10 Ways to Practise Writing

photo of a woman thinking

Sometimes we sit at our desks to write and can’t think of anything to write about.  We face the blank page.  We sit there until blood pours from our foreheads, as one famous author was heard to say.

Making a list can be good.  It makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship with your life in all its richness.

10 ideas for writing practice:

  1. Begin with “I don’t remember”. If you get stumped, just repeat the words “I don’t remember” on the page again and keep going.
  2. Tell about sound as it arises. Be aware of sounds from all directions as they arise:  sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.  Notice any spaces between sounds.
  3. Tell me about last evening. Dinner, sitting on the couch, preparing for bed.  Be as detailed as you can.  Take your time to locate the specifics and relive your evening on the page.
  4. Tell me what boredom feels like.
  5. See in your mind a place you’ve always loved. Visualise the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  6. Write about “saying goodbye”. Tackle it any way you like.  Write about your marriage breakup, leaving home, the death of a loved one.
  7. What was your first job?
  8. Write about the most scared you’ve ever been.
  9. Write in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  10. Describe a parent or a child.

Some people have a jar full of words written on pieces of paper and select one piece of paper at random each day and write from that.  Others use a line of a poem to start them off.  Then every time they get stuck they rewrite that line and keep going.

Be honest.  Cut through the crap and get to the real heart of things.

Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist, writer and teacher, Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake says the solution for her came via haiku (short unrhymed Japanese poems capturing the essence of a moment).

 “For several years I wrote one haiku a day and then spent hours polishing those I had written on previous days.  This tiny step proved increasingly satisfying,” Gail Sher.

She said it gradually dawned on her that it was not the haiku but the “one per day.”  Without even knowing it, she had developed a “practice.”  Every day, no matter what, she wrote one haiku.  In her mind she became the person who writes “a haiku a day.”  And that was the beginning of knowing who she was.

Gail Sher suggests writing on the same subject every day for two weeks.

“Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing,” Gail Sher.

She writes in One Continuous Mistake that the Four Noble Truths for writers are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

So start coming up with your own list of ideas for practice writing.  Life happening around us is good grist-for-the-mill.

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Best Way to Beat Writing Resistance

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair

How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending, or sometimes work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

Why Exercise the Writing Muscle?

man holding barbell

Writing as a daily practice is a way to exercise the writing muscle. Like working out at the gym, the more you do it, the more results you get. Some days you just don’t feel like working out and you find a million reasons not to go to the gym or out for a jog, a walk, a swim, a bike ride, but you go anyway. You exercise whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around till you feel the urge to work out and have an overwhelming desire to go to the gym. It will never happen, especially if you haven’t been into health and fitness for a long time and you are pretty out of shape. But if you force yourself to exercise regularly, you’re telling your subconscious you are serious about this and it eventually releases its grip on your resistance. You just get on and do it. And in the middle of the work out, you’re actually enjoying it. You’ve felt the endorphins kick in. When you get to the end of the jog, the walk, the bike ride, the swim, the gym workout or the Pilates, Yoga or Zumba class, you don’t want it to end and you’re looking forward to the next time.

That’s how it is with writing too. Once you’ve got the flow happening, you wonder why it took you so long to turn up on the page. Bum on chair is what I used to say to my writing students. Through daily practice your writing does improve.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book on discovering and recovering your creative self, she refers to daily writing practice as the morning pages. She recommends writing three pages of longhand, strictly stream-of-consciousness—moving the hand across the page and writing whatever comes to mind every day.

Author of Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg refers to writing practice as timed exercise. She says you might time yourself for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or longer. It’s up to you, but the aim is to capture first thoughts. “First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.”

Her rules for writing practice are:

1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Don’t cross out.
3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation , grammar.
4. Lose control.
5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
6. Go for the jugular.

In Creative Journal Writing, author Stephanie Dowrick refers to the same process as free writing; writing without judging, comparing and censoring. “Continuing to write when you don’t know what’s coming next and especially when you feel your own resistances gathering in a mob to mock you.”

Daily writing practice has been described as clearing the driveway of snow before reaching the front door. In other words, it’s what we do as a warm up before the real writing takes place.  And it’s a way to loosen up and discover our own unique writing ‘voice’.  That’s what publishers are looking for when they read through the slush pile.  The storyteller’s voice.  The authentic writing voice of the author is what engages the reader.

What about you? Are you able to carve some time out each day to write?

Short pieces or a novel?

 

photo of a woman reading book

It’s hard to know sometimes whether to work on the short form or a continuous narrative. I’ve talked about this several times before because it’s a constant dilemma for me. However, the short form seems to be what I do best. Last year I tried very hard to write a genre fiction, but couldn’t get any traction on a story. Instead, I returned to the short form: short stories and prose poems. I am very very happy to say that one story and three poems have now been accepted for publication in Quadrant magazine. Phew! It is such a relief. The previous Literary Editor of Quadrant, poet Les Murray, retired at the end of 2018 and I worried if the new editors of poetry and fiction would like my work. Writing is so subjective. Thank goodness they do.

Have a read of what George Thomas, Deputy Editor of Quadrant writes about the new Literary Editor, Professor Barry Spurr:

The distinguished literary scholar and critic Barry Spurr is the new Literary Editor of Quadrant, succeeding Les Murray who retired at the end of last year after serving in the position since March 1990.

In 2011, Barry was appointed the first Professor of Poetry in Australia, and has long been a world authority on the life and work of T.S. Eliot. His book Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Lutterworth, Cambridge, 2010) is widely regarded as the authoritative study in the field.

