Have you checked your bandwidth lately?

Have you checked your bandwidth lately?

Holy smokes, Election Day has arrived! 
 
For the past eleven months, we’ve been told this is the most important election of our lifetimes. For many of us, the outcome feels crucial. It arrives after almost six years of campaigns, town halls, debates, and endless pontification.  
 
I voted at 8:47 a.m. on Thursday, October 1, 2020, after a thirty-minute wait in line. Two weeks ago, I helped my father confirm that his mail-in ballot was received by his polling location.
 
If you haven’t voted, step away from your computer and get thee to your polling place! 
 
If you mailed in your ballot, confirm that it was received.  
 
Once your civic duty is complete, do a little happy dance.
 
Next, journal about your experience.
 
Include the taste of the air, the feel of angst on your skin, and anything else that strikes you as important. Even if the election is uneventful, your entry might serve as a future project. 
 
Then do me a favor.

Step away from the news, at least for a few hours. 
 
I’m spending election day in quiet contemplation, far, far, far away from social media. 
 
I’ll read a good book, do a little writing, and praypraypray for the good of our country. 
 
The ramp up to the election has been filled with dire predictions about who will win and what will happen to our democracy. This chatter is on top of news about spiking COVID cases, Supreme Court confirmations, the death of more unarmed black men, downturns in the stockmarket, hurricanes and wildfires, and the list goes on. 
 
It’s likely the news cycle will crank that distracting noise up to eleven in the coming days and months. 
 
To help you stay centered, I’m going to talk about practical ways you can silence the chatter that plagues writers most. 
 
Before we begin, let’s do a quick bandwidth check. 
 
Imagine you’re a radio station emitting a very specific signal. Right now, some of your signals might be so strong I’d hear them a few miles off. Others might be so weak they barely leave your neighborhood. 
 
To check your bandwidth, ask yourself the following questions:
 
1. What are my current responsibilities? Which ones are new to 2020? 
2. What community-wide problems are affecting me?
3. What personal obstacles or challenges am I facing?
4. How emotionally intense or draining are my days?
5. How does my current situation impact my commitment to my writing life?
6. Where am I getting support?
7. Does that support feel like it’s enough?

Once you have your answers, pause and take a few deep breaths.  
 
While we all have a 2020 story to tell, right now, yours is the one that matters. 
 
Get clear about what this year has been like for you, then give yourself a big hug.
 
Now, get out a piece of paper and draw your radio station. 
 
Mine looks like a simple rectangle topped with a long skinny triangle for the antennae. 
 
Next, draw a circle around your antennae that matches the size of your bandwidth. 

If the circle is small, you need more self-care. 
 
If your circle is in the Goldilocks range where you have enough to take care of yourself but not enough to spare, take a few minutes to be grateful. That alone is a huge 2020 win. 
 
If your circle is wide, spread the love by finding opportunities to be of service. 
 
I have no idea what the days and weeks ahead will bring, but I feel confident we will get through this. 
 
But for now, as we weather this momentous transition, take excellent care of yourself and everyone you know.

Be a source of love and light in this world.

Have faith that good things are just around the corner. 
 
Keep writing, and know that I’m cheering you on. 

Boredom Might Be the Kick in the Pants Your Writing Life Needs

Boredom Might Be the Kick in the Pants Your Writing Life Needs

This morning, I channeled my inner Trent Reznor by singing the chorus from the Nine Inch Nail’s song that currently defines my life: 

Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same

There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same 
With the exception of the third line, this is my current jam. Every day is exactly the same. My husband and I get up and walk through our neighborhood,  eat a few paleo pancakes, and then amble to our offices for work. At lunch, we munch on salad and then go for another walk. After work, we cook dinner, go for yet another walk, watch a little Netflix, and then head to bed. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat again. 

 This past weekend, I realized the problem wasn’t just the monotony brought on by COVID, it was monotony’s sidekick: boredom. 

Exploring boredom might feel a bit trivial when millions of people are out of work, fearing eviction, risking their lives in essential jobs, or protesting inequality, all the while thousands of people die daily from COVID-19. But even within these precarious, stressful, and frightening situations, we can experience boredom. 

And boredom is uncomfortable. 
 
For centuries, we’ve been conditioned to avoid it.  
 
Has this ever happened to you? 
 
“Hey ma, I’m bored.” 
 
“You’re bored? Well, let me see …. you could clean your room, shave the dog, pick lint out of the carpet….”
 
Silence. 
 
“Still bored?” 
 
“No.” You slink into the backyard, still bored, and now feeling pretty terrible about it. 
 
Ever hear this? “Idleness is the devil’s playground.” 
 
Or, what about the praise someone gets for saying yes to every single project? “She’s such a great multitasker,” they gush. 
 
We’ve been programmed to see boredom as bad, and as a result, we see bored people as bad. How can we allow ourselves a little boredom when it causes so much disdain? 
 
The pandemic has put us in touch with our boredom. In response, many of us are binge-watching, baking, gardening, spending way to much time on social media, registering for virtual gallery tours, and signing up for every MOOC, webinar, and class we can to fill the time. 

There’s nothing wrong with these activities. 
 
But boredom is the playground of creativity and ingenuity. Bored kids create imaginary kingdoms. Bored adults invent new ways of seeing the world. 
 
Boredom can revamp your writing life. 
 
So, how do you lean into your boredom? 

  • Notice when you’re bored. What are you doing (or not doing)? What does boredom feel like in your body?
  • Write down the thoughts and feelings you have about boredom. Are they particular to this situation, or are you chastising yourself for having any dull moments? 
  • Affirm the power of boredom in your creative life. Say something like, “I’m so grateful to be bored,” or “I can’t wait to see what great ideas I’m about to have,” or “Thank you for giving me enough time and idleness to create something new.” 
  • Resist the urge to numb your way out of boredom through technology or busyness. Instead, stare at the wall, or look at your surroundings. If this feels impossible, set a timer for five minutes so the task doesn’t feel so open-ended. Each time you’re bored, up the time until you reach 15 minutes. If fifteen feels easy, strive for an hour. 
  • Journal about what you thought about or did while you were bored and how it benefited you.

Not sure you can handle it? 
 
Take your boredom to the shower. Yes, you heard me right. Stand under some warm water, and stare into space. Be the jerky housemate who runs out the hot water. As soon as you towel off, write down what happened and what you learned from this experience.  
 
So, enjoy your boredom. While you’re at it, tell me about a time when something amazing happened in the midst of your boredom. I’d love to know what you’ve been up to. 

Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

Voice Lesson Number Four: Develop Your Style

When I was a high school senior, I crushed hard on a pair of silver Chucks in our mall’s shoe store.  Those sneakers sparkled under the fluorescents like they were calling to my punk, grunge-girl heart. I can’t tell you how much they cost, only that they cost more than I could afford. 
 
For months, I visited them and daydreamed about the compliments I’d get and how well they’d go with my thrift-store skirts—especially the ones I called my granny camo. 
 
I still think those Chucks are pretty rad, but I’m now at an age where my shoes need arches. 
 
Some of you might be thinking, silver Chucks, really?
 
If you are, that’s great! Style—whether it’s in clothing or writing—is extremely personal. 
 
In writing, style involves word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm. While authenticitytruth, and perspective require you to explore something inside of yourself, style is definitely a skill learned over time.   
 
When I think of writing style, three authors come to mind.
 
First, there’s twentieth-century poet e.e. cummings, who wrote 

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
 
Cummings refused to capitalize anything, including the letter I, in hopes of decreasing the importance of the self in his work. 
 
Then there’s the Hemmingway/Faulkner debate. Faulkner famously wrote a 1,288-word run-on sentence in Absalom, Absalom! Hemmingway’s spartan style is frequently associated with a six-word story—For sale: baby shoes, never worn—that may not actually be his. 

While modern audiences tend to prefer leaner writing (check out the Hemmingway Editor App) you don’t have to become a Hemmingway disciple. You do need to understand your style. 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Scroll through your files and select a piece of writing that exemplifies your best work. Print a hard copy. 
 
Next, record yourself reading the piece out loud. 
 
Close your eyes and play the recording. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences. Do they gallop, trot along, or lazily amble by? Do certain sounds stand out? 
 
Now, play the recording while you follow along with your hard copy. What do you notice about the length of your sentences and your use of white space? What on the page enhances your story? 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Choose three authors you admire. Copy a few paragraphs of their work by hand. Handwriting each word will help you get a feel for the writing and the length of the writer’s sentences. 
 
Record yourself reading this work. Close your eyes and listen to your recording. What do you notice? 
 
Listen back again while following along with your hard copy. See anything else? 
 
Jot down your answers and reflect on what they tell you about your own writing style. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 
 
Consider writing some of your prose in a favorite author’s style to see how it feels. Then try another author. Notice what feels authentic. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Then practice, practice, practice your art form.  
 
While I hope you’ll focus largely on writers in your genre, be sure to check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And, while you’re at it, subscribe to Poetry Daily and see how poets approach this work.
 
Which authors do you turn to when learning about style? Send me their names. I’d love to know, and your answer might inspire someone else. 

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Voice Lesson Number Three: Understanding Your Unique Lens

Do you know what color glasses you’re wearing when you sit down to write? 

Not sure? 

For a long time, I struggled with this too. 
 
In writing, we approach our stories from a particular angle that’s driven by our authentic self. The details you capture or exclude create a tone your writing projects–like glasses with a colored lens. That tone could be darkly humorous, serious, or cynical. 
 
Tone is the attitude we take in our writing. It’s closely aligned with perspective. 
 
To understand perspective, and its relationship to tone, try this exercise with a partner: 

  • Take a picture of a house in your neighborhood and share it with your partner. 
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write descriptions of that house. 
  • Next, describe the house as if you’re standing next to a new lover. 
  • Finally, describe the house as if you’re a soldier who’s just returned from battle.  

 
I bet each description focuses on a slightly different aspect of the house. Those variations come from the character’s lens. Now, notice the similarities between the three descriptions. Those similarities arise from your voice as a writer. The emotional feel of those details is your tone. 

Now, share your descriptions with your partner. 
 
How does their lens compare to yours? 
 
Here’s your inner work: 
 
Return to the social media posts I asked you to save. Weed out the cat and kid pictures. Find the ones where you wrote something that truly represents you. Notice the similarities. Are they funny, impassioned, or serious? 
 
That general tone is an element of the real you. 
 
Here’s your outer work: 
 
Identify the authors on your bookshelf whose lens is similar to your own. If nothing sticks out, drop by your local independent bookstore and ask the salesclerk for some recommendations. As you read selected works, underline the sentences that have the most voice. Write a few down. Journal about why this author’s voice works well. 
 
Here’s your writing work: 

Now that you have a sense of your lens, figure out what you need to do harness its power. Study the masters, read craft articles, and then write, write, write. 
 
What tone patterns did you notice in your social media posts? Send me an email so I can hear what you learned.   

Looking for more voice lessons? 

Voice Lesson One: The Courage to Be True

Voice Lesson Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

Voice Lesson Number Two: Be Your Authentic Self

I spent the summer of 1984 being my own twin cousin. I was ten. My mom had just chopped my long hair into a shoulder-length bob.

After crying about my uneven bangs, I put on a pair of white plastic sunglasses, stuffed three sticks of Doublemint gum into my mouth, and introduced myself as twin cousin Jennifer from Oswego. 

A few kids were skeptical of my twin-cousin claims, but I answered their questions about my likes (swearing, climbing apple trees, reading Cosmo) and dislikes (playing with sticks, messing with ants, and answering questions).

When they asked how we could be twins if we didn’t have the same mother, I told them our mothers shared a mother and that was pretty much the same thing. 

Without the Internet to debunk my theory, kids agreed to call me Jennifer. 

In becoming someone else, I began to see who I really was. 

Your first voice lesson was about finding your courage

Here’s lesson number two: To find your voice, you have to know who you are. 

Some people think having a voice means turning on the sass, revealing your master’s in slang, or dispensing f-bombs like they’re PEZ candy. Others think you need to be gonzo like Hunter S. Thompson and tell counter-culture stories in strange accents. 

If you’re not gonzo or sassy, trying to write as if you are is like wearing a mask to work. There will be weird looks. When you try to convince someone your mask’s rhino horn is actually part of your forehead, someone will call bullshit. 

Be yourself instead.

Here’s your inner work: 

Exercise #1: What word do you use to describe that piece of furniture in your living room? Couch? Sofa? Davenport? Divan? Love seat? Rumpus Machine? 

There’s no shame in being a couch or sofa person. If you say divan or rumpus machinen, own it. Just begin to notice what language you naturally use. 

Exercise #2: Flip through your real or virtual photo albums. Pay attention to your style. While some fashion choices, like jelly sandals or MC Hammer pants, might have changed, I bet a few things remain the same. Perhaps it’s the cut of your clothes or your color palette. That something that remains the same is likely an aspect of your authentic self. 

Exercise #3: Make a list of adjectives that describe you. 

Exercise #4: Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • Who am I?
  • What are my passions?
  • How do I see the world?
  • If I could follow my bliss, what would that look like? 

 
Here’s your outer work: 

Exercise #1: Make a list of 3 or 4 animals that could represent you. Share the list with a group of friends and ask them which one they’d choose and why. Compare their answers to the adjectives you’ve chosen for yourself. 

Exercise #2: Scroll through your social media posts. Find the ones you’ve written that have the most likes. Copy and paste these posts into a document. Note which ones seem like they represent your authentic voice. We’ll come back to this document later in the month. 

Here’s your writing work: 

Author and entrepreneur Marie Forleo believes writing it rude will help you find your voice. Here’s what she means. Write your shitty first draft as if no one is going to read it. Pump it full of opinions and emotions. Say it with feeling and don’t worry about who’ll get hurt. 

In that passionate place, you’re most likely to write from your authentic voice. Underline the sentences that truly communicate your message, then revise, revise, revise to get the rest right.

When you revise, leave your voice in but take the rude out. As Marie says, the best writing comes from a place of both passion and compassion. 
 
Authenticity is a journey, not a destination. And. it’s important because you’re important. 

Take it from Martha Graham:
 

“There’s a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” 

 
If you did the animal exercise, send me an email and let me know which one your friends chose. I’d love to know. 

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Finding Your “New Original:” Re-connecting with Your Manuscript in a COVID World

Last weekend my husband cut his finger while replacing the blade on his not-so-safe safety razor. By the time I reached the bathroom, the place looked like a murder scene. We wrapped the wound and hoped for the best. An hour later, it was still bleeding. Next stop: urgent care. 
 
Sitting in the urgent care parking lot was the starkest reminder I’d had that things had changed. 
 
He had to call to enter. Masks were required. His temperature was taken at the door. I was instructed to wait in the car. His wound required four stitches. Fortunately, it’s healing well. 
 
Every day, I hear people say they can’t wait until we can get back to normal. Hell, I find myself saying this. Who doesn’t want to grocery shop without fear or walk the neighborhood mask-free? 
 
What I crave is what Dr. Fauci calls “the original way.” I really like this term. “Normal” means we’re living life wrong. “Original way” suggests variations are acceptable. 
 
I also hear this on a regular basis: My project is no longer relevant. Our world has changed. Pre-COVID stories no longer matter. 
 
Not everything in life has to do with COVID19.
 
Babies are being born. Careers are beginning. People are dying of non-COVID causes. Somewhere someone is embarking on a fabulous adventure, even if that trip is simply a journey within. 
 
Your project contains a universal truth that’s still relevant. 

 

Find that universal. Stick it on a Post-It note. Read it every day. Write and revise toward that aim. Unclear on your universal?  Ask yourself the following question:  What’s the one emotion in my story everyone can relate to? Still not sure? Keep writing. 
 
Maybe you’ll find a “new original” for your project.
 
This new original won’t necessarily include COVID19 or pandemic scenes. Instead, it will retain your original narrative arc while also being sensitive to our collective experiences of fear, loss, and a search for meaning.  

If you’re looking for a way to find that new universal, consider signing up for the Thursday section of Writing Through Challenging Times. Class begins on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 1:00 PM EDT.

 

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