Writing

Reading About Writing

When I decided to start writing a memoir last fall, having contemplated it for many years, I knew I would need a lot of guidance. As my new morning writing routine kicked into gear, a favorite part of it was selecting books about writing to read, choosing well experienced authors as my guide. The first was a book I had on hand from one of my writing classes when I started signing up for classes in the months after getting sober. Marion Roach Smith’s, The Memoir Project, could be read in an afternoon but I chose to savor each chapter by reading just a little bit each day. The best advice I gleaned from it was to a) write every time with intention and b) always ask yourself what is this about. She incorporated bits of her own story and these tripped my own memories and provided writing inspiration without the use of prompts which she doesn’t like to use in her teaching. There is also a personal connnection to Marion because I worked with her husband for many years and met her on a few ocassions. She is personable and striking with beautiful red hair and you can tell she pays attention.

For my next book, I chose Alexander Chee’s, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. While it is not a writing book per se, I found the biographical stories he wrote to be beautifully written. He is my age and grew up in a small Maine town which is somthing I can relate to. His stories reminded me of my own stories even though he is part Korean and gay, two things I am not. These stories were marvelous prompts to write about my own experiences, particularly high school since we were of the same era and many times it offered a contrast to my life, particulaly my path to writing. He knew early on he wanted to write and doggedly pursued it from the beginning. I had absolutely no confidence that I could be any good at it and gave up before I got started. The idea I came away with here was to write as if your life depends on it, as if you were dying. The point was driven home in a story he wrote about a barista friend who was writing a book and died of AIDS before finishing it. Chee wrote a memorial piece about the man and it was on display in the coffee shop’s window and it was a daily reminder for him to keep writing.

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Writing

Why do you write?

This was one of the initial questions the writing Mastermind teacher asked us on our first Zoom encounter in early January. I looked at the squares of women, twenty-eight of us in all, embarking on this six month quest to devlop a non-fiction project we hoped to publish. I felt overwhelmed and wondered who I thought I was to embark on such a quest.

Why do I write? It started after my brother Jeff’s suicide when I was a freshman in college. A glorious new world of freedom was at my feet and I was now facing the biggest stumble of my life. Grief. Loss. Hopelessness. The only thing I could think to do was to write about it. My mom brought me to a therapist shortly after Jeff died but I was all clogged up, didn’t know how to speak out loud the things I was feeling, the dark thoughts rolling around in my head. Pen and notebook saved me. Denial did too.

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Writing

Writing Routine Revise

Before my accident last week, I had a faithful morning routine and had been writing daily since late October. This came after months of not writing, at least not regularly and it was almost like I had hit rock bottom as far as self-motivation goes. Maybe I can blame it on the pandemic. The rock bottom part was triggered by an incident that will go unnamed to protect my people but it was heartwrenching. During this same time I was working on a jigsaw puzzle and listening to the audiobook Atomic Habits by James Clear. It was almost as if God knew what I needed by sending me this book which I had never intended to read.

But as the puzzle pieces of my Italian landscape came together, so did the idea of starting small with putting new habits in place. The first thing I took away from Atomic Habits was to start each new habit with the tiniest of practices – 2 minutes on the treadmill, 2 minutes meditating, 2 minutes writing. The other idea was to stack habits so that it becomes a routine and this is how I worked up to my new two hour routine.

Since I am a morning person and work best with no one around me, I changed my wakeup time to 5:00 a.m. That made all the difference in keeping the comittment to myself to do this every day. Within a couple of weeks, I was in my daily rhythm working out (listening to an audiobook), making tea or coffee to bring to my office in the loft, sitting for meditation, reading books about writing and then finally doing the writing. It wasn’t easy to do at first but over time, I began to look forward to every part of the routine. I’ve listened to several wonderful memoirs and non-fiction books during my morning exercise, read many books about writing and have written well over 100,000 words since I started. The website 750words.com was pivitol in maintaining my daily writing practice.

So now what? Time to put in place a new routine. I will no longer be able to do key parts of the morning routine and my office will be dark for the next nine weeks or so as I’m unable to climb the spiral stairs that lead to it. I have been giving myself a break (haha) this week and am going with the flow. If I don’t write as much, so be it. I’m starting to think about what my new routine will be and I will have a little more freedom as far as time of day as I’m unable to work right now.

Do you have a routine that works for you?

