The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 24: My Four Favorite “Rules” for Becoming a Better Writer

Two of the books I’ve read again and again over the years are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

It occurs to me that if you took the most instructive kernel of writing advice from each of these two books, you’d have all the guidance you need to succeed as a writer.

Let’s start with Anne Lamott.

After reading her book multiple times and considering what Lamott calls “the two single most helpful things I can tell you about writing,” I wrote the following on an index card and put it on my desk:

Short assignments + shitty first drafts = MAGIC.

Short assignments: Lamott tells us that to avoid the sense of overwhelm we often feel when working on a writing project, to simply write about what we can see through a one-inch picture frame. Instead of sitting down to write with the notion of a big, looming expansive project in mind, all you have to do is write about what you see through that one-inch frame at the moment, and you’ll get the writing done, and all will be fine.

She says:

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman her will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

~Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Shitty first drafts: As Lamott says, “All good writers writer them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”  She goes on to tell us that of all the great and talented writers she knows, not a one of them writes elegant first drafts.  She says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

What a relief. It’s so much easier to get the work done when we know the first draft is just about getting it down, and if it’s shitty, as it no doubt will be, that’s a natural part of the process.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” she says. “You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.”

{When I decided to write and publish 30 blog posts in 30 days, for example, I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth to write a shitty first draft, a good second draft and a terrific third draft of each post I published during the project, so I committed to simply writing a shitty first draft, tweaking it a bit, and getting it up on the blog. Letting go of perfectionism this way has been challenging, excruciating really, but it’s helped me to just get the damn writing done, and that is the point.}

Stephen King’s writing advice is no less powerful, and I love it for its simplicity and its brevity.

No need for me to scribble this quote down on an index card and put it on my desk. It’s easy to remember, and always on my mind:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

~Stephen King, from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

And there you have it, my four favorite “rules” for becoming a better writer.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments below.

Some Notes on What I Read This Week: March 1 Edition

What’s the good reading stuff round-up for this week? Here are a couple of things that made an impression on me this week.

What’s Your Lucky Number?

The best email I got all week was the 02/25/15 edition of Hugh McLeod’s Gaping Void newsletter, a daily missive of his quirky and smile-inducing cartoons, in which he shared this inspiring fact:

Five thousand one hundred and twenty-six failed vacuum cleaners.  

That’s how many prototypes it took for James Dyson to get it right.  

5, 127 was his lucky number. He’s now worth over $4 billion.  

It’s not about being brilliant, or about always being right.  

It’s about not giving up before you have the chance to succeed.

If you’re interested in getting a daily cartoon that will make you happy, make you think, and possibly make you question the status quo, you can sign up for McLeod’s newsletter here:

Gaping Void Newsletter

(By the way, in the video on that page, McLeod shares a great way to think about “marketing” that makes it feel genuine and natural; if you’re a creative trying to find a way to sell your products and services without feeling icky or uncomfortable, be sure to watch it.)

Stay Weird, Stay Different

Screenwriter Graham Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech for best adapted screenplay for the film The Imitation Game brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not alone. It was magical.

Here’s part of what he shared:

“When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I am standing here. So I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And when it’s your turn to stand on this stage, pass the message along.”

I’m getting all teary again reading it now. What can I say? Despite my hard-candy outer shell, I’m an emotional softie on the inside.

Editing is a “Wifely Trade,” Marketing Plans in Book Proposals Are “Nonsense,” and Other Retro Reflections

I finished a book this week called, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction – Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his long-time editor, Richard Todd.

I loved reading about the years-long relationship between Todd and Kidder, as anything that delves into the realities of the writer’s life interests me, but there were a few passages in the book that left me scratching my head. And by “scratching my head,” I mean thinking, “you can’t be serious.”

Such as:

Editing is a wifely trade. This is a disquieting thought for editors, certainly for male editors, and in a different way for some female editors too, but editing does involve those skills that are stereotypically female: listening, supporting, intuiting. And, like wives, editors are given to irony and indirection. When male editors become bullies it may be because they resent their feminized role. (They shouldn’t take it out on writers. They need other avenues for their manly impulses, skydiving, Formula One racing, something.) However hesitant, timid, and self-doubting writers feel, they nonetheless remain the stereotypically male figures in the relationship, whatever their gender. Writers assert. Editors react.

