense to you if you do. She asserts that highly productive writers…

  • reject the notion of “writer’s block” the way others shun gluten
  • don’t overtalk their projects
  • believe in themselves and their work
  • know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working”
  • are passionate about their projects
  • know what they’re good at
  • read a lot, and widely
  • know how to finish a draft
  • work on more than one thing at once
  • leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again
  • don’t let themselves off the hook
  • know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations

There are two tricky issues about this piece. The first is that we don’t really know what Ms. Toor means by “highly productive.” Quantity? Quality? Both? I’d be happier if I knew how she defines the term. I know some writers whom I’d consider highly productive, but they don’t think they’re productive enough. “Highly productive” is a highly subjective assessment.

The second tricky bit is that if you’re a reasonably productive writer (by your own standards) you already know and practice (or know and differ with) these habits, so in a way the article is irrelevant to you. If you’re not a productive writer (by your own standards), it may be relevant but you’re likely to be hiding under the bed sobbing by the time you finish reading the piece.

Actually, there’s a third issue: Is this article about highly productive writers or highly productive academic writers? Since Toor is writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education but uses examples from both worlds—academic and nonacademic—I’m a little confused. Again, “highly productive” could mean two very different things, according to what you’re writing and who it’s for.

It’s the nature of articles like this that they reiterate what we already know (if we fit the profile) or tell us what we might want to know (if we aspire to the profile). When the points are as nicely set out as they are in this article, it’s also a pleasure to see one’s life (or aspirations) described so cogently.

Still, I have a few quibbles with a few of the specifics. For instance: Highly productive writers work on more than one thing at once. Not necessarily. Many h.p. writers can’t spread their thinking over two projects at once; they give all their attention to one project and bash away at it until it’s finished. It’s like being a serial monogamist.

Another instance: Highly productive writers read a lot, and widely. Maybe they all should, but not all of them do. Mystery writers sometimes fall into that narrow-reading category, devouring books in their genre and ignoring almost everything else. A lot of productive fiction writers don’t read nonfiction, and vice versa. Plenty of productive writers have so much going on in their own heads that they can’t stuff anything else in there and hardly read at all.

And then there’s Toor’s remark in the Highly productive writers don’t let themselves off the hook section: “When they start to have feelings of self-doubt—I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’ll never write another good sentence—they tell themselves to stop feeling sorry for themselves and just do the work.”

Where did that notion come from? I guess there are a few h.p. writers who say that to themselves—there must be. It’s true that h.p. writers ultimately don’t let themselves off the hook, but in the timespan between the self-doubt and the return to work there’s frequently a lot of panic, depression, anxiety, wailing, phone calls, shrink visits, temper tantrums, and worse.

I love that Rachel Toor took on this juicy topic, and it was great fun to read and think about her conclusions. But the problem I always have with definitive statements is that I worry about the exceptions to the definitions. Definitions of normative behavior scare me, especially where writers and all other artists are concerned.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

BookWoman, Austin, TX

Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL

Iconoclast Books, Ketchum, ID


Getting stomped: the private editor’s (occasional) lot


When a writer submits her pages to the Girl Group, the other members read them carefully and make notes in the margins; I read them and line-edit. That’s my job, as with any writer, in or out of the group.

Not long ago at a GG meeting, one of the writers said to me, “At first when I read your comments I thought, ‘She doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do here, she completely missed it, these comments are useless to me.'” And then she laughed. “The next day when I reread your comments I realized you’d gotten it completely and the comments were on the nose.”

That’s not a story about how good I am, but about how much the writer loved her text and needed twenty-four hours to get over it so she could take advantage of the editing. This particular writer is getting better and better, as a result of her openness to possible changes. That’s how the process should work.

If I’m tactful and kind and also incisive and smart, it’s how the process usually works. But it’s not how the process always works. For one thing, I’m human and I goof. Not that often, but yes, I goof. I make a dumb suggestion or I miss the point; I push too hard or I’m unclear; I urge one sort of direction when the writer wants to go in another direction, or the opposite happens—I’m too forgiving and don’t rein in a writer who’s going off on a useless tangent. It happens.

In a writers’ group, where you’re all face to face, this can be corrected quickly. Writer A just says to me, No, no, no, that’s not where I want to take this, and we discuss it and resolve it.

Problems are much more likely to arise when I’m working with a writer who’s in Chicago or wherever and our exchanges are by e-mail. Unless she picks up the phone and talks to me, there’s a chance that her unhappiness with my editing or my behavior can turn into acrimony. This hasn’t occurred very often, because I’m careful about how I edit, but the times it has occurred have been memorable—to me, anyway.

