Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Last week, I laughed hysterically while watching the video of Rod Ponton, the lawyer who showed up to his Zoom court hearing with the kitten filter turned on. 

I replayed the video three more times, just to hear him say, “I’m live, and I’m not a cat.”  

If you haven’t seen the video, click here. You won’t be disappointed. 

That laughter was a welcome reprieve after a month of memoir revisions right before the anniversary of my brother’s death. 

Developing the capacity to sit with difficult emotions is an important skill we all need to cultivate. But to truly live—and write—with an open heart, we need to balance the dark times with a little fun. When it comes to levity, play is an ally. Play is also essential for your writing projects.  

While getting my bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Louisville, my mentor Paul Griner said there are only seven story plots. Novelist John Gardner reduced them to two—hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. Either way you look at it, there are no original stories. But there are original ways to tell them. 

Play can enhance your creativity and originality. It helps you increase your sense of focus, engage with the unexpected, and develop novel connections in your brain. Those novel connections will allow you to see problems in new ways, and as a result, churn out fresh new stories. 

To play and have fun with your writing life, you need to incorporate novelty, absurdity, and magic into three fundamental aspects of your creativity.

Why novelty, absurdity, and magic?

The brain lights up when it encounters something novel. That neural firestorm can create the new story connections you’ve been looking for. 

Absurdity is about embracing the ridiculous. When we do ridiculous, meaningless things, we look at the world in new ways. This can lead to story innovations. 

Magic, and in particular enchantment, is all about delight. When we’re delighted, we experience joy. That joy energizes us and motivates us to create more. Not sure if this is true? Ask yourself how many pages you wrote during your last major funk. Compare that to your output when you were feeling lighter.  

Here are a few ways you can add novelty, absurdity, and magic into your creative life. 

Play with movement 

If you want to be a successful writer, you must develop a blue-collar work ethic around your writing sessions. While this means committing to a butt-in-the-chair practice, sitting for long stretches causes blood to pool in your extremities. This takes nutrients away from your idea maker. You need to balance your butt-in-chair time with a little movement. 

Research has found that walking is a great way to generate fresh ideas. Many of us have developed walking practices during COVID. But to move playfully, you have to do something new. 

Novelty: Take a new route.

Absurdity: Be THAT neighbor: skip, twirl, or walk backward along your route. 

Magic: Stop and listen to the emotions hidden in birdsong. Search for a talisman in the rocks you pass. Photograph something strange or out of place. 

Play with Form

Most of us develop our stories in the same way. We write lots and lots of words on a page. When we’re done, we cross out the ones we don’t like, rearrange the ones we love, then try to perfect our sentences. But that’s not the only way to tell a story. In fact, telling a story off the page either before you draft or between the drafts might lead to insights that make your story stronger. 

Novelty: Instead of writing your story, PowerPoint it, collage it, or storyboard it. If you’ve already written your story, take some time to draw your scene shapes

Absurdity: Instead of writing your story down, record yourself as you perform the draft. Do it in your worst British accent. Make up ridiculous voices for your characters. The more you get into it, the more you’ll open up to the process.  

Magic:  Create the board game version of your project (Think The Game of Life, Monopoly, or Chutes and Ladders). What does the board game look like? What are the rules of this world? 

Play with Ideas

How many times have you flipped through the idea files in your brain, hoping one of them contains a fresh story idea? Instead, you write what you’ve always written. Often, those scenes have the same emotional flavor. Guess what? Sometimes, the best ideas aren’t inside you. To create something fresh and new, look outside of yourself. 

Novelty: Gather four jars and some 2-inch by 2 -inch squares of paper where you can jot down single words. Make a list of situations, feelings, problems, and objects. When it comes to feelings, be sure to include the ones you typically write about and the ones you avoid. If you’d like to expand your repertoire of feelings, click on this list. Write one item on each square of paper.  Drop your situations into one jar. In the second jar, add your feelings. Add your objects to the third jar. In a fourth jar, include your problems. Choose one item from each jar. Now, get writing. 

Absurdity:  Make a list of inappropriate or absurd situations your characters could find themselves in or create a list of objects that would make you think twice about someone. If you’re looking for some inspiration, watch some episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld. Here’s a link to the episode where Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye bread from an old woman.  

