We’re moving!

HI everyone,

This blog is getting a makeover!  I’ll be hosting a very similar blog at creativelythink.wordpress.com.  It’s all about writing and other forms of art and creativity, especially in how genres work together and blend, such as writing with music and visual art with writing.  I’ll continue to do research on issues like how caffeine affects creativity and to offer information on grammar as well as writing exercises and helpful links.

Please follow me at creativelythink.wordpress.com.

This current blog will close next Monday, May 19.

Thank you all for your loyalty, and I hope to see you in the new home!



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Perfectionism, my abominable foe

When I was young, I learned that I’d rather not complete a project than turn in an imperfect one.  I was a perfectionist with ambition, and the problem is that those qualities plus a deadline do not usually go well together.

It’s not that it’s impossible to create something excellent that reaches the proverbial, self-defined brass ring by a deadline.  It’s just that a writer must first observe, be honest about, and analyze his or her own writing style, learn from and adjust it as necessary to make those deadlines, and then work, work, work.

There are no right or wrong answers, only the answers that work per person.  That said, I’ll share my process with you.

1. There’s a cool literary journal online called Referential Magazine.  Its premise is that everything contained within the magazine takes a line from another piece in the magazine.  A writer can write a poem off of a line from a story, for example, and the resulting poem can be completely different in tone and content than the one from which the line originally came.  The author of that line is credited, and you can work backward through the maze to see what inspired what else.

Reading makes for a wonderful source of inspiration.  So do prompts, such as taking a line that strikes you and running with it (as long as you credit the original writer appropriately).  Observing people, watching movies, and listening to music and looking at photos that remind you of certain events can also be great sources of inspiration.

2.  Once finding my inspiration, I flood the page.  For my process, I brainstorm best when I write without lifting my hands from the keyboard until I’ve run out of steam.  This goes for writing a poem, story, or nonfiction, or even an amalgam of all three.  I used to time myself, not stopping for five minutes, but I’ve gotten to the point where I just “go!” and reach an average of 400 words.  I don’t count them, but this is what I see at the bottom of the Word document, where the number counter is.

3.  Third, I organize.  For prose, I tend to categorize, usually by highlighting ideas, images, and lines in different colors according to theme.  Then, I might make lists of those items.  This is so that when I draft, I can work from just one category or possibly braid in details from three categories.  Anything I don’t used can be saved in a separate document for later use.

Others may be more comfortable using word bubbles or maps.

For poetry, I often organize my ideas into a form.  Pantoums are my favorite forms.  In a pantoum, each line repeats once, and it gains or changes meaning with repetition, as fresh lines are added between those that are repeated.  However, I can also organize free-verse poetry by focusing on white space, line breaks, and stanza breaks.

4. I write a true first draft.  Up to this point, I’ve been brainstorming.  When writing my first draft, I pay attention to what’s going onto the page.  I add to and apply the items in my lists.  I pay attention to the way words sound and to the sentence structures as I write, but I do not worry about them yet.

5.  I rest.  I leave the piece for about a day, when I can’t stand not looking at it again.  I just have to work with it.

6.  I revise for the first time.  I highly recommend saving the original draft separately from any revisions and then every so often saving a revision separately from the draft that will follow.

When revising, I “see” the work with fresh eyes.  I’m not editing yet, unless I find something egregious.  I’m working with the “big picture.”

7.  I rest.

8.  I revise.

9.  I rest.

10.  The length of time between revising and resting gets shorter and shorter.  I get sick of revising.  I rest longer.  Then, I edit.

11.  I edit, looking for unintended fragments and run-on sentences, awkward phrases, awkward uses of commas, misspelled words, and so forth.

12.  I edit again.  I use programs that check spelling and grammar very carefully.  I never say “yes” to every suggestion.

13.  I worry, worry, and worry that it’s not good enough, which I don’t suggest.  I’m being honest here, so I’m including this.

14.  I take a deep breath, pick a literary journal with guidelines that are appropriate for what I’ve written and go over the guidelines ad nauseum, making changes to my cover page and the story’s first page so that the guidelines are met.

15.  I draft, revise, and meticulously edit my cover letter for this journal (though I can use its skeleton for other submissions).

16.  I send it away, lean back, and feel dizzy.  Getting to this step is very difficult for me.

There’s my process.  Honestly, it was exhausting to even write it out, and I’m sure that other writers have different methods that go with their own pathology.  Methods can change through time and varying degrees of success, too–trial by error.

I have come to terms with the fact that I am not perfect and that little, if anything, ever will reach my standards, but I also don’t have to lower my standards.  However, without trying and taking work as far as I can and then finally sending it out, just like with finishing those projects in third grade, I will never know where I truly stand.  No, I’m not getting graded anymore, but there are still thresholds to cross.

