Staying in the Flow: Advice for Memoir Writers and Others

Gilda Morina Syverson will lead a workshop on memoir, “Traveling Home, Again:  Memoir’s Enlightening Path” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday, February 21st, from 6 to 9 p.m. Register


Only two years. That’s what I told myself when I first began to teach memoir writing at Queens University. I would do it for two years. My plan was to spend more time on my writing. But something happened. I not only fell in love with the process of writing my stories, but I fell in love with everyone else’s stories, too.

That was over 19 years ago. I am still in awe of what people discover when writing about themselves, their families, relatives, in some cases distant ancestors. We can write compelling stories by capturing flashes of memories, obsessions, dreams—night or day, an inspiring line from a poem or article and more. Then we take the thought or line, let it lead us as we write and write and write.

What I’ve told my students over the years is to capture the memory that comes to mind after giving them a prompt or reading them a poem. Do not think about editing, grammar, punctuation marks, and so on. Just write what flows! We’ll deal with crafting later.

I learned this process over thirty years ago when Natalie Goldberg wrote in her books about keeping that hand moving. NO THINKING ALLOWED. Not out loud! Although there is something valuable to learn about “Why not out loud?”

When a person says to me that he or she wants to write and starts telling me their story, I carefully, sometimes not so carefully, stop him or her and say, “Don’t tell me. Write it down.”

I’ve seen frustration on faces. Yes, they have a story to tell. But my intention is to get these people to their office, bedroom, back porch, or wherever they feel comfortable and put down that tale in written words. I imagine them saying to themselves, “I’ll show her. I’m telling that story anyway,” and then pen it in a journal, on a piece of paper, or type it into a Word document.

Ah-ha! A start! It’s where all writers—beginner or advanced—return to again and again.

Even though memoir (and poetry) are my loves, keeping that hand moving is a starter for all genres. When I sit down to write something new, brand new, I let it spill out—a morning dream, a cousin who has revealed a family secret, relatives from Italy who appeared on my grandmother’s doorstep. I let the story lead me where it wants to go. While writing, if Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane appear on your shoulder (metaphorically, of course) and have something to say, do not swat those voices away.

When it is time for crafting, editing is a creative process all its own. Since I am drawn to the editing process as much as the initial discovery, when I go back into the story, that’s when I play with the language, add specific and descriptive details, dialogue if need be, cut, paste, develop scenes.

The structure and spine of the story will slowly evolve. I let it lead me remembering what Anne Lamott said years ago when visiting Charlotte, that she edits each chapter seven, eight, nine times. It is in this process, where I get honest with myself or bring my writing to one of my critique groups; I can count on them to be open with me.

After all these years, I am still in awe of the stories that have grown out of people’s lives, their families, the places they have come from. I hope to hear a bit of your story one day—written down, of course!


Gilda Morina Syverson is an award-winning author for the memoir, My Father’s Daughter: From Rome to Sicily, and two poetry collections, Facing the Dragon and In This Dream Everything Remains Inside. She is at work on her second memoir. Gilda has been teaching and coaching memoir writing for over 19 years and is also on the faculty for Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab. She has recently been featured on Charlotte Readers Podcast.

Research First, Then Write?

Editor’s note: We occasionally take a look at the standard bits of advice given to writers. This week, guest blogger Andy Thomason takes on the notion of research first, then write.


When I told one of the editors at my office that I was writing a book, he offered what I thought was a strange piece of advice to give right off the bat: Mix up the reporting and writing. Don’t try to cordon off each task by, for instance, spending the first six months reporting and latter six months writing.

This goes a little against my experience. When I edit long stories, the reporter has usually done the vast majority of the reporting before they sit and write. The processes are somewhat distinct. It’s only when they’re armed with pages of notes and transcripts that the reporter enters Writing Quarantine (only to come out days later with a draft, shell-shocked, regretting they ever entered this line of work).

I didn’t ask my editor to elaborate on his advice, but I didn’t need to. After a few months of reporting, the paralysis I felt made his point for him. I had contacted a wide swath of people for interviews, talked to the fraction who were willing, followed some of their leads, and dutifully pestered the people who still weren’t answering my calls or emails.

