Natalie Goldberg’s Seven Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and for the next four weeks I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Last week, I discussed Octavia Butler and her Nine Rules of Writing and this week I’m unpacking Natalie Goldberg’s Seven Rules of Writing which appeared in her craft book Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.

Before we dive into today’s video, I want to acknowledge that for many of us, writing may not be the biggest priority right now. We’re all dealing with a slew of other concerns as we’ve had to adjust to working from home, changes in our financial situations, and the general restrictions we’ve been adhering to as part of the pandemic.

In many places, these restrictions are starting to lift and while it may be some time until things get back to normal, I wanted to put this series together as a way to inspire and support you during this time.

Natalie Goldberg is an American author of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but she is most Natalie Goldbergfamous of her books that explore writing as Zen practise.

While many craft based book focus on the nuts and bolts of writing – character, dialogue, plot, theme – Goldberg’s book focus on the emotional rewards of writing, as well as how to develop a writing practise. Goldberg’s methodology is skewed towards journal writing, but the advice presented in her books can easily be applied to all forms, whether it be fiction, poetry, or memoir.

The following quote sums up Goldberg’s writing philosophy perfectly:

“I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories-of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Now, I do want to preface this blog by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

So, let’s get to it.

Rule #1: Keep your hand moving

This is perhaps Goldberg’s most famous rule. Keep your hand moving is a challenge to your will power and determination. It is also the best way to separate the editor from the creator. By keeping your hand moving, you are less likely to stop, ruminate over what you wrote, and give into the false temptation of perfectionism. It is easy to waste an hour of writing time fiddling with a paragraph or a single sentence.

There is a time for revising, and an hour spent polishing a paragraph is an hour well spent when you are in the revising stage of your novel. However, you do not need to be wearing your editing hat if you are creating a first draft, if you are new to writing, or if you are simply trying to make writing a habit.

Writing wins when you keeping your hand moving.

Rule #2: Lose Control

We self-censor our work all the time. Why? Because writing is a vulnerable act. If you are writing memoir, this is doubly so because you are sharing personal details and stories from your own lived experience.

Writing fiction is its own sticky net. Sometimes people mistakenly think that our work is memoir in fancy dress and that our characters are mouth-pieces for our own thoughts and beliefs. Sometimes, writing fiction is shameful because we fear that what we have written isn’t very good.

There are so many ways that we judge our work and censor ourselves during creating practise.

We cringe at the idea of our grandmother reading the sex scene in chapter seven, or that our friends will assume that’s what we’re in too!

When you are writing a first draft, or when you are writing for practise (exercises, journaling), it’s important that you loosen up. No one is going to read your work and judge you unless you let them.

Let the words be ripped out of you, raw, and covered in gore.

If you want to write something that feels alive, then you need to write honestly, without censorship.

Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.
Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.

Rule #3: Be specific

This rule relates to writing craft on the line level. It is the details that transform words on a page into images in the reader’s mind. So, when you’re writing, it’s important that you pay attention to the nouns, verbs, colours, and texture, that create your descriptions.

Not every sentence has to be filled with original prose and breath taking beauty – some sentences are just there to move the story forward – but if you’re practising the art of ‘keeping your hand moving’ and notice that one sentence seem a bit … vanilla … push yourself to be more specific in the next sentence.

Focussing on sensory details or embedding imaginative metaphors and similes are just some of the ways you can become more specific in your descriptions.

Rule #4: Don’t think

If you’re keeping your hand moving, then there really isn’t that much time to think anyway, but Goldberg makes a strong argument for following your “first thought” when writing.

For Goldberg, this rule, specifically, is tied to her Zen practise: by following her first thought, she supports rules two and three, because she is forced to stay in the present moment. By staying present, she is better able to avoid self-censorship, keep her inner editor at bay, and to really let loose with her writing.

Personally, I believe that “don’t think” is a good practise for writers like myself who need to get down a crappy first draft before they can move forward.