The bottom line?  Read, read, read, and then write.  Don’t stop, even if the work is imperfect.  Allow the imperfections to show, and then revise.  Allow everything–even the anxiety and imperfections–to spill onto the page, making the work more genuine.  You can always mop up your mess when you revise, proofread, and edit.

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“Analysis will never trump feeling” …in music and poetry

On January 30, 2014, NPR published a short report called “4 Ways to Hear More in Music.” Recently at Full Sail, I hosted a workshop for students that covered basic poetry and memoir-writing concepts. One student asked if writing a form poem was like writing music, and that got me thinking.

This is a common topic, one that came up when I was in school, too. You’ve likely seen it or heard it: poems don’t often make the best songs, and song lyrics don’t often make the best poems. However, song lyrics can sound “poetic.” Why is that?

This NPR piece links up to this idea perfectly without directly addressing this particular topic. The NPR piece covers four ways in which people can better appreciate music by understanding its basics in a more clear way. With this knowledge, they can see why they like what they like and what connects and separates two musicians they like or dislike from each other.

To briefly summarize the article, the author, Anastasia Tsioulcas, brings up rhythm and meter, melody, harmony, and color and texture. The examples of each are of the Classical genre, but these concepts definitely apply to pop, rock, rap, and so forth as well.

To bring this back to writing, I often ask my students to analyze stories for the elements we are currently discussing in class. The idea is that, through analysis, they will be better able to develop an “ear” for these concepts, notice them in other stories they read, and incorporate them into their own work.

Now, to the “feeling” part. Both writing and music invoke feeling. Like music, poetry, especially (but all types of writing, really) brings in rhythm and meter. Consonance and assonance (repetition of consonant and vowel sounds), syllable count, and the very words used evoke feeling. Then, there is rhyme and stanza rhythm and the uses of white space to add to all of this.

Poetry needs to create its own color melody, harmony, color, and texture. Can a poem have a melody? Can it have a harmony? I think that the words themselves provide color and texture, which are basically expressions of tones and how feeling is evoked.

Music, of course, incorporates notes, melody, harmony, chords, progressions, varied instrumentations, and many more elements. Lyrics fit inside or in front of all of this. I’ve often heard musicians asked whether they come up with lyrics or melody first, and while responses vary, I’ve seen most say that both come at once or that the process is organic and hard to describe.

At some point, we let all analysis fall away and just write.

No matter what’s being written, detail and an emotionally evocative subject and character will bring in the feeling and overall effect.

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Poetry Under a Tree and Shocking Me

The best poetry doesn’t have to be written under a tree.  It doesn’t have to shock through graphic violence or sex.  It can shock through a sigh. 

Take the poem “The Cucumber” by Philip Nazim Hikmet:

The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and still coming down hard:
it hasn’t let up all morning.
We’re in the kitchen.
On the table, on the oilcloth, spring —
on the table there’s a very tender young cucumber,
                                           pebbly and fresh as a daisy.
We’re sitting around the table staring at it.
It softly lights up our faces,
and the very air smells fresh.
We’re sitting around the table staring at it,
We’re as if in a dream.
On the table, on the oilcloth, hope —
on the table, beautiful days,
a cloud seeded with a green sun,
an emerald crowd impatient and on its way,
loves blooming openly —
on the table, there on the oilcloth, a very tender young cucumber,
                                           pebbly and fresh as a daisy.
The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and coming down hard.
It hasn’t let up all morning.

(trans Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk)

Source: The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry


 This is possibly the poem that introduced the now-cliché “fresh as a daisy.”


Another great example is “The Simple Truth” by Philip Levine from the collection of the same name (Knopf, 1996):

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields 
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me 
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste 
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way, 
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering 
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself, 
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste 
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch 
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.



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Expectation vs. Reality in Writing


500 Days of Summer (2009), Dir. Mark Webb, starring Joseph Gordan-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

In life, we have expectations every day.  For optimists, they’re positive: they expect a productive day at work, compassion from their significant others, and that their favorite elliptical machine at the gym will be free.  For pessimists, the expectations are negative: the train will be crowded, the workday will crawl by, and the significant other will be angry about the inevitable pile of dishes in the sink.

Writing works the same way.  We can look at writing a rough draft, for example, positively and negatively, too.  We can go in with the expectation that it will be horrible, and this could be something that actually motivates us, getting us in the chair and writing in the first place, as there is no high expectation for perfection.  This is a concept introduced by Anne Lamott in the excerpt “Shitty First Drafts” from her book on writing, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995). 

On the other hand, the expectation that a rough draft will be awful can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; because you believe it will be bad, it will be.  That can be the opposite of motivating.

