Prizes for Pages

This one is for those of you that run or belong to a writing group…

The prize basket with some of its inhabitants displayed.

The prize basket with some of its inhabitants displayed

Finger puppets, fruit-shaped erasers, mariachi rubber ducks, pens, journals, stickers, tiny crayons…  I started the prize basket after seeing the naked delight in my writer’s eyes when I gave out free pens at the end of a workshop. No matter what age we are, the words, “free prize” elicit helpless excitement.

I never put anything too fattening in the basket. I don’t want the prizes to be just another stick for your inner critic to beat you with. And I throw in lots of practical stuff that writers actually use – pens, file cards, post-it notes. Sharpies are especially sought after. Collectibles are great – you can’t get all six monster puppets if you don’t bring in new pages. Some writers explain every week that they are just taking a prize to give to their children or grandchildren. Suuuure you are.

When I was teaching teens, I had trouble getting them to show up on time… Until I gave out bowls of sugary cereal as promptness prizes. Oh, don’t look at me like that.  I always used organic milk. The point was, they began to associate showing up for writing with a happy treat rather than a red pen and a grade.

Writing is rarely fun or even comfortable. It’s isolating, exposing and gratification is so very delayed. If you produce pages, you should get a nifty prize.

The kind I use are available on Amazon and other sites for very little money – just search “awesome toy prizes” or “office supplies.” And writers often regift things to the basket. I’ve had donations of CDs, DVDs, kitchen gadgets, concert tickets and spa treatments. With very little effort or cash outlay, you can bring a lot of pleasure to your writing group. And you will be rewarded with smiles and an uptick in output.

The More you Don’t Get Eaten by a Tiger…

Writing invokes fear of the dark. What’s lurking in there, beyond the light, beyond my known world? Is it a tiger and will it chomp on my guts? That’s the question that our nervous system is asking when we sit down to write. My job is to get writers to sit down anyway.

While on dinner break from teaching my workshop at Pacifica, I was introduced to Eleanor Criswell who was preparing to teach a somatic yoga course. Eleanor studies neurophysiology, the brain-body connection and she said that the body clenches a bit in response to any kind of change.  Anytime you go from one activity to another, as in, “It’s time to write,” your muscles retract, you know, just in case the new activity involves getting killed. The fight-or-flight reaction isn’t noticeable to the person experiencing it, Eleanor said, but it can be measured with the right equipment. Then she blew my mind. “If you wait about five minutes,” she smiled, “The body calms down and unclenches all on it’s own.”

Holy cow, I thought, this is why the six minute timed-writing works. Writers ask me all the time, why are the prompts all six minutes. “I don’t know why,” I say, “but if you just do a six minute prompt, you’ll probably find you’re interested in writing for another six.” It almost always works and now I know why. After the timer goes off, your body will be pretty sure that, if a tiger hasn’t eaten you yet, it probably isn’t going to. “Sure,” says your body, “This activity seems to be tiger-free. Go ahead and keep writing.”

It can take a long time to get over one’s fear of the dark, but basically, it’s cumulative. The more times you don’t get dragged under the bed by demon claws, the less frightened you are to put your feet on the floor and make the trip to the bathroom. And the more times you sit down to write and don’t go insane or forget you have a family and responsibilities or get swallowed whole by the great Unknown, the easier it is to sit down to write. Six minutes at a time.

Someone to Hold your Feet

At the end of a recent pedicure, I was idling away my mandatory five-minute drying period, when one of the nail techs had a massive seizure.

I didn’t even know it was happening, drifting as I was in a massage chair-induced daydream, until I realized it had gone very quiet in the salon. All of the chummy chatter had died away and there was just a barely audible sound, like someone responding very politely to being punched in the stomach over and over. It was the air being roughly pushed out of her lungs by her contracting muscles.

I looked up. I was the only customer and all of the manicurists were in a tight cluster. One of them had a knee on her friend to keep her from flying out of the chair she’d been sitting in when the convulsing started. There were four women in all,  completely shielding the young woman who, moments ago, had been making them all laugh. All I could see of her was her feet, which were being gently but firmly held by a kneeling woman who was calmly whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Relax, relax.” It was clear this wasn’t their first rodeo and these ladies were just handling it. Protecting her, giving her some privacy, rubbing her back while her brain rode out the electrical storm.

My mother poked her head in, gave me a little wave and said, “I’ll wait for you outside…” She had no idea what was happening inside the clump of white coated women a few feet from her. That’s how on top of it they were.

And then, to my horror, I started to cry. Oh, my God, Norton! Seriously? Do not do not do not cry. It’s not happening to you, it’s happening to her!

I had pulled it together somewhat by the time I paid, and was relieved to see the woman had recovered and was even joking with her coworkers when I left. But the lump in my throat returned when I was telling my mother about what I’d witnessed. What was my deal?

It wasn’t until the following day, when I was in front of a group of 40 writers, teaching them about story structure, that I realized what had moved me so much. I looked at their faces, the naked desire to tell their stories and tell them well.

There are those times when an enormous something that urgently needs expression will just thunder through, flattening us, often frightening us. And the overload and the incapacitation are quite real, but no one can see it. And that’s so lonely. If it were visible, our friends and family would come running.

Being a helpless vessel for ideas and images and stories. Tangling with and getting roughed up by the Unknown. The weight of it and the pressure that builds. It really would be good if someone were there to keep us from being thrown from the chair. Someone to hold our feet.

I think of those ladies and how wordlessly and protectively they gathered round. “Those are the kind of folks I want you to surround yourselves with,” I told the writers in my workshop, “folks who can see when you’re being rocked and know how to hold you.”