The ideas that appear in a first draft won’t be the best, but by getting down the bones of the story we can begin the slow process of building that skeleton up into a completed book.

Don't think about what to write
If you think too long about what to write next, you’ll freeze and write nothing!

Rule #5: Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar

This is another way to stay present with the work in the moment. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are duties that belong to the editor and your editor does not need to be in the room while you are drafting or journaling or brainstorming.

The editor operates out of the left side of brain. She is analytical, literal, and thinks linearly. Exploratory writing needs the qualities of the right side, creative, imaginative, non-linear.

Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are important, but they are not the building blocks you need to concern yourself with if you are drafting or simply trying to developing a writing habit.

Rule #6: You are free to write the worst junk in the world

You don’t have to publish it, but you’re free to write it.

The more you write, the bigger your body of work will become. The more you write, the better your writing will become.

But, of course, not everything you write will be good, even if your writing as a whole improves. Stephen King has written 70+ books and The Tommyknockers is definitely not of the same calibre as The Shinning, The Stand, It, 11/22/63 … you get the picture.

Write bad stuff, write good stuff, just write. 

Be bold and brave in your writing
Go for the jugular. Be brave and bold in your writing!

Rule #7: Go for the jugular

If something uncomfortable, controversial, painful, wild, or surprising pops up while you’re writing, don’t stop! Keep your hand moving, continue with the thought and write it all out. As Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

Remember, you don’t have to publish what you’ve written and you can always edit your work later, but it’s important that you give yourself permission for the writing to be messy, undulating, and alive.

You may end your writing session, look back on your work and see nothing but chaos, but as long as there is a beating heart nestled within that story, then you have done your job and it’s up to your inner-editor to plug that heart into the body of your story.


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Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and for the next five week’s I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors: Octavia Butler, Natalie Goldberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King: who’s rules I have broken up into two parts.

In today’s blog, I am breaking down Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for Writing. If you’re not super familiar with Octavia Butler or her work, here’s the highlights.

Octavia ButlerOctavia Butler was an African American Science Fiction writer whose 1979 novel, Kindred, cemented her position in the literary cannon. She was one of the first female authors, and one of the first African American authors, to break into the predominately white, male-dominated world of science fiction. She is most well known for her Parable Series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. Unfortunately, Butler passed before she was able to finish the final novel in the trilogy, Parable of the Trickster.

Prior to becoming a full-time author, Butler worked a string of menial jobs where she would get up at 2 am and write until she had to go to work. Once she became a full-time author, she’d divide her days between writing and reading. Luckily for us, Butler kept a journal where she documented her life and feelings, yes, but also her writing process. Her journals and research notebook were donated to The Huntington Library two years after Butler’s death in 2006.

One of my favourite entries written before Butler became a full-time published author reads: “I shall be a bestselling writer. I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it.”

As African-American woman in the 1970s, Butler had to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve that dream. It took create determination, discipline, and of course, good storytelling.

Butler’s nine rules for writers were published in an essay titled Furor Scibendi. As Butler describes in her own words, “Writing for publication may be both the easiest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Learning the rules — if they can be called rules — is the easy part.”

In this video, I will list Butler’s nine rule of writing followed by my own interpretation of each rule.


Rule #1: Read

As you can imagine, Butler was an avid reader. She pushed herself to read from a wide variety of materials including fiction and non-fiction.

She read bad books and good books, and books she wished to emulate. She even educated herself on the art, craft and business of writing by reading text in each of these fields.

If you want to be a writer, then you must first be a reader.

You do not have to like reading, but you should do it anyway.

If you are time poor or have a short attention, then audiobooks are your friend! You can listen to them when commuting, exercising, or while you complete mindless tasks like cooking or cleaning.

Rule#2: Take classes and go to writers’ workshops 

We all learnt how to read and write in primary school, but writing is called a craft for a reason. You may know how to kick a football or how to upload a video on YouTube, but that doesn’t make you a sports superstar or a tech genius.

