Handout from my SCN Workshop: Transforming Your Writing LIfe in 20 Minutes a Day

Transform Your Writing Life in 20 Minutes a Day
Helen (Len) Leatherwood, MS

Benefits of Writing/Blogging 20 Minutes a Day: After 4 ½ years, 1500 posts, 125,000 hits and 65,000 visitors, I know:

If you write daily, you will increase writing fluidity, develop your “voice,” discover who you are and how you think, feel good about yourself by doing something every day related to writing, believe you are closer to being a “real” writer, stop debilitating perfectionism, have a daily chronicle of your life, and create a body of work.
If you blog daily, you will increase readership, build a writing platform, open yourself up to people writing similar blogs on the Internet, create a community of writers, increase your chances of attracting an agent and/or increase your confidence to move ahead with your writing dreams.

Challenges to Writing 20 Minutes a Day, even after 4 ½ years:

I am boring and so is my life.
Why would anybody care about what I’m writing?
I am wasting my time. I will never make money doing this.
I have nothing to write about. I am blank.
I am not a good writer, why am I bothering?
I have other more pressing business that needs my attention; I should be doing it instead.
I am kidding myself that this endeavor makes any sense.
What makes me think I have something special to say, especially since most of the time my writing is so mundane?

Life Lesson: You and the world’s greatest writers share the same doubts.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” William Shakespeare
“I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” Jane Austen                 “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath                                              “I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”
Tennessee Williams

Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process
by Betty S. Flowers
Professor of English and
Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

“What’s the hardest part of writing?” I ask on the first day of class.

“Getting started,” someone offers, groaning.

“No, it’s not getting started,” a voice in the back of the room corrects. “It’s keeping on once you do get started. I can always write a sentence or two-but then I get stuck.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I am writing along, and all of a sudden I realize how awful it is, and I tear it up. Then I start over again, and after two sentences, the same thing happens.”

“Let me suggest something which might help,” I say. Turning to the board, I write four words: “madman,” “architect,” “carpenter,” “judge.”

Then I explain:

“What happens when you get stuck is that two competing energies are locked horn to horn, pushing against each other. One is the energy of what I’ll call your ‘madman.’ He is full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily, gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger, and if really let loose, could turn out ten pages an hour.

“The second is a kind of critical energy-what I’ll call the ‘judge.’ He’s been educated and knows a sentence fragment when he sees one. He peers over your shoulder and says, ‘That’s trash!’ with such authority that the madman loses his crazy confidence and shrivels up. You know the judge is right-after all, he speaks with the voice of your most imperious English teacher. But for all his sharpness of eye, he can’t create anything.

“So you’re stuck. Every time your madman starts to write, your judge pounces on him.

“Of course this is to over-dramatize the writing process-but not entirely. Writing is so complex, involves so many skills of heart, mind and eye, that sitting down to a fresh sheet of paper can sometime seem like ‘the hardest work among those not impossible,’ as Yeats put it. Whatever joy there is in the writing process can come only when the energies are flowing freely-when you’re not stuck.

“And the trick to not getting stuck involves separating the energies. If you let the judge with his intimidating carping come too close to the madman and his playful, creative energies, the ideas which form the basis for your writing will never have a chance to surface. But you can’t simply throw out the judge. The subjective personal outpourings of your madman must be balanced by the objective, impersonal vision of the educated critic within you. Writing is not just self-expression; it is communication as well.

“So start by promising your judge that you’ll get around to asking his opinion, but not now. And then let the madman energy flow. Find what interests you in the topic, the question or emotion that it raises in you, and respond as you might to a friend-or an enemy. Talk on paper, page after page, and don’t stop to judge or correct sentences. Then, after a set amount of time, perhaps, stop and gather the paper up and wait a day.

“The next morning, ask your ‘architect’ to enter. She will read the wild scribblings saved from the night before and pick out maybe a tenth of the jottings as relevant or interesting. (You can see immediately that the architect is not sentimental about what the madman wrote; she is not going to save every crumb for posterity.) Her job is simply to select large chunks of material and to arrange them in a pattern that might form an argument. The thinking here is large, organizational, paragraph level thinking-the architect doesn’t worry about sentence structure.
“No, the sentence structure is left for the ‘carpenter’ who enters after the essay has been hewn into large chunks of related ideas. The carpenter nails these ideas together in a logical sequence, making sure each sentence is clearly written, contributes to the argument of the paragraph, and leads logically and gracefully to the next sentence. When the carpenter finishes, the essay should be smooth and watertight.