Then, there’s how you feel after writing something.  Over-confidence can lead a writer to turn in or send out for potential publication a piece that’s just not ready.  Under-confidence can have the opposite effect, freezing the writer into a state of not sharing the work, even after multiple drafts and a long period of time, or never showing it at all.  Sometimes, honestly, a story will never reach that “right” point, but it will have been a good exercise, if you keep that positive point of viewThere’s a fine line between being over-confident and not confident enough when it comes to gauging whether or not a piece of writing is “finished.” 

For me, the best motivator for finishing a project is a deadline, especially one that’s been set by someone other than me.  For that reason, project due dates at school have worked well.  I tend to enter contests and calls for submissions that have deadlines.  The same goes for being invited to do public readings. 

I’ve often heard that writers should set their own deadlines.  I like the concept, but in practice, this hasn’t quite worked for me, unfortunately.  However, it might work for you.

My advice?  Pick apart, identify, and understand your rough-writing and revision styles, and then work with them.  Join a writing group with some writers whose feedback you respect.  You can even join in a partnership with just one other writer, motivating each other not only with encouraging words but with all-important deadlines.  Just like in school, something will be due to that writer with the expectation that it will be read.  Then, there is pressure that the benchmark must not only be completed by the deadline but that it also must be quality material.

Dividing the process into benchmarks, or goals, can be a lifesaver.  For each writing session, I identify a goal: write 1,000 words; give the main character at least one clear goal; revise for the length of time of one CD or the time it takes me to drink one cup of tea.

For those longer-term, show-the-story-to-a-friend goals, think more broadly: “I want to have a new chapter of my novel to Susan by Friday at noon.”  “I want to have a thirty-page manuscript ready for a meeting with an agent for the conference in four months.”

Last, there are the how-we-work expectations.  Am I going to procrastinate because that’s what I always do?  Just because that’s what I’ve done in the past and it’s what I expect of myself, do I have to do it?  What will it take for me to change that behavior and write at least four days a week for forty-five minutes per session?

Do you notice how specific I am with each question and goal?  That’s because we want to set very specific, measurable goals.  Write your goals down, and share them with others.  Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are great places to share these.  Writing goals down and sharing them will make you more likely to accomplish them because you’ll feel more accountability.

A measurable is one for which you can see actual results.  It should be something reasonably accomplishable, though.  This is another expectations-vs.-reality issue.  How easy or difficult should the goal be to accomplish?  You’ll want to challenge yourself without making a goal so difficult that you’ll feel defeated before you even start.

Take losing weight as an example.  One might not necessarily expect to lose five pounds in a week, but the motivation of a personal trainer might help one visualize this as a more clear and possible reality.  The measurable part of the goal occurs when one compares the weight and body measurements from the beginning of the week to those at the end of the week.  Was the goal of losing five pounds met?  Was it a reasonable?  How might the goal and behaviors be adjusted for relative success the following week?

We’ve got to be honest with ourselves while being positive at the same time.  We have to believe in ourselves, as cheesy as that may sound.  And at the bottom of it all, we have to write.  We won’t accomplish anything, expected, real, or somewhere in between, without writing to begin with. 

*Check out Anne Lamott’s great essay on writing first drafts, “Shitty First Drafts” from her ground-breaking book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995).  It can be found here: http://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf


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NPR’s Recommended Books of 2013

This is a really cool, interactive “list,” if you will, of books that NPR thought to be the best of 2013.  I highly recommend checking it out.

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Can we be inspired by social networking?

I’m a social-networker.  Scratch that.  I’m just a Facebooker.  I must check Facebook at least ten times a day.  I’m one of those people for whom Facebook may be replacing my social life, but that’s a post for another time, perhaps on a different blog.  What I’m more interested in now is whether I can “use” my social-networking, let’s call them “observational” skills, to help me with my writing.

There’s an old exercise to sit in a restaurant and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you and then write down some of what you hear, using it to inspire a story or poem or as part of your own dialogue in a piece.  There are people everywhere from whom you can hear interesting (and not so interesting) things–in public transportation, in restaurants, in workplaces, in college hallways, and so forth.  My idea is that you can also find these inspirational snippets on Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

I’d ask permission to use someone’s line directly.  In fact, that person would probably be proud and flattered to have you use their words, as they were intended for mass consumption anyway.  However, if something inspires you, it’s just like being inspired by the clouds in the sky: interpretation is all yours.  

Once, a singer-songwriter friend of mine took a sentence I uttered and used it in a song’s chorus.  When I first heard the song, I was shocked and flattered at once.  I asked him to put me in the liner notes, and he did not.  He did not credit me verbally in shows, either.  This is the other side of the “well, it was there!” debate: I was upset that he was using words that came from my mouth to make money.  All I wanted was a little credit.  I wouldn’t have been so upset if he’d only used the idea of what I’d said, but he used the line, verbatim.  Even if it doesn’t end up being a gold-record hit, I still felt he’d stolen my intellectual property.  But who can prove it, and does it even matter, since I didn’t write it down?