Magic: Create an astrological chart for your character and use it to gain insights into their problems.  Or play the board game you created in the previous exercise. Use it to guide your storytelling process. 

 Try a few of these exercises then send me an email. I’d love to hear what worked for you.

Stay warm, find some lightness in your days, and as always write on. 

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

Yesterday, I sat at my desk and cried. 

It was the twenty-four-year anniversary of my brother Joe’s suicide. He was twenty when he died. I was twenty-two. His death is now older than both of us—a fact that continually blows me away. 

I’ve dealt with this grief for over half of my life, but this year stung a little more. 

On January 29, 2021, I finished the agent-ready draft of my memoir, How Not to Die: From Death to Life on a Heavy Metal Tour.

After reading the final words, I danced around my office while listening to Europe’s The Final Countdown.

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s a cheesy ‘80s anthem my brothers and I used to rock out to when we were kids. 

After the song ended, I cried tears of joy. 

I’d done it! 

After three years of hard work, I’d finished my book.

Those who’ve met me know that I’m a fiery person who likes to get shit done (like sending off recently finished manuscripts). 

I’d even set a deadline for myself. On January 29th, come hell or high water, I would send my manuscript to interested agents. I was certain that any other choice would be a letdown. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that many of my hurry-up-and-get-it-done messages come from ego. So, I meditated to figure out whether the twenty-ninth was indeed the right day to send out my manuscript. 

Even though I was excited to move forward, my True Self said wait, at least for a little while. 

Reluctantly, I listened. 

It didn’t take long before grief blanketed my enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised. My brother has been gone for a long time. The years since our last touch sometimes make him feel more like a dream. When I started writing this manuscript some of that changed.

Over the past three years, we’ve laughed and cried about all that happened to us. With each revision, he’s become a little more three-dimensional.

Now that it’s time to say goodbye to this manuscript, I feel a profound sense of loss that’s led to some snot bubble cries and more than one good sniff of his leather backpack. My heart aches with an arthritic pain that’s steady yet manageable.

But it’s also okay. 

You see, I signed up for this gig. 

If step one to being a good writer is to listen to your True Self, step two is to live with an open heart. 

To do that, we have to make room for our feelings so they can flow through us. As they do, we need to take care of ourselves. That means crossing things off our to-do lists and resting more than we’d like. Sometimes, it also means waiting before sending off a manuscript for feedback or publication. 

This advice is as true for fiction writers as it is for memoirists.

In both genres, you have to write to the bone of your material, which can take you to some achy places. 

In a world that tells you to go, go, go, waiting might not feel like the sexy option. But giving yourself time to honor the weight and power of your story is a sign of self-respect that can ensure you’re not sending out work from an overly vulnerable place.

Having lived through many anniversaries, I know my grief cycle. Every year, as this anniversary approaches, grief rushes in like the tide. On February 9th, it sweeps back out to sea and the world looks a little brighter. 

I know the urge to cry will subside. 

The aches will disappear. 

When they do, I’m confident my True Self will greenlight my querying process. 

When that happens, I’ll share that journey with you.  
In the meantime, take care of your precious hearts and keep writing on.

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

When I was eight, I read about a boy who used a divining rod to find water. At the time, my six-year-old brothers and I were trying to build an underground house in the remains of an abandoned brickyard. We’d spent lots of time digging out our foundation and building the fires that would keep us warm. But when I read about the divining rod, I realized we had a major problem. There was no way for us to find or transfer water to our off-the-grid, pipe-free home. 

We tried to address the first part of our problem by building a divining rod, but no matter how many times we shook our Y-shaped sticks through the air, they never worked. 

Sometimes writing well requires a little divining. 

We structure our plots hoping to engage our readers, but until we tap into our feelings, we can’t truly flesh them out. 

Our emotions play an important part in our writing lives. They help us understand and connect with our characters’ feelings, build better scenes, and develop more compelling narrative arcs. 

During the revision process, we can use our intuition (which is an amalgamation of our emotions, senses, and experiences) to let hunches and gut feelings lead us to the places in our manuscript that are working and the ones that need our attention.  

But not all emotions are helpful.

Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by our stories or doubts from our internal critic creep in. We fear our stories aren’t good enough or that we are not good enough. These fears amplify our doubts, which can lead us to trash perfectly good manuscripts. 