“And then the judge comes around to inspect. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, tone-all the details which result in a polished essay become important only in this last stage. These details are not the concern of the madman who’s come up with them, or the architect who’s organized them, or the carpenter who’s nailed the ideas together, sentence by sentence. Save details for the judge.”

Pros on Prose: The Best Advice on Writing
10 Authors Recall the Best Writing Advice They Ever Received

Advice is cheap, the saying goes, because supply always exceeds demand. And yet as many professional authors will tell you, aspiring writers are often hungry for advice–eager to pick up a tip that will open the door to a successful writing life.

Here are 10 of those inside tips: not words of encouragement, necessarily, but sound, practical advice that can help you become a better writer.
Write One Inch at a Time: The best advice I’ve ever come across for any kind of writing is from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. She says to write just one inch at a time. I love that! It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by a big project, but if I only have to concentrate on one inch, well, that I can handle. Eventually those inches will be feet and yards and whatever it takes to make a book. This is true for research, too, which can be overwhelming. (Editor and children’s book author Maureen Boyd Biro, quoted in The ABC’s of Writing for Children, by Elizabeth Koehler Pentacoff. Quill Driver Books, 2002)

Finish Your First Draft: The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor, Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, while writing my first book. “Finish Your first draft and then we’ll talk,” he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix. (American journalist Dominick Dunne, quoted in Advice to Writers, by Jon Winokur. Pantheon, 1999)

Get Over It: October, 1987. Armadillocon, then the hippest science fiction convention on the face of the earth. I ran into Bill Gibson.

“We have to talk,” he said. “I’ve discovered the secret of writing.” . . .

“Okay,” I said. “What’s the secret of writing?”

A beat, for emphasis. Then: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

It was the most useful writing advice anyone has ever given me. (Science-fiction writer Eileen Gunn, “The Secret of Writing” in Stable Strategies and Others. Tachyon, 2004)

Simplify: I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in “business writing.” I couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ll tell you the main tricks here so you don’t have to waste a day in class.

Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.

Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.
(Writer and cartoonist Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog, June 16, 2007)

Murder Your Darlings: The Tao Te Ching’s call for simplicity parallels the writing instructor’s advice, to strive for simplicity and clarity in writing. English author Arthur Quiller-Couch originated one of the purest rules of writing you will ever hear. He advised, “If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Professor of English Ralph L. Wahlstrom, The Tao of Writing. Adams Media, 2005)

Lead With Your Best: The most useful advice on writing I’ve ever received comes from Gil Rogin, who told me that he always uses his best thing in his lead, and his second best thing in his last paragraph; and from Dwight MacDonald, who wrote that the best advice he ever received was to put everything on the same subject in the same place. To these dictums I would add the advice to ask yourself repeatedly: what is this about? (Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Powers, quoted in Advice to Writers, by Jon Winokur. Pantheon, 1999)

Write With Authority: The best advice on writing I’ve ever received is “Write with authority.”
(Novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, quoted by Patrick Sebranek et al. in Writers Inc. Great Source Education Group, 2006)

Stand Out as a Real Person: [William] Zinsser says, “If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots.” He’s talking about the beige voice used by many in business, government, academic, and other institutional settings, but his advice applies even more so to the professional writer. He’s saying it exactly right: When you’re yourself on the page, you’re gonna “stand out as a real person among the robots.” The robots in this case being the folks in the mound of manuscripts piled high on any given editor’s desk. (Author and teacher Les Edgerton, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing. Writers Digest Books, 2003

Remember to Play: The best piece of advice I was ever given was by Thornton Wilder, who read my work for a good ten years and was utterly invaluable as a mentor. The advice he gave me was, “In writing there should always be an element of play.” . . . Even though you are writing something dead serious, there must be an element of play in the work, your approach to the work, and even your doing of the work. (Novelist John Knowles, quoted by Jimm Roberts in Southernmost Art and Literary Portraits. Mercer University Press, 2005)

Show Up for Work: There’s a phrase, “sitzfleisch,” which means just plain sitting on your ass and getting it done. Just showing up for work. My uncle Raphael was a painter, and he used to say, “If the muse is late for work, start without her.” You have to be there. You have to be there, and do it, and grind it out, even when it is grinding and you know you’re probably going to rewrite all this tomorrow. (Novelist and short story writer Peter S. Beagle, quoted in Novelish: A Writing Blog, Dec. 15, 2008)

Finally, the best advice of all is also the simplest, says author Peter Mayle: “Finish.”

