How to support a writer in eight (easy?) steps

Useful articles about writing—that actually say something I think is important and needs to be said—kept popping up in my inbox this week. These have been about how to better understand the writer’s psychological orientation.

This is good, because writers are, to a certain extent, misunderstood, so demythologizing writing and writers requires hearing from working writers (rather than reading biographies about writers-put-on-pedestals).

The following article I’ve selected is written by Robbie Blair, new to me, but written with honesty and clarity. The article comes via Seattle-based Writer.ly, a helpful startup for writers and those who employ them. I’ve met Writer.ly’s owners, and they’re very nice, although very busy, as one is when starting a business.  

Flow!

Now, from experience and years of research, it’s pretty clear that the biggest fear about dealing with writers (that is partially true, sadly, according to even more research) is that we are more vulnerable to mental illness than “normal” people and should be kept at arm’s length or handled with kid gloves. Writers, along with other creatives, are labelled early on in life as “different,” and then shoved into the proverbial garret to write alone.

We don’t make the consequent isolation easier to bear when that poor person who has cooked for you dares to disturb your sanctum only to be shouted at because you’re finally experiencing flow. They meant well, only to have their head bitten off. Oops. No more cookies, no more visits; now you’re really on your own.

Often, I suspect that people who do not identify themselves as creative shove us out of the way and then ignore our needs because we fascinate, but also terrify them. Normal people (people who do not write) have no idea what to make of us.

Writers like Robbie Blair, however, inform those who keep their distance; or, worse, pander to writers’ egos, becoming rather useless ‘yes-men’ who only tell us we’re great, furthering our descent into depression if we don’t get published. Key to survival with a writer: provide food and be honest, but not so honest we cry.   

So here is a list of how to treat us better; we don’t merely need a patron and financial support, we also need … a whole lot of other things too! Enjoy, and pass it along and go to the author’s site and leave a comment where it will do him some good.

support-writers

Beyond my personal experiences as a writer, I’ve also been close friends with more writers than I can count. (That may just be because I’m bad at math, though.) I have relatives who write, I have friends who write, I’ve dated people who write … I’ve seen the relationship from many different angles and figured out a few of the best ways to support the writers I’m close to. While it’s important to remember that there’s no “one size fits all” option, these eight tips provide a solid starting point for supporting the writers in your life.

1. Learn about and respect their writing process.

I could give a great many details about how to support me as a writer, but most of you have never met me before so that will only do so much good. I’ve worked with enough writers to know that, while we’re similar in many ways, we are not a homogenous group. Writing is not a predictable process, and each writer develops their own approach to it over time. Rather than assuming that your writer functions in specific ways, talk to them about their unique process so you can understand it a bit better.

My remaining tips won’t reveal any super-secret desires that your writer is trying to hide—so if your writer contradicts any of the items on the rest of this list, just ignore that particular bit of my advice.

2. Don’t lie.

If you want to express interest in something your writer is crafting, then that’s fantastic—so long as you’re actually interested. Sure, some writers will feel put off if you don’t love their work as much as you love them, but you’ll be doing them a disservice if you pretend to like something that bores you to tears.

Authentic interest is something we crave—but don’t offer interest if it isn’t real. If you want to become interested but aren’t yet, try asking gentle, open questions about the story. Note that some writers will not enjoy this at all while others will enjoy both the attention and the opportunity to further formulate their ideas. If they’re comfortable talking about their work, guide the conversation toward the elements of the story that actually appeal to you.

3. Provide edible/quaffable support.

Many writers appreciate a good snack while they’re working. Sadly, many of us also have terrible snacking habits. I myself tend to make peanut butter chocolate chip sandwiches when I’m facing a deadline. If you can provide tasty yet moderately healthy snacks (like fruits, for example), you’ll be helping out in more ways than one.

Also, just like cars need gas and Santa needs to spy on little children while they’re sleeping, most of us writers require caffeine to operate. (There’s actually some interesting neurological stuff going on that explains this writerly addiction.) If you keep the kettle on or make sure there’s always coffee available, we’ll love you for it.

4. Get them to write, right now.

Not talk about their writing. Not brainstorm. Not organize. Not research. Not read articles on LitReactor.

Write.

Just write.