As I’ve detailed previously in my real-time newsletter in the course of writing this book, my reporting yielded promising material. But the more information I had, the more directions this book could go. It could be about the process of admitting athletes into colleges like UNC. It could be about academic support offices. It could be about the NCAA. It could be about the athletes themselves. Each focus would require a different structure, different reporting, a different process. The number of potential paths I could carve up the mountain seemed exponential.

It was around this time that I remembered another piece of advice that some of the editors in my office often dispense. When writing an article (or anything, I guess, including a book), ask yourself, what is this about? Not what happens, or who’s in it, but what’s the concept at the heart of it? Doing this exercise well can often get you down to one word. Power. Corruption. Money.

This exercise has a focusing power. For instance, if you were writing a book about college sports that you decided was mostly about money, then you would naturally want to dig into conferences’ revenue sharing agreements and media deals. But if you were writing another book about that same topic, but this time decided it was about exploitation, you might want to focus more on the stories of the athletes themselves.

Answering this question can help you set your sights on what you really need. There are no longer a thousand routes up the mountain, but just a few.

So one day between Christmas and New Year’s I took my laptop to the Caledonia conference room and opened a blank Google doc, with the goal of free writing my way to the heart of the book. One word seemed ambitious, so I decided to aim for one page, double-spaced. And if it was good, a version of what I came up with here would likely appear in the book itself, probably in the introduction.

Real book writing. This was going to be a big step forward.

I wrote a bad sentence.

I wrote another bad sentence.

Enough with sentences. Let’s try a scene. I wrote a bad scene.

Back to sentences. Here was an OK sentence, but not really on topic.

I wrote a paragraph. It was a fine paragraph, but it didn’t answer the question.

This was not going well. I got in the elevator and headed to the sandwich place around the corner. On the way I took more stabs at the question, chattering topic sentences entering the Untitled Document of my brain. Bad. Bad. Maybe. Meh. Somewhere between the CVS and the Zapp’s chips I began to make inroads on an answer. I walked quickly back to the office, storing sentences in my head as I went. I sat down at my computer, gobbled up my sandwich, and started typing. Forty-five minutes later, I had a page-long answer. This was not great writing. But the argument made sense, and that’s what mattered.

This was the mini book, and I could use it as a roadmap for the big one. I went sentence by sentence and asked a question of each of them: What information would I need to prove each claim? Who would I need to talk to? What would I need to ask them about? I made a bulleted list, and deposited the results into the “tasks” pop-out in my Gmail.

Only by writing could I figure out what I needed to do next. My editor was right.

Rather than hail this as a breakthrough, I kicked myself instead. This is the kind of thing I should’ve been doing with one year left, not nine months. What was I even doing for those three months? As the days until my October 1 deadline tick away I’ve become more anxious about time I spend not writing and not on the phone. I’ve even started to lose a little sleep out of fear that I’m too far behind. And with no book writing experience, my only logical response is low-grade anxiety and fear.

When I mentioned this to a friend this weekend he said, “Well that’s the point of the first book, isn’t it?” I’m learning a lot. Hopefully I’ll come away with a book, too.


Andy Thomason is a Charlotte native and senior editor at “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” He’s a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, where he was editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. Andy is writing a book about the relationship between colleges and the big-time sports programs they house, using the recent UNC academic-fraud scandal as a narrative lens. This is his first book, and he’s chronicling his reporting and writing process in a real-time newsletter. You can sign up here: tinyletter.com/arthomason 

Little Jewels of Wisdom: Writing Advice Distilled

I love to go to writing workshops and have attended at least one each year for nearly two decades. Below is the advice I have found most helpful. Most of the instructors were excellent, some less so, but each provided a little jewel of wisdom.

1. A novel needs conflict, both external and internal. The external conflict drives the plot, the internal conflict provides the heart. It’s preferable if there is also a universal conflict. (Source: Ann Hood among others)

2. Always move toward greater complication. I like patterns, but when the writing is too matchy-matchy, too neat, too easily resolved, it becomes predictable and lacks tension. For example, if you have two points of view, you don’t always have to alternate between them. (Dana Spiotta)

3. Flip it/don’t land in the same place. This is related to #2. You’ll create tension if your fragment, scene, or chapter changes in emotional value. For example, if in one scene your protagonist breaks up with an old lover, in the next scene she should gain something, even if it’s finding a seat on the crowded train. (Ann Hood from Robert McKee)

4. Find an image and let it do more. My teacher in college, James Alan McPherson, used to talk about writing as jazz, and then he would riff himself in lecture, plucking images from disparate sources, somehow creating something coherent. Also see: objective correlative.

