My head hurts too much for new words, so here are some words of advice about writing

a picture of a thistle

Awhile ago I read Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer. I enjoy McCann, but he’s a little bit outside my genre wheelhouse, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. It was amazing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

You don’t speak for people, but with people. You are here to rip open the accepted world and create it anew. Often a writer will not know the true reason for writing until long after the work is finished. It is when she gives it to others that its purpose becomes apparent.

spring flowers at phipp's

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Stare the blank page down.

Sometimes getting started is the hardest thing, but it’s the most important. You get nowhere if you don’t start. There’s a metaphor about how writing is like tending a garden (hence the flower pictures), but my head hurts too much to tease it out. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

#FridayReads: Finishing School

I read Finishing School: The Happy Ending to that Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done awhile ago, but have been too caught up with life to write about it, which is ironic in a sad, pathetic way.

Here’s the thing, though–I didn’t need to read this book. Sometimes I struggle to finish things, but I do finish them. I’ve written two books plus three novels for National Novel Writing Month, so clearly I’m capable of finishing things.

photo of the book finishing school on top of a notebook

Here’s Finishing School on top of the notebook containing the almost-complete first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Even so, I’m always looking for ways to improve myself, my writing, and my writing process. Hence my obsession with self-help and time management books. And that’s what Finishing School is, really–a self-help/time management book for writers.

It’s written by writing buddy duo Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton, with alternating chapters in each of their voices. Sometimes this is annoying, but here I thought it was helpful to have two different perspectives on the writing process and its pitfalls.

The book’s premise is a simple accountability system geared toward writers specifically. You find a group of people (or a single partner) who are all working on a writing project. You set up a regular meeting time. At the meeting, you talk about your project, then pull out your calendar and schedule times you are going to work on your writing project. Then you go your separate ways, do your writing thing, and report back at the next meeting. During the week, you text or email your writing buddy to let them know when you start and finish your writing sessions. They do the same, and everyone (ideally) feels motivated to get their writing done.

You’ve probably heard over and over, in many different contexts, that having an accountability partner–for quitting smoking, losing weight, learning a new language–makes you more likely to succeed. So you don’t really need a book to tell you the same will work for writing.

That’s not all Finishing School is, though. It also explores the common writing hangups people get stuck on. Things like fear, insecurity, jealousy, despair, and all the other wonderful negative emotions that plague humanity.

Only after it goes through all the reasons you might not be writing does it get to the accountability stuff. This is smart, in my opinion. It’s the same in customer service: you have to deal with the upset customer’s emotions before you can address the root problem.

If you’ve been having trouble completing a writing project, you may want to give this book a try.