In one case, for instance, I referred to a tiny bit of awkward writing as a problem of the writer’s having English as a second language. She insisted that she’d grown up writing in English, all the way through her MFA, that she’d never written in any other language, and that I was condescending and she was shocked. Whew. Horrified that I’d made such an egregious error, I apologized for giving offense.

And then I carefully reread her argument: “I have never written anything in any other language (except of course when I was a child in school) and I’ve been a professional writer…for fifteen years.”

Whoops: English was in fact her second language, and any editor with a sharp ear (yes, ear) would have caught the same little awkwardness and known it came from that leftover early education in another language. Some writers could have laughed off the mistake and the crit; this writer flew into a rage. End of editing relationship.

And then there’s money. Money—payment—can turn the sweetest clients sour. I try to make it clear to the writers I work with that I do the work quickly and I expect to be paid quickly. I’m a freelancer: fast payment is part of the deal. I’m not a big company that can afford to wait around for remittance. But if a writer doesn’t like the critique I’ve given her, she can take out her anger by dawdling about payment. Hence this little exchange:

Dear X—Everyone pays her bills differently, but I haven’t yet received a second check from you. Perhaps it will show up in today’s mail, but if you haven’t sent it yet, I’d appreciate your getting it to me ASAP. I do the work promptly, so I’m accustomed to being paid promptly. Thanks for attending to this.

Best, Lorrie

And this is what I got back:

Dear Lorrie,

I can’t believe you sent me this e-mail. I pay my bills at the end of the month. I’m insulted by your implication, especially since we only spoke two weeks ago.

I always honor my commitments, even when I’m not satisfied with the results. I won’t work with you again. I’m shocked you would treat a friend of Z’s this way.

End of editing relationship, but she did pay the bill—even though she wasn’t satisfied with the results.

My third-favorite mess was with a woman who was new to writing but hardly new to business. And hardly new to asking for perks she wasn’t precisely entitled to, like requesting I send her not just my critique of her work (as contracted) but also the many pages of manuscript on which I had scribbled the notes I used for writing the lengthy crit that she was entitled to. So okay, I hesitantly agreed to send her the annotated pages, explaining that they were rough and might seem tactless. No problem, she wrote back—she was sure they’d be helpful.

Then she wrote me yet another e-mail asking me to give her advice about the next book she was planning to write, and we had this exchange:

Dear Q—I don’t mean to be rude, but advice (usually called consultation) is what I do for a living, at $100+ per hour. I’ve already given you quite a lot of critique, advice, suggestions, and I’ve even mailed the marked-up pages to you the moment you asked for them. I believe I’ve fulfilled my commitment to you and earned my fee; I simply don’t have time to give you more. Nothing personal at all; just the exigencies of the freelance life. Good luck on the new book.

She wrote back:

Once again I am surprised and saddened by the lack of professionalism in the writing world. Unfortunately I was not aware of exactly what my money bought me and now question your advice. My e-mail could have been responded to with a ten word sentence, not much of your time. I apologize for not understanding the boundaries and promise not to make contact again.

The reason these three creepy incidents stand out is, of course, because they’re so rare. Most writers are wonderful to work with, understand what they need and how I can help them, and then get on with their work. I do not disclaim my own fumbles and stumbles, but it’s clients like these who make me ever more careful about whom I choose to work with.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Kramerbooks & afterwords, Washington, DC

Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago, IL

Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, OR


Guest post: A writer learns to write

Marnie Mueller is the award-winning author of three novels: Green FiresThe Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the early 1960s, a community organizer in El Barrio in NYC, and then a member of Mayor Lindsay’s administration, responsible for programming cultural events in all five boroughs. She left city government to become Development Director and later Program Director of WBAI-FM radio; after WBAI she ran her own business producing citywide events, concerts, benefits, and weddings. Today she’s a full-time writer (and MacDowell Colony Fellow), working on a nonfiction book about her friendship with a Japanese American woman who–though interned during WW II–had a long career as a showgirl, dancer, and actor.

Read more about Marnie here, where you’ll find links to buy her books from Barnes & Noble. They’re also available from Powell’s Books.


How I Taught Myself to Write Fiction

In the late 1970s I began a self-imposed sabbatical from a high-pressured, all-consuming job. Within two weeks of stopping work I had purchased a typewriter and, for no reason that I could discern, started to write. Before this I had never composed more than letters and grant proposals.