5. Be judicious with first-person point of view. It’s tricky, and some readers will despise you if you make mistakes in its use. When in doubt, default to third person unless the character has a unique voice. (Tony Early, Antonya Nelson)

6. Show kindness to your writing. Even that piece of crap you just wrote has something amazing in it (Lidia Yuknavitch). Of course Anne Lamott says much the same thing in Bird by Bird, about the kid by the fence, but Lidia reads everyone’s writing with such compassion, such delight in the possibility, that it makes you want to do the same thing with your own work.

7. Don’t make dialogue too neat. It’s not a tennis match where each speaker hits the conversational ball back and forth. People, especially in fiction, talk over each other, don’t listen, don’t speak in complete sentences. When I write dialogue, I write it the way we might actually speak, and then I cut out about half of it. (Bill Roorbach is especially good at this.)

8. Find a role model and map their work. In workshops early in my career, both Ann Hood and Rebecca McClanahan taught me to find an example of a writer succeeding at something I wanted to do in my writing, and to analyze it. I used to go through essays and mark sections in different colors to show scene, summary and musing.

9. Enjoy the process. In the end, that may be all I get out of writing. I may never publish these novels or even find an agent. I will certainly not get rich. But I have learned to love the writing itself and look forward to revision, to becoming better.


A few spaces remain for “Showing and Telling: Successfully Use Both Scene and Summary.” Join Kristin for this excellent class on Tuesday January 22 from 6 to 9 pm.


Kristin Donnalley Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she works as a writer, editor, and writing coach. She’s published both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently at work on two novels. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, Main Street Rag, and Flashquake, and she has won or been a finalist in numerous contests, including Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction, the Writers Workshop Memoirs, the Reynolds Price Fiction, River Styx Micro-fiction, and the Press 53 Open Awards for Short Short Fiction.

How do you know when it’s done? (Or how I stopped hating and learned to love my imperfections)

It’s the perennial question all writers face: You’ve written a piece, and good as it is, is it done? Have you done all you can to make it perfect? Before we get there, check the entry criteria. I call them table stakes. Consider these five points first. 

  • Central point: If it takes more than one sentence (25 words) to describe what the story or poem is about, you’re not done.
  • Emotional depth: Any place you can go deeper? Balance inner thoughts, action and dialogue.
  • All five senses: Crisp descriptions and new imagery.
  • Point of view and tense: If you changed the point of view, for example, from first person to third, how does the story change? If you changed from past tense to present, what happens?
  • Strong characters and vivid setting: Are they visible? Can you make them clearer?

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius

The simple answer is: it’s never done done. You’ve heard that James Joyce was still making edits to Ulysses decades after it had been published. How Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms to ensure he’d picked the correct one? Don’t get me started on Emily Dickinson…. You can drive yourself crazy. Here are a few hints to help you figure out if you’re done. Or not.

1. Put everything in

Be constantly on the lookout for subconscious gifts — those persistent whispers — it’s why I write. To get outside myself, to find that something extra I didn’t know I had. I call it touching divinity. 

More often than not, those persistent whispers lead me where I need to go.

Given free reign, I tend to get off track. I go tangential. No problem. At least I didn’t ignore the whisper; I took heed. Maybe it was a wrong number.

If you don’t write it you’ll never know and not knowing can haunt you. Put everything in.

2. Take everything out

It sounds counterintuitive. Hang with me. I can explain.

“Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” — James Baldwin

Let’s take it further: write a paragraph as clean as a bone. Write a scene as clean as a bone. Write a story, a chapter, a whole book as clean as a bone. Challenge yourself. When in doubt, take it out.

I create outtake files. Keep them. They may become useful for something else.

Here is the “kill your darlings” thing. Ask yourself: am I keeping it because I like it, or am I keeping it because it’s necessary? Necessary means it advances the story, deepens a character, or ties back to the central theme. If it does none of these, open up your outtakes file, and take it out. 

3. Tighten

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect it isn’t. My first drafts are full of filler words, common phrases, and what I call fluff. Crutch words. If only there was a quick way to clean it up. There is! That’s where my repeat offenders list comes in. I have 40 or so fillers, fluff stuff, and crutches for which I check. 