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received
By Pico Iyer, American Scholar, OCTOBER 7, 2013

“The reader wants to travel beside you, looking over your shoulder.” It was such matter-of-fact, practical advice, but my wise first book-editor, Charles Elliott at Knopf, had the rare gift of writing with such directness and concreteness that it was hard not to listen to what he said.
I’d begun to learn how to become a writer by moving from grad school (where I had only one reader I was keen to impress, myself) to Time magazine, where I tried to absorb certain basic lessons about clarity and communication (the reader wants to learn about what happened last week in Beirut, not Pico Iyer’s prose style). Friends and elders offered me plenty of sage counsel about following one’s bliss and working with the subconscious and the hazards of the freelance writer’s life. It was all sound advice, but something I needed to learn for myself, the hard way, by doing everything wrong.
Chuck’s advice, by contrast, was as precise, as portable as a doctor’s crisp diagnosis and prescription. I sent him the first two chapters of my first book, and he wrote back, “You write, ‘Every morning, I would wake up in Tibet and walk to a temple …’ If you just changed it to a specific instance, ‘One morning I woke up and went to such-and-such a place,’ it would come into much sharper focus.”
Twenty-seven years on, his six-sentence typed letter informs every other sentence I write, and reminds me not to drift into poetic vagueness when immediacy and specificity would be so much more welcome to a reader. Becoming a writer, I suspect, involves not even thinking of being a “writer,” but simply confiding one’s most intimate experiences to the page, in a way that, through training, makes sense to an unmet stranger.

7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block
By: Chuck Sambuchino | May 5, 2013

Guest column by Brian Moreland, who writes novels and
short stories of historical horror and supernatural suspense.

If you’re struggling with writer’s block, don’t get discouraged. This happens to every great writer at some point, and it’s easy to overcome it. I get stuck many times in the middle of a novel. I lose my muse and don’t feel like writing. I stare at the computer screen and no words come to mind. My head feels stuck, stuck, stuck. It can be frustrating. After twenty years of writing historical thrillers and supernatural horror novels, I’ve learned how to get past writer’s block. Here are seven powerful ways you can get back into the flow of writing.
1) Step away from whatever you’re writing and do anything that’s creative. Paint pictures, write poetry, design images in Photoshop, make a scrapbook or collage, or if you’re masculine, build something in the garage. Work on another creative project for a few hours or days and then go back to writing. When I’m stuck, I paint paintings or work on my website or blog. Jumping to other projects really activates my creativity. The key is to keep exercising the creative part of your brain and eventually you’ll tap back into the flow of writing.
2) Do freewriting. Spend 15 minutes or more a day writing whatever comes off the top of your head. Ignore punctuation. Just write freely. Allow it to be totally random. You might change subjects many times. You might mix fiction with journaling or vent frustrations. The process trains your brain to tap into the words inside your head and gives them a place to live on your computer screen or journal. Do this for a week and then return to your writing project. An alternative is to freewrite 15-20 minutes to get your thoughts out and then immediately return to writing your book or article. Some of my freewriting entries inspired new ideas for my books.
3) Move your body. Dance, practice yoga or Tai Chi. This may sound funny, but when you get your body into flow, your mind follows. Meditate and take long, deep breaths. A relaxed mind is more open. An open mind is more imaginative. You can focus longer when you are in a peaceful state. Sometimes I step away from writing, do some yoga poses and breathing, then return to writing in a more creative state.
4) Eliminate distractions. Turn off the phone and unplug from the internet. Clean up your work space. A cluttered desk puts the mind in a state of confusion. Carve out some time in your schedule just for writing — at least 3 to 4 hours. Ask loved ones to honor your space so you can write without interruptions, or write when everyone in the house is sleeping. Giving yourself time and space to be in solitude is important to staying focused.
5) Write early in the morning. When you first wake up, your brain is still in Theta mode, the brainwave pattern that your mind is in when you dream. My best writing happens when I get up at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I’m amazed at what my mind comes up with while I’m still half asleep.
6) Write while you sleep. Your subconscious mind is always problem solving, even when you’re sleeping. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a chapter I’ll write for 15-30 minutes prior to bedtime. I’ll think about the problem chapter as I fall asleep. The next morning I usually wake up with a solution to the problem and get back into the flow of writing. I’ll see the scene from a fresh perspective or my characters will say or do things that take my story in an exciting new direction.
7) If nothing else works, I resort to my number one, lethal weapon to cure writer’s block: the Glass-of-Water Technique. Before bed, fill up a glass of water. Hold it up and speak an intention into the water. (Example: My intent is to tap into my creative source and write brilliantly tomorrow. I choose to be in the flow of my best writing. I am resolving my story’s issues as I sleep and dream). Drink half the water and then set the half-full glass on your nightstand. Go to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, drink the rest of the water immediately. Then go straight to your computer and write at least an hour without distraction. This may seem a bit out there, but give it a try. It works! Do this technique for three nights straight. It gets me out of my writer’s block every time, often the next morning and definitely within 72 hours.
When you apply one or all of these methods, you’ll find that writer’s block is simply a minor speed bump that you can overcome easily and stay in the creative flow. Happy writing!

