Friday Favorites: Artist Date

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This past weekend, I took myself on an Artist Date. I went to Figment, a multi-media, interactive art event held at the Greenway in downtown Boston. There were all kinds of things to do – I added to a collective mosaic, abstract-painted in a group, contributed to a large chalkboard with the words, “Before I Die, I Want To…,” watched jugglers, listened to a HONK! Band (made up of various instruments and crazy costumes), watched kids making art, saw body-painted women posing for sketches, walked through the Silly Walks zone… it was a lot of fun, and reminded me that art doesn’t have to be serious, and that it can foster community and get people thinking. Also, that we don’t have to be passive consumers of art: we can participate, and contribute.

Julia Cameron, author of the popular book The Artist’s Way, encourages us to go on Artist Dates weekly. To try something new, or do something fun that we haven’t let ourselves do in a long time. In our world of never-ending busyness, it can be difficult to plan something by ourselves, just for fun. Artist Dates are important: they help fill the well of creative ideas and inspiration, which keeps us motivated and helps break through blocks.

I keep a list of potential Artist Dates that I’d like to try, but I also keep it open if something unusual comes up. It can be as simple as walking in a new neighborhood, trying a new food (or baking from a new recipe), dancing in my livingroom, going out to take photographs, going to a gallery or museum… the list is really endless, and as creative as you want to make it. I don’t get one in every week, and I don’t force myself to do a new thing each time, but taking the time to just do something fun and inspiring without pressure reaps many rewards in terms of my energy and motivation. Keeping a list of potential Artist Dates means I always have an idea ready. It can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as a day (or weekend) away.

Plan one for this weekend. Don’t think too much about it, don’t try to make it “perfect.” Just do it.

If you regularly do Artist Dates, let us know some of your ideas in the comments!

Mid-Summer Check-In

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Now that August is here, it’s time to do a check-in of your writing plan: what is working? What isn’t? This isn’t a time to beat yourself up. If you’ve let things slide up to now, you still have time to do some writing before the fall hits. If you’ve been grooving along, getting the work done, great! Keep going! If you’ve bit a bit of a wall, and need a little oomph of motivation (aka a kick in the ass) well, that’s fine too. No judgment here. Judging sets you back, gets you in a self-doubting mental loop that de-motivates you quickly, until you’re like, “eh, I’ll just go watch Netflix.”

There is no hole so deep you can’t begin to pull yourself out of it, today.

How is my summer writing plan going, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m counting from June 19, when my alumni group last met, and we told each other our goals for our next meeting in mid-September.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve consistently written for 30-90 minutes per day, at least 4 days per week. This doesn’t include blog writing, or other articles, or research for my current project. And I crashed during the residency, only getting in one writing session that week (not surprising). During my vacation week, I concentrated on haiku, as mentioned in my last post. For the next six weeks (until my group meets again) I’m going to aim for a minimum of five days per week.

I know Stephen King advocates 2,000 words per day, 7 days a week. Stephen King has someone to cook his food and clean his house and take care of lots of other pesky life details. So, although I’m sure he keeps himself busy, he can suck it, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

The point is: we all have Stuff To Do. What we have to do, is figure out a system that works for us. My days are pretty tightly scheduled. If I don’t schedule something, it doesn’t happen. I don’t always stick to the schedule (today hunting for something in the basement turned into a 2-hour reorganization project) but that way I know what my priorities are, and that I do, in fact, have time for them.

“I don’t have time” is everyone’s favorite excuse, including me, but in reality it mostly comes down to choices. Time vs. Energy is another matter, and one I’ll address in another post. The short version is, it’s why I really try, and encourage everyone else to, write first thing in the morning. If you truly feel your best, most productive writing time is in the evening, or between midnight and four in the morning, go for it. Make it a tiny goal if you need to, just to get started. Whatever you choose, make a firm commitment to it, and the pages will pile up!

Share your writing (or other creative) goal in the comments!