But, you counter, what if filler words are there for a purpose; what if they help to build the voice? Voice doesn’t need filler words, voice don’t need fluff. Tighten. 

4. Put it in a drawer

Distance. Sometimes we need distance. You’ve heard a peer say, “It seemed so good when I wrote it; then I read it the next day and it was complete hogwash. Balderdash. Drivel. How can that be?”

You’re too close. It’s natural. What’s needed here is perspective.

Put it in a drawer. Literally, figuratively, whatever works for you (see hint 1). Pull it out in a week. Mileage may vary but somewhere between a week and a month is about the right amount of psychic distance to be able to get perspective.

5. Read it out loud

This one is new for me. I have friends who swear by this step for all writing, from fiction to essay, to blog post. Read it outloud and where you hear yourself stumble, your voice cracks, or a word just gets stuck in your throat, see if you can fix it.

Some would even say record yourself reading it and listen to it. I have to admit I have not gone this far yet, but I would love to. Your smartphone can record your voice. Your computer probably can. Try it.

6. Feedback

Bottom line: Good feedback makes you want to write more. If feedback makes you feel like not writing, it gots to go. Out out. No explanation needed. (Unless it is your editor, you’re under contract and you just want don’t want to — that’s a different problem.)

Constructive, deep, heart-felt, thoughtful feedback is gold to writers. Instead of saying, “this is not right,” it says, “have you thought about…?” 

Great feedback can sting. You’ll know great feedback when you see it; deep down you know it’s true. 

Great beta readers are earned, not found. When a reader agrees to read for you, you enter into a sacred contract. They took the time to read it; you owe them the courtesy of acknowledging each point. 

Show respect for their time and effort. Express gratitude. You will have a stronger beta reader next time. 

7. Tighten again

In the process of incorporating feedback, in rewriting, you have gone back to some of your habits. Run through the tighten sequence again. Doesn’t have to be time consuming — after all you already did it once. The heavy lifting got done the first time.

There they are. Seven hints to think about when you’re not sure that you’re done. Do all of them every time? No. Use discretion. If I had the time I would do each of these steps. Would I then be done? Um. Maybe? But I would rest assured — all the tools and methods I know of have been exhausted.

After all this, will I read a piece months later and see something I would have liked to change? Happens all the time. 

View your writing as a progression. Your imperfections reflect the way you were when you finished that piece. You will do better next time. 


Rick Pryll is the author of The Chimera of Prague (Foolishness Press, 2017), which won the Romance category at the 2018 New York Book Festival, a collection of short stories, Wallow (Foolishness Press, 1999), a poetry chapbook, Displaced (Foolishness Press, 1998) and a hyperfiction short story, “Lies,” that has been translated into Chinese and Spanish. A graduate of MIT, he wrote a novella to satisfy the thesis requirement for his degree in Mechanical Engineering. Rick and his wife, ArtPop Charlotte 2018 artist Holly Spruck, live in Charlotte. They have two children and two cats and a dog.


Join Rick for on Tuesday, January 29, from 6 to 8 pm to hear his astute advice for writers considering the self-publishing route, “Do Not Get Ripped Off! Tips for Self-Publishing.” Details and registration here.

A Moment Leads to an Essay: A Journey in Five Parts

1.

My daughter and I share a plate of fried ripe plantains, a sweet taste that immediately reminds me of my childhood.

“Mommy, are there bananas in plantains?” she asks.

I pause. Bananas in plantains. “A plantain is a plantain,” I say. “It’s not a banana.”

“But are there bananas in plantains?” she asks again. And I think of what she knows. The similarity in taste, the specks of black seeds. This is where the pondering begins. I ruminate about her understanding of this food that matters so much to her Jamaican-American mama. “A plantain doesn’t have any banana in it,” I tell her.

2.

The memories spill forth with a ferocious speed. Plantains. Bananas. The evening so many years ago when my babysitter peeled a plantain, thinking it was a banana, and gave it to me. Me seated on the red stool in my childhood kitchen while my mother fried plantains. A day when I lived in Cape Town and my friend gave me a plantain picked from her friend’s tree. One by one, I turn these images into fully formed scenes. As I write, I find myself wondering: “Why do I care so much about plantains?” and “When my daughter doesn’t know the difference between a plantain and a banana, what does that say about me?”