Writers face what I refer to as an “inertial barrier.” It’s difficult for us to get started with writing, but once we’ve gotten there it gets progressively easier and more enjoyable. We tend to be quite practiced at procrastination techniques, especially the ones that make it seem like we’re working on our story, but this only serves to increase the inertia. If you give us an extra push toward simply writing, you’ll be helping us get the momentum and energy required to get past the inertial barrier.

5. Give them a territory.

If you’re living with this writer, one of the best things you can do is give them a specific territory that they can organize or destroy as they see fit.

For example, I need absolute organization to work effectively, but I don’t need a lot of extras. I can set up an organized writing desk anywhere in the world. But others need a bit of clutter. Others still need a sense that they’ve emotionally charged the space. Some work best in outright chaos. Now, there are limits to how much a chaotic workspace can be functional; my father is a wonderful man, but his office is a fire hazard. Still, up until it’s absolutely unbearable, let the writer make the space their own. Our environments play a significant role for our emotional states, and if your writer feels uneasy they aren’t likely to write.

6. Encourage them to take care of themselves.

Writers have high-stress work, little natural social time, and (generally) sedentary lifestyles. We often fail to take care of ourselves and, as a result, crack under the stress. Rather than pressuring us to make our deadlines (I promise, we feel enough pressure already), you’ll be doing us a big favor by encouraging us to do basic emotional maintenance.

Emotional maintenance is another one of those things that comes in different forms for different people. For me, it’s yoga, meditation, and long walks. For others it’s ping pong, socializing with close friends, and eating a balanced breakfast. Whatever helps bolster your writer’s emotional resources will help them stand strong against their various challenges.

7. Do more than pat them on the head.

My guess is you’re reading this because you want to help a writer in your life, not because you’re a writer yourself. (Though maybe you are, in which case you’ll have an advantage on this one.) Even if you don’t feel you have much to say about writing itself, you’ll run into problems if all you do is congratulate your writer on a job well done over and over again.

Your writer will start to lose respect for your opinion. They’ll realize that you’re not going to give any in-depth feedback, and that makes you kind of useless. So giving support is great, praise is great, and it’s fine if you like everything that your writer produces—but you’ll need to be specific with the things that you especially liked, items that may not have worked as well for you, and so on.

By all means, however, check in with your writer before you start giving critical analysis; sometimes we’re just looking to see if the content is functional and enjoyable on a basic level, and other times we really do want that pat on the head.

8. Leave them the fuck alone!

It’s rare to get into the flow state for writing—and it’s incredibly valuable. I’ve produced 40+ pages in a sitting because I got into the flow of it. Don’t disrupt your writer, don’t ask questions. In fact, as much as you can, try to disappear. And if your writer is in the zone but you had plans? It’s his or her turn to take the dog for a walk? You know they have to wake up early and it’s currently 3 a.m.?

Just leave them the fuck alone. One of the most supportive things you can do is treat that flow state as sacred. I know it’s a pain to change your plans while they stare at a screen and type, but don’t worry … this doesn’t happen very often.

Oh, and here’s a bonus tip that has little to do with their writing and everything to do with your own: Don’t make stupid spelling or grammar mistakes. Even if your writer is nice about it, odds are they’re judging you for typing “their is alot of things on my mind.”

And that’s it for today. How about you? What’s worked in supporting the writers in your life? If you’re a writer, what support can others offer that would be most beneficial to you? Let us know in the comments, below.

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How to deal with writers: Good advice for readers from online resource Ezine

Author of one of my favorite books, "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote many true things about writing and writers.

Author of one of my favorite books, “The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote many true things about writing and writers.

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read advice columns for writers daily, and if the suggestions resonate with what I believe in as an educator, or what I know works, I’ll bring them to this blog. Some suggestions spur an entire blog response on my part. Here’s a column I read today that takes an unusual tack; it speaks to those who read our writing—our audience—and gives our readers advice about how to deal with us (for a change). 

The original article, found on the Ezine blog, written by Penny, Ezine‘s managing editor, can be found here. Ezine is an online resource for writers, and I highly recommend it, because the level of advice offered there is specific and pragmatic.

Ezine also publishes your articles, once they’ve been vetted by Ezine staff. You can join for free, and start uploading your writing. Along the way, Ezine will help you get published, and, most importantly, seen.

