I love the title of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write, because it requires the reader make a spontaneous act of creativity to mentally finish the phrase. If you want to write… go ahead! If you want to write… write! If you want to write… what’s stopping you?
Ueland’s book was published in 1938. She was a writer who found herself leading creative writing classes for adults, often women. If You Want To Write is a treasure trove of sharp insights she learned helping her students over their own obstacles. She offers encouragement on every page, right from the very first words of chapter one: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.”
This is not a book of advice about grammar or how to query agents. Instead it’s a sort of spell of enchantment about the power in self-expression, that starts with giving yourself permission and building a shell against criticism.
Here’s a creative exercise: For the next ten minutes, behave as if the universe is trying to communicate a secret lesson to you. Can you decode it? What are the patterns in the sky and the wind right now? Why did that song come on the radio at that exact instant? In these days when we are bombarded with messages all day from social media and news, it’s enlightening to look for indirect significance from the cosmos instead. This exercise is so effective in altering consciousness that it was cited as basic magic by Grant Morrison in his terrific essay Pop Magic.
One of Brenda Ueland’s nuggets of guidance is to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.” It’s advice that is not far from the habit of writing “morning pages,” which I wrote about here recently. If you’d like a little structure for your honest diary, I could recommend the daily exercises in the newly released book Dear Wellbeing… by my friend and colleague Susan Balogh.
I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.
Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like. You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details. But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.
I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at Stereogum.com. Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955.
Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories. Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me. A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.
“The Number Ones” transcends that. Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable. Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article. This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.
It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance. Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music. The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.
When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955. Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience. “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.
Creativity is a process suffused with magic and mystery for me. Who can explain where imagination comes from? How did humanity learn to put marks on a page that would become stories in the minds of readers? One of the reasons writing and writers are so fascinating to me is respect for something so potent yet so little understood.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a resource that shares this sense of wonder and delight. At the same time, it’s a practical and effective guide to becoming a better and more productive writer. I recommend it for people who, like me, believe inspiration is something that can be cultivated.
I was introduced to the technique of “morning pages” by The Artist’s Way. The idea, and these are my words not Julia’s, is to start the day by clearing away the accumulated load of mental trivia and idle thoughts and anxieties, before starting on the day’s real creative work. Morning pages are completely free-form and personal, to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. They have no apparent purpose. They are not intended ever to be read again.
Morning pages have made me a better writer. I’m not able to give a rational explanation why, but I don’t argue with what works.
I don’t strictly adhere to Julia Cameron’s method. For one thing, I don’t always write them in the morning. I might need to knock some distracting stuff out of my head in the middle of the day. I sometimes have the feeling that there’s too much on my mind and it’s blocking me from focusing on my story. Writing morning pages can help me push that detritus aside. For me, it’s something of a cousin to keeping a to-do list. If you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore.
Julia wants morning pages to always be written by hand, and for the morning session to always end up with three filled pages. Again, with my thanks but apologies to Julia, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t write anything by hand any more except notes and lists. Truthfully, I think that I never learned to hold a pen correctly, and writing more than a few sentences by hand starts to cause knotty muscle pain in my forearm. I think faster than I can write (we all do), and for me the speed of using a keyboard is essential.
“It is harder to be blocked than to do the work.” — Julia Cameron
I write a lot every week. I’ve got a novel in progress, and during November, I try to binge on it (I’m currently behind in my NaNoWriMo word count, but I’ve added a scene almost every day since the start of the month). I also keep a journal, post on my blog, stay in touch with friends by email, and do morning pages (more on those in an upcoming post). But the most important writing I do is keeping a gratitude journal.
Both “keep” and “journal” are inappropriate words for me to use in that sentence. I write my gratitude on scraps of paper, frequently on the reverse of to-do lists that are finished. And I never hang on to them, or even read them over. I write them down and into the recycle bin they go. And that’s the way it works for me. The single important thing is the act of writing down what I’m grateful about.
Feeling gratitude is one of a small number of things proven by researchers in “positive psychology” to increase happiness. And that’s about half the reason that feeling gratitude is important: to feel better. And the other half, honestly, is to make the world a better place.
