On Writing, Poetry, Read This Book

On Writing: Ten Books that Fuel Writing

Some of the books that have helped me with my writing.

After two weeks of not writing, I was stuck.  Frozen. My draft of a middle grade novel felt as remote as actual middle school. For a week, my hands were too busy gripping a steering wheel or a map for 3,000 miles as I drove with my daughter back from college. But then a second week of not writing followed for less concrete reasons and the creative juices of flow cooled to slow-moving mud.

My cousin Kathy rescued me with a writing prompt that was meant as a conversation starter. Around the 2000th mile of my trip, she met us for lunch and generously gave us a goody bag of Lara Bars for the trip. A small notecard poked out of the bag. “That’s just for a fun. It’s a college essay question. See if you can answer it,” she said. The card said, simply, “Describe your top ten.” Already missing my daily writing routine, I knew writing and books would have something to do with the answer.

A thousand miles later, my daughter and I arrived home. The end of summer presented its own To Do list: host the Labor Day BBQ, help a grape harvest intern get settled, have dinner with a teacher friend before school started, see my nephew and his girlfriend before they moved back to Wisconsin, and help my daughter pack for a long trip. The excuses for not writing grew and grew.

At some point my laptop probably sent up a flare but I wasn’t quite ready to be found yet. Finally, when the the immediacy of my middle grade characters were fading from memory and I’d skipped two weekly blog posts, I stopped dithering, gathered up some of my favorite books on writing and opened them, one by one. Help me, I implored them. I need to get going again. And they answered.

Here’s a sample of what ten of my top books on writing, creativity and self-improvement had to say:

1. Poet Denise Levertov reminded me that I was in process. In her book the poet in the world, she nailed it: “….Then there’s that period of irritable brewing, sometimes – knowing there’s something pending, getting clues, flashes, losing it again….” She was right. I was still woolgathering. 

2. In the 1990 classic Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Nathalie Goldberg quoted writing teacher Kate Green: “If you want to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed.” She didn’t mean by people – she meant by your demons, your memories, your preoccupations, but I got the picture. “Be willing to split open,” she said. 

3. Then I turned to R. J. Palacio‘s wonderful book of quotations, 365 Days of Wonder.  The book opened at September 2nd with a quote from Horace, “Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.” The balance of courage and reflection sounded just right. 

4. In The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passionauthor and artist Elle Luna reminded me why I bothered to care about my writing at all: “It is a constant effort and hard work…to honor who you are, what you believe, and why you are here. To choose Must is the greatest thing you can do with your life because this congruent, rooted way of living shines through everythingthat you do.” 

5. Daniel Goleman, in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence reminded me that its not enough to simply write for 10,000 hours to achieve my goal; I have to improve as I go and focus on the deliberate practice of the craft.  Remembering this time and again makes me turn writing into deliberate practice, with a goal in mind.

6.  …And yet I need to write faster – before the story grows stale. In On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftStephen King says, “…the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and – for me, at least – the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave….” I already felt a chilly distance from my work in progress. It reminded me of my critique partner Hillary Homzie’s advice: write as fast as you can, and don’t stop! 

7. Opening up Author in Progress, Barbara O’Neal‘s chapter “Write Like You Mean It” agreed with the idea of drafting quickly: “…Do not use the Internet. Do not check e-mail. Do not search for a fact that you think you need…Writers have argued with me over this ­– but the bottom line is, if you break, you end the trance.”

8. Anne Lamott came to the rescue with humor and wisdom. In the classic writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says: “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.” 

9. Elizabeth Gilbert provided me with a new mantra, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: “So try saying this: ‘I enjoy my creativity.’ And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it.” 

At this point last night, it was midnight and there were ten open books splayed across two desks. It was time to get back to work on drafting my novel whether I felt ready or not. (I enjoy my creativity! I enjoy my creativity!) I opened one last book.

10. …and read Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” I found it reprinted in The Making of a Storyby Alice LaPlante. Joan says, “…I think we are all well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

Her words reminded me that if the Reluctant Me didn’t get moving, the Writerly Me would rise up and clobber us both at some time. What a shame that would be when I learn from them both.