In an academic career of more than forty years at the University of Sydney, including two stints at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Barry’s literary scholarship ranged from Early Modern literature to contemporary Australian poetry. He is a leading scholar in the fields of religious literature and liturgical language, most notably in the works of John Donne and T.S. Eliot, and the language, literature and music of the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

His contribution to Australian poetry education and criticism has been prolific, and includes a series of small books for students on individual Australian poets including Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, Lee Cataldi, Peter Skrzynecki, Judith Beveridge, Robert Gray, John Tranter, Douglas Stewart, Rosemary Dobson, John Foulcher, as well as the novelist Christopher Koch. In 2007, he was elected Fellow of the Australian College of Educators for his “outstanding contribution to education”.

He has also been a notable public commentator, especially on the role of literature in the modern education system, and the role of the humanities in the modern university. He was the consultant on literature education to the Abbott government’s 2014 review of the national education curriculum chaired by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Most of his recommendations were included in the final report, which supported “a greater emphasis on dealing with and introducing literature from the western literary canon, especially poetry.”

When he was appointed to his poetry chair by the University of Sydney, Les Murray publicly welcomed him with a letter of congratulations, saying: “It is rare to have a person interested in poetry as distinct from the furthering of what you might call Stasi-type criticism in Australia. In the last 30 years or more, poetry criticism has descended more and more into politics – and a really nasty form of politics.”

In 2016, after he left the University of Sydney, leading literary figures and former academic colleagues from both Sydney and Oxford gave him the festschrift The Free Mind: Essays and Poems in Honour of Barry Spurr (editor Catherine Runcie, publisher Edwin H. Lowe).

Barry has been a contributor to Quadrant since the 1980s. In his most recent piece in March 2018, a review of the collection of Ivan Head’s poetry The Magpie Sermons, he concluded on a severe yet positive note: “In our prosaic and crudely literal world, where just a word in jest in private can be stolen out of context and used to destroy a person’s career and reputation, and where thought, speech and expression are policed and pilloried (even, of all places, in universities), censoring and stifling the imagination, the voices of the poets, contrariwise, enlarging our vision of life and revealing the limitless capacity of language tellingly to communicate that generosity of spirit, have never been more necessary.”

I’m so grateful and blessed to have my work accepted by such a distinguished literary scholar.

 

Words to Use Instead of ‘Very’

 

Robin Williams standing on desk in front of classroom of boys

This is the advice Robin Williams had for his classroom of boys in Dead Poet’s Society: 

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”

Here are some substitutes for the word ‘very’.

list of words to use instead of 'very'

Sound advice, methinks. Hope you find it useful. I know they teach all this stuff to us in Primary School, but it’s worth a reminder.

Facing the Blank Page

woman in black leather jacket sitting on red chair

When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good.  It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper.  The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same.  Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again.  A new voyage with no map.  As people say, it is like setting off towards the horizon, alone in a boat, and the only thing another person can do to help us, is to wave from the shore.

So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it.  I had to start at the very beginning.

First up, there’s the pen on the page.  You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening.  A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly.  We think faster than we can write.  It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.

Consider, too, your notebook.  It is important.  The pen and paper are your basic tools, your equipment, and they need to be with you at all times.  Choose a notebook that allows you plenty of space to write big and loose.  A plain cheap thick spiral notepad is good.

After that comes the typing up on the computer and printing out a hard copy.  It’s a right and left brain thing.  You engage the right side of the brain, the creative side, when you put pen to paper, then bring in the left side, the analytic side, when you look at the print out.  You can settle back comfortably with a drink (a cup of tea even) and read what you’ve written.

Then editing and rewriting.

Patrick White said that writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, he found Pushkin said exactly the same thing.  Writing is something you have to get out of you.

Good luck on your creative journey. It’s a tough one. Hang in there and keep writing.

11 Tips: What Makes A Good Story?

portrait of girl wearing christmas hat

Everyone loves a good story. That’s the reason why so many people flock to the movies or spend hours reading novels – it’s because we love to get lost in a great tale. Here are 11 tips from the experts on how to write something fabulous.

1. Tension is the cornerstone of any good story. Eric Nylund

2.  A good story, just like a good sentence, does more than one job at once. That’s what literature is: a story that does more than tell a story, a story that manages to reflect in some way the multilayered texture of life itself. Karen Thompson Walker

3.  Be unpredictable, be real, be interesting. Tell a good story. James Dashner

4.  A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. Raymond Chandler

5.  A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart. Chuck Palahniuk

6.  Tension is the cornerstone of any good story. Eric Nylund

7.  No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside. Stephen King

8.  My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. Harold Ramis

9.  I do feel that if you can write one good sentence and then another good sentence and then another, you end up with a good story. Amy Hempel

10. I’m just trying to write a good story, strictly from imagination. People just think it’s random, they don’t see the rewriting, phrasing of characters, choosing the words, bringing the world to light in which the characters live in. That creates an illusion that this is real. Eric Jerome Dickey

11. I always try to tell a good story, one with a compelling plot that will keep the pages turning. That is my first and primary goal. Sometimes I can tackle an issue-homelessness, tobacco litigation, insurance fraud, the death penalty-and wrap a good story around it. John Grisham

Hope you find these tips useful. For further reading, check out my posts 3 Parts to a Great Blurb and 10 Ideas for Writing Practice  And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.