Try This: Haiku

janav Creativity, Try This, Writing 2 Comments

15996332 - full moon reflected in water

While on vacation recently, I spent a lot of time writing haiku. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it’s a Japanese form of poetry that has very strict syllabic limits. The first line is 5 syllables, the second is 7 syllables, and the third is five syllables. Seventeen syllables total. They often mention the season or some natural element, and have a cutting juxtaposition that is meant to make a new connection in the reader’s mind.

I was reading Matsu Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and got inspired since I was also pretty far north, in an out-of-the-way place of great natural beauty. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, since he was a Japanese poet writing in the 17th century. His writings combined prose and poetry, so the poems echoed the prose, and often illuminated its meaning in new ways.

I’m not saying I wrote great poetry. That wasn’t the point. How often do we allow ourselves to be inspired by a different way of writing? How often do we allow ourselves to just play, without thinking it has to be “good?” I enjoyed this form since it forced me to be specific and also gave me a snapshot of whatever was happening in the moment. Some were funny, some were more serious. In the spirit of sharing, here are a few I wrote:

Blue heron sitting
On a rock so very still
Regal blue Buddha

A round orange moon
Rises full over the lake
A beckoning path*

On this clear morning
A ringing bell summons us
Time to eat again

You don’t have to try haiku specifically. But it is fun to try new forms, which lead us out of a writing rut into new ways of looking at the world. Pick something and use it as a warm-up. I often choose poetry because it’s not my “real” writing, so I don’t care if it’s good or not, I’m just playing around. It gets my mind in the rhythm of words and images.

What have you tried that’s new lately? What do you use as a warm up for other writing?

(*No, the image above is not mine. I wish!)

Write It Down, Make It Happen

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I came across this article a while ago, about how one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, wrote out her success before she had it. She wrote exactly what she wanted to accomplish: the awards, the bestseller lists, and why she wrote. If you haven’t read anything by Octavia Butler, she wrote science fiction as a black woman in a world of mostly white, mostly male writers. She succeeded in topping numerous bestseller lists, and won major awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant – the first science fiction writer to do so. (Read the article for a fuller list of her accomplishments).

The point here is, she had no idea when she wrote her intentions in her notebook that they would come to pass in such spectacular fashion. But she clarified her goals and intentions in writing, and believed in them.

One book I recommend is Write It Down, Make It Happen, by Henriette Anne Klauser. In it she gives examples from many people who have written down their dreams, and found great success. It’s not about “magical thinking.” It’s about getting clear on what we really want, and getting specific in writing, which helps us put our attention and intention on it. And without both of those things, nothing happens. It’s not that you write it down and forget about it; the writing puts your conscious and unconscious mind to work, which leads to insight and then action. If there’s an area of your life where you’re struggling to make progress or see your way to fulfilling a creative dream, get this book, and try the exercises. Or just write down your dream, in specific language, with emphasis. Keep writing about it. Use your notebook to spin the dream into reality.

The point is, it can be hard to articulate our big dreams, even to ourselves. Writing it down is the first step to making a real commitment – to believing it can happen.

And also check out Octavia Butler’s work if you like thought-provoking, character-driven science fiction. My favorite book of hers is Kindred, about a modern African-American woman who goes back in time and experiences life as a slave in 19th-century America.

Try This: Writing as Deliberate Practice

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27529172 - baseball player on a baseball stadium.
Right now, I’m watching the baseball All-Star game. It’s fun to watch guys at the top of their game play together – the best of the best. They didn’t get there by accident. Of course, they’ve been playing since childhood. They loved it, they had talent, and they attended practices and listened to their coaches until they got to the big leagues.

And they still have to practice.

In writing, we often assume that talent is enough, or the most important thing. We might accept that talent needs to be paired with writing a lot of words before we become good. We set our daily word goals, or have a goal to finish a major project like a novel in a year. Words are the units we measure progress in. Sometimes it’s a certain number of hours per day. But just putting down words, or putting in the hours, though crucial, isn’t enough.

In the same way that guys who want to become great hitters take batting practice, we need writing practice. And in order for batters to become great, they can’t just hit the ball over and over again and hope they get better. They need to figure out their weaknesses, and learn to hit all kinds of pitches. In the same way, we need not just to write, but to practice writing, in a deliberate way. We need to think about our writing weaknesses, and to do exercises that force us to work on them.