  • Bibliography:
  • Levertov, Denise. the poet in the world. New York: New Directions, 1973. 
  • Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.New York: Bantam New Age, 1990.
  • Palacio, R.J. 365 Days of Wonder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
  • Luna, Elle. The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion.New York: Workman Publishing, 2015.
  • Goleman, Daniel. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: Harper, 2013.
  • King, Stephen.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.
  • O’Neal, Barbara“Write Like You Mean It.” In Author in Progress, edited by Therese Walsh and the authors of Writer Unboxed.  
  • Lamott, Anne.Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1994.
  • Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
  • Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.” In Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961. I read the essay in Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
On Writing

On Writing: The Idea Cloud

Pick a thread from the Idea Cloud hanging over you. (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon)

Every once in a while, two movies come out at the same time with same theme. Or multiple books suddenly have “thief” in the title. (There are 161 titles in Goodread’s Best Thief Book category!) Why does this happen? I blame it on the Idea Cloud.

Sometimes, the explanation is simple. Similar films released close together is a phenomenon with it’s own Wikipedia page. But what about novels? Novels are usually unique stories written in isolation. Normally, a story emerges from one brain before it reaches the gristmill of publishing. So why would a writer see her own unique concept crop up in somebody else’s book?

It has to do with how stories arise in the writer’s brain. That’s where the Idea Cloud comes in.

Idea Clouds spreading overhead. (Northwestern Minnesota)

Here’s how it works:

Let’s use the thief example. You’re listening to the news on your way home from work. The newscaster announces that a monkey is missing from the town zoo and evidence suggests someone stole it. Huh, you think. A monkey thief. Not a bad idea for a story. Then you remember the 161 thief books on Goodreads. You’re going to need more than thievery to make a fresh story.

Still driving, you recall a rash of missing dogs reported last year. Missing dogs, missing monkeys. Huh, again. Now the old story has a fresh twist. That’s promising. Your writerly brain turns the two ideas over like a Rubik’s Cube, seeing how the pieces might fit together.

Then you get home. You step out of your car, or off the train, or down from the bus and you listen. Do you hear the firing shot? All the other writers who heard the same news story as you are now sitting down to their laptops. The race is on. Are you going to join them?

This is the moment you begin to tug on the Idea Cloud, that fluffy cumulous-shaped mass of ideas floating over head. You reach up and pull down the missing monkey thread. Now the missing dog thread. The Idea Cloud’s positive charge will speedily lock onto any emotionally-charged memory you have about dogs, monkeys, and missing animals in general. All those memories hidden under the couch cushions of your amygdala will rise up, supercharged, and ZING! Lightning will strike.

Lightning must’ve been in this tropical Idea Cloud hanging over my car. (Boca Raton, Florida)

Suddenly, in rapid succession, you will remember: your favorite dog when you were ten years old; your little brother’s remorse over leaving the garden gate open; the neighborhood search for said dog; and the knock on the door from a motorist with bad news. You will feel the old sorrow of learning that your dog is dead, and wish you’d never listened to the news that day driving home.

But wait! You are now a superhero middle grade writer! You can rewrite history and transform your old sadness. You can finally give your dog the resting place he deserves in your heart. You can write a good story that kids will love.

You begin to ask What If questions. What if the monkey and dogs in your story are in cahoots? What if they have a good reason for disappearing? What if the lead dog has your old dog’s name? What if the dogs steal the monkey from the zoo to help them spring their canine friends from a kill shelter?

Eureka! You’re ready to draft your next middle grade story.

The sun breaks through the Idea Cloud. (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Then, one of your critique group friends informs you that another middle grade writer just sold that story to HarperCollins in a five figure deal.

Whaaa…? You were just getting started!

But, hold on a sec. It’s not exactly the same. The author pulled the same two threads down from the Idea Cloud, asked the same What If questions and finished her version first but her monkey doesn’t pick locks and there’s no kill shelter. You swallow your pride. You change the location of your story from Cleveland to India, where you lived as a child. Now your story is not the same as hers, and, anyway, there’s room in a bookstore for two books on animals saving a corner of the world.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do when you found out “your” story was already out there in the world?

If so, you may steal the dog/monkey story. I just made it up. Somebody else might’ve written it first, you never know. Google it and then write like heck to be first to finish it. Set it in India. Or Guam. There aren’t enough children’s books about Guam. Good luck!

P.S. This particular Idea Cloud idea is mine, however. But feel free to share this post with other writers like us.