Guardians of The Heap

There are some who would like to think of themselves as the gatekeepers of art. They believe that, without their watchdogging the arts would become a watered-down free-for-all and no one would know excellent from mediocre and no one would have any reason to strive for their best. They believe that if you are not striving to be at the top of the heap that they themselves have compiled and named “The Heap that Matters,” then you are a threat to the integrity of all heaps. Fine. Many are happy to have a heap to strive for.

However, just as you would not love better as a result of being told whom it would be good to love or how it would be best to love them or at what point that love can be recognized as having achieved a level of excellence, you may also not create better as a result of being told how it would be best to create or when you’ve created something that can be called excellent.

There are some good critics out there and they may provide a frame of reference that’s useful to you. Then again, they may only provide limitation and confusion if what you’re creating is outside their frame of reference. The word “create” means to make something that didn’t exist before. If you’re creation is singularly unique or just deeply personal, then striving to top the Heap that Matters may only inhibit and sap your creative strength since the heap you’re striving to top hasn’t been created yet.

Don’t look to the critics or heap-keepers for guidance on what is excellent. Follow your own inner compass where it leads you and create a demand for a new heap.

No Diving, No Pearls

I’m heading down south tomorrow to teach a story structure workshop with Dara Marks and it has me thinking about a question that always comes up and it is this: Teacher,  where’s my shortcut?

Inevitably, in any workshop I teach, but especially in a structure workshop, there is the hope that I will offer a paint-by-numbers formula for story creation that will dispense with the need for any messy, exploratory, first draft.

I am doomed to be a disappointment in this regard. There is no outlining system, software or formula that will allow you to skip that trying first step of putting on your swim goggles and diving down, down, down to poke and pry with your oyster knife. Pearls don’t just float to the surface and knowing how to string them and set them doesn’t make them any easier to find.

Understanding story structure allows you to interpret your exploratory findings and build them into something powerful and meaningful. But, structuring before you explore is like tying knots and expecting pearls to appear between them.

This doesn’t have to be bad news. Creating is empty without the thrill of discovery and we can’t discover what we already know. So, when the idea comes, dive into it, go deep, reach into the crevices and into the muck. In other words, write like mad to finish that exploratory, shapeless, too-long or too-short, mess of a first draft. You can’t rewrite until you write.

Set yourself to Writer Mode

Yesterday I woke up with that hot, twisty knot in my gut. It’s the knot I get when I’m not writing, which happens easily enough when there’s money to be earned, houseguests to entertain and enjoy, issues with the car and it just becomes easier pour my creative energy into worry, work and fixing, rather than writing.

So, I went to my computer and asked the internet how to boost my creativity:

  • Build an altar
  • Force yourself to do nothing
  • Meditate
  • Do prompts
  • Reward yourself
  • Write by hand
  • Take a walk

Yeah, yeah. I know all that. I don’t feel like it. I don’t have time. Why can’t someone just make a damn pill for this? I mean, how do you make yourself do something to boost creativity when you don’t feel creative? When your creativity and inspiration are buried underneath a pile of bills and to-dos?

Glad to be asked, the knot in my stomach loosened a bit and the answer bubbled brainward. Bloop, bloop. Like a big, wobbly air bubble floating to the water’s surface, letting you know that there’s something big swimming around down there:

“You don’t feel like writing because you’re not living like a writer.”

Damn it! How do I keep forgetting this? It’s like there’s a tricky toggle switch in my brain that keeps getting accidentally flipped to “basic functioning mode” from “writer mode.”

You know what I mean. When I’m living like a writer, I’m:

Noticing the way the world comes through my senses. The air, the light, the sounds close and far. I’m tasting, rather than just eating. I’m giving brain-space to smells I’d usually tune out and wondering about them. I’m noticing the texture of my clothes on my skin, feeling the tingle of a good stretch all the way from guts to my fingertips, noticing my breath going in and out of my body.

Curious. I can get to a point of distraction and fretting where people aren’t people any more – they’re a means to an end. The one that’s taking forever to count my change, the one that brings my mail, the one that better not transfer me to another department after a half hour on hold. When I’m living like a writer, people are exquisitely complex. Even the ones I don’t like.

Patient. The great thing about being curious is that it makes it me want to sit still and investigate, rather that hurry up and get there. Well, I can tell you, it’s much easier to write when I’m sitting still.

Tolerant of the unknown.  When the toggle is flipped, I stop striving for a tolerable baseline of certainty. My jaw slackens a little, my eyes get slightly sparkly and I’m thinking, “I wonder what will happen next?”

When in writer mode, I feel like writing. I don’t have to invoke my muse or call on inspiration. I’m just looking for the next moment that I can process the amazing world through my pen.

I feel like one of the mud people at a debutante ball

As you can see, I’ve been posting only prompts here for about a year and a half. That is because I went full-introvert, which for me, is the same thing as going full-writer. I’ve been living at the far end of the woods, wearing the same clothes for weeks at time and communicating with my husband and dogs in hand gestures and grunts.

That all came to an end when I accomplished the end-goal of my retreat: I finished the book and found a publisher. In doing so, I effectively flushed myself out of the woods and back into the world.

The book is called Part Wild and it’s a book version of one of my workshops, the one that deals with self-doubt, inner critics and all the junk that prevents a writer from writing. I’m happy with it. Can’t wait to share it with you. It’s out next June via Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Enliven Books.

My publisher said to me, “Deb, this is not just a book. It’s a movement.”
And I thought, if that’s the case, I’d better comb my hair and move someplace with cell service.

It’s good to be back, actually. I missed you.

So, I’m working with my social media team to clear away the cobwebs and get this blog humming again. We have big plans for laying down some serious inspiration.