I’m not an outwardly-focused person, or a humble person. Writing down my gratitude is a corrective for both those things. I recognize and acknowledge how other people have helped me, and how there are things in the world that I love, and that I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if the universe wasn’t providing an invisible platform of support for everything I do.
I do it with a pen. I don’t stop until the page is full. Certain people get a mention every time — whether it’s near the top or near the bottom of the page may depend on what’s on my mind at that moment. I quite often write them at night, after I get into bed. But I might do one any time, if the sense comes over me that I’m not in balance and I might need to feel a sense of appreciation and love and blessing.
I have so much to be grateful for, and it’s not the purpose of this blog to make those things public, but it is hugely important to me that I know those things myself. A few nights ago I was waiting to fall asleep, after I had already written a page of gratitude notes and tossed it into the bin, I began to be flooded with dozens of other names and images. People who have been in my life, who have helped me in some way with friendship or who have perhaps strengthened me with their antagonism. So many beautiful human souls, starting with my parents and sisters and grandparents and my very first childhood neighborhood friends. I tried to slow myself down and let them flow through me in a systematic way, year by year, remembering people I went to school with, teachers, friends of the family. And for each face, I tried to feel a moment of gratitude and send a blessing. Immersing myself in the memories of all these people who were part of my life, one after another…
It took me two hours to get up to 1990, and that’s where I started again the next night.
The idea of a songwriting team – a lyricist and a composer – seems anachronistic, an artifact of the past. Tin Pan Alley, the glory days of Broadway musicals, the American Songbook. Since the rock era began, it’s much less common to find songs written by structured partnerships in this way.
I’m a member of one of these quaint collaborations, though. I have been a lyricist for more than forty years for my very good friend C.P. Butchvarov. Some of the best creative experiences of my life have been wrapped up in collaborative songwriting.
Both C.P. and I write songs without each other, as well. As a musician and composer, I’m barely competent; as a lyricist, C.P. is damn good. But we don’t suffocate ourselves by trying to make every song dependent on each other.
As the person who writes the words, I’m aware that lyrics are the least important aspect of a song. For most songs, I believe that the lyrics carry less than ten percent of the impact for the listener. The words can be stupid, they can be nonsense, and the song can still be great. In my opinion, the primary responsibility of the lyricist is to make vocal sounds that fit the melody and the arrangement. That’s the fundamental logic behind my preference that the words should be written after the music.
The perfect musical setting can make a line of lyrics vault into the realm of greatness. Here’s an example from a music-and-lyrics songwriting team, Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.” I’m fairly certain the lyrics were written first and put to music in this case. The song has a beautiful melody with an unpredictable chord progression. When it comes to this final line, the vocal takes on a march rhythm, then unexpectedly and brilliantly soars into a different key. That moment brings chills, and as lovely as they are, it isn’t Bernie’s words that do that to me.
A flawless line of lyrics can make a song more memorable. Another composer/lyricist team I admire is Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. I confess that I get impatient with some of Jerry’s slow, trudging melodies. I’d probably skip over the song “Candyman” every time I listen to “American Beauty” if it wasn’t for this gem of a couplet: “Good morning, Mister Benson, I see you’re doing well. If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.”
Songwriting is a process with magic and alchemy involved. There is no thrill greater than listening back to a powerful song and feeling I can’t believe I wrote that! C.P. Butchvarov wrote a song called “Mountain Country” that was amazing, but I lobbied him over a barroom table in Grand Teton National Park to let me rewrite the lyrics. Thanks, C.P., for letting me have a little piece of the credit for this great song. Listen to the result here.
At age 13 I read the proofs of my dad’s first book (Designing the Communication Experiment by John Waite Bowers). The original meaning of “proofreading” was the necessary step of closely reading proof pages from the printer, since errors might have occurred when the author’s manuscript was transferred to type at a print shop for publishing. This was the author’s last chance to fix anything before hundreds or thousands of copies of the book rolled off the presses.
I earned a penny for each error that I found in dad’s proofs, but I got a bonus payment of a nickel for identifying a chart that had its X and Y axes reversed. Maybe that positive reinforcement was why I learned to enjoy proofreading.