3.

What is the difference between a plantain and banana? I type those words and wait for my phone to tell me. I discover that plantains and bananas share a common ancient ancestor that boasted much larger seeds. And memories continue to pour into me. My father singing, “Come, mister tally man, tally me banana,” and my sister and me yelling back, “Daylight come and me wan’ go home.” Family. Generations. There’s something here, I think. I keep taking notes, I keep following where the memories lead. I’m still not there, though. This I know. Patience, I tell myself because patience can be what separates a glimmer of connection from a fully-realized piece. Patience is sometimes just what an essayist needs.

4.

At a writing retreat, a prompt instructs me to write words directed at another human being. For reasons only my unconscious understands, I choose to write words to my sister. “I’ve heard it said that one day you and I will be all we have left.” I write about a future day when my sister and I no longer having living parents. I write about a time when it will be just the two of us alive who experienced the memories from the early years of our lives. The free write ambles into the territory of preparation of Jamaican food and what my sister might teach me.

It’s now months since my daughter first asked me if there are bananas in plantains. It is here, though, as I sketch out this imagined scene of my sister and me, that the worlds of memory and moments, research and scenes collide in the most unexpected way. These meanderings, these questions about plantains and my daughter, this was never about what I’m teaching her. This was always about my sister, always about me. A plantain is not a banana I discovered during my research, but they are close. My sister is not me, but we share much in common. Two black American daughters of Jamaican immigrants with different stories about the formation of our identities.

5.

The pondering began with a single question from my child. The writing found life with a long-awaited connection between two sisters and plantains and research about banana trees. In the act of understanding the connections, I began to see what mattered to this story and what might fade away. Yes to a scene of my long-ago babysitter mistaking a plantain for a banana. Yes to a memory of my mother pushing my sister and me in a grocery cart in search of plantains. No to my father singing Dayo. And no—the big surprising no—to the moment my daughter asked if bananas are in plantains. That moment began the search for story, but it wasn’t part of what the story ultimately wanted to be.


Patrice Gopo is the author of All the Colors We Will See, an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. You can hear a recent podcast interview with her here. She will teach “Crafting the Personal Essay: The Art of Sharing our Lives and Loves” at Charlotte Lit in January.

On writing a novel: You don’t have to know everything to begin

Kim Wright teaches “So You Want to Write a Novel: How to Get Started and Keep Going” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday December 13 from 6 to 9 pm. Register


Writers use a lot of analogies for the sense of disorientation and fear that comes with starting a book. E.L Doctorow famously said “Writing is like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My friend and fellow novelist Kim Boykin less famously (but quite consistently) claims that her stories are dictated to her by her characters. Their voices, she says, come to her out of the ether and page by page, each plot twist is a mystery, right up to the point that the characters finally explain how their story ends.

Either way, the point is this. You don’t have to know everything to begin.

You don’t have to know much at all.

I think of each story as a room and that there are many doors into that room—many ways to enter and oriented yourself.  Some writers won’t write the first word before they figure out the plot. Others, like Kim, connect to the voice of their characters and some of the more high-minded among us are motivated by theme, choosing to write the books they think the world needs to read, based on the topical issues that most inspire their authors. For me, the door frequently opens in the form of an image. Which can be scary since image, by its very nature, gives you both everything and nothing. The whole sense of the story world reveals itself in one fell swoop but you don’t have a clue what any of it means.

A good example of this is my Last Ride to Graceland, which in many ways has been my most successful book. I was lying in bed on a rainy Sunday morning perusing the Charlotte Observer and I noticed an article on how they were restoring the car Elvis Presley drove on the last day of his life. It had been wrapped in plastic in Graceland for nearly forty years, shoved in a corner of a massive garage, just waiting to reveal its secrets. An intriguing enough notion on its own, but suddenly an image flashed into my mind—not of a 1977 Stutz Blackhawk spending decades being ignored in a garage in Graceland but of that same big black muscle car zooming down a road in rural Alabama. “Fairhope,” I thought, although I didn’t know why, but I did know that a woman was driving the car, a woman who had been born shortly after Elvis died. And I didn’t know precisely how her age fit in, although it was certainly a clue to the mystery of the book but there was trash in the car, trash left over from 1977 and the last time the car had been driven, and that seemed essential too and for some ungodly reason I looked over and saw she had a coon hound on the passenger seat beside her.