12 Wonderful Things About Writing
Writers on Writing

(Stephen Dixon, interviewed by Linda B. Swanson-Davies. The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, ed. by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006)

Writing is a wonderful torment; it’s banging your fists against the wall until . . . you have something you’ve written.

For most of us, writing is hard work. And writing well is even harder. But hard work doesn’t have to mean drudgery.

In various ways, the difficult job of writing can also be deeply rewarding. As these 12 authors point out, writing can truly be a wonderful experience.
* For the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important.
(Donald H. Graves, “Answering Your Questions About Teaching Writing.” Instructor, 1995)

* The wonderful thing about writing is that it forces you to confront yourself in a way you usually don’t have to. That is, needless to say, also the terrible thing.
(Jonathan Rose, “A Retreat From the World Can Be a Perilous Journey.” The New York Times, May 7, 2001)

* Writing is a wonderful catharsis, and the result of the effort of writing is frequently as dear to the author as a newborn babe to its mother, and just as vulnerable and tender.
(W. Ross Winterowd, Rhetoric and Writing. Allyn & Bacon, 1965)

* The wonderful thing about writing is that anyone can afford to do it, and they don’t have to show their efforts to anyone until they’re ready.
(Thomas Perry, “Interview With Thomas Perry.” BestSellersWorld, January 25, 2003)

* The wonderful thing about writing is that it enables you to travel wherever you want, and nowhere–not even the past–is inaccessible.
(Joanne Harris, “On Coastliners.” HarperCollins, 2010)

* Writing is a wonderful companion to our loneliness in a world where we stand alone.
(Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving. Scribner, 2005)

* The wonderful thing about writing as opposed to speaking is that this is the world of second chances. We can rewrite and rewrite and rewrite as many times as we need to.
(Gloria Kempton, Write Great Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2004)

* The wonderful thing about writing is that you’re constantly having to ask yourself questions. It makes you function morally. It makes you function intellectually. That’s the great pleasure and great reward of writing.
(Robert Stone, quoted by William Safire and Leonard Safir in Good Advice on Writing. Simon & Schuster, 1992)

* The wonderful thing about writing is the process never stops. When I switch off the computer and go about my day at the theater, there is always a little typewriter going off in the back of my head.
(Stephen Sachs quoted by Tom Provenzano in “Stephen Sachs Directs U.S. Premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver.” LA STAGE Times, October 13, 2010)

* That’s the wonderful thing about writing. With every project, you learn and grow.
(Martha O’Connor, “10 Questions with Martha O’Connor.” Fiction Attic Press, 2010)

* A wonderful thing about writing is that you can revise, change images, ideas, write the same book better than before.
(Bernard Malamud, The Tenants. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971)

* That’s the wonderful thing about writing–you continue it throughout your life, and you don’t reach an end to it.
(Lee Upton, “If I Owe You I Want to Pay You.” Delicious Imaginations: Conversations With Contemporary Writers, ed. by Sarah Griffiths and Kevin J. Kehrwald. Purdue University Press, 1998)

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you so much for teaching this class and refreshing the memory here.

  2. You’re welcome. Thank you!

  3. Kelly Wise says:

    Len, Thank you for this wonderful post and the rich resources. I wish I could have been there.

    1. You’re welcome, Kelly. Would have loved to see you there. Hugs.

  4. ladywinfred says:

    Hey, Len – Thanks for the treasure trove. Wish I could have been there in Austin with you. We’ve still got that hug owed each other!!!!

  5. You’re welcome, my dear. I want to see you for that hug one of these days!

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