It’s a relatively simple way to get your opinions and writing viewed in the online format/writing style that’s become industry-standard (they do require you to follow certain rules for writing online, and those rules are, I’ve found, very helpful for organizing your thoughts, at the same time they help you polish your style).

10 Tips to Be Kind to Writers

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, A "stark tale" of adultery, guilt, and social repression. Have you read it? It's such a great book.

The Scarlet Letter, A “stark tale” of adultery, guilt, and social repression. Have you read it? It’s such a great book.

To celebrate Be Kind to Writers and Editors month, we’ve gathered 10 great recommendations to help you show your appreciation for the writers in your life.

Writers, feel free to share these suggestions with your friends and family. If you know a writer, please be kind to the writer in your life with these 10 tips!

  1. While writing isn’t brain surgery, it does require the writer’s full attention. Unless there’s a fire or another catastrophic event, keep distractions to a minimum and respect the time the writer dedicates to their craft.
  2. Be open to listening to our ideas. Writers are often considered hermits, but it’s not true! Occasionally, we writers will need to bounce an idea off another human. If we get that “Eureka!” look in our eyes, it’s best to just let us to our own devices, ask later, and know we appreciate your inspiration and help.
  3. Rejection and criticism sting, but we’ll take it in and ask for more when it’s delivered in a positive and constructive manner. Give it to us in the spirit of goodwill and provide specific reasons why you didn’t like or disagreed with the piece.
  4. You liked it? You really liked it?! Fantastic – we love hearing that readers (including those closest to us) love our work. So what did you like most about it and how did it move or help you? Please, be specific in your praise so we know you’re not pandering to our egos and we can keep up the good work.
  5. Comment on our articles, share our writing with your friends and family, interact with us on social media, and essentially be a part of our “fan club” to help promote our work. It’s not terribly easy to break into the open online, but it all starts with a support network of those closest to the writer.
  6. Write a positive review that highlights what you liked about the work and how other readers might benefit from reading it. Of course, if you didn’t like the piece, privately provide the writer with constructive feedback.
  7. Respect their progress and please be supportive. Most writers aren’t successful overnight and many of us moonlight in other professions (or would that be “daylight” or “sunlight” for those who haven’t quit their day jobs to focus on writing?).
  8. Writers are sponges – we soak up everything. Send us inspiration like candid questions, complicated queries, anecdotes, articles, book recommendations, article templates, etc. Often what doesn’t make its way directly into our work will indirectly influence our direction and outlook for future pieces.
  9. Get us out into the world from time to time. Encourage your writer to leave their work routinely and connect with other human beings. It’s important to their success and health!
  10. Bring them a cup of coffee or favorite snack. Writers are notorious for becoming so engrossed in their work or they simply don’t want to stop their progress once they’re in a good groove that they neglect even their most basic needs like food and water.

Next time you’ve enjoyed something you read, don’t take it for granted. Remember the writer behind it because as Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Nathaniel-Hawthorne-Quotes-3

Hawthorne’s quotes, by the way, come up frequently in resource searches. One of the books for writers I found while doing a search about his quotes looks quite helpful. Written by Don Fry (who I’ve never heard of until now), it’s called Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process That Works For You. I intend to take a look at it and possibly buy it, because I like his premise. He says that we’re taught to write a certain way that might not be right for you, and that we have to allow ourselves to write in a way we’re comfortable with. I think this makes a lot of sense, since trying to fit a round peg into a square hole never works for anyone! 

If you want to talk about any of this material I’ve presented here today, be sure to contact me at collaborativewriter@gmail.com or leave a comment.

Be kind to your writer by responding!

Let’s start at the very beginning: Why Write At All?

Every now and then, I like to go back to my original thought, the one that leads into the maze, and follow Ariadne’s thread to rediscover my purpose.

Your story will be as unique as the snowflake you are...

Your story will be as unique as a snowflake.

When I got started working with writers (as opposed to working on my own writing) it was as an offshoot of being an editor, typesetter, and collaborator/co-writer. In addition to these jobs, I  had been an English major, and I loved history and literature. 

The question of “why I write” never occurred to me in those years, but subsequently, having dealt with many students whose response to a writing prompt was some version of “why bother,” it dawned on me that not everyone had a lust for self-expression; that not everyone was raised to value or desire the need to respond, to have an opinion, to say something.