In my experience, many authors are not good proofreaders of their own work. This becomes a serious problem for somebody who is self-publishing. Get somebody to read it for you before you go to final formatting. You may be blind to your own errors.
When Nobody’s Wife was published, I wasn’t given the chance to proofread before the book went to press. It has some mortifying errors in it. One of the worst is that the word “Foreword” was misspelled “Forward.” It turns out there must be a lot of people who don’t know the difference between those two words, because I’ve seen that same mistake in books several times since then.
In college I worked a couple of semesters at Windhover Press, setting type by hand and proofreading when a book was ready to be printed. We proofread in pairs, backward. One person read aloud from the author’s manuscript while the other person read the proofed pages, but we read the words in reverse, from end to beginning. It’s tedious but it’s a good technique, because reading forward, your mind and eye will skip over errors and fill them in mentally. Reading backward, it is impossible to attach meaning to the words and so you notice them for what they are, artifacts of ink on a page.
I recently proofed the final draft of a book for a friend who is self-publishing. I like closely reading another author’s work; I learn about variations in writing voice and styles. The reading-backward technique is not feasible when solo proofing, because you will fail to notice sentences that are missing words or have words in the wrong order. I adapted a little bit by reading some of the pages from the bottom paragraph to the top, so that I would not fall into the reading trance.
Proofreading is not the same thing as editing. In my mind, a proofreader should only mark real errors, and that means skipping past places where a sentence could have been phrased more clearly or another word would have been a better choice. But in proofreading for a friend, I might find it irresistible to mark the worst of those with suggested revisions. That’s just being helpful, right?
For me, inspiration is much the same thing as realization. Thinking about a factory setting in my novel in progress, Wash Away, I suddenly realized that the building had been a brewery before it became a chemical plant. “Realized” is the only appropriate word I could use here; it simply struck me. Even though this place is completely an artifact of my own imagination, I discovered a piece of its history.
This year for NaNoWriMo – and wish me luck with this approach, because I have no idea if it will work – I decided to write thirty scenes for my novel, one a day during November. I have a lot of threads in play, and they all need to go in certain directions, but a linear/sequential approach seems more difficult than necessary, since they’re all jumbled up in my mind. So I wrote thirty scene cards, which I will attack one at a time starting on Sunday.
Writing thirty scene cards required thirty small acts of inspiration. Inspiration is elusive, and everybody knows that. The best you can do is increase your odds. I believe in trying to cultivate a state of active waiting. The active part is attention and preparedness. If there is a place in my story and it needs a certain part, I can at least try to define the shape of that part, and be ready to recognize it when it happens to roll by me.
It’s such a presumptuous idea, to write a blog post about inspiration, as if I had it by the tail. I don’t, and I’m deeply aware that this is an area subject to what Dr. Laurie Santos calls “The G.I. Joe Fallacy.” The G.I. Joe Fallacy is mistakenly thinking that because you understand something, that understanding will change your behavior. (It comes from the phrase “Knowing is half the battle!” which I remember well from cartoon PSAs when I grew up.) I may be aware that active waiting is the best way to cultivate moments of inspiration. That doesn’t make the waiting any easier for me.
Franz Kafka wrote, in a notebook intended only for himself: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Robert Pirsig, in his unparalleled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, equated waiting for inspiration with the Zen state of nothingness in consciousness. If you’re trying to remove a motorcycle’s cover plate but you accidentally tear the head off the screw, you’re stuck. But wait, and “no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. … The solutions all are simple after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are.”