And:

There are even book proposal consultants and book proposal formulas. Authors are advised to create ‘marketing plans’ to include in their proposals, and some dutifully spend weeks on the chore. Most of this is nonsense, and bad advice.

I am not making this up. And this book was published in 2013. 2013!!

And that’s a few notes on some things I read/saw this week. Feel free to leave a comment below about what you’ve been reading, or share reading suggestions. Thanks!

Some Notes on What I Read This Week: February 22 Edition

One of my favorite places to visit each week for outstanding writing on quirky, interesting topics is The Bitter Southerner. This week I loved a piece called, “The Art of Rebellion,” about a company that builds “the most beautiful motorcycles in the world, literally one at a time,” linked up below.

When I went back to the site today to grab the link to the essay to share in today’s blog post, I noticed this: A Postscript to This Story from the Editor Regarding “The Art of Rebellion.”

Apparently a small minority of readers objected to The Bitter Southerner publishing a story about a company in Birmingham, AL, called Confederate Motorcycles, saying things like, “For a site that tries to combat tired Southern stereotypes, this just felt off.”

Here’s part of the editor’s response (which you can read in its entirety here):

The South is a complex place. We do not all think alike. But The Bitter Southerner made a promise to focus on “the South we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.” And we have made it plain more than once in the past that we have little respect — make that no respect — for those who revel in a vision of an “Old South” that existed only through the labor of enslaved people.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do know great writing when I see it, and “The Art of Rebellion” embodies it. And I love the story of “an artisanal manufacturing romantic who quit his career as a lawyer to build dream motorcycles,” because that’s what we’re all about around here.

Read The Art of Rebellion here.

 

As an introvert myself, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an introvert and a creative when it comes to marketing and selling one’s products and services. (I wrote a blog post this week about the topic, called, not too creatively, Authentic Marketing and Selling for Introverted Creatives.)

So when I saw this article on Huffington Post this week, I had to smile:

Finally, Emoji That Show What It Really Feels Like To Be An Introvert

 

This post on Danielle LaPorte’s site, in which she talks about “ALLLL the times that someone said to me (and there were MANY), ‘Now, Danielle, don’t get ahead of yourself,’” made me wildly happy.

As she says, “you gotta move the way your soul likes to move.” Which resonated with me deeply, because I was in a work situation that, while so perfect in so many ways, was not allowing me to “move the way [my] soul likes to move.” And that was creating a lot of self-doubt, angst, and second-guessing around my creative projects and my work life that felt untenable.

But after reading Danielle’s post earlier this week, I felt a huge sense of relief. Liberated. You know, that it really is ok to want what you want and be yourself wanting it.

Check out the post here:

“Don’t get ahead of yourself”…can suck it.

 

And that’s all I got this week. Hope you enjoy these fine reads from around the Interwebz.  

Feel free to share in the comments section your favorite reads this week, would love to hear!

Some Notes on What I Read This Week: February 15 Edition

Lots of good reading finds this week.  

Fools Do Art

Two contemporary men. Famous paintings from years gone by. Found props. That’s all I’m going to say.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this website, but as I sit here on this sunny, frigid Sunday afternoon hunkered down in my cozy, warm apartment skipping through the Internet, scrolling through this site makes me ever so happy. I’m laughing as much as when I read The Onion. Which is to say, a lot.

Check out Fools Do Art here to get your silliness fix.

Being Smothered by a Gospel Pillow

And speaking of side-splittingly funny, the best recap I read of the 2015 Grammys came, shockingly enough, from MSN Entertainment.