That was only one problem during the years it took me to get here; another problem was that the writers I worked with, including published writers who I’d assumed had loads of self-confidence, too often told me some version of “I don’t believe in myself enough to do this.” 

Eventually I reached my own crisis of confidence, because I faced the yawning abyss of wanting to write fiction (after having had early work consistently rejected), yet having no credible reason to do so. “Why another piece of fiction,” I muttered to myself on bad days. Why now?  The world is swimming in fiction; surely, another mystery does not have to be written by me.

In fact, this is how I stop myself a lot of the time from writing many things I would otherwise feel compelled to write: someone else has said it already. You might think this is an excuse not to write, and on one level, I’m sure you’re right. It probably is an excuse. But another way of looking at it is that I don’t have to write everything; I do not have to have my thumb in every pie.

I have an opinion about too many things, and many people’s responses through the years have taught me that I really can shut up and let others talk. 

Your voice is distinct and unique.

Your voice is distinct and unique.

The day I decided I wanted and needed to write my mystery story was the day I also decided that the world needs entertainment, and that entertainment, on its own, is not a bad thing. In other words, I gave myself permission to write something that I did not have to write, but nonetheless wanted to write.

Largely, I wanted to write it because no one else has written it yet, or if they have, they haven’t written it the way I want to, from my perspective and research, in my voice.

I had had enough of wandering up and down the aisles of mysteries in Barnes & Noble, never seeing my book already written by someone else, never seeing my own name stuck somewhere, even haphazardly, in the “G’s”. I wasn’t there because I hadn’t written the book that belongs there, and it seemed like no one else was writing it either.

And this is why you should write what you want to write.

It is a truism that “everything’s been said,” but what is more true is that you haven’t had your shot to say it yet. No one has heard you say it, whatever it is, in your voice, from your perspective, in quite the way you would tell the tale.

This is where I could break into lyric song and tell you that you are a unique snowflake, and I will tell you a version of that. You are unique. No one knows the story you want to tell the way you do, and no one will ever tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it, which is why you should give yourself permission to write it, whatever it is. 

The world thrives on stories—we need more stories. Human beings absolutely crave stories; it’s how we make order out of what happens to us. Our brains do it each night when we dream—we create narratives, themes, metaphors, and plots to make sense of what happened to us in our lives.

blue and pink snowflake cookiesWe never tire of hearing, reading, or writing stories, narratives of some kind. It is part of who we are, it’s part of how we order our brains. We’ll create a story around a blade of grass if you let us.

Somewhere during my crisis of confidence I was also reading neuroscience about how the brain works, and the power and importance of stories, so it was then that I realised that it wasn’t infantile or useless or unnecessary to write one more story.

One more story, I realised, is exactly what people want and need, and if other people can write the stories they feel compelled to tell, so can I. 

Ultimately, I stopped judging myself for not writing what I should have been writing (which was scholarly and tedious) and began writing what I wanted to write, which requires a lot of historical research, but is fun and is important to me. Eventually, if I ever get it to an agent and/or a publisher, it might see the light of day and mean something to someone else, but that cannot be the reason I write, since “someday” cannot sustain you; it’s too amorphous, too built on fantasy. I have to write because it matters to me, but also because I believe in the story itself, in the need for this story. Without that belief, I was not writing—I was holding myself back because, at the time, I did not believe in the story. 

What story do you need permission to write? Are you giving yourself that permission?

Let me know!

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook schools

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary

Past Tense: A Tale of Overcoming Writer’s Block, And Becoming The Hero Of My Own Journey

I haven’t been able to write a word of fiction for many months, and I have felt pretty tense during my extended writer’s “blank.”

I have focused on every other form of writing instead; mostly blog-writing, note-taking, emails, IM-ing, forums.

I’ve coached writers, written long emails to writers, sat in groups with writers, listened to writers tell me about their writer’s block. I’ve read a stack of how-to books, including books for people with a classic case of writer’s block.

Writers_Write_Mug.jpg.scaled500

How you characterize your inability to write, what you call it, affects how you cope with it.

I immersed myself in historical research, thinking that if only I knew what really happened in that era, I might be able to see the next step for my protagonist.

I did everything you’re supposed to do for writer’s block, short of standing on my head upside down to increase blood-flow to my brain.

The most dispiriting thing I’ve read in this past year was written by the otherwise uplifting Brenda Ueland, who fervently believed that everyone has something to say, and everyone can become a writer.

In her book about writing, originally published in 1938, titled If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit, Ueland worries that if the writer is “stuttering,” and isn’t writing over long gaps of time, perhaps she isn’t a writer. Perhaps she should give it up. Perhaps it just isn’t meant to be.

“Except, Brenda,” I whispered back, “I really want to do this.” I whispered, “You know I have always wanted to write a murder mystery.” It’s fun, for one thing, and I like putting the puzzle pieces together in my mind. I like my ‘villain.’ I like my protagonist, crusty and grim though he is. I like my minor characters. I especially like Ancient Greece, where the mystery is set.

So, to sum up, I have been very tense, because the underlying dread of being blocked is “I cannot do this; I do not have what it takes.” Logic has been at war with fear; I know I can do this. I can write fiction, but I have had the devil of a time coming up with the details of my plot.

Here’s the real problem with being blocked, from my experience: The writer flails, and while flailing, begins to drown in his or her own fears that this time, the unholy blankness is permanent. So most writers learn to stay busy, keep their minds and pens occupied, while waiting out this particular “blank.”

I’ve found while working with writers, some of whom are blanked, that there are simple problems that cause what we think of as writer’s block, and there are harder problems. I had to ask myself at one point, what’s the real problem here? It isn’t sufficient to know you’re blanked and use all the traditional methods of trying to fix it.

Your problem might be psychological. Many writers I’ve talked to absolutely hate admitting this. While that’s understandable, due to ego issues, being unwilling to admit you’ve got a problem won’t help fix it, and many writers with psychological blocks give up writing entirely, rather than get help. Your problem might be intellectual. How many writers willingly admit to ourselves we’re not clever enough to pull this off? How hard can this be? we rationalize, and then we cobble something together, hoping it’s good enough to pass muster with our editor, publisher, agent, reading group.

Over time, I’ve learned to characterize the block according to what causes it. In my experience, all blocks can be overcome if you know what’s causing them and get the right kind of help. In my case, this block has been caused by my lack of imagination and no experience writing a mystery. As long as I can see my story in my mind, I can write. When I can no longer see it happening, like watching a movie, I have no idea what comes next.

I began to see my block differently; I began to characterize it as an intellectual challenge, rather than an impenetrable wall I couldn’t find a way around or over.

I wasn’t writing because I didn’t know what should happen next. I wasn’t writing because I haven’t had a good grasp on my overall story, even though I’ve written an outline, even though I know my characters, even though I know the overall picture. I have not adequately understood the story’s overall purpose, and so my writing, to quote Ueland, “stutters.”

This is a great model, up to a point.

This is a great model, up to a point.

One way of fixing a plot-related blank (when you don’t know the next thing that should happen) is to read a lot in your genre, if only to steal ideas. I have done that; in fact, I have spent years focusing on my genre, reading only what pertains directly to my plot, so as to get ideas from other, more experienced, fiction writers.

I have found you can research your period extensively and still not be  inspired. Inspiration is the key; something has to fill your mind with story.  “Story,” as in, the basic building block pieces of “once upon a time,” and “then what happened?” that prompt curiosity in the reader’s mind, is what fuels fiction. By reframing my approach to my story, I have regained inspiration, but I had to wait for just the right book to come to me.

I had forgotten how important not only plot, but also, deep structure, is to the overall design of your story’s architecture. I’d gotten lost in the question “what happens next,” instead of seeing the larger picture of what this story is supposed to accomplish each step of the way. Staying true to that inner sense of purpose is part of what I have discovered is called the Hero’s Journey, and it comes with rules more comprehensive than knowing how your protagonist responds to his antagonist, or his deuteragonist, for that matter.

This story continues in the next post…

 

The Writing Spirit: A short video about the writer’s soul

bookTake a look at this short video, and consider some of the things these writers say about the nature of the soul and the force inside of you that pushes you to become a writer.

Some of the ideas are, in their way, a little disturbing, because once again (as in the mythos of the ‘divinely inspired writer’) we get the sense that the urge to write is somehow outside our conscious control, that it’s forced upon us by something deep within us.

Some would call this our ‘soul,’ while others just accept ‘the voices,’ as one writer in the video calls them. When we divorce the urge to write from mystical-sounding metaphors, though, what remains?