Signing up for writing class and workshops is the best way to develop your skill as a writer as you will receive feedback on both the quality of your writing on a sentence level as well as what is working in your story and what is not.

It is vital that you get feedback from people outside of your family and friends.

You can still question the feedback given to you by strangers, but the critiques delivered in writing workshops are often more trustworthy because they aren’t tainted by obligation or affection.

Writing Wokrshops
Writing workshops are a great way to get feedback on your work and to develop your craft.

Rule #3: Write

Butler recommends that you write every day for as long as possible, and for a long time I agreed with this prescriptive advice.

But the truth is, there is no one way to write.

Some people work best when their hands are touching their story every single day and others work better by ‘binge writing.’

You have to write to be a writer, what that process looks like is totally up to you. 

If you’re an established writer, then chances are you know what works best for you. And at a guess, I’d say your two biggest hurdles would be 1) your own personal resistance and 2) the need to protect your writing time from other outside sources.

If you’re new or newish to writing, then I suggest you experiment with a wide variety of routines and methods. Mess around with different times of day, different genres, writing styles, different locations; write with an outline, write without an outline, write listening to music and in total silence. Figure out what you need in order to get order on the page and then make sure you get it.

Personally, and Butler agrees with me here, I recommend that you keep a journal.

Writing in a journal is a great way to reflect on your creative practise, to interrogate your work, to become an observer of your own life, thoughts, and feeling, and to respond to what you see happening in the world around you.

It’s a place for you to figure out what you really think, which is an invaluable thing to know if you want to write about politics, social justice issues, human relationships, desire, depression – whatever.

Rule #4: Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it

Okay, guys, your first draft is not your last draft.

You must revise your writing.

Fortunately, all that time spent reading, writing, and attending classes, and workshops will help you do this. Look for plot holes and consistency with your characters and point of view; proofread for typos; revise your work until it is as good as you can make it.

Now, Butler does not talk about beta readers in her rules, but I recommend that you reach out to other readers and writers whose opinions you trust and ask them to critique your work.

Once you’ve read through their feedback and applied whatever changes you agree with, give your manuscript a final once over, and if you are traditionally publishing, make sure your manuscript follows the publisher’s formatting guidelines.

Revising your manuscript
Your first draft is not your last draft. You must edit your writing.

Rule #5: Submit your work for publication 

If you want to traditionally publish your work, then Butler urges you to research the various markets that interest you.

Become familiar with the books or magazines of publishers that you want to sell your work too. Once you’ve decided on a publisher, the only thing left to do is submit.

Yes, submitting your work can be scary, but it’s important that you be brave and hit the send button anyway.

If your story is rejected, that’s okay, find another publisher and send it out again.

Continue this process until you get a ‘yes!’

Reject is a part of life as a writer, so it’s important that you a) get used to it and b) develop ways to cope with it.

Now, Butler doesn’t address self-publishing, specifically because she published her rules at a time when self-publishing was crazy expensive, not very common, and frankly, looked down on.

Fortunately, things have changed and Indie publishing is a totally viable and potentially lucrative option for many authors. Much like traditionally publishing, if you want to go the indie route then you must do your research.

Rule #6: Forget inspiration

Inspiration is fickle, habit is more dependable.

Developing a discipline around writing by committing to a certain number of hours, sessions, or words a week is what will carry you over the finish line long after inspiration has fallen out of the race.

You may not have made writing a habit yet, but there are so many tricks you can use to create habits that stick. One of my favourite writers on this topic is Gretchen Rubin.

Inspired to write
You have all the inspiration you need to write the novel of your heart. Inspiration is great, but habit is more dependable.

Rule #7: Forget talent

Talent is no good to you if you don’t first have the habit of writing. If you are a naturally talented writer great, but if you’re not don’t sweat it. Writing can be taught (insert obvious disclaimer). Good writing comes from learning the craft, practising with intent, and editing your work until it sings.

