Four years ago, I attempted a goal for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Since I write nonfiction, not novels, I participated as a “rebel”, which meant I wouldn’t try for 50,000 words but instead would come up with a goal of my own to attempt during the month of November. You can read more about that goal here: Daily Writing and NaNoWriMo
This year, I will again create my own goal that I want to achieve. I wrote about my desire to get back to journaling a few weeks ago and after reading this article by Michael Hyatt, in which he suggested sticking with the habit for 30 days, it occurred to me that November would be the perfect month to work on that habit.
This morning I wrote out my NaNoWriMo goal for 2021:
I will write in my journal for 30 days, every day in the month of November, even if it’s only a few lines, to redevelop that rhythm of daily writing.
One of the things I cover with my writing group every year is that preparation for NaNoWriMo leads to better success in reaching your goal. Following that advice, I’ve chosen a “template” to use. By asking myself the same questions every morning, I won’t have to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. On busy mornings, perhaps I’ll only choose one question to answer, while on weekend mornings, I’ll have time to answer all eight.
Also, I’ve decided to not limit myself to one particular medium but instead, I will write by hand in my paper journal, on my phone when I’m out, or on my computer, if it’s handy. In other words, my goal here is to capture my thoughts each day in whatever means possible.
Now, this won’t be my only writing since I’m still working on regularly posting here and also working slowly on my book project. That’s one of the reasons I’m not being too perfectionistic about how I get my journal writing done each day.
Will you be participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Do you have a regular journaling habit? I’d love to hear how you fit writing into your day.
Earlier this month, I was gathering ideas to share with the writers group at the library. Our topic for August was Feeding Your Creativity, an idea I first read in Wild Words by Nicole Gulotta. During my research, I discovered this great article on creativity based on an old book from 1939. Artists and writers looking for creativity is apparently not a new concept!
The author of the book listed five steps to cultivating creativity:
Gathering raw material
Digesting the material
The A-Ha Moment
Idea Meets Reality
As I thought about this five step process, I realized that I follow these steps almost unconsciously when I think about my writing, work on a Bible study, plan my goals for the next quarter, and a host of other creative and thinking work.
In her video, Shaye is talking about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which I started reading but quit partway through because I never conquered morning pages. I tried so many times on my own and did something similar last winter during a writing class. However, the pain in my hands when I write with a pen for more than a few minutes keeps me, mentally and physically, from maintaining that habit. Julia Cameron’s insistence that it must be pen and paper makes sense to me intellectually and the lovely piece of writing on the beauty in pain that came out of the exercise last winter both keep me thinking about this. But until I conquer the very real mental or emotional barrier of my fear of the pain, I know that I won’t do morning pages.
Consequently, I’ve decided to adapt these ways of capturing creativity to make it work for me where I am right now. Rather than just give up, which has been my tendency, I’ve come to the conclusion that if writing is important to me, and it is, then I have to do what works and stop trying to live someone else’s ideal process.
Here is how I plan to use these steps to feed my creativity:
Raw material – This is not a problem. I read so much and so widely that I’m always gathering raw material. The challenge is to organize it for easier retrieval. I have a system that I’m working on but that is for another post.
Digesting the material – I think this is where the morning pages will come in. Rather than fuss myself about doing it by hand, I’ve decided to just type my thoughts. Perhaps this is not optimal but it’s better than not doing anything at all, a sentiment echoed in this article by a leadership coach for lawyers.
Unconscious processing – This requires silence and solitude, which are hard to find in the world today but not impossible. A combination of weaning myself off of social media, planning in slots of reflective time, and adding in more walks, some of which I will make thinking walks, should give me time for the processing that is crucial to idea generation.
The A-Ha moment – I have a small notebook and/or my phone with me all of the time so that when the ideas hit, I’m ready for them. In the past, I’ve jotted down words and phrases on a slip of paper, dictated my thoughts to Siri as I drove, sent myself an email, added a note to my phone, and scribbled down thoughts for a new direction in my notebook. Writing down ideas as they strike is a discipline that is well worth cultivating for every creative. I wrote more about this in my post A Writer’s Notebook.
Idea meets reality – Make time for regular writing! Two other ideas from Julia Cameron’s book are to have a creative date with yourself every week and to practice your art regularly. For me that looks like having a book on writing that I read for an hour a week, as a minimum, and sitting down every day to write—morning pages, a blog post draft, my journal, a book draft—whatever it is to get the words on paper and develop the discipline of showing up to my art.
Have I perfected this process? Not at all. However, the steps are in place and now I need to walk in them. If I can do it, so can you!
Do you think these five steps to creativity are helpful? Do you write morning pages either by hand or electronically? Please share your practices in the comments so we can all learn to live the creative life together.
Over the years, I’ve discovered an intense need for keeping a journal. It started in high school and has only grown over the years. When I was fifteen, a journal gave me a place to write down my thoughts, wishes, dreams, and desires that I did not dare share with anyone else. It provided a secret place for bad poetry, prayers, and plans for my future. Crushes on boys at school or church sat next to sincere desires to serve God with all of my heart.
As I grew older, I used my journal to not only keep track of what came out of my heart but also to record my interactions with God. What I read in Scripture, what I heard from sermons and speakers, what I discovered about Him in the books I read, and all of my responses to these things were crammed onto the pages as I learned about who He was and who He created me to be.
Plans for my daily life, goals for upcoming months, multiple lists, commonplace quotes, and things I wanted to remember were jotted down for future reference. My journal was my go-to most days to help me think and plan and dream. It became such an integral part of my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life that I couldn’t imagine abandoning it.
However, as much of a need as I have for journaling regularly, I’ve noticed that I’ve been neglecting it more and more in the last few years. While I still try to read a good bit each week, I rarely copy down quotes from the books (commonplace). Also, I do a lot less thinking about what I’m reading, comparing it to what I already know, pondering its meaning, and writing about what I think.
Last year, I worked through Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth through Journal Writing by poet Luci Shaw with a group of Christian women who also wanted to start or restart journaling. For a time during that study and a bit afterward, I once again filled page after page in my journal, but as COVID retreated somewhat and life began returning to its former busyness, I wrote less and less.
Part of that is just a lack of time for pondering. With a home and family, a full-time job, and a commute, large blocks of time for reading and writing have turned into snatches of time here and there. Writing often falls by the wayside as a result. To be honest, the difficulty in finding time is also due to the great amount of knowledge at our fingertips, the glut of which often keeps me taking in too much and not thinking about it enough.
However, this summer I have been deliberately setting up systems for tracking my time and activities and for carving out a deeper life, in which I can lose myself once again in the written words I used to revel in. My hope is that my neglect of journaling will cease, that I will pick up my pen regularly to mull over life and ideas, and that my musings will lead to a fuller, richer life.
Do you make time for journaling? How do you make it a priority? Please share any tips you have below!
One of the best parts of my job at the public library is working with local writers. When I first started, I knew only a few, but over time, our tiny writers group grew. Several years later, I now know dozens and dozens of talented, enthusiastic, generous local authors. In fact, the annual writers conference has become a highlight in both my work and personal lives. More than 200 people attend to learn more about their craft and have opportunities to network and grow, and it is a privilege to be a part of that each November.
If you love to write or want to start your own writers group, workshop, or mini-conference, give this podcast episode a listen. Chris’s great interviewing skills helped me to lay out the steps for building a successful conference, which can be used for any size gathering.
Let me know if you want more information or have any tips for building a writing community in the comments below.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a book project about my grandfather’s pen and ink drawings. When he was courting my grandmother in the 1930s, they wrote letters to one another, and he always created a drawing on the envelope he sent her. He didn’t have much money, but the little piece of art he sent every few days meant more to her over time than anything he could have bought in a store. I’ve written about these envelopes here, here, and here.
As I’ve researched, organized, and written some caption drafts, gradually the project has started to organize itself. At first, I had no idea how to structure the book. I knew I wanted it to include copies of the envelopes themselves, something of my grandparent’s story, and information about the historical and cultural events depicted in the drawings.
When I began, I thought I would have to research and write about all 180 envelopes. However, after scanning and working on the first dozen or so, a form has taken shape. Using each drawing as a type of prop, I told the story of what America was like in the 1930s and, when appropriate, how my grandparents’ lives were examples of that particular piece of culture, event, or occurrence.
Now I am ready to start writing a book proposal. However, I’m hung up on who the audience should be. Would this book be attractive to readers of memoir, art historians, or people interested in America during the Depression years? Or is it more of a “coffee table” book?
One piece of advice is to find a book similar to the one you want to write and determine that book’s audience. My difficulty is that I have not found a book similar to this. Is it memoir? Kind of. Is it art history? Not really, but I suspect anyone into envelope art would be interested in it. Is it history? History-light, perhaps, as I’m not a trained historian. My day job is research, not history.
Part of marketing is knowing your target audience so that you can sell it to them. I’m not a publisher, a literary agent, or an experienced author, but even I know that you need people to buy your book if a publisher is going to take a chance on it. Therefore, part of the book proposal I will be writing in the next few months will have to include information on my target audience.
Have you written a book proposal or had to determine your target audience for your writing or another creative endeavor? How did you do it? I’d love to hear from anyone who has a great idea on how to find an audience. Or, if you have an idea on who my target audience might be, I’m all ears.
October was a busy month. My son got married in another state, which required planning, travelling, and quarantining afterward. Then, a few days ago, I was in charge of a virtual conference that has taken a lot of time and work this past month to plan and coordinate all the moving parts.
Added to those two big things, a third big event was the reopening of library access to the public, which requires a lot more time in the library branches. I’m so happy to see and help our community again in person, albeit masked and socially distanced.
However, I have still carved out to read and listen to various articles and podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:
Feed the Better Hunger – I used to tell my boys that taking in too much “junk food of the mind” is as bad for your brain as eating too much junk food is for your body. Glenna Marshall writes about what we should be hungering for in this article. We need to intentionally learn to love what is good for us and this article points us in the right direction.
6 Tips to Help You Tackle the Classic Novel – Anne Bogel gives six great ideas on how to read that classic from high school that you skipped. I 100% agree about trying it on audio. I finally managed to read Moby Dick several years ago by listening to the audio, and Heart of Darkness was much more manageable when read by Kenneth Branagh.
Your Devotional is Not Your Bible – As usual, Jen Wilkin encourages the reading and study of God’s Word over everything else: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.”
The Hidden Discipline of John Stott – This is an inspiring, convicting article. If I was half as disciplined in my reading and writing as John Stott was, I’d be a first class scholar. Definitely something to aspire to!
Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It? – A longish article on the need for fact checking nonfiction books and the lack of industry standards. This was interesting to me as I’m currently working on a nonfiction book and anyone who is also writing nonfiction might want to give it a read. Fact checking and copy editing are not the same thing, and I had been thinking about how to make sure my facts were correct (important when you work in research for a living!) when I saw this article.
As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped to finish Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell by the end of October and I did. I think this was my favorite fiction book in 2020. The combination of historical detail, rich characterization, an inventive plot, magical realism, and deep, deep emotions left me with a huge book hangover and food for thought for weeks. If you like Shakespeare or you like historical fiction, you will like this book.
A podcast on the three stages of creative work: friction, flow, and finalization – At the beginning of episode 37, Cal Newport talks about how all creative work has these three stages, what each stage entails, and how to push through to complete your project. I’ve often said that writing is 25% thought, 25% drafting, and 50% editing/polishing. Even if my percentages are a bit off, it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the majority of the project is not the fun drafting part.
Keeping a private journal or notebook is essential for many writers. Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Madeleine L’Engle, Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, and many others wrote regularly in a notebook, journal, or diary. These private places allow writers to work through ideas, grow in their writing, muse on the world around them, and capture snippets of conversation, turns of phrase, and other bits and pieces they notice in daily life. Notebooks can also contain the outline for a new book or article, lists of words, themes in formation, and more.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500…if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”
A few ideas of what to your notebook can contain:
Keep a record of your thoughts and ideas and life as they change and grow.
Gather words, phrases, pictures, poems, images, quotes, articles, and more for your future writing.
Reflect on things in a safe, private place.
Record events, feelings, conversations, reactions, words, and more so that you don’t forget. We tend to rewrite our past thoughts and feelings in light of our current circumstances. I am often a bit shocked by what I was actually thinking and feeling in a past time, but I cannot deny those things if they are in my journal in black and white.
Writing regularly with no thought of grammar or style keeps a writer’s creativity flowing and captures fleeting ideas that might have been lost if they were thinking too carefully about them.
But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.
Whether you keep a digital or paper notebook, whether you write it in at a certain time of day or scribble in it sporadically, do find a way to capture the glimpses of life and love and thought and feeling before they are lost.
Here are a few books and an article for inspiration and help in keeping such a journal:
A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, excerpts about writing from her diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
“On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion’s essay in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you prefer a digital notebook or a paper notebook that you can stick in your pocket? I’d love to hear how you capture your ideas and noticings.
Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.
However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:
Noticing A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.
Recording ideas No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.
Routines A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:
Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.
Transition Rituals Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.
Planning While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.
Tools Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.
Focus Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.
I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.
Each week, I send articles to a website that sends me a collection of articles to read in a single document for my kindle. This helps prevent me from falling down “rabbit holes” when I should be doing something productive but allows me to keep reading interesting things from around the web. Here are a few of the articles I’ve read this past month:
Many of us are still working from home, which can make the work/home lines bleed together a bit too much at times. This article is a helpful look at the benefits of unplugging from work and other online pursuits: http://lauraearnest.com/unplugging/
Although I’ve been a Christian for many years, prayer is still difficult for me at times. Lectio Divina has been one way, through two prayer apps a friend suggested, to focus on the Lord each morning: https://www.24-7prayer.com/ancientprayerrhythms
I subscribe to several podcasts, some of which I listen to every single episode and some of which I dip into once in a while when the episode sounds applicable to my life or I want to know more. Here are some episodes I found particularly useful or interesting this past month:
I just found the Redeeming Productivity podcast this summer and am slowly working my way through the back episodes. This recent episode was helpful in thinking about how contentment doesn’t have to interfere with ambition and productivity: https://www.redeemingproductivity.com/feed/podcast
I have loved all of the episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible with Nancy Guthrie, but I found this one especially fascinating as she talked to Andrew Sach about Elijah and Elisha and their foreshadowing of the New Testament: https://feeds.simplecast.com/TtKQNBCJ
Cal Newport, author of one of my favorite productivity books, Deep Work, started a new podcast this year. This is his kickoff episode. Don’t let the length scare you. He addresses multiple questions in each episode, which means you can listen for 10-20 minutes and then leave it until the next time without losing the thread of a discussion. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do focused knowledge work for their job or personal projects. His humor is a bit nerdy, which adds to the fun: https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/1121972.rss
When I’m trying to focus on work or writing, sometimes I need silence and sometimes background music helps. Eric Nordhoff is an artist I discovered recently, whose music is uplifting and great for focusing:
One of my writing projects is the story of my grandparents, told through my grandfather’s artwork. One thing I’ve discovered in researching for this book is that context is essential. If you are writing any memoir set in the present or near past, most readers will have the information they need to understand the times, the culture, and the details about everyday life. However, when you are writing a historical memoir, you must include specifics about the culture and lifestyles since much, if not all, of it is alien to your reader.
For instance, in the book about Victor and Estelle, things like clothing, music, transportation, communication, and more differ greatly from our experience today. Women were occasionally wearing trousers, but rarely. They wore hats and gloves and always looked “smart” when they left the house. Men wore suits, ties, and hats more often than not. Music was jazz, big band, and classical. Rock music hadn’t been invented yet.
Radio and newspapers were the main forms of communication. Long-distance phone calls were pricey, so people generally used telephones for local calls. Television sets had been invented but were not commercially available until the late 1930s; most people had a radio in their home for news and entertainment. Since email did not yet exist, letters were the main form of personal communication, both locally and long distance.
In the early 1930s, almost half of American households owned cars, and the highway system was being developed. However, for long-distance travel, trains were most often used. Air travel was still rare.
As you can see, much has changed in America since the 1930s. I have had to delve into history books from that time period to recall what life was like back then. Including those facts and connecting them to the pictures in the envelopes as well as our experience today will help make the stories more appealing and relevant.
Historical research is a key component to writing any historic piece, whether that be historical narrative, memoir, or historical fiction. As a result, you will want to develop your skills as a researcher to frame your story well.