Barbara Baig discusses this idea extensively in her book, How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (she’s a big baseball fan too). If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.

We all need to be able to look at our writing (or whatever creative skill we’re pursuing) and think about what we could improve. Good feedback helps, although we often have an idea of what we do well or not so well. Instead of just putting in a daily word count, or amount of time, think about what you need to work on, and come up with a plan.

When you do this, I recommend a five-step approach:

• Figure out a specific area of craft you want to improve on. Dialogue? Imagery? Scene-building?
• Read craft books or articles that give advice on this area.
• Read works in your genre where the writer does this well. Read with conscious attention as to how the writer does it.
• Practice: either find exercises or develop your own, that will allow you to develop this skill in incremental ways.
• Put it to work: everything is theoretical until you actually use it in a “real” context, such as a poem, story, or scene of a novel, screenplay, memoir, etc.

I know, many of us hate to take time out from our “real writing” to do practice sessions that don’t seem to add up to anything, but trust me, if you do this, your writing will make giant leaps forward.

This is, incidentally, a lot of what an MFA program entails, under the guidance of a faculty mentor. But it doesn’t matter what stage of craft development you’re in, this is a lifelong commitment. Beginners can benefit from this approach, and MFA graduates will need to continue to develop. Deliberate practice is the key to stop spinning your wheels and keep moving forward toward mastery.

What are some areas you feel you need deliberate practice in? Leave a comment below, or email me at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com.

Ten Ways to Boost Your Writing (That Aren’t Writing)

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1. Sleep. Know how much you need, and create a schedule that allows you to get enough. I wish I was one of those people who can survive on 5 or 6 hours per night, but I’m not. I need 7, preferably 8 hours if I’m not going to fall asleep every time I sit down to the computer.

2. Eat. If you want to have enough mental and physical energy to do creative work, you need to feed your body healthy food. Too much sugar, caffeine, or foods you’re intolerant of (that cause physical symptoms or brain fog) will kill your motivation.

3. Exercise. Get your body moving. It will help clear your head, and it doesn’t have to be a hard-core workout to reap benefits for your writing. Many writers throughout history swore by their daily walks to gain inspiration and sort out their ideas.

4. Read. If you’re a writer, you need to read. Especially the type of work you write, but also widely – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, literature, more commercial works – let new ideas in. Most of us wanted to become writers from what we read as children, so keep reading for inspiration as well as knowledge.

5. Play. When was the last time you did something just for fun? Experimented with a new art form? Danced in your living room? Did something you loved to do as a child but haven’t done in years? Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, advocates a weekly Artist Date as a way to “fill the well” and learn to re-value the art of exploration and play.

6. Meditate. You don’t have to be religious to meditate. Just sitting quietly with focused attention for ten minutes a day can have a salutary effect. Sit up straight, close your eyes, and feel your breath go in and out. As thoughts arise, don’t engage with them, just view them as the normal mental events they are – watch them drift into the clouds. This can be a great practice before you sit down to write, as a way to calm and center yourself.

7. Daydream. This is the opposite of focused meditation – just letting your mind wander. Often when we sit down to work, we’re focused on getting something done, but it’s important to let our minds play with ideas, forms, stories, etc. with no agenda.

8. Solitude. In order to do any deep creative work, we need time alone, with no distractions (phones, email, etc.). Learn to love solitude, without focusing on “being productive” or what you “should” be doing.

9. Experience. Regularly indulging in new experiences helps keep our imaginations active. Learn a new skill. Travel to a new place (it doesn’t have to be far – a new neighborhood, a restaurant with a new-to-you type of food). Make a list of these, and a plan to try them (perhaps as part of your Artist Dates).

10. Nature. The benefits of being in nature are well-documented, and running water, especially, has a great affect on the mind and imagination. Fresh air, peace, and tranquility all help lower stress and enable creative thoughts to flow. Again, you don’t have to go far. Even a park will do. There’s a pond near my house that’s incredibly restful and relaxing to sit next to even for a few minutes. Make it a practice to get out in nature as often as you can.

