A Writing Paradox

image of open notebook with pen

JD Fox on starting a writing conversation

One of the best ways to think of something to write is to write.

You may be familiar with this scenario:

Teacher: Okay, class, today I want you to spend five minutes freewriting.

Student: But teacher, I can’t think of anything to write.

Teacher: Then write about not being able to think of anything to write.

Student (starting to write and grumbling): I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write…

Ideally, sometime before the five minutes are up, the student will go on to write about something that spontaneously occurs to them and run with it.

You may also be familiar with some riff or another about why such advice works: the mind likes to busy itself with thinking and frequently will go on wonderfully serendipitous tangents regardless of our starting-place thoughts.

But I’d like to explain it a different way here, one that might make it seem less like tricking your mind into being creative and more like simply leveraging one of the ways our minds work.

To do that, I’m going to first step away from the act of writing and ask a question:

What is your favorite band and why?

Now that you’re thinking about that band, I’ll ask another question:

Were you thinking about the band before I asked you the question?

Chances are my original question prompted the thought and subsequent answer. If we continued from that point, your answer would generate more questions from me. Or maybe encourage me to comment on my own favorite band. Either way, my response would likely generate additional thoughts and responses from you followed by responses from me and so on…

In common talk, we’d be having a conversation.

Writing is a conversation with yourself.

Sure, you can plan out what you’re going to say or write, but so much of the true substance of both comes out only after you become engaged in the act itself. Beyond being a gifted wordsmith inspired by God or a legendary raconteur born with inherent eloquence, there’s no other way than to simply start typing—or start talking—and see where it leads.

Time for Words

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How do you use your writing time?

I meant to write this post about time last week, but I didn’t have the time.

Or is it I didn’t make the time?

Have and make often battle each other for reigning current excuse by us writers who do not have the luxury of writing full or even part time in a way that feels adequate to our goals.

But regardless of which one is used or which one is closer to the truth, they are equally useless: the writing is still not there, which is really the only thing that matters in our writing lives.

So how do we approach our sometimes somewhat acrimonious relationship with time?

A two-fold way that might be beneficial is to consider first how we use time and then secondly, what we get from that use.

 

How do you use time?

For the first consideration, I don’t mean how we think we should use time and aspiring towards that goal; instead, I’m thinking about how we actually do use it when we are at our writing best. A temporal reality check.

For myself, I know I need at least an hour. I like the idea of being able to make full use of the 5 minutes waiting in line at the store by jotting down notes or scribbling out a paragraph or two while the pasta water is boiling. I’ve read about stories being written while riding subways to work and other similar feats of here-and-there time grabbing that have produced phenomenal works.

But my brain takes 15 minutes just to get warmed up. It also prefers solitude. Though I totally love the idea of being able to write in coffee houses, the din of conversation confuses the voices in my head.

Sometimes I fancy that I’ll write at night. That is, I will get all my non-writing tasks out of the way during the day, so that afterwards I will be free to write. But reality finds that once I get into task mode, it is hard for me to get out and there is always one more task.

I am at my most productive when I write first thing in the morning, preferably for 2 or 3 or 4 hours, but at least one. Probably not more than 4, even if I have that generous of an amount. Again, here I like the idea of being able to type for 6, 8, or 10 hours or more at a stretch, but if I am being honest with myself, such marathons would likely burn me out rather than produce consistent work.

Of course, circumstances don’t always allow writing first thing in the morning or offer up my desired amount of time. Sometimes I do have to write simply when time is available; for example, this post is being written at 11:26 PM. But knowing—and accepting—my own personal best practices encourages me to try to create such favorable circumstances of Morning Time when possible rather than beating myself up for not being able to live up to the time management ideal of making every spare minute count.

The reverse of this may or may not be true for you. You may like the idea of getting up every morning and writing for 3 or 4 hours, but reality finds your own best practices would have you write in fits and starts and random moments of inspired bursts of creativity throughout the day. You may like the idea of being the kind of writer who composes a novel during an intense weekend retreat of enforced societal detachment, but in your heart you know your writing is best when it comes out amidst the invigorating-for-you chatter of the masses.

 

What do you get from the time you use?

For the second consideration, let’s think about time as accumulation rather than days going by. For the passage of time itself is irrelevant whether it is 2 hours in the morning or a half-hour in the evening. It is the value we add—accumulate—during that time which is important.

Now you might think I’m going to launch into some riff about word quotas. And in a way I am, but maybe not quite in the way that you’re thinking.

Forget 5 pages a day. Forget 1000 words a day. Let’s go smaller. Much smaller.

What if you wrote 10 words a day on the same story and did that for a year? At the end of the year, you would have a 3650 word story or 3650 words towards a larger story. Having spent a year of writing to produce just one short story may sound absurd. But let’s phrase it another way and see if it sounds less absurd.

If you spent that same year writing zero words a day, how many short stories would you have written after that year had ended?

Regardless of whether you write or don’t write, time will pass and that year will be gone. Sure, I’d love to be consistently prolific, always producing so many words a day without fail. And I have been engaged in some projects where I was regularly writing 1000 or more words daily. But other days I write far less and still other days not at all.

Those not-at-all days are horrible. The far-less days can be pretty bad too. But the larger, more important, goal is that of accumulation whenever and wherever it occurs.

Sure, aim for 1000, 2000, or 3000 words a day if you have such inclination and work as hard as you can to achieve it. But keep in mind that if less is created, it is still more than nothing. And if nothing is created, then the next day you can try again, aiming again for 1000, 2000, or 3000.

Or to write 100, 50, or just 10 words.

At Starbucks.

At night.

 

—JD Fox, poet and guest blogger

 

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of January 26, 2015

From left to right: Peter Biello, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Dede Cummings, Zach Despart, Suzanne Kingsbury, and Kerrin McCadden.

From left to right: Peter Biello, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Dede Cummings, Zach Despart, Suzanne Kingsbury, and Kerrin McCadden.

This week, we hosted a panel discussion called “Five Writers on Writing and Money.” Panelists Megan Mayhew Bergman, Dede Cummings, Zach Despart, Suzanne Kingsbury, and Kerrin McCadden shared their thoughts on a variety of writing/money-related issues, such as taxes, grants, conferences, MFA programs, and finding the balance between work and writing.

One of the big takeaways of the evening, for me, was: guard your writing time. Kerrin McCadden described her ten-hour writing sessions at an airport as a way to protect herself from interruptions. It’s good advice. As you know, life gets in the way of writing. We ought to protect those writing hours from whatever else may intrude.

We’ve produced a podcast of the event, so if you couldn’t make it, you can still benefit from the wisdom these five writers shared.

Now, here are this week’s opportunities and announcements.

Opportunities

The BWW is assembling a team, led by Laban Hill, to reach out and tell the stories of new Americans in Chittenden County. This team would engage the local immigrant population in a variety of ways, to be determined by the volunteers on the team. Our goal is to attract people who may not naturally find us and empower local immigrants through first-person storytelling. Contact us if you’re interested in helping out.

Poem City in Montpelier and Randolph is happening in April, and you can send your submissions here.

Announcements

Jerry Johnson will be giving a reading with Reeve Lindberg on Saturday, February 7th from 3-6 p.m. at Star Cat Books in Bradford, Vermont. Learn more here.

Author and teacher Stephen Kiernan and New York Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt will speak at the League of Vermont Writers’ annual meeting on January 31st at 8:30 a.m. More information is available here.

Sponsors

Thanks to the Marble House Project for sponsoring the BWW this month. You can learn more about the Marble House Project here.

BWW Wins Vermont Community Foundation Grant for StoryhackVT Workshops

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I’m happy to announce that the Burlington Writers Workshop has won a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation to assist with hosting a series of “digital storytelling” workshops with Nate Herzog of StoryhackVT.

This “Small and Inspiring Grant” of $2,143 will fund eight “digital storytelling” workshops with StoryhackVT at the BWW’s writing center off Pine Street in Burlington.

This grant will allow us to purchase, among other things, a digital projector, which will enable a group of would-be digital storytellers to learn how digital media can be manipulated to tell a story. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle, and we’ll have it thanks to the Vermont Community Foundation.

Our friend Nate Herzog of StoryhackVT has this to say:  “The Burlington Writers Workshop was one of the first teams to sign up for our first StoryHackVT event in 2013. Since that event they have shown a continual interest in digital storytelling. It’s exciting to see them invest in equipment and workshops that empower and inform their writing community. I am thrilled to work with the BWW to show writers how they can apply their skills in new media.”

The next StoryhackVT/Burlington Writers Workshop event takes place on Tuesday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m. so feel free to RSVP and join the digital storytelling fun!

Thanks to our fiscal agent, the League of Vermont Writers, for making us eligible for grants like this.

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of July 7, 2014

The financial advisory committee met last week and, among other things, we’ve decided that Cathy Beaudoin will be our volunteer accountant. Cathy is an Assistant Professor at The University of Vermont School of Business. She’s taken the records I’ve been keeping and whipped them into professional shape. If you’d like to receive a copy of the balance sheet, please sign up for our email list.I’ll send it later this week.

Here are the opportunities and announcements for this week. Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of June 30, 2014

I’m pleased to report that the BWW has had a very good quarter. I’m meeting with the financial advisory committee today to look at the numbers and plan for the second half of 2014. Next week I’ll share with you the final report. If you’d like to receive the financial report, please sign up for our mailing list.

Here are the opportunities and announcements for this week.

Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 19, 2014

ThanksTomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Burlington Writers Workshop. Five years is an eternity for projects like these, so thank you to everyone who makes this community vibrant and strong.

A bit of history: I remember signing up for my first meeting (the group was founded on Meetup.com by someone who has since moved away). It was a spring day in 2009 and I actually thought: Do I really need to attend? What will happen at this meeting? I almost didn’t go. It was easier to just stay home and read or cook dinner or take a nap. But I was new to the area and I wanted to make some friends, so I thought: Why not try it?

And here we are.

Anyway, those are the Cliff Notes of a much longer story. Here are this week’s opportunities and announcements.

Continue reading

Mothers, Daughters, and Writing

motherdaughterIf you’ve attend just a handful of writing workshops,  you’ve realized that many writers are working with ideas that originate from a topic they know best: family.

On Mother’s Day, I was reminded of the first time I wrote anything that I thought was worthy of sharing with others. When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote a poem about the passing of my mother. I did not keep the poem and I only remember the first line: “My lips brushed her warm skin.”  That line memorialized my last moment with her. Continue reading

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of May 12, 2014

The staff of Mud Season Review has been chosen. Those folks will get together soon to figure out some work-flow details and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. Even though the masthead positions have been chosen, you’ll still be able to get involved. If you have ideas, especially for the logo design, please contact us to share your thoughts/design ideas.

Here are the opportunities and announcements this week. Continue reading

Podcast: “The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014” Book Launch Party

If you missed the launch of The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014, fear not! You can still listen to the podcast here. Our readers were: Wendy Andersen, Liz Cantrell, Cynthia Close, Michael Freed-Thall, Hillary Read and Rebecca Starks.

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You may also want to subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. Just search for “Burlington Writers Workshop” and you’ll find us.