One day a narrative began to emerge, about a white family’s experiences in a Japanese American internment camp in Northern California. I wrote scenes of an uprising and an eventual army takeover of the camp and of a traumatized Caucasian child who was separated from her parents during the disturbance. The words poured out with such intensity that the tips of my Smith Corona’s keys kept flying off, and I would have to rush to the typewriter repair shop around the corner on Amsterdam Avenue. The owner, an Auschwitz survivor who knew of my background, would stop everything to solder them back on and send me home to continue writing.

The pages piled up, but soon I saw that I didn’t have the skills it took to form complex autobiographical and historical material into compelling fiction. All I had was a rambling, disjointed mass of incidents. Before I could proceed further, I had to learn the rudiments of narrative techniques. In order to do so, I devised for myself an assignment of writing a short story a day.

I decided to employ characters who had nothing to do with me so as not to get emotionally caught up in and distracted by substance from my own life. I created Bernie, an eighty-year-old dreamer, and Rose, another octogenarian and former vaudevillian, who met every morning on a park bench on the island in the middle of Broadway in upper Manhattan. Each day I applied a fictional technique to their exploits. On Monday I would tell their story in the omniscient third person. On Tuesday I would reconstruct the story all in dialogue. On Wednesday I’d have Bernie’s first-person account, and the next day it would be Rose’s turn.

Some days I restricted myself to descriptions of the Broadway malls and the surrounding streets, stores, and pedestrians; or to descriptions of how Bernie and Rose physically looked to each other; or to how they looked to me from afar and how their gestures told an unspoken truth. Later I concentrated on conflict between the two and saw how a narrative arc emerged out of attempting a resolution.

At other times I relied only on their internal thoughts, shifting and alternating their perceptions, illuminating the lies each told the other, to create an arc without an actual confrontation. I devised back stories for them, deepening their characters, embedding these flashbacks within the forward thrust of the tale.

Eventually my subjects took on lives of their own, no longer easily contained within my prescriptive daily control, as their narratives insisted on greater breadth and length to encompass their own autobiographical material. They had outlived their usefulness to me as a fiction primer.

The moment had arrived to say goodbye to Bernie and Rose, which I did with some sadness. Armed with new skills I returned to the story of the white child born in a Japanese American internment camp.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, KS

That Bookstore in Blytheville, Blytheville, AR

Monte Cristo Bookshop, New London, CT

Nuggets in a heap of stones



There’s a website called “Blogs Just In” that tracks blogs in sixteen categories: art, books, divination (!), gadget reviews, gardening, and so on, including Writing & Publishing. Twelve blogs are listed in Writing & Publishing, mine among them, though I don’t recall how TBUHB got there. TBUHB has some excellent company—Jungle Red Writers, Jane Friedman, a couple of others—as well as some less-good company.

However, even in the less-good company (the stones) there are useful bits to be found (the nuggets). Two valuable sentences resided in a strictly…hmm, what’s the right way to say this?…nonprofessional blog called The Write Practice. (That’s the link, but if you like The Book Under Her Bed, I suspect TWP won’t be for you.)

The sentences I found in The Write Practice were these: You need to ask this question every time you sit down to write. How can you make your writing more you? 

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Girl Group member Barbara Ginsberg, who is writing a riveting memoir. In this Age of Memoirs, no memoirist can help but ask, Why am I writing a memoir when there are so many memoirs already? Why would anyone want to read another memoir?

This is like asking, Why would you want to write a novel when so many novels already exist?

If you’re a serious writer, you write what you need to write. It’s not your job to scour the market, find an underserved category, and write for that category. It is your job to find your originality and write it, whether it’s memoir, fiction, personal essay, or anything else. It’s also your job to be responsible for and to your talent, to foster your thinking, to improve your skills constantly, and to do your work.

How can you make your writing more you? is an important question. It suggests its opposite: Why is your writing not you enough?, an even more important question. Are you trying to sound like some other writer? Are you imitating Hemingway, Mailer, Krakauer, Lethem, Grisham, King? Meyer, Rowling, Smiley, Erdrich, Lamott, Flynn?

These are writers who invested in their own visions and voices, who brought themselves to their work. They had no guarantee of success; no one does. But each had (or has) the understanding that what s/he had to say and the way s/he had to say it was the only possible way for her or him to write.

This is not to imply that you don’t learn from reading other writers. You learn a great deal from reading other writers; some of it goes into your toolbox and some of it goes into the garbage. All of it is used in the service of finding your own voice: “more you.” 

There’s another danger you risk if you don’t make your writing “more you“: you can find yourself writing in a generic manner that is uninteresting to a serious reader.