Writing

Therapy

“What is your project about?” is the question that often comes up in the non-fiction writing Mastermind I signed up for last month which goes from early January to late June. Good question, I say. I’m hoping to write about my brother’s suicide and how it changed the course of my life, how I turned to alcohol, how life went on and how it turned out to be actually OK. Tears usually well up in my eyes when I start talking about my brother Jeff as I get choked up explaining what he meant to me, how I feel it’s important to talk about suicide, out in the open. Let’s talk about all the crap. But I don’t want it to be a downer of a book either for there is so much hope in surviving and coming through to the other side. The others nod, understanding what I mean about hope. It’s really a story of resilience, overcoming the shit life throws at you, surviving and even thriving.

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Writing

Writing a blog in Ulysses

Today I am testing out a new (to me) writing tool called Ulysses. The why behind this is that I am attempting my first draft of a non-fiction book and I have a lot of miscellaneous writing for it scattered in various places and want to corral it into one spot. Ulysses was an option that was mentioned in the writing class I started earlier this month, the class that is supposed to help me tame the wild beast of my ideas and harness them into something possibly publishable, possibly not which is what the critical voice inside my head is telling me.

There are three areas on this version of Ulysses I find appealing because I use all three to write: My Novel, My Blog and My Diary. For the past year my online diary, or journal as I prefer to call it, has been contained using the website 750words.com and it has worked well for me, especially these last three months as I have committed to daily writing. It keeps track of my word count, makes sure I stick around for at least 750 words, and encourages me with a visual clue to track my days in a row streak. It also gives me the ability to look at my writing analytically (which I rarely use anymore). It tells me if I’m happy, sad, optimistic, looking toward the future or stuck in the past. It tells me if I’ve stayed in PG level words or if I’ve strayed to R rated material (as if!), whether I am obsessed with death, money or food. Pretty cool, right?

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Writing

I went on a walk

Considering it is 25 degrees here in upstate New York, that is an amazing feat! It dawned on me as I was doing my morning writing, reflecting on a writing retreat I took part in yesterday (more on that to come), that I hadn’t completed the assignment she had left us with yesterday afternoon in the minutes just before this country became chaotic and unimaginable. I could not believe the things that were happening on the screen I had tuned into as I was seeking to get an update on the fate of the Senate races in Georgia. Instead, what started out as a normal rite of passage, the certification of the votes for the next President, soon turned into anarchy and violence. So glued was I to the unfolding news that it took a text from my son reminding me he was done with school to rattle me back into my world.

The rest of the day went along, I moved away from the screen, into a book, into conversation with my son, back to my email where a teacher had responded to a note I had sent the day before. The school year hasn’t been without struggles and this teacher and my son have not had an easy relationship this year. She wants him to act a certain way (understandable), but he is bored and unchallenged and there is more stress than ever due to Covid so other options aren’t readily available. Feeling her response was terse, I tamped down the urge to respond in kind, something regretful, and so I put it away. The first response is not always the best, I have found. I decided to sleep on it.

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Writing

Searching for words

It has been a while since I’ve written (on the blog) but it’s rarely far from my mind. The words have just disappeared again and even though I’m faithfully (well nearly faithfully) writing the “morning pages”, topics to write about with clarity or usefulness just don’t seem to be on the menu. And so when I was browsing at Target yesterday I picked up a small book called Burn After Writing and felt compelled to add it to my cart. This book ticks all the boxes for me: the cover was alluring, robins egg blue with the image of a red pack of matches front and center, the feel and size was perfect, the pages invitingly blank with simple writing prompts and the intro about engaging in honest assessment (for my eyes only) seemed a call to action at this particular moment in time.

Today I woke earlier than usual, trying to get back into some sort of morning routine again. I bundled in my robe, grabbed a deliciously hot coffee and made my way up to the loft I’d abandoned sometime last spring when the unending days of quarantine left me little space for tending to my own needs for routine. The first order of business was the 750 word sprint on 750words.com so I could get my daily check box that affirms I am writing. Then I opened the book and decided to start from the beginning. The questions were easy, no rigorous honesty needed yet, just a nostalgic meander through my younger years.

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Writing

Keep (Free) Writing

After months and months of daily writing on 750words.com, I abruptly stopped a week and a half ago. Blog ideas were coming to me and I was feeling inspired and thought my creative dryspell had gone bye bye. But it was more like that writing had helped me gain momentum and in order to keep it, I needed to keep going. An object in motion stays in motion, right? Stopping writing, the ideas began to dry up again.

So once again I’m free writing in the mornings but instead of slogging through what’s happening in my current life, I find that I’m drifting back in time, digging into old memories – some good and some not so good. In one of my AA meetings, we read a passage called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and it’s all about staying in the day but for us writers, that’s a tough place to remain. We like to drift.

In anticipation of vacationing on Cape Cod (a place I’ve never been unless you count a rainy March weekend on Nantucket), I’ve been picking through the vacation memories of my young life when my parents would pack the station wagon with the seven of us, a tent and a mix of warm clothes and bathing suits for a week in Wells, Maine. I distinctly remember needing the warm clothes more than the bathing suits even though it was the middle of summer because the nights were very cool in this northern U.S. city. I don’t have memories of enjoying the beach but we must have.

That stream of consciousness led me to places and things I’d forgotten about as I remembered how we spent our free time on those trips. Cards, Yahtzee, truth or dare. I was the youngest of five at the time and probably no more than six with the oldest of my siblings between thirteen and fifteen so there was a wide range of experience for when someone chose truth. I did not have any secrets back then and what a nostalgic place to be. A time with no secrets, shame or regret.

So here we are, embarking on brand new memories, in a brand new place, something that doesn’t happen to me (us) often these days as quarantine has turned life upside down. What will I pack, what books will I bring and what will the car snacks be for this three plus hour ride to the Eastern seaboard? We’re leaving in a little over an hour so there’s no time to spare.

Keep writing.

Writing

Word by word

Writing a book is daunting. I’ve made a few stabs at it but the words don’t come in a way I feel satisfied with. I read other people’s work with longing. And regret. Regret that I can’t pull together a plot or even sentences the way other people can and even though I know it’s not easy for them either (I’m subscribed to the hashtag WritingCommunity on Twitter), I feel like they were gifted with some sort of innate talent that I wasn’t. Maybe it is my lot in life to be just a reader. No, I want to be one of those people where words pour out, a flow of ideas – the story, the magical sentences. I hear these people exist.

I have been writing every day. OK, so it’s pretty much nonsensical words thrown on the page describing the most mundane life moments which are pretty much the same from day to day. This is not “real” writing but for some reason, I can’t get beyond this and promise myself tomorrow will be different. I love when Ann Lamott says to just sit your butt in a chair and write and as I open a new document the words that come to me are bird by bird. However, I don’t have even one bird.

On Monday I forgot to even write. I carry guilt about not writing with me through every day and Monday was the first day in months that I didn’t feel anxious for not having written by the end of the day. Either part of me forgot I hadn’t written or the writer in me shut itself off. Powered down. Unplugged itself. But then when I sat down to write on Tuesday, I saw the gap in days between Sunday and Tuesday and still let myself off the hook from writing for one more day. I was too damn tired and now I have a two day gap.

But I pick up where I left off and write the nonsense from two lost days. And just as I come to the end of my allotted 750 words and as I’m about to get ready for work, a germ of an idea comes. I tag a few sentences at the end of my daily drivel so I have an idea where I left off. But now I have to go and hope for the best for later. Or tomorrow.

Writing

Routine changes

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From the time my dad came for a visit, and maybe even before that, I let go of my daily routines. No more prayer, meditation, affirmations and my writing was no longer anchored to the morning. The primary reason for this (or so I tell myself) was to give my dad as much attention as possible and since he was an early riser, I wanted to sit and have coffee with him and listen to what he had to say. It’s easy to get out of routines and harder to reclaim them. The one thing I didn’t let go of was daily writing which wasn’t always easy but using the website 750words.com was like a having an invisible bull whip to get me to sit down before the end of the day and empty my brain on the page. It’s five dollars a month for the service and even though it’s a small amount compared to say a gym membership (which I was less devoted to even in the best of times) it was enough of an incentive to keep me coming back and the daily streak tally was a boon as I watched it climb each day.

With my dad now gone to rehab for a fall he took here, my mornings are suddenly, sadly free but the routines have not been recouped. Why is it so hard to do the things you know are good for you? One thing I’ve promised myself is to reclaim my voice and this blog because even if no one reads my words, I can feel like I’m making progress toward a writing goal at the very least. My daily writing is consumed by the minutia of the day and I want more for myself than that. What we had for dinner, the chores I completed, the books I was reading. Sometimes I use superfulous words and break every writing rule just to get to 750 words each day because I’ve left it until it’s nearing the end of the day and I just about have the 20 minutes left until midnight to get it in.

But starting now, I am here. I am back to writing in public and I hope to see you more often in the future.

MC