Impede, implode, implant your data
Interpose apocalyptic fear
The dead are whispering wise advice
Somehow you cannot hear
The watchers know your search behavior
All your favorite sites for girls and guns
Computer eye, unblinking at you
Compiling all your deeds undone
So God led you down into the shadows
Trapped in hidden mechanism gears
Step on the gas, pedestrians scatter
Trade your life and dreams for a career
Secure your bunker, disguise your weapons
Nervous laughter edged with helpless rage
The drooling gibberish, senseless babble
Push the bird back in the cage
Feeling way too fine, that's the sign
You're about to crash
Your stardust wand, that Disney crap
Match it with your sleek stiletto blade
Spiced up, spaced out, packing heat
Jittered, jagged, and all frayed
That swirling flock of blackbirds
Flat and dreadful as a falling pane of glass
Heartbeat and breath, warmth and sleep
For what, you cannot ask
Feeling way too fine, that's the sign
You're about to crash
October is prep time for National Novel Writing Month in November. I’ll be racing for 50,000 words next month, just like thousands of others around the world. One of the best books I’ve read about writing is No Plot? No Problem!, by Chris Baty, who is the founder of NaNoWriMo. At the risk of taking all the fun out of it (it’s a really enjoyable read), here are the notes I took from this book last October while I was prepping for NaNo 2019. Think of this as a matted tangle of good advice that probably makes very little sense out of context. I highly recommend you read the book instead.
“Writing for its own sake has surprising rewards.” Seek to achieve the zone where the writer becomes a passive conduit for the story.
The deadline is the essential motivator. Low expectations, high yield, exuberant imperfection.
Find time by analyzing your own daily schedule. Set aside the internet, non-writing friends, and television. Approach scheduling with light heart and open mind.
In writing at home, isolate yourself, use uninterrupted blocks of time, limit your writing to those times, don’t write in view of a bed, be comfortable, keep the writing area neat.
Listen to the voice of the universe giving you material; use a notebook to write it down.
Benefits of limited planning: you might stumble across something brilliant; planning becomes an excuse to put off writing; prewriting takes the fun out of writing.
What, to you, makes a good novel? What is the novel you want to read?
What are the things that bore or depress you in novels? Make these two lists. If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it.
Pitch the plot to yourself, from start to finish, repeatedly.
What would happen if we added an orangutan to the mix?
The story suggests its own setting. Model your settings on real-life locations you know.
During week one: Confiscate the inner editor.
Take the challenge seriously. But do not take the work too seriously. Ride the momentum. Don’t delete, but mark sections to be deleted.
Keep a novel notes file. Don’t tell anybody your story.
Write about something that scares you. Ask somebody to tell you about their strange uncle.
Watch a good TV show with analysis in mind.
Don’t feel like each chapter has to be right before moving on to the next one.
Split up writing sessions, two a day, and write every day during week one. Wake up 30 minutes early.
Week two: Still having no plot is not uncommon. Characters may rise and fall in importance. “Don’t get it right, get it written.”
When you’re not writing, be open to “plot flashes.”
Create notes within the story to indicate idea changes, don’t go back and change earlier chapters.
Push yourself to exhaustion because you know you’ve got the potential.
Switch to writing on paper sometimes.
End your writing sessions in mid-sentence.
Week three: Catch up on any word debt. Feel gravity taking effect as the trail turns downhill. Let the momentum fly. Break things, break a character’s arc. Add more conflict.
Week four: Finish. Write the ending, regardless of how far away you think you are. Come-from behind victories are a time-honored part of NaNoWriMo.
Good luck to anybody who is participating this November. God bless NaNoWriMo and Chris Baty.
I’m tremendously pleased this week to interview an author I really admire: Susan Balogh. Susan is a holistic healing and happiness coach – and writer! – whose 2019 book, 100 Days of Actions and Intentions To Create the Life You Wish For, is something like a detailed treasure map to living a happier, more fulfilled life. Every page sparkles with insights and guidance, with practices each day to bring the experiences to life. Here is a beautiful quote from the book:
“When you’ve brought your mind and body into harmony with the natural free spirit within you, you allow the wellbeing to flow, and when it flows, all good things come your way with effortless ease.”
Susan, how would you describe your book, 100 Days of Actions and Intentions To Create the Life You Wish For?
The overall goal of the book is to help you feel better on a daily basis so that you begin to attract healthier, happier experiences and relationships. It’s also meant to help readers believe in themselves and believe in their desires, as well as their ability to achieve them. I really wanted them to feel as though the words they were hearing were specifically meant for them, so I tried to make it very relatable. Since it’s meant to help you practice feeling how you want to feel, it’s written from the reader’s point of view. I did my best to design it in a way that would gradually build up their positive momentum. The idea was to keep leveling up to a higher level of wellbeing throughout the book.