As Butler says, “Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, and changing its direction when necessary.”

Rule #8: Don’t worry about imagination

One of the most common questions an author gets is, “where do you get your ideas?”

And of course, the answer is everywhere.

Books, writing, learning, and living a reflective life will keeps the flames of your creativity stoked. You have all the imagination you need to create stories that make people feel something, to see the world in a different way, to be entertained and educated.

Remember that writing is fun; play with your story, the words that you use, the storylines you create.

Nothing is too silly and if it is, you can always edit it later.

Rule #9: Persist

This is perhaps the most important rule as this character trait underlines every aspect of being a writer.

You must persist.

You must continue to develop your craft, ask hard questions of your work, read when you don’t feel like reading, write when you don’t feel like writing, ignore reject letters and continue on submitting anyway.

The only difference between an aspiring writer and a published one is persistence.


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Overcome Your Fear of Writing: Four Tips

You probably don’t know this, but I am the president of my university’s writing club.

Hang in there, I am telling you this for a reason!

Recently, I was hosting a stall at a sign-up day in an effort to recruit some new members, and to make the stall a little more interesting, the VP and I decided to run a wee-little writing competition.

In short, we brainstormed a bunch of writing prompts, stuck them around the table, and waited for all the budding writers to show up.

The rules were simple:

  • pick a prompt (or make up your own)
  • grab a post-it note
  • write a piece of flash fiction.

The prize? A coffee voucher.

Because writers love coffee.

Now here’s the interesting thing: forty people signed up that day, but only three entered the competition.  

Many of the writers were intrigued by the competition; they would pick up a prompt — excitement spreading over their face — but then their eyes would glazed over as the took in the stack of black post-its, presumably overwhelmed by all the possible stories they could write.

But unfortunately, most of those stories went unwritten.

Several times I slide a pen and pad towards a tempted writer only to have them take a step back.

‘Oh, no I can’t!’ They’d lift their hand like a shield, embarrassed that they’d even considered entering the impromptu competition.

This same pattern repeated for the next two hours and I left that sign-up day having learnt something very important: writers are terrified of writing.

Now, I know that it can be hard to write, because sometimes we feel like we don’t know what we are doing (most of the time we don’t know what we are doing), but I never thought of writing as being scary.

So, this got me thinking about the type of courage it takes to write.

Writing is a leap of faith
It takes courage to write the stories buried deep inside you.

Many of these budding writers refused to participate in the competition because they were afraid that whatever they wrote “wouldn’t be good enough”; they thought I was going to judge them.

Now, yes of course, I was judging the stories because it was a competition, but I wasn’t judging them as people.

This predicament then leads to the old paradox of art vs the artists:

  • do we need to consider the artist when experiencing their work?
  • And if so, to what extent?

But I digress.

The thing that really baffled me though, is that the stakes were so low!

The competition was free.

There was no entry fee.

It took less than five minutes to participate in it.

Seriously, guys (!), the “entry form” was a freaking post-it!

These stories were NOT going to be engrave in stone.

I even tried to make the writing component of the competition easy by displaying multiple prompts! If one prompt failed to spark an idea, the aspiring writer could choose another.

Even the length was easy, the story had to fit on a post-it.

Plus, you could win a free coffee. As we already know, writers love coffee!

I was amazed that so many people who were interested in joining a writing club, a club where presumably we would be reading and critiquing one another’s works (in addition to the usual chit-chat that comes along with social clubs), were afraid to actually write!

In short, if you are writer who is afraid to write, or perhaps you are simple afraid to share your writing, then the following four tips may help you.

Writing Prompt
The blank page can be a scary place when you don’t know have a direction or plan for your writing session.

#1 Know where to start 

As you’ll already know from the above story, prompts are a great way to get you started if you are tapped out of ideas.

Here are some of my favourite prompts:
– I remember …
– She opened the lid …

Not knowing where to start can be paralysing, but this is such a silly reason not to write.

Here’s the thing, writing is really re-writing or to put it more elegantly, revising.

Of course, sometimes, writing is incredibly fun, but sometimes writing can be really uncomfortable; writing can be hard when the words aren’t flowing naturally and you don’t know what should happen next.

It’s really important that you keep things in perspective: you’re not trying to save the world, in fact, writing a book is a very inefficient way to save the world.

Keeping you expectations in check is also recommended. Do not approach the blank page with the belief that your story will one day become a best-seller or Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your writing! (And you).

Loosen up. It’s okay to write something that doesn’t work. It’s okay to write something that is bad.

First drafts are supposed to be sh*t, that’s why editing was invented.  

Being Judge
Being judged for your writing is the number one reason why people don’t publish their creative work.

# 2 Fear of being judge

People will judge you and that’s okay. You judge people all the time and their life, as well as your own, continues on just fine.

Your work is going to be judge. It will be judge by your beta-readers, editors, agents, publishers, and readers.

If you want to get published, then you need to develop some strategies on how to deal with criticism and feedback.

Look, I get it.

Sharing your art with people is scary, but focus on the positive. You don’t know what impact your writing is going to have on those who read it, and you are incapable of seeing your work accurately.

Your work could be really good, but how will you ever know if you don’t show anyone? And if you’re writing isn’t “that good” then how will you ever know that you need to improve?

And further, how will you know what needs improving?

Rejection is a part of life.

Hate to break it to you, buttercup, but learning how to handle rejection is an important part of life and a reality for any author.

You can either have 999 rejects and one ‘hell yes!’, or you can zero of both.

Consuming good content
Reading is the only apprenticeship a writer has. You must read in order to write.

#3 Consume good content 

If you are really struggling to think of anything to write, but you feel compelled to write something, then perhaps your problem is that you aren’t consuming enough content, or at least not enough of the ‘right’ content.

If you are just starting out don’t stress, there are so many ways for you to build your writing muscles and to learn about the craft.

You can:

– Read craft books! Here are some of my favourites, On Writing by Stephen King, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (If you have any others, please leave a comment at the end of this blog).

– Read lots of books! The only apprenticeship for writing is reading. Pay attention to what you are reading: make note of any unfamiliar words, unique descriptions, clever dialogue or turns of phrase.

– A great way to learn about sentence structure is to grab a beloved book and to write out some of your favourite sentences or paragraphs.

– Read or watch interviews with authors you admire. In fact, my weekly newsletter includes a round-up of inspiring podcasts, videos, blogs, or articles that I have recently read and loved.

– Watch your favourite movies and dissect the story. What happens when? How would you describe the characters or the setting? How did the narrative surprise you?

– Start keeping an ‘inspiration diary.’  Make a record of any interesting articles, sights, sounds, objects, or images that spark your imagination. If you get an idea for a story, or if a funny exchange of dialogue ‘pops’ into your head, write that down too.

How to overcome your fear of being judged and publish your writing
At some point, the only way to overcome your fear of being judged is to publish your writing and to see what happens.

#4 Publish Your Work

There’s a strategy used on patient who struggled with severe cases of OCD … Now, I’m not a doctor and I can’t be bothered Googling the name of this method, but here’s a SUPER WATERED DOWN example to illustrate my point …

If a patient believes they have to turns the door knob three times before leaving the house in order to stop something bad from happening, the therapist challenges the patient to lock the door and to walk away without checking the handle. What happens next?

Nothing.

And that’s the point.

I urge you to try a similar method with your writing.

Write a short story and post it on your blog or submit it to any of the brilliant websites or blogs listed on The Grinder.

You can post a piece of flash fiction on your Instagram or you could type a piece of micro-fiction and tweet it.

Why?

Because the sooner you publish your work the sooner you’ll realise how unimportant it is.  

I don’t mean to be harsh, I’m just being honest.

I love writing; I love words; I think stories are awesome and I am proud to be a writer, but I also realise that if I never wrote another word again, the world would keep on burning turning.

So, there you have it.

Those are my four tips on how to overcome your fear of writing. Now, I’d love to hear from you. Do you struggle with sharing your writing? What did you do to over-come it? Leave your comment below and let’s get this conversation started, because the world needs your story.


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A Day in the Life of a Writer During Quarantine

There’s a lot of negativity bouncing around on the internet these days, so I thought I would post this funny little blog that documents a day in the life of a writer during the quarantine lockdown.

Who knows? Maybe this post will be of interest to future historians wanting to know what life was like for a writer during the pandemic … but I doubt it. Hopefully you’ll see a little of yourself in the following post, and hopefully it will give you a little giggle.

Stay calm, stay sane, and keep writing.

Enjoy!


4:30 a.m. Wake-up. Plead with my brain to shut up and go back to sleep. You don’t have to be awake right now! No one is awake right now!! When pleading fails, I try bargaining. If you go back to sleep right now, you can have pancakes for breakfast, and drink the expensive chai, and work on projects that you actually like and …

4:45 a.m. Try to creep out of bed like a ninja so I don’t wake my partner. Sneeze three times, drop my phone, open the door too slowly resulting in a hideous creak that is reminiscent of a ghost with ill-intent …

5 a.m. – 5:10 a.m. Meditate, or at least try to meditate, but the inside of my brain looks a little like this: Inhale, exhale, ribs swinging, inhale … What should I do today? Should I work on the next chapter or research instead? Oh, crap, my breath, right. Exhale, inhale … I think I want avocado on toast for breakfast. Man I’m hungry. Should I eat before or after I walk the dog? Shit. Inhale, exhale. This continues for ten minutes or until I check the time and decide eight minutes is good enough.

5:10 a.m. Make a cup of tea and open current read (The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich). Ignore dog who is staring at me: provided of food, decider of walks.

5:30 a.m. I cave beneath the pressure of those unblinking, unshifting eyes, and take my persistent hound for a walk.

5:40 a.m: Circle around a couple walking towards me on the footpath. Wish them good morning. Wonder if they are the only other humans I will speak to today.

5:45 a.m: Photographs some roses in the park, post them on Instagram. #grateful. #pandemicsurvival.

6:30 a.m. Arrive back home, hound paws my legs until I get her breakfast. Raises her front left paw in anticipation of ‘shake?’ I grab a stick-note and write: do not be ashamed to dance for your food. Today might be a good day for pitching lifestyle listicles to online magazines, Seven Tips for Decluttering Your Home, Five Tips for Working from Home, How Not to Murder Your Roommate. 

6:30-6:45 a.m. Write out a to-do list in an effort to feel in control and orderly. It won’t look that bad once it’s out of my head and onto paper. Oh, the lies we feed ourselves.

6:45 – 6:50 a.m. Light a candle. Fold to-do list in half. Can you see where this is going? Oh, the joy of tiny, controllable fires.

6:50 – 8:30 am. Open WIP document. Slip into alternative world featuring talking animals and ambitious women.

8:30 – 9 a.m. Wonder how much longer my partner can possible stay in bed for. Doesn’t he know it’s a bright beautiful day and that I am f**king starving and want to have breakfast?

9:01 a.m. Maybe I should just have breakfast without him? Selfish bastard.

9:02 a.m. Scroll Instagram while boiling the kettle for another pot of tea. Stomach grumbles. WIP continues to bite at my heels.

9:05 a.m. Wander back to my laptop, tea in hand, only to discover that my partner has manifested at the other end of the table and that he appears to be in a state of mid-morning-desperation that can only be solved by caffeine. The dog leaps out of bed, drops her stuffed toy animal at my feet, and glares at me: the almighty player of fetch.

9:45-10 a.m. Cross fingers, pray to the Gods of Delicious Breakfasts and cut open an avocado. It is brown. Yet again my prayers have gone unanswered and we instead have pancakes with a side of virus-update chit-chat.