Have other ideas? Share them in the comments!

Friday Favorites from the MFA Residency

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One of the great things about being involved with an MFA program is the kinds of conversations you get to have about writing, and all the books and resources people mention that they’ve found useful or inspiring. So today, I’m going to share with you some of the bits and pieces that have come up over the last week or so.

Bull – by David Elliott. A retelling of the myth of the Minotaur, in verse. With a very funky (and profane) Poseidon as narrator. He read from it and it was hilarious (of course – it’s by David!). Not out until Spring 2017, but it will be worth the wait.

Irreversible – by Chris Lynch. Out in September, this is a sequel to his book, Inexcusable, about a date rapist – told from his point of view. I often recommend the first book to show the power of characterization and the unreliable narrator, as well as to answer the question, how could someone do something like that and think it’s okay, and that he’s a good guy?

Take It From the Top podcast – Subtitled: Life Lessons from Creative Maestros to Awaken Your Artistic Soul. In-depth interviews of people at the top of their game in various creative disciplines. As it says on the page, think Inside the Actor’s Studio meets Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. I love hearing about people’s influences and what motivates them and what their goals are, and this is proof that even those who have attained great success keep striving and pushing forward in their work.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise – by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole. Explores a new way of learning that focuses on building skills toward expertise vs. relying on talent, and how to do that effectively. His examples are from sports and music and many other areas, but is also applicable to writers. Advice on setting goals, getting feedback, and motivation – everything this blog is about!

I had a great talk with Barbara Baig, author of Spellbinding Sentences: An Author’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, and How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play. The first book is about the nuts and bolts of putting sentences together in new ways that break you out of old patterns. Mind-opening if you’ve never really thought of sentences, and their parts, and how they come together effectively. The second is about writing as practice – deliberate practice, not just showing up and winging it and putting in the time and hoping you improve. Deliberate practice is the core of an MFA program, but we all need to learn to do it ourselves if we’re going to go from good to great. I’m going to write more about this later because it’s at the core of my philosophy as a coach as well.

There are many more conversations ongoing, but I’ll leave you with those for now. Let me know if you check any of them out, and if they resonate with you.

Your Summer Writing Plan

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45939940 - mascot illustration of a book reading by the beach Last weekend, as we wrapped up our day-long writing workshop, my writer’s group went around and stated what we planned to work on over the summer. We’re meeting again in September, so it was good to state our goals, especially after having received feedback on our work. Hearing others’ enthusiasm for their work and mine got me jazzed up to get back to working on a project I’d set aside as having too many thorny story problems that needed sorting.

Summer is often the odd season out. Vacations, the lure of weekends spent outdoors, kids off school, and all the summer events that beckon us make it a special time, when we might step out of our usual routines. For some of us, we might actually have more time, if works slows down. Or, we might feel pulled in too many directions between an onslaught of new activities. We can also feel like we’d prefer to enjoy the lazy summer days, and not focus on work so much.

But it’s possible to keep writing, even as our usual schedules get out of whack. I find it easier to get up earlier in the summer, thanks to early sunrises. I’m still struggling with the stuck places, but my goal for the summer is to finally finish a draft of this novel, even if it needs a lot of revision later (it will). I’ve stated this goal publicly (really publicly now!), and I’ve written it down. Some days I have a word goal, and some days I have a time goal, depending on if I’m powering through a scene or doing research (also, depending on the time I have – even 15 minutes per day is enough to do something and make me feel like I’m still on track). I will have to adjust my schedule to fit in the residency for the MFA program I work for, vacation plans, etc. but I don’t just have a goal now, I have a plan.

Goals, without a plan to actualize them, often remain in the airy realm of good intentions. If you haven’t already, sit down and write out your writing goal for this summer. Look at your schedule over the next couple of months. What can you realistically do towards your goal each week? Each day? Can you find a writing partner, and share your goals? Feel free to share them in the comments below, or just email me – I’ll be your accountability partner for the summer!

Summer Reading

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In the era of blogs and binge-watching tv shows and addictive online games, even writers can be distracted from one of their most important pursuits: reading. It’s easy to forget that we can learn a tremendous amount from simply immersing ourselves in other peoples’ words.

There’s reading as a writer, which involves careful analysis of craft elements to see what works and how we might apply it to our own writing. But there’s also the task of absorbing story and language, keeping up with what others are writing in our genre, or actually (gasp) reading for enjoyment.

After binge-buying books at recent conferences and independent bookstores, I have a gorgeous feast of summer reading ahead of me. Some of the titles on my to-read list are:

The Last Chinese Chef – Nicole Mones
The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
Z, a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee

Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald
Beijing Bastard – Val Wang
All the Single Ladies – Rebecca Traister
The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys – Klara Glowczewska, ed.

There are more books piled up on my bookshelves, tables, and floors, but this will do for a start. I’m sure I’ll add more as the summer goes on.

What are you reading? Are you reading a little, every day? If not, try to make it a habit to fill the well regularly, and see if it makes a difference in your connection to your own writing.

Critique Groups 101

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32133502 - business men team office meeting concept top view people on table vector illustrationI’m excited because this weekend my MFA alumni critique group is meeting. We’ve been getting together for five years now, with slightly different configurations of people. The one thing we have in common is that we’ve been through Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing. We didn’t all graduate at the same time, or in the same genre, and some of us have branched out to other genres over the years. We meet about three times per year, in someone’s house, for a day-long workshopping extravaganza.

Writers write in isolation, and often work for years before gaining any audience for their work. Writing is a craft, and it takes time to develop. A good critique group can offer wonderful support and a sense of community, which can keep you going when self-doubt sets in and you start thinking you’d rather binge watch say, every episode of every series of (your favorite guilty pleasure) ever written.

I clarify a good critique group because there are many bad ones. And some aren’t necessarily bad, just not right for you. It’s important to try out groups until you get the right fit. There are many ways to organize a critique group, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that I think contribute to a successful experience:

1. Keep it small – I think 4-6 people is ideal, but it may also depend on how often the group meets. Does everyone present work at every meeting? Or do people rotate?

2. Try to have writers in the group who are at similar levels, and have similar goals. Are they beginners? Have some experience? Are they serious writers who aim to publish? If you are a beginner in a group of very experienced writers, you may get discouraged. Or, if you are more advanced than the other writers, you may not get as much out of it.

3. Decide on a schedule – Monthly? A few times per year? Simply having a schedule, and knowing that you’re expected to produce work at those times, can do wonders for your productivity.

4. Rotate leadership – a group may be started by one person, but groups that stay together often have members take turns hosting, or managing the meetings. That way people are invested in it, and no one feels like they’re doing all the work to keep the group going.

5. Read in advance, if possible – some groups read at the meeting, but I think it’s better to circulate the work in advance, so that people have a chance to read and think about the comments they want to make. Ideally the discussion sparks more comments, but being familiar with the work helps deepen the discussion and makes it more helpful for the author.

6. Say what works as well as what doesn’t. Authors are sometimes the least able to see their work clearly. They may have the urge to fix something that really is working, or be blind to something that confuses everyone in the group. Both kinds of comments are helpful, as long as they are specific.

7. The author is quiet during the discussion – this can be hard, but think of it this way: you won’t be there to stand over the shoulder of your readers, explaining what you really meant. Listen to what the members of the group are saying. They may disagree, but if the majority makes a particular point, it’s probably worth looking at. You can ask clarifying questions at the end of the discussion.

8. Keep the tone respectful and supportive – anyone who doesn’t do this needs to be asked to leave. Yes, writers need a thick skin, but a critique group should be a place of support, not vicious criticism.

9. Be generous – share resources and information. If you find a great craft book, or an exercise that will be helpful, or know of an agent that is looking for something similar to what someone in the group has written – share it!

10. Have fun! – The focus should be on the work, but leave time at the beginning and/or the end for chat, for food, for trying out a new writing exercise, etc. You’re building relationships. Anyone who seems to only be there for what they get out of it, and is not serious about giving critique as well as receiving, is a bad fit.

Do you have other ideas for what makes a good critique group? If so, let me know!