And so the book began. No matter how a writer begins or which door they choose to enter into the world of the story, it often feels a bit mysterious when they start. Uncertain and dimly lit, like the nighttime fog EL Doctorow described. But the point is that you must trust in the story’s willingness to unfold itself over time and your own ability to wait, with patience and loyalty to the process, before you even begin to see the big picture.

In that sense, the writer is the story’s first reader—the first to feel its pleasure and mystery and pain and power. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to know much of anything. You just have to open the first page and begin.


Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air, The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters, and her latest novel, Last Ride to Graceland, which was the 2017 recipient of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. For the past three years she has been a developmental editor through The Story Doctor, helping writers with issues of story arcs, structure, and pacing. At Charlotte Lit, Kim teaches classes and serves as a coach in the Authors Lab program.

Questions to Ask Yourself When You Write Memoir

In 2006, to relieve his back pain, my husband had an epidural, a procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. The minute the needle pushed into his spine, he was paralyzed from the waist down. People kept asking me if I was going to write about this. “Never!” I declared. I’d lived through it; I certainly did not want to live through it again. But then, in 2008, I was held up at gunpoint at the dry cleaner. Here’s what’s odd: That gun did not scare me. It made me sad. I cried for days

I found myself telling the story of the holdup over and over. I wanted everyone to know. At a dinner party, I made my friends join me in a re-enactment. “Okay, John, you be the owner of the dry cleaner. And you, Bobbie, be the robber. Just jump out, Bobbie. Like this. And hold the gun lower. Point it at my stomach. Both of you come closer.” I made it funny so we could all laugh – my fellow actors and our audience.

And then I went home from the dinner and cried.

I wrote an essay about the holdup. But it started growing. Suddenly, I was writing a memoir about my marriage – how our roles had switched, our identities shifted. Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap was taking shape.

When I asked myself the following questions, I began to understand the connection between what had happened to my husband and the holdup:

What did I think then? What else? What do I think now? What else?

Here’s where those questions led me:

Because someone threatened me with a gun, I could finally cry – really cry – over what had happened to my husband. It was as though I were confronting his accident for the first time. How everything can be fine one minute. And then, nothing is. That thin line. How a brushfire can erupt on a perfectly sunny, clear-skied day. How your life can be taken right out of your hands.

How, when you write memoir, you encounter new possibilities for understanding your life. How memoir truly is the narrative of revelation.


Judy Goldman is the author of six books: two memoirs, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (which will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on February 12, 2019) and Losing My Sister; two novels, Early Leaving and The Slow Way Back; and two books of poetry, Wanting To Know the End and Holding Back Winter. Losing My Sister was a finalist for both Southeast Booksellers Alliance’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the Year. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, and Real Simple magazine; her book reviews in The Washington Post and The Charlotte Observer; and her commentaries on public radio in Chapel Hill and Charlotte.


Judy’s class, “Crafting a Memoir: How to Weave Personal Experience into a Compelling Story” which begins on Thursday November 8 from 6 pm to 9 pm, has one seat remaining as of this writing. Please go here to register.

 

 

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Heroes and Mermaids: A Deep Dive into Jung’s Archetypal Ocean

If you’re a writer or lit lover (and if you’re reading this blog post, you’re likely both), you’ve no doubt heard of Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stage “hero’s journey.” Maybe you’ve used a “hero’s journey” map to outline a novel—or even your own personal quest! If so, you know that Campbell draws his pattern (just one of an endless number of archetypal patterns) from C. G. Jung’s theory of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that we are born with a psychological predisposition to understand our experiences in typical forms and patterns, and that these patterns bear striking resemblances to each other in cultures throughout the world. He theorized that these archetypal forms operate beneath our awareness in the very deepest layer of psyche—a murky, ocean-like psychological realm comprised of energies that shape all common human experience. This ocean, which he called the collective unconscious, is at once a repository for the experiences of our predecessors and the origin of everything we in turn will experience in our individual lives.

Though formless and invisible inside the collective unconscious, in the way that a magnet pulls fragments of metal to itself, the archetypes enter consciousness by clothing themselves in the events and situations of our personal and collective lives—that is, they appear to us as archetypal images or symbols.