10 a.m. – 10:05 a.m. Interrogate my partner: are you okay? Are you bored? Do you want to do something today?
I don’t have to work.
Okay, well, look I do have to work today, but only a tiny bit.
What’s with the candles? The pile of ash? Nothing, really, just my schedule for the next three months.
Fancy another coffee?

10:05 a.m – 12pm. Left breakfast dishes to bored-out-of-his-mind partner, and return to writing desk. Open email and loss an hour of my life. Bookmark five MUST READ articles that I have no interest in reading right now.

12pm – 12:30pm. Decide that I really need to move my body, so I play fetch with the dog until even she becomes bored.

12:30 – 2pm. Open an audio file that needs transcribing. Swing between loving the process and wondering if one day all this typing will lead to arthritis.

2pm – 2:30pm. Break for lunch. Talk about virus again. Remove pile of ash from table.

2:30 – 4pm. Battle a dreadful case of post-lunch sleepiness. After twenty minutes of white knuckling through my draft, I realise that I am incapable of producing anything meaningful right now. Convince myself that watching hawk videos on YouTube counts as legitimate, important “book research”.

4pm – 4:02pm. Too early for wine?

4:02pm –5pm. Realise that I need to draft my next batch of blogs, so I bribe myself by writing while also replaying a write-in livestream. My attention is divided, so the blogs aren’t the best. Except for this one of course, this week’s blog is EPIC! GOLDEN! MAJESTIC!

5pm. Dog senses a slight change in the quality of the light, a drop in temperature, an increase in early evening precipitation; she launches from her bed, sits loyally by my chair and stares.

5:05pm – 5:55pm. Owner, mighty providers of walks, obliges her faithful hound.

6:00pm. Feed dog, crack open a bottle of wine, Google bread recipes.

6:10pm. Open pantry in search of inspiration. Upon finding no yeast or flour (the last used for this morning’s pancakes), I reside myself to the fact that I will not be making a load of rustic, instagram worthy bread for dinner. Top up wine glass. Rice and veggies it is.

7:00pm. Dinner, more talk about the virus. Another glass of wine. “Discuss” whether tonight should be a movie night or a reading night. Flip a coin. I win.

8:00 –  9:00pm. Read until the lines on the page begin to blur and become a mess of squiggles. Wonder how much longer this will continue on for, and whether I can sleep past 5 a.m. tomorrow morning — knowing that I will be unable to bribe my inner-task with the promise of pancakes, odds aren’t in my favour.


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How To Be Creative During Uncertain Times

Life continues to be weird. Seriously, how many more blog posts am I going to open this way?!

In order to limit distractions and to hopefully get a little work done, I’ve come up with some guidelines that I wanted to share with you. This blog could have been called Productivity Tip For Surviving an Apocalypse, but I think How To Be Creative During Uncertain Times reads a little better, no?

Without further ado, here are three simple ways to stay sane, happy, and creative — right now!

Limit your expose to the news

I don’t mean that you have to be ignorant about what is going on in the world, but you also don’t need to check the news every thirty minutes or even every day. Honestly, you could probably get away with checking it once a week. If any massive announcements are made, chances are you’ll find out about it through social media, your family, friends, or some other incidental source.

Here’s the thing, you don’t actually need to know how many people died in China today. You also don’t need to read soft-news pieces that detail one individual’s financial hardship.

This information will not enrich your life or make you more ‘prepared’, it will just distract and distress you.  

Yes, it is important to be empathetic, but how will reading these types of news stories help you?

This is especially important if you are feeling lost, overwhelmed and/or experiencing a lack of control.

Exposing yourself to excessive amounts of news will only exasperate these feelings.

Break up the routine

This point could be applied to your writing routine or your daily routine in general. As I mentioned in a recent Instagram post, anxiety and depression are the result of stagnant thought patterns or loops. The best way to break this pattern and to create new neural pathways in your brain is to mix up your routine.