As writers, our job is to tease out which emotions come from the ego, and which ones come from the true self. 

Ego is the part of our personality that’s invested in our self-image and the way we’re perceived by the external world. It loves labels and frequently makes comparisons between us and others.  Ego creates thoughts like “I am good at writing,” “I’m terrible at math,” “Nobody likes me,” and “I’m better than you.” It’s mostly concerned with appearances and approval. Ego hates to be caught off guard and armors up against vulnerability—often by telling us that our best and most vulnerable writing is actually terrible

On the other hand, your true self is the part of you that’s always wise and always whole. No matter how much we doubt ourselves or how broken we feel, we all have a true self. Your true self is concerned with truth, understanding, and helping you grow.

Your true self encourages you to follow your dreams and gives you the courage to keep going even when the destination is unclear or seems impossibly far away. Your true self is the part of you that knows when something is working.  It also nudges you to keep learning and try harder without affecting your self-worth.

But how do you differentiate between emotions rising from the ego and emotions rising from the true self? 

Here are a few clues. 

If you’re experiencing doubt or fear, it’s probably your ego talking. To confirm this, write down your fearful, doubting self-talk. Then ask yourself the following question: Are these thoughts related to appearances or approval? 

If they are, say hello to your ego.

If ego is causing problems in your writing life, it’s likely that something about the process is making you feel vulnerable. Your job is to explore what that might be. Here are some questions to help you get started.

  1. Is something outside your writing life making you feel more vulnerable? This could be anything from work or family stress to lack of sleep, physical illness, or even seasonal affective disorder. 
  2. Is something about the writing making you feel too vulnerable? Many people are afraid to start something because they might fail. Others are afraid to finish because they’d have to see themselves as powerful and successful. Sometimes, we reach a vulnerable or even traumatic portion of our story and the wounded part of us doesn’t want to continue. This is common in memoir, but it can happen to fiction writers too if the emotions your characters are feeling are ones you also struggle with. When this happens, ask yourself what you need to feel safe. Do you need to check in with a writing buddy, take a break, practice more self-care, or work with a therapist?
  3. Have I gone too long without feedback from a trusted reader? Here’s the truth. Nonwriters don’t understand the writing life, and most don’t care about it. That’s why a writing community is so essential. Writers can normalize the ups and downs you’re facing. When you lose perspective on your writing projects, they can remind you of your strengths and help you make sense of pieces that have gotten muddled.

But not every doubt comes from the ego
Sometimes, your true self is asking you to dig a little deeper. 

You’ll know your true self is talking when you have a nagging feeling that something in the writing isn’t quite right, but—and here’s the important part—you also feel calm. You aren’t worried about how someone else is perceiving you, you’re worried about creating great art that expresses some universal truth. 

For many of us, connecting with our true selves requires a bit of practice and some guidance. That’s one reason I’m currently teaching Building Creative Intuition.

If you’re looking for a few practices to get you started, consider the following options: 

  1. Find time in your day to be alone with your thoughts. This can be done through a journaling practice like Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a walk by yourself (preferably in a quiet, natural setting), or just sitting for fifteen minutes with your eyes closed. 
  2. Develop a mindful meditation practice. Structured mindful meditation practices can help you develop a sense of calm while you quiet your busy mind. The busy static is often your ego chatting away. When your mind quiets down, you’ll hear your true self speaking to you. 
  3. Notice your gut feelings and begin to trust them. Some of us grew up in environments where we were told that our reality wasn’t real, so we stopped trusting that very wise part of ourselves. When this happens, trusting your gut takes practice. The first step to trusting your gut is to notice that you’re having a gut feeling. When one arises, pay attention to what it says and then give yourself permission to act on the information. Consider this an experiment where the results are just data that inform your future choices. The worst that will happen is that you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake and then you can course correct. Think about how many times you’ve done that when you didn’t trust your gut. 

Over time, you’ll find that your emotions can serve as a very effective divining rod that will lead to your very best stories. 
Have a strategy for tapping into your intuition? 

Or do you struggle with differentiating between ego and your true self? 

Send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 
 And, as always, keep writing on.

The Three Kinds of Clay Needed to Sustain a Writing Practice

The Three Kinds of Clay Needed to Sustain a Writing Practice

A few weeks ago, a client of mine attended a webinar on editing your second draft that was taught by Allison K. Williams.

Allison’s the author of the forthcoming book Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. FYI: I highly recommend you pre-order a copy of this book. 

During this rave-worthy session, Allison said, “Our job in draft one is to gather the clay we’ll later shape into a story.” 
I imagine she means that like a potter digging in the earth, we spend a lot of time during the first draft amassing words without really expecting them to do or be anything. We just need material. The only way to gather that clay is to write things down. 
As I meditated on this line, I began to think about the various kinds of clay we gather during the writing process.

Of course, there are the words on the page, but what other clay must we stockpile? How does it help us shape the material we gather into something beautiful?
Whenever we start a project, whether it’s the first or the final draft, we must gather our courage.
The courage to believe we have something important to say.
The courage to tell the truth.
The courage to keep going even when our internal editor says, “Give up.”
The courage to finish when we’re afraid of success.
The courage to admit when we need to learn new skills.
The courage to start again without seeing our previous attempts as failures. 
Each day that we show up, we demonstrate our belief in ourselves, the process, and our projects. 
We amass courage by naming our fears and sitting with them, by trying again, by treating ourselves with kindness, and by reaching out to others when we’re feeling vulnerable. 
As we build this courage and our word count, we mine the vein of imagination inside us.

Imagination is our ability to form new ideas and make new connections that are not perceived through our senses.

While we can use our logical mind to think up new ideas, imagination exists in the unconscious. It’s aligned with our intuition—the very wise part of us that makes decisions without rational thought. 

To access your imagination, you have to do three things: schedule alone time, allow for boredom, and find ways to play. 
You also have to clear your mind by slowing down and reducing distractions so that you’re ready to listen to what it has to share with you. 

If your imagination feels far away from you, write a letter to it and ask what it wants. Pay attention to this message. 
We know we’ve hit the vein of imagination when our stories wake us up in the middle of the night with a plot solution, or share an important idea while we’re in the shower, or when a character wants to deviate from our original plan.
Imagination is the power that fuels our writing and takes us into the state of flow where the work is easy, and we’re rewarded for our efforts.
What writer doesn’t love a story that talks to us and tells us what to do? 
But sometimes imagination eludes us. 

That’s where perseverance comes in. Perseverance, or continued effort in spite of difficulties, failures, or opposition, is the most essential clay of all. It’s born from courage and flexing it will bring your imagination back to you. 
Perseverance is a practice, not a destination. It requires regular training and at times, coaching from loving friends. Its strength will determine whether you think about becoming a writer or you actually become one.
We persevere when something is meaningful, and the reward is valuable. For many people, getting published isn’t a big enough reward to overcome the inevitable rejections we all face. 
That’s why I always tell writers to establish a personal intention for their projects and then gather a collection of affirmations they can rely on. It’s also why a writing community is so important. 
Sometimes we get discouraged or we feel lost. A loving, supportive writing community can normalize your experiences and build you up when times are tough. 
With each draft, we gather more of this clay. It’s the sustenance that helps us finish our projects. Because the writing life is about learning to live with discomfort, we can never have too much of it. 
This is something I can personally attest to. As many of you know, I’ve spent the last three years working on my memoir: How Not to Die: A Memoir of Suicide, Rock-n-Roll, and Resilience.

I’m currently line editing the last fifty pages. Every time I start a draft, I experience a momentary burst of panic where I forget how to write. Then I gather my clay and begin. 
The first fifty pages of this final draft were a major slog. Then I hit the vein of imagination and the next 150 flew by. Now, with fifty pages of line editing left, my pencil shakes as it hovers over each page. My stomach pinches inward, my neck muscles tighten.
“This is it,” I say, first with a hint of joy, and then a tinge of fear, and finally a helping of grief, because finishing means I have to let this story go for a while. 

I’m experienced enough to know that submitting my book to agents isn’t the end of the revision process. There are more iterations to come. 
When they arrive, I’ll follow Allison’s advice. I’ll gather my clay, having faith that each time I do, I’ll be a little closer to getting this book published. 
So, how are you gathering your clay?
How is it helping you sustain your writing practice? 

Do you have a strategy you’d like to share with others? Send me an email
Wherever you are in the process, enjoy it, and always, always, always write on.

Seven Steps for Writing During Uncertain Times

Seven Steps for Writing During Uncertain Times

I had already planned what I was going to write to you, and then life intervened. 

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, I was working on a client manuscript when texts began to arrive. 

Have you seen the news? 
Do you know what’s happening? 
What have you heard? 

Stories about the insurrection happening at the United States Capitol were all over Twitter, Facebook, and the news. The images reminded me of the Unite the Right Rally held here in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017.

Needless to say, I’ve been somewhat distracted ever since. 

On top of the daily barrage of COVID stressors, I’ve spent some time facing old memories and sitting with the uncertainty and division plaguing our country. 

I want to know what’s going to happen. 
I want to know we’re going to be okay. 
I want a return to the calm I once knew. 

I know some of you live outside the United States. The anxieties you face might be quite different. And yet, during our COVID times, it’s likely something is happening in your part of the world. 

Maybe you’re distracted too.

Maybe that distraction is stealing your precious creative energy. 

Maybe you’re wondering how to keep writing or whether writing matters at all. 

First, let me affirm that writing is essential in times like these.

When you write down your thoughts and feelings, you allow them to live on the page rather than inside you.

This can give you enough distance to find your center and develop a sense of perspective around what’s going on.

Documenting events, as well as your thoughts and feelings, can serve as a historical record—one that might serve future projects.  

But let’s say that’s not enough. 
A story calls to you. 
You know it has a higher purpose, and you don’t want to lose your momentum. 

How do you keep writing when uncertainty continues? 

Here are some tips that might help you. 

  1. Admit that you’re distracted and that it’s affecting your work. Until you acknowledge what is, you can’t do anything about it. 
  2. Journal to get in touch with your feelings. If you’re afraid, what comfort and reassurances do you need? If you’re angry, what boundaries have been crossed? Where is that anger coming from? How much is related to what’s happening right now? How much is related to unexpressed anger from a past event? What’s underneath that anger? Is it fear, sadness, grief, humiliation, or powerlessness? As you explore these feelings, see if they’re related to your work in progress. Or, can you harness some of that angsty energy and divert it to your writing projects? 
  3. Limit your intake of news and social media. Doom scrolling doesn’t solve the world’s problems. It will, however, inflame your uncomfortable feelings. Consume enough to stay informed and safe, but that’s it.
  4. Commit to practicing self-care. This means healthy food, regular movement, adequate sleep, time for quiet, and time for fun. 
  5. Connect with people who love and support you. Restless minds grow more restless in isolation. Connecting with others can help break that cycle.
  6. Find your center. There’s a still, small place inside all of us that is always calm and always wise. Make a list of practices you’ve developed for finding your center. Then, go practice them. If you’re looking for some new ones, consider the following options: 
    1. Spend five minutes doing alternate nostril breathing.
    2. Close your eyes, inhale, and imagine you’re sending your breath to your solar plexus. Now, imagine there’s a trampoline at the bottom of it. When the air hits the trampoline, it bounces back up and exhales out of your body. Repeat this for five minutes. 
    3. Complete a body scan meditation
    4. Practice Metta Loving Kindness meditation. Metta can give you a positive sense of control at times that feel out of control. 
  7. Once you’ve found your center, consider what right actions you need to take. That might mean anything from speaking out about something, setting a boundary, and recommitting to a project, to beginning or ending a relationship.  I can’t tell you what right actions you should take, but I can tell you that right actions come from a centered place. They’re not always easy or welcome in the short run, but they always serve love and peace. If you’re not sure what actions to take, do nothing other than find and maintain your inner peace. When it’s time for you to do something, you’ll know.  You can use this quote from Viktor Frankl as a guide: “Between stimulus and the response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Spend time in that space between stimulus and response.
Access your power.
Be in charge of your freedom and growth. 

 If you’re meant to continue with a specific writing project, your muse will stand by you. 

If it’s taking a break, have faith that it will return when the time is right. It’s just giving you space for other, equally important work. 

We will get through this. I have an abiding faith that while January 6, 2021,  knocked me off my center, peace, love, and positive times are ahead of us. 

I believe in you and your work.

As you go through this week, may you be healthy, happy, and in a state of peace. 

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