In a wrap-up called, “Best and Worst of the 2015 Grammys,” there’s this gem:

Worst: Beyonce takes us to sleep  

Let’s be clear: If that Beyonce cover of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” had come in the middle of the telecast, there’s a strong chance it would have been a “Best.” Queen Bey sounded great and she looked like an angel, but she looked like an angel who had lost nearly every award she was up for all night, was probably being kept up past her bedtime and had been delayed until 11:30 p.m. ET (only 8:30 in LA) by talk about copyright law and musicians we lost in the past year. Maybe it’s just that we’re used to Beyonce delivering show-stopping performances, full of energy and sometimes politics and this year she chose to cap a snoozy show with a spiritual performance? Dunno. Blame this one context. Watching the performance on youtube tomorrow, it’ll probably seem awesome. At the end of this show, it was just like being smothered with a gospel pillow. – Daniel Fienberg

Thought-provoking questions.

In Temporary discomfort. It’s worth it, Alexandra Franzen poses the question:

Are you willing to feel temporarily uncomfortable so that you can accomplish something that is permanently amazing?

Something that will always be part of your history? Something that will always be part of your body of work? Something that can never be taken away from you?

This resonates, because it reframes a decision I recently made to leave a solid, sure thing kind of gig to go out on my own completely as a freelance writer/copywriter/web marketing strategist. The reframe: from scary and uncertain to “best decision I’ve ever made.” Aaah, feels so right.

And reading Franzen’s post lead me to this site: A Life Less Bullshit, where I loved this post, called, “Close Your Escape Hatch.”

How Creative Geniuses Come Up with Great Ideas

And then there was this article by James Clear, in which he tells the story of Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief. Zusak rewrote the first part of the The Book Thief 150 to 200 times until it felt exactly right. 150 to 200 times. The book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for over 230 weeks and sold eight million copies. It was translated into forty languages and made into a movie.

The lesson? “We all have some type of creative genius inside of us. The only way to release it is to work on it. No single act will uncover more creative powers than forcing yourself to create consistently.”

What else?

This week I bought Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, by Seth Godin. 40 more pages and I’ll be done with it.

Still reading: Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir, by Frances Mayes.

And that’s a few notes on some things I read this week. Feel free to leave a comment below about what you’ve been reading, or share reading suggestions!

Book Recommendation: The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life by Chris Guillebeau

The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau

Once you’re near the end, there’s no time for bullshit. But what if you decided there’s no time for bullshit – or regrets – far in advance of the end? What if you vow to live life the way you want right now, regardless of what stage of life you’re in?”

Of all the inspiring passages and quest calls in Chris Guillebeau’s recently released book, The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, the quote above is the one that resonates with me the most.  

The context: Chris tells the story of Kathleen Taylor, who was a hospice bedside counselor for 8 years and loved her work. Frequently asked how she could enjoy her job, Taylor responds, “Because people at the end of their lives are incapable of bullshit . . . when they’re facing the task of wrapping up an entire life, the distractions that usually tempt us away from being honest with ourselves kind of fall off the map.” (I’ve linked up Kathleen Taylor’s TED Talk on this topic at the end of this post under “Additional Resources.”)

It’s a great question, right? What if you vow to live life the way you want right now? What if, what if, what if . . . it’s exactly the question I’ve been asking myself for months now, which is why the book left such an impression on me.

If you’re a seeker, inspired by tales of others’ accomplishments and adventures, and feeling a vague (or pronounced) sense of discontent, The Happiness of Pursuit is for you. If you’re feeling dissatisfied and restless, this book could be exactly the inspiration you need to bust out of the doldrums and find the right quest to help you get your happy back.

When You Sense Discontent, Pay Attention

The Happiness of Pursuit examines the link between questing and long-term happiness, chronicling real-world quests of “normal people doing remarkable things” who have brought meaning and purpose into their lives through their quests.  Chris (we’re not on a first name basis, mind you, but spelling out “Guillebeau” each time I write his name makes me mighty tired), also writes about his own quest to visit every country on Earth (193, I believe) before the age of 35, a task he accomplished.

As I got eleven pages into the book, I started underlining fragments, sentences, and whole passages.

For example:

“If you want to make every day an adventure, all you have to do is prioritize adventure. It has to become more important than routine.”

 “If you want to achieve the unimaginable, you start by imagining it.”

“Courage comes through achievement but also through the attempt.”

“Everyone is busy, yet we all have access to the same amount of time. If you want to prioritize adventure but can’t find the time, something’s got to give.” (This one was like a punch to the gut for me. Note to self: STOP WHINING about not having enough time!)

“Lesson: When you sense discontent, pay attention. The answer isn’t always ‘go for it’ (though it often is), but you shouldn’t neglect the stirring. Properly examined, feelings of unease can lead to a new life of purpose.”

If you’re thinking, “Hey, that all sounds groovy and everything, I would love to experience more adventure and lead a life of purpose, but I can’t quit my job to travel or pursue some far-flung adventure,” I hear you.

But the quests in this book aren’t all of the travel to distant lands variety.  No, many of them were undertaken closer to home, and some, without ever leaving home.

For example, there’s Sasha Martin, a thirty-year-old wife and mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma who decides to shake off the complacency she’s feeling by embracing “culture through cuisine” and cooking a meal from every country in the world.  Yep, every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, a cooking project that took close to four years.

Then there’s Sandi Wheaton, who worked at General Motors for twelve years before being laid off during the upheaval in the automotive industry. At first, she planned to look for another job, as her other laid-off colleagues were doing, but she started thinking about the toll her corporate career had taken on her – “devoting her best energy to . . . corporate America instead of the adventure that tugged at her heart.” What Sandi really wanted to do was travel Route 66 and document the trip along the way. And for six weeks she did, taking 60,000 photographs, sleeping in campsites each night, and getting up early each day to head back out on the road.

As Sandi says, “I had zero clue how to do it, but I was driven by the desire to avoid looking back years later and calling myself a chickenshit for not using the opportunity for something.”

And there’s Elise Blaha, who upon turning twenty-seven set a goal to create twenty-seven different craft projects using twenty-seven different types of materials.

And Travis Eneix, who committed to practicing tai chi and writing down everything he ate for one thousand days.

And Tina Roth Eisenberg, who has multiple creative projects going at all times and set out to publish a body of work promoting innovative design.

Then of course there are the more adventurous quests – such as that of sixteen-year-old Laura Dekker who set out to sail around the globe solo, and Nate Damm, who walked across the United States, and Miranda Gibson, who lived in a tree for an entire year to protest illegal logging, and  John Francis, who maintained a vow of silence for 17 years, and Martin Parnell, who ran 250 marathons in a single year, and Adam Warner, who is in the process of fulfilling every goal on his late wife Meghan’s life list, and many others besides who undertook quests of the creative, self-discovery, exploration, activism, and academic variety.

The core message of all the quests documented in the book is this: a quest can bring purpose and meaning to your life.

And in The Happiness of Pursuit, you’ll see inspiring evidence of this in action, many times over. And if you’re like me, you’ll finish the book with your own list of quest ideas. {More on that in a future post.}

I’ll leave you with a short passage from Chapter One, Awakening:

“What if you could study with others who’ve invested years – sometimes decades – in the relentless pursuit of their dreams? That learning opportunity is what this book is about. You’ll sit with people who have pursued big adventures and crafted lives of purpose around something they found deeply meaningful. You’ll hear their stories and lessons. You’ll learn what happened along the way, but more important, you’ll learn why it happened and why it matters.”

As for me, I’m keeping the book on my bedside table as a powerful reminder to prioritize adventure, and live the way I want to right now, sans bullshit.

Additional Resources

Learn more here about The Happiness of Pursuit and Guillebeau’s other books.

Check out Rethinking the Bucket List: Kathleen Taylor at TED here.

And for a jolt of reality from a former palliative care professional on the importance of living your life the way you want to now, read Bronnie Ware’s Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.

Pay Attention to What Makes You Cry: A Navel-Gazer’s Guide to Decision-Making

I'm a writer

Something strange was happening.

For close to 6 months I’d feel on the verge of tears every time I read Danielle LaPorte’s blog. Ditto when visiting Linda Sivertsen’s Book Mama website, reading her blog posts, and especially when watching the video about her Carmel writer’s retreats.