I’m now very careful about what I reveal.  I don’t write lines on Facebook or Twitter that I think I might use in a piece of written work later on, and the same goes for blog posts.  Having something published on the Internet, even self-publishing it, as in the case of a blog, can hinder a piece from being accepted in a literary journal, which is usually a stepping-stone for getting a literary book deal.  Also, along with my previous point, I don’t want my work used for someone else’s purpose, at least not without credit given where it’s due.  My last point here is that at least with a written form of social networking and its time and date stamps, it’s possible to trace something back to the person who originally wrote it.

Yes, I’m going to sound like a true English teacher here, but this is why it’s so important to cite your work.  You want to give people the credit they deserve, just as you’d want credit yourself, and you also don’t want to be blamed for incorrect information that this other source may have published and that made it into your paper.

Okay, now back to social networking.  How can we use it, fairly, to inspire us rather than simply as a means of procrastination and brain-killing?  I have a few suggestions:

1. A found poem.  A found poem uses existing pieces of writing to find a greater meaning.  Writing one works like creating a collage.  One can use recipe directions or fortunes from fortune cookies, for example.  I suggest bringing together snippets of a day’s short posts and seeing what results before revising it, forming the jumble of phrases into a more meaningful poem.  I suggest asking permission from the original writers to cover yourself.

2. Inspiration for dialogue.  What if someone said what Lindsay just wrote?  What if it was part of an argument between spouses?  How might that turn out?  An entire story could wrap around that dialogue.  Again, ask permission if using a line verbatim.

3. Bring together your own short posts and tweets in a monologue.  You can rearrange them, again as a sort of collage, and then consider who would say these things, who would say them all at once, who one might say them to, and why one might say them.

4. Take a link someone has posted along with the related comments and write a short story based on the link’s headline, including at least one comment.  For example, if there is a link to a giraffe born with two heads, write about that, including a comment about how 
“Photoshopped” the image looks.  Maybe it’s real, and maybe it’s not.  Maybe that’s not the point.  As the writer, you get to decide.

5. Describe images you see, in photos or links, capturing the emotion the photo evokes, too.  This is based on a pretty common creative writing exercise.  However, with social networking you have the freedom to choose a photo of yourself from the past, a photo of someone else you know, one of someone you don’t know, or a bitpic or some other form of picture, including pictures from links to news stories or blogs.

6. Write to music.  You can introduce yourself to the music that others post, especially if it’s new to you.  How do you connect to this music, and how do you think a character might identify with it?

7. Offer your observations and opinions.  This is another “inspired by” prompt.  Are you disgusted with social networking, only keeping your profile because your mom wants you to?  Are you a curmudgeon when it comes to social networking?  Vent!  Think of who the character venting might be, too.

8. Read short posts and then consider a character who might have written the posts.  This can be difficult because you may know the person who originally wrote the post, but try to expand beyond that.  This may take some time and space from the posts to separate their intentions and descriptions from the events and person.  This you’d want to ask permission for, since you’d probably be using exact quotations.

9. Be inspired by others’ actions.  Instead of wallowing in lonely misery because Sunday afternoon’s posts reveal that apparently you were the only one home on Saturday night, put yourself in your friends’ shoes.  What was the event, and what would it have been like for a particular character?

10. What wouldn’t you write?  Keep a journal of what you want to write but won’t.  What keeps you from writing these things, if you do sensor yourself?  If, like me, your mother is a Facebook friend, you might not want to write anything cryptic that might worry her.  As I said above, you might have professional reasons not to write something, such as, with writing, the idea that publishing it once might mean that that’s it for that particular sentence.  There’s also workplace politics to consider.  Are you going to offend someone with this post, and, if so, do you care?  On a different note, are you on the verge of revealing something possibly embarrassing, incriminating, or emotional that you don’t want others to know?  I was once told, in a nonfiction class, to write about something that I’d never write about.  Those confessional, scary-to-write pieces were my best, and I still write about those topics today.  What you choose not to write, though you have the impulse to do so, might lead you to some great places.

The way I see it, if I apply myself, I can find inspiration everywhere I look or listen.  As time progresses, we’re moving away from each other (such as with each of us sealed up in our vehicles in traffic and with our portable computers that we hide behind), and social networking has the power to bring us together or divide us further.  It can keep us from writing, or we can use it to inspire us.  Use it to your advantage, like anything else that can inspire us writers to reach the bone of human emotion and experience.

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