“Too generic” is a critique I’ve often invoked with clients and students—and one I’ve leveled at my own work at times too. Generic writing reflects a spectrum of writers’ flaws: laziness, shortage of ideas, reliance on other people’s work, imitation, obviousness, watching too much television and too many movies. Writing generically will people your fiction with stock characters—the Good Mom, the Bad Kid, the Nosy Neighbor, the Nasty Boss—and chewed-over situations, flavorless and boring. It will make your memoir just a history of what happened and to whom it happened.

What lifts any writing above the generic, the imitative, the clichéd is “more you,” if you have talent and originality. If you have talent and originality, they belong in your writing. More you.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Petunia’s Place, Fresno, CA

Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, NC

Galápagos Books, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

The jolt, part 2


Last Thursday, September 18, I posted “Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1,” about jolting two members of the Girl Group out of their book outlines and into their actual manuscripts. It was inadvertently easy: To get them moving, I gave them an assignment to write something playful, and as soon as they realized they didn’t want to do the assignment they got down to writing their books.

The point of a jolt is to move you from running in place to running. To kidnap you from writing that’s repetitive and going nowhere, and transport you to writing that has energy and substance.  The deliberate writing kind of jolt (as opposed to the accidental jolt described above) turns you temporarily away from the work you’re not doing and gets you writing something completely different. It’s a little like taking a busman’s holiday, but more fun.

Jolts come in all sorts of forms, lengths, topics, and moods. What they have in common is that they’re not like the writing you’ve been doing. If you’re writing a memoir about your family, a jolt could be a short story or a poem. If you’re mired in a novel, a jolt could be a memory piece about your grandmother. If you’re working too hard on a collection of nonfiction essays, a jolt might be writing a fairy tale. Of course you can’t write something you’re completely unsuited to—poetry isn’t for everyone—but there’s always some new direction you can go, just for a short time.

  1. Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  2. Write a huge, screaming fight between two close friends. Do they get past it?
  3. Describe, in detail, a place you love. Invoke all your senses—but don’t explain why you love the place; that should be revealed in what you write about it.
  4. Write a one-act play.
  5. Write a short story in the genre of fantasy or science fiction.
  6. Describe the worst, most humiliating experience you had in high school.
  7. Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  8. Write a memory piece about a relative you love dearly. It should be so touching that you make yourself cry.
  9. Write a memory piece about a relative you loathe—no holds barred. Get enraged.
  10. Find a photograph you’ve never seen before, one you really like, and write a narrative about it.
  11. Take one paragraph from a story you wrote a while ago and expand it to ten pages.
  12. Write a short epistolary story. That means letters sent between characters, or letters sent by one person, which add up to a story.
  13. Tell about a sexual encounter—good, bad, or indifferent. Details, please.
  14. Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.
  15. Write a children’s story you would have loved when you were five.
  16. Write a biting political satire.
  17. Describe the best meal you’ve ever had, where you had it, and with whom (if anyone).
  18. Tell a story about a journey—any kind of journey.
  19. Your beloved pet—need I say more?
  20. Write a song. Make it long.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA

Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, OK

Diesel, a Book Store, Oakland, CA

Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1


About three years ago, two members of the Girl Group were struggling with the problem of how to write what they wanted to write. Each knew her topic and her general subject matter but could not decide how to shape the material into a coherent structure for a book-length work. Both writers were making outlines, outlines, and more outlines.

They were getting nowhere, but they were convinced that if only they could get the outlines “right” they’d be able to start their manuscripts. The deeper problem, though, was that each was coming down from a grueling year of issues that had nothing to do with the writing they wanted to be doing. Neither could find focus because their heads were still full of leftover overload.

Every writer has been there. For some writers, writing is the way to work themselves out of a headful of junk; for other writers, trying to write before they clear out the mess is an exercise in futility. Another way of saying this: some writers respond to more pressure; other writers have to get free of pressure before ideas begin to flow again. And for yet other writers, a little of each can get them moving forward—a three-hour push of writing followed by a bike ride or choir practice or a movie.

You probably know (or think you know) which kind of writer you are. I wasn’t sure, at that time, which category either of these two GG members belonged to, but they definitely needed an assignment that would give them a jolt.

What  you need is a change of plan, not a change of outline. I would like each of you to put aside for the moment all notions of work and think only of play. I would like each of you to write only something that is fun and pleasurable. No heavy dissections of life, no complex behavioral analyses. Let all that go for the moment.

Sit down and write something that delights you. Something frivolous or funny or sexy or silly. It might be about food or clothes or your childhood best friend. The first time you French-kissed. The best manicure you ever had. How much you hated your English teacher or your sibling. Anything that you will enjoy writing about. That’s your assignment.

Many painters—when they’ve had too much of the heavy-duty painting—go back to simple, entertaining, undemanding media. Like paper and crayons. I’m suggesting that you do the same, for now. The point is to write, not to write War and Peace.

Free your mind; stop being so demanding. Being demanding will only freeze you up even more. Give your unconscious some recuperative time. While you’re writing things that give you pleasure (instead of torture), your psyche will be relaxing and hatching new ideas.

Did these two woman take my excellent advice? They did not. What we found out simply by my suggesting that they lighten up for a while was that they weren’t experiencing resistance or avoidance; they were just confused, running in place. They needed to be shoved into making a choice, and giving them an assignment forced them into choosing: do I want to play for a while or do I want to take on the bigger work?

Neither of them wanted to lighten up: the very idea of lightening up and having fun shocked them. Gave them a jolt. They swung into gear, ditched the obsessive outlining, and started writing.

Does that mean my advice was bad? It does not. My advice was good—for someone who needs a time-out to try something different before returning to her primary work. If you’re that person and you’re obsessing over some part of your work, consider giving yourself a temporary writing assignment that will help you break out of repetitive writing behavior.

MONDAY’S POST will be “The jolt, part 2: 15 temporary writing assignments to jolt you out of whatever you need jolting out of.” Don’t miss it.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT

Hicklebee’s, San Jose, CA

The NO-is-YES multiple choice quiz

This is the second of the “No is YES” posts. In the first part we established—I hope—some guidelines for thinking about the issue and perhaps even for taking action to grab more writing time.

Melissa Miles, another GG member, wrote this when I asked for the GG’s thoughts: Oh, I wish I had good advice about saying no. The truth is, I’m still figuring out how to do it. I’m a pleaser by nature, so I don’t always realize I want (or need) to say no when I’m asked to do something. I take such genuine pleasure in giving the asker what he/she wants that I don’t realize I should have said no until after the conversation is over. And then I find myself feeling as though I’ve been bamboozled into doing this thing. 

She’s definitely nailed a syndrome: automatically saying yes to whatever’s on offer, followed by one minute of feeling pleased for having pleased someone else, followed by an hour (day, week, month) of buyer’s remorse. Take the quiz below; it might help.

1. Your Aunt Naggy phones to insist that she needs your help moving the furniture around. You: A) Cave in and rush over to her house, even though you’re in the middle of a chapter. B) Plead a bad back (sciatica; flu; food poisoning) and suggest she find someone else to help her. C) Say you’re getting a beep and you have to take the call. D) Explain that this week you’re very busy, but you’ll let her know if you have time to help her next week. E) Tell her you’re not a furniture mover, you’re a writer.

2. Your partner complains that you’re always sneaking away to write and you never spend any time with her/him. You: A) Apologize profusely and swear you’ll mend your ways. B) Claim that s/he’s exaggerating—the two of you went out for dinner about, um, two weeks ago. C) Point out that s/he stays late at the office three times a week and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. D) Promise to work out a plan that accommodates both of you. E) Shrug your shoulders and say this is just how it has to be.

3. Your kids whine that no one else’s mom/dad spends so much time writing. You: A) Cry, and hope you’ll get their sympathy. B) Point out that you’re not everyone else’s mom/dad. C) Argue that you don’t spend all your time writing. D) Offer them a bribe: you’ll dedicate the book to them. E) Work on your book at the library from now on.

4. Your best friend accuses you of being thoughtless and uncaring because you never see each other anymore. You: A) Remind her that you saw each other a few weeks ago. B) Ask her how often she sees her other friends. C) Deny her accusation and refuse to discuss it—take it or leave it. D) Apologize and make a plan for your next date. E) Tell her that a truly good friend would want you to keep writing and fulfill your promise.

5. Your shrink muses aloud that you might be a little overcommitted to your work and perhaps you could consider dialing it back a little in order to fulfill your obligations to your friends and family. You: A) Feel like a bad person. B) Defend the importance of the memoir you’re writing.  C) Ask what “overcommitted” actually means. D) Point out that your therapist works five days a week at her job. E) Look for a new therapist.

Maybe your particular situation isn’t covered here, but you get the idea. Solve the problem of finding enough time for your work by deciding how important your work is to you—and then delivering some variation of no to whatever or whomever prevents you from doing it.

There really isn’t any other way to go about it: saying yes to your work means saying no to something else. Except in emergencies (defined by you), say no as much as possible to the time-thieves prowling around your life. It’s either that or kick yourself around the block for failing to take care of yourself and your work. You do not want to have regrets.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, CO

The River’s End Bookstore, Oswego, NY

Third Place Books, Seattle, WA