Archetypal images depict both grand and ordinary events, characters and situations. The more common, the deeper the corresponding archetype lies inside the collective unconscious and the greater possible meanings it can hold. Take the archetype of the door or threshold, for example: when I walk through the door of my house at the end of the day I not only enter the place where I’ll have dinner and sleep, but I also encounter the accumulated power of the door/threshold archetype. As I turn the key, I unlock the closure that separates my life and work in the outer world from the much quieter and more private personal life inside my home. My door is more than a door; it’s a sacred portal into another world. When I cross the threshold I’m free to drop my public persona and orient myself more fully toward family and inner life.

“Crossing the threshold” is one of the steps (or archetypal situations) Campbell details in the first stage of the “hero’s journey.” Of course, in this context, the step marks a very different kind of crossing, one in which the hero leaves home for an adventure of a lifetime. The door/threshold archetype is so all-encompassing it very comfortably holds both of these meanings (this paradox), and countless others too.

Archetypes serve a psychological function that parallels the biological function served by our instincts. They are templates for understanding experience and orienting ourselves within our social-cultural world. They are also energies that seek to be consciously known and expressed and are therefore dependent on the human poietic or image-making impulse. Likewise, what is conscious, or nearly so, in us seeks connection to its imaginal source and meaning. With the language of archetypes we often find the words and images essential for expressing our otherwise inexpressible inner worlds of thoughts and feelings. Inner and outer constantly seek one another, and it is the sacred work of the artist, the writer in particular, to bring the two into creative relationship.

Any of a great number of images might be used to symbolize the archetypal writer, but at this moment I find one especially compelling—the mermaid. Thanks to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” these beings which are half-human, half-fish are most often depicted as maids, but given their ambiguous, fluid natures, we might rather think of them as merpeople. As denizens of the deep primordial ocean (a symbol of the unconscious), these mythic beings can breathe both water and air. They are able to dive deep into the generative waters of the ocean and onto its floor where live the mysterious artifacts of humanity’s shipwrecked past. Then they rise again to communicate with living humans and reflect on surface life. They are mercurial intermediaries, savers of drowning sailors, and beautiful sirens with sweetest voices. But they are people, too—people with the rare and fantastic ability for shapeshifting transformation.

Though we might not always dive so deep or sing as sweetly, as writers we dive into the imagination—into the collective unconscious—and bring back the resources, images, and language we need to tell our parts of the human story in a way that is archetypally familiar yet fundamentally personal and new. We strive, as Joseph Campbell says, to live the myth forward, to deliver fresh images and narratives that speak to the world’s current situation.


You can experience a fine example of creative work that does just that in Actor’s Theatre’s production of The Mermaid Hour, a 2016 NuVoices finalist by David Valdes Greenwood. With pitch-perfect dialogue, this play explores the life of a family faced with making difficult choices for and with their twelve-year-old transgender daughter. The production opens Wednesday, May 2 at the Hadley Theater at Queens University and runs through May 19. Toni Reali, daughter of Charlotte Lit co-founder Paul Reali, plays the leading role of transgender tween Vi.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about Jung’s archetypes, you can join Kathie Collins and Paul Reali on May 2, 9, and 16 for a three-session class that examines the origins, expression, and creative potential of archetypal patterns. Registration and information is here.


Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Lit, earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. A poet and lifelong student of Jungian psychology, Kathie thrives in the in-between space from which dreams and creativity emerge. She’s happiest when she can share that space with others and one of her great passions is bringing words and people together for transformative conversations. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in Immanence, Kakalak, BibleWorkbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

3 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I spend a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page. I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.

When deadlines loom, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, and paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.

Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.

Show, don’t tell. You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.

In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”

Drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing.

Do a sensory scan.One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.

I recently finished a book about farming. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the story without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.

If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses. You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.

Go on a media diet.The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.

When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines, and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook. My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!

These creative techniques are the keys to telling—and selling—great stories.


Jodi Helmer. Journalist. Author. Writing teacher. Doggie momma. Beekeeper. Veggie grower. Vintage needlework collector. Napper. Eater. Canadian. Jodi has many roles and has built a freelance career by writing about them—and a host of other things that pique her curiosity. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, National Geographic Traveler, CNNMoney, AARP, Farm Life, Health,and others. She is the author of four books, including The Green Yearand Farm Fresh Georgia. Jodi teaches writing workshops, offers one-on-one consulting and query critiques, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals.