Take Responsibility for Your Writing Life

Well. I’m a little red-faced today. The crime scene series will continue. As soon as I find it. Don’t worry, I have backups of backups. I just transferred everything to a new computer this week and apparently missed a few files. Embarrassing! And entirely my fault.

But it got me to thinking.

I like excuses. They seem to provide lubricant for slipping out of situations in which I am at fault. However, I try hard not to make excuses because, really, who cares? They don’t change the failure, right? They can’t undo a missing post, a lost opportunity, or a broken promise. Excuses might appease and reduce the fallout, but doesn’t let us own our mistakes and face them.

For that, we need to take responsibility.

As writers, aren’t excuses just easier?

  • I was too busy to write today.
  • The boss needed me so I couldn’t write.
  • The kids are sick so I was too tired to write.
  • I just wasn’t feeling it today. Maybe tomorrow.

Who are we appeasing? Ourselves, of course. We don’t want to acknowledge our failure or our lack of commitment. It’s easier to excuse ourselves to ourselves than admit we blew it.

What would it look like if we take responsibility instead?

  • I chose to spend my time elsewhere.
  • I elected to focus on something else.
  • I decided not to write while the kids napped.
  • I didn’t care enough to sit down and start.

It might sound a little harsh, but it’s honest, right? And it also requires us to own up to our choices rather than hide behind circumstances or other people.

Life does sometimes get in the way. That’s just a fact. But taking responsibility rather than making excuses gives a much better picture of our writing life and a much better gauge of our resistance.

Do you make excuses for not writing? I still do, even as I want to take responsibility instead. How do you feel after you tell yourself an excuse? A little relieved? A little dirty? I do, and ashamed besides.

How does it feel different to take responsibility? For me it feels a bit grim, but also honest, like a hard look in the mirror. Sometimes it’s clear there wasn’t much I could do. Most of the time, what’s clear is that I was lazy, uncommitted, or scared. Then I get a little mad. Taking responsibility has gotten me back out of bed to do my daily writing because I don’t want to see myself as a person who can’t fulfill her commitments.

For the next week or two, listen to what you tell yourself. Examine the excuses and rephrase them as taking responsibility.  If you need help, call your accountability partner (or get one). Holding myself accountable to another person who wouldn’t accept  excuses was how I began to understand the whole subject in the first place.

If you struggle to get your writing done, ditch the excuses, take responsibility, and get a little mad.


Which positive outcomes might we find by moving from excuses to responsibility?

A Series of Style: How Stylistics Can Help Your Writing

The series I have planned for the coming months will focus on particular elements of style–word choices, rhetorical devices, syntax, and so on–and how these elements pertain to fiction. In writing these posts, I hope to emphasize how the language choices we make in our creative writing endeavors help construct the narrative we’re creating. And, most importantly, I hope to show you how to use them to your advantage.

What is stylistics?

Stylistics is, first and foremost, an academic discipline. But wait! Before you run away screaming, I have a secret to share. You come into contact with style constantly: in speech, at university, reading the news, even on social media. It makes sense, then, that style plays such a heavy role in fiction. Have you ever given your character an individualized or societal way of speaking? That’s style. What about debated the use of a word and then chosen a synonym because it “sounded better?” Again, style. Have you shortened your sentence length to pace an action scene and to “speed up” the feel of the prose? You guessed it. Style.Craft and Art

Stylistics is one of those disciplines that bridges into other disciplines and is not generally studied on its own. When I studied it for my master’s thesis, I predominantly focused on stylistics as the bridge between linguistics and poetry, but many of my sources handled prose as well. It fascinated me: how style, as both a field of study and an intuitive part of our writing, is inherent to a creative text. Here we’re mostly going to be looking at the latter.

Who? What? When? Where?

In both literary criticism and linguistics, it’s not uncommon to ask common WH-questions: Why was a theme used in a particular work? Which parts of our language have changed over time? Whose choices in a novel affect the structural process of the prose and subsequently the story? However, the thing about stylistics—and, more narrowly, of style itself—is that it doesn’t focus so much on the why or what of language, but on the how. How do we use language—vocabulary, syntax or sentence structures, sound play (alliteration, assonance), meaning variations—to improve the story we’re trying to tell?

How does style apply to my writing?

You don’t realize it, but you use style subconsciously every time you choose a word, construct a sentence, or even when you adhere to specific genre standards. In the case of “how” we’re using language, this is also applicable to how we write it and how we show it through our characters and prose. For instance:

  • How do we use dialogue in our stories to imitate regional dialects?
  • Does a character have a particular individual dialect (idiolect) that characterizes his actions?
  • How does sentence length affect the overall tone and rhythm of a piece? How does it carry the action of a scene?
  • How do particular word choices influence meaning and overall meter of sentences?
  • How does punctuation affect our associations of timing?

The list could go on and on, to be honest. The interesting part is seeing where and how it all connects when words and ideas and grammar meet. And how all these tiny linguistic connections build what eventually become a novel.

Think about it . . .

So what’s next? In subsequent posts, we’ll work on observing style in everyday fiction. We’ll discuss these through examples and (hopefully) understandable explanations.

Next up: How sounds works in your prose.

Additional Resources

If stylistics is an entirely new concept to you and you’re interested in reading additional material, I point you to the following resources:

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

A book for the layman, so to say. Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who has written several books about language and the mind’s way of using it.

A Dictionary of Stylistics – Katie Wales

This was the single most useful book for my thesis. I’m pretty sure it saved my life a couple times. Definitely applicable to more than just academics. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I really love it.

Have you heard of stylistics or studied it before? Are there any particular elements of style you’d like me touch upon in the upcoming months?

Let me know in the comments below!

Get Away From The Desk

Get Away From The Desk

Now just where did I leave my inspiration?

Writing’s a solitary profession. Writing’s an indoor sport. We’ve all heard this before and while it holds a grain of truth, there’s always two sides to a story.

Anyone serious about writing should be able to knock out a few words wherever they are and make use of all that dead time we find ourselves in on a daily basis. There are times when getting away from the desk is the best thing that can happen to us, the thing that gets those blocked noggins working again.

1. Coffee anyone?

NaNo may be over but that doesn’t mean you have to stop speaking to or meeting with your local NaNo group. Get your laptop/tablet/pen and paper and get yourself down to a local write in. Drink coffee (too much coffee) and watch that pen burn holes in the paper. Those new friends you made in November could be the ones that give your rear the necessary boot when you’re ready to throw in the towel.

2. Talking to oneself in the great outdoors

As I mentioned last week, you don’t need to be chained to a desk to write (“But I can’t write unless I’m surrounded by my collection of surgical samples stored in formaldehyde.” Quiet you!) or even have the use of your arms (“Guess where the samples come from?” I said quiet!). There are so many smart phone applications for voice memos around these days or you could always invest in a standalone device. Many of them even transcribe for you with pretty good results.

3. Take the notebook somewhere new

I’ve lost track of the number of times a simple change of scenery has helped me knock the words loose. So I urge you, grab your notebook or your laptop and explore your city/town. Go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a spot, and just start writing.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever written and how did you fare? Please share.

Reviving the (nearly) Lost Art of Writing Letters

I’ve been promising myself (and my mother) for several years that I would start writing letters.  One would think my raging addiction to stationery and note cards would automatically have me using them, but, well, other than thank you notes, not so much.

I have kept a journal for decades and poured all my thoughts and feelings into it (an average of 70 pages a month). But I realized that, while my journals hold all the evidence of how much I care for friends and family, they aren’t going to share. That’s on me.

So this year is the year of letters. And though I’ve written about two dozen at this point, I’ve already learned a few interesting things:

  • Writing letters satisfies the same need/urge as writing in a journal. In fact, I’m writing much less in the journal as I’m taking that drive into letters.
  • People really do appreciate receiving them. Whether it’s a happy break from bills and “current resident” mail or the fact that someone took the time and spent the money on a stamp, or both, letters have been met with surprised pleasure.
  • Technology dies hard. I write and receive Skype or email in return, but I told everyone at the outset there was no pressure to write me back. I am particularly amused by the older generation, for whom letters were standard, but now Skype me a response.
  • The younger generation struggles with reading cursive handwriting. Some schools are even dropping penmanship from their curriculum, which gets me on my soap box every time the subject comes up. I won’t print for them, though. It’s a skill we’ll need for several generations, yet. I don’t want to think of a world in which people no longer write by hand.
  • I’ve learned that I can write from my heart, just as I do in my journal, and let people get to know me in a way I haven’t for most of my adult life. A letter is a gift of oneself. It’s a tangible bit of caring that can be held in the hand instead of living in a device.

Letter-writing really is becoming a lost art. I certainly can’t revive it on my own, but perhaps my efforts will cause a few ripples in the people I write to and keep it alive a little longer. I’ll let you know how the year of letters is progressing as the year goes on, but today I am hopeful that I have established a new habit and that I will be able to share my inner self with the people I care about in ways that journals don’t allow.

Have you felt the same urge? Have you wanted to write letters or do you already? We’re writers here, so I imagine more of us write them than the general population. If we don’t write them, who will?

What do you think will happen if personal correspondence moves entirely to electronic means? Will our great-grandchildren read about letters in history class?

What is your reaction when you receive a personal letter in the mail?


On Margaret Atwood and Writing Advice

We Have the Powah!For those who don’t know: I want to be Margaret Atwood when I grow up.

In May of last year, I went to hear her speak at a literary festival in Tallinn. As I stood in a line stretching far into the streets of Old Town and watched her settle into the spotlight via an outdoor screen set up for those who wouldn’t fit into the building, I clutched the book I’d brought for her to sign and waited, barely daring to hope I’d be fortunate enough to make the cut. Each time they opened the door, a few lucky ones managed to creep past the door wardens — and each time, I would count the people in front of me.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I rushed up the steps with another girl and entered the room, my heart pounding, and though I was stationed somewhere in the back and could hardly see her, I could at least say I was there, in the same room. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck.

This past weekend I checked out an unauthorized biography on Margaret Atwood (the biographer had communicated with Atwood a couple times in the process of writing it, so it wasn’t necessarily unapproved). The biography humanized her, brought her down to the writer level I’m familiar with — an author who had to start somewhere, trying to balance the academic and creative writing life, confronting the challenges of taking an unconventional career path. An author who never gave up.

Ultimately, we can learn a lot by listening to successful writers. Or by watching them at work. So what I gleaned from my brief encounter with Margaret Atwood and her writing wisdom was this:

Place is powerful

One of the things that stood out to me — in both the talk she gave and the biography — was the discussion of place. And though I feel this is perhaps a topic for another day, I pondered the idea of why we write what we write and how place, being such an integral part of our identities — whether consciously or otherwise — constructs our narrative identities. And not just place as space, but place as culture and society and home. Margaret Atwood began writing and studying literature at a time when Canada didn’t have a national literature. She was pivotal in the movement to establish the Canadian literary landscape. It was and still is intrinsic to her writer identity, and you can feel it in her novels and the characters and their movement through these literary places. What, then, can we say about how places affect our own work and identities?

Writing what you know is good advice

From her biography, I learned that Atwood has based many of her stories on places she’s worked and people she’s known and, ultimately, on herself: her emotions and fears, her interpretation of social issues, her surroundings. Though characters inevitably take on their own lives and personalities and stories move in their own directions, Atwood’s literature is born from personal experience. For instance, her arguably feminist literary stance sprouted from difficulties she faced in a much more narrow-minded, sexist era. The places she has written about are places she has lived. (She herself has said it is essential to her that she know the setting.) Her own interests also prevail, time and time again: biology, environmentalism, bugs. Margaret Atwood has lived her experiences and written about them, and people pay her to read about them.

Having a good network of friends is essential

Atwood faced very different circumstances than I do now, but much of her success and creative drive was influenced, in part, by surrounding herself with creative people and maintaining her relationships with them. Many of her unique projects (which sell for quite the money these days) were collaborations with other creative types (Atwood herself is a polymath–she has perfect pitch, can draw, and, of course, writes), and she went on to exercise her own creativity through the experiences — literary and otherwise — she shared with them. Additionally, she corresponded via letters with several friends who went on to give her genuine and fantastic feedback (detailed, honest, and ultimately essential to her work). I read some of the reviews she received regarding her novel drafts, and I was astounded by the intelligent attention they paid her work. It’s something we should all aim for in our writing groups.

In the end . . .

“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
—Margaret Atwood

After her talk — which focused on a range of topics from her latest work to modern feminism to the story she’s hidden away in Norway for the next 100 years — we got in line for the book signing. As I waited my turn, I wondered what I should say to her, if anything. What can you say to someone who has influenced you profoundly in a few mere seconds?

Writers meeting our favorite authors is often a dream come true. They have written words that have touched us, signed their names upon books that have spoken our own. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to listen to the exceptionally talented, as they sit, poised gracefully in front of a huge crowd, and talk about their process, their ideas, their writing.

So when I did finally reach the small table and met her (very blue) gaze, I decided that perhaps my presence there spoke for itself. That her work, which I’ve read at various times in my life and for various reasons, had already spoken.

It still speaks to me.

And through me, even now, it’s reaching you.

Which authors have taught you something valuable or inspired your writing life? Let me know in the comments below!