Sometimes I’d actually shed those tears.  

Here’s how it looked:

Open email for the day.  Ah! Danielle’s newest blog post. Groovy. “Why Self-Improvement Makes You Neurotic.” Great, I love that topic!  Read. Feel wave of emotion. Tears just about to announce themselves, but don’t.  Feeling rattled and unsettled.  Hmm.

Or this:

Linda’s recent newsletter arrives in in-box.  Feel excited. Begin reading “Writing with Scissors,” about the editing process. Feel bathed in a warm glow of identification and recognition. But, wait! There it is – begin feeling weepy.

If I was keeping track of how many times this happened on my handy abacus, all the beads would be on the right-hand side and I’d be sliding them back over to the left to start the count over again. I couldn’t make sense of it. What was provoking these emotional mini-dramas?

I mean, sure, both Linda and Danielle are gifted writers and what they write about is often moving.  As a writer, I identify with many of the topics they so eloquently cover. And as an emotional creature, feeling moved to near tears while reading something inspirational isn’t unusual for me.

But this was different. It was repeated and insistent, and happened even when the subject matter was ordinary.  Feeling near tears while reading about the editing process – what gives? I was having a hard time figuring it out.  Not to mention, it was becoming a tad inconvenient to flounce around in a near-permanent state of emotional quiver. 

But I’m a world-class navel-gazer, so I knew with enough deep reflection into the minutia of my every fleeting thought and feeling I could figure this out.

After a while, it dawned on me:  the emotional reaction I’m having is because these writers are living the kind of writer’s life I want to live, but don’t – they write and publish regularly, have traditionally published books out, and enjoy creative and financial abundance, doing what they love to do. They’ve created a satisfying and remunerative writing life for themselves based on their strengths and skill sets as writers, writing what they want to write.  

I had to admit that this is what I too want to create. I’ve known it in my gut for a long time. But I hadn’t done it, nor was I even trying to do it. “It,” at the very least, meant carving out time to work on my own writing apart from client writing projects.  So the tears, near as I can tell, were because I wasn’t living in alignment with my truth (I know, I’m very sorry to have to use that phrase, and I really hope you’ll forgive me, but it works here), when faced with two talented writers who are. I felt like the kind of writing life I wanted to create was passing me by. And I ain’t gettin’ any younger, kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my copywriting clients to the heavens and I’m deeply grateful for the interesting projects I’m blessed to work on for them. I thoroughly enjoy writing and creating marketing strategy for them, and for my own copywriting business; it’s work that fuels and excites me.

However.

What I knew for sure was that I wanted to make room in my life for longer, more reflective writing than the kind you can do on a blog or in a newsletter that’s geared to helping your audience achieve a specific business or marketing goal.  Who knows what this writing would end up looking like, but I knew I was game to see.

So when Linda Sivertsen announced the Your Big Beautiful Book Plan Telecourse recently, I jumped at the chance to take it. Even though between client work and business classes and other commitments, I’m clocking in about 60 hours a week right now. Even though I had to charge it to my credit card, because as luck would have it, client invoices went out, but haven’t been paid yet this month. And even though I made a commitment to myself not to take one more course until I finish the ones I’m in the middle of now.

Besides, I had buying Danielle and Linda’s Your Big Beautiful Book Plan digital course (which is a separate thing from the telecourse) on my 2014 plan already – for September or October, not March, fer cryin’ out loud.  March was wildly inconvenient, March was for other business priorities, March was all wrong for so many reasons.

But I couldn’t deny the way getting the email announcement about the telecourse made me feel.  Giddy. Excited. Liberated. A big fat resounding yeeeeesssss radiating from every cell.  When I went to bed that night, I tossed and turned all night dreaming of the possibilities. I also felt weepy (see? there it is again) at the prospect of another dream deferred if I chose not to do this now.

When I woke the next morning I was certain I had to take this course, other commitments be damned.  Out came the credit card.  That was March 5.  It’s been 8 days since I did this thing that I’m sure is going to change my life. And I feel jubilant. 

And I think I can toss the Kleenex.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.  : )