Your book is structured with readings, guidance, and actions daily over a 100-day period. How did you choose this structure, and did you find it easy to work with while you were writing your book?
For the reader’s best possible results for a personal transformation, I felt it was important to encourage a daily practice. It also needed to be long enough to practice the actions and intentions until they became a routine thought or habit, if so desired.
Each chapter has its own topic with a beginning and ending. That made it quite easy to write the book. However, I made it all-inclusive of anything I felt was important to include about life. I wanted it to feel a bit like a handbook for life that could help someone feel better from morning to night. That was the goal, and it became a lengthy project that was well worth my time!
Your book is also structured with three major 30-day sections. Can you give us an overview of each of the three sections?
Each step is meant to help you practice a feeling until it becomes a part of who you are. The first thirty days are meant to help you practice the feeling of total wellbeing.
The second step is practicing more love and appreciation for yourself and all that life brings you. It’s focused on improving your relationship with yourself and others, and feeling more deeply satisfied with your life.
Step three is meant to help you achieve an abundance mindset and gain clarity on your wishes and dreams.
Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What books would you like to recommend?
Deepak Chopra was one of my favorites when I started becoming more purposeful in my thinking. I loved The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and kept it close for a lot of years.
Another somewhat unusual writer and a favorite of mine is Wallace D. Wattles, who wrote his books in the early 1900’s, three of the most popular being The Science of Getting Rich, The Science of Being Well, and the Science of Being Great.
Is there a time of day you like to write? A certain place you like to write?
I have found myself writing morning, noon, and night, and haven’t found a favorite time yet. However, some of my favorite moments are those I’ve spent writing on my laptop and sipping on wine, while seated at a restaurant patio that overlooked the water. I also tend to wake up in the morning with an idea for a new book or the book I’m writing and speak it right into my phone to get the idea in there before it’s forgotten.
Do you write every day? Do you outline before you write?
I am in the habit of writing every day, yes. I’m usually eager to get to it and I find it so exciting that it never feels like work. Generally I get a whole bunch of ideas that keep coming again and again, and then I finally stop to look at all of it and try to put it in some kind of order. I think I feel better putting down the ideas when I think of them. But oddly, I often end up starting over and ignoring everything I wrote down. Ha! But I find it all comes back to me.
When I am caught up in a writing project, I know I sometimes dream about the characters or dream I am writing. Have you had an experience like that? Are you an intuitive writer?
I often imagine I have a client or potential reader sitting in front of me and that helps me think of what they may need or want to hear. Much of what I write is based on what I’ve learned in my own personal experiences, as well as the research I did over a period of many years when I needed it for my own self-healing purposes. Since I never refer to anything as I write, I consider myself a very intuitive writer. I feel that it’s the best way to write; from the heart. And I often feel guided as I’m writing.
How have you promoted your book? Has the pandemic interfered with your plans for promotion? Do you think the marketing of your book has gone according to plan?
When the book first came out on 2019 I had it on a few discounted book promotion sites that were very helpful. I have also enjoyed doing several book signings and presentations at various book stores and libraries. I did some advertising through Amazon that seemed to go well. Since the pandemic began I’ve been so focused on writing new books that I haven’t thought of any upcoming plans for promotion. I do things rather spontaneously, rather than by following a plan.
What new writing projects do you have coming up that you’re excited to tell us about?
I’m finishing up now on a self-discovery workbook that is based on step 1 of the first book and should be available in a couple weeks. I plan to do step two and three as well. And I have written outlines for several books that will become my new journal series. I intend to have a couple of those out before Christmas as well.
Honestly, my favorite part of having my books written is that I can keep them on hand and give them to someone I meet that might enjoy it. It’s a thrill for me every time.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I believe there’s a book in each and every one of us. If you know something of value to someone else, such as a life lesson you learned or a great story to tell, there’s someone out there who wants to read it. And it can be so exhilarating to see your book out there and to know there are people around the world who are reading it. It’s much easier than you think it is. Do it well. Do it with heart. And let it be fun. You can even make a career out of it if you want to.
Thank you for a great interview, and best of luck, Susan!