Now that most of us no-longer have to commute to work, attend social gatherings, or certain professional events, we have a lot more time up our sleeves.

You don’t have to go to bed at 9 pm or wake at 5 am, but you can if you want to.

Now is a great time to experiment with your writing routine.

If you normally write in the morning, trying writing late at night or vice versa. Depending on your living situation, you could also experiment with writing in different locations around your home: couch, kitchen table, back verandah, bed, bath — throw caution to the wind my friend!

You can also break up your routine by changing the structure of your day. If you normal work out in the morning, try the afternoon. Go for a walk through a different part of your neighbourhood. Cook a different recipe.

If you have a strict morning routine where you journal, meditate, go for a walk, and then drink a cup of tea, trying mixing things up – even if it is only the order of the events.

By shaking things up, you are breaking the thought patterns that can lead to feelings of boredom, restlessness, fatigue, overwhelm and yes, anxiety and depression. (Insert obvious disclaimer). 

Make more art

I will admit that I am just as distracted as everybody else is right now. I have had good writing days and bad writing days, but here’s the thing, those good writing days are brilliant. For two hours, I don’t have to think about the pandemic or the long-term ramifications of the global lockdown.

If you find yourself wondering, “what is the point in making art during a pandemic?”, check out my recent blog here.

Making art is a form of expression, but it is also a form of escapism.

Hard writing days are hard: we are all too aware of ourselves and the fact that our work isn’t working. But there is still value in the activity, at the very least it is giving us something to focus on.

There is something really satisfying about engaging with a challenge, working through a puzzling plot hole, and shaping a piece until it eventually resembles our original intention for it.

On good writing days, we ceased to exist because we enter the work so fully.

While having lunch with my partner the other day, we found ourselves discussing the pandemic, rehashing the same concerns: how long will this go on for? Are the numbers tapering off? What is the latest update?

Like many of you, eighty percent of my conversations wind-up being about the pandemic. How could they not?

So, when I return to the desk and resume my work, whether that be writing or research, it feels like a sweet relief.

I can’t control what is happening during this health crisis, I can’t control this lockdown, but I can have some control over my creative process.

I know that things are weird and unstable at the moment. Some of us are out of jobs, some of us are navigating around working from home for the first time, some of us are worried about our health or that of family and friends – I get it!

This is an unprecedented time, so go easy on yourself. Do what you can, set realistic expectations (or no expectations), work, rest, play with your dog, get a little sun and drink a little tea … or whiskey.

This will all be over soon, and hopefully you’ll have some tidy little chapters done at the end of it, and a whole new appreciation of café culture!


 

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Why Writing Fiction Matters

A global lockdown could be the best time to write or the worst.

Maybe you’re loving the fact that you don’t have to run errands or attend physical meetings. Maybe you’re hating the sudden change to your routine; the fact that everyone is home, and that your finances have been upended.

I’m a member of a private writing group on Facebook that has approximately 5,000 members; recently, someone posted about how they were struggling to write during this uncertain time and they wanted to know how everyone else was going.

Some authors shared that they had to put current projects aside because of their subject matter (climate change/global collapse/apocalypse), others were ‘on and off’, having both good days and bad, while other confirmed that their lives were largely unchanged and that their life was carrying on as normal (mostly).

If you fall into one of the first two camps, I am sure you’ve had at least some of the following thoughts: What is the point in writing? The world doesn’t need my story. My story can’t make this situation better, so writing it is a waste of time.

Here’s the things guys, this situation is not going to last forever. Thankfully.

If you are struggling with any kind of hardship, writing will be difficult.

If you are experiencing financial uncertainty, if you or your family is sick, or working in high-risk occupations, then writing will be difficult right now.

Of course, it’s hard to write your novel if you aren’t sure how you’re going to pay your rent.

If you can relate to any of these scenarios, then go easy on yourself.

Do what you can, when you can, and if you can’t write because other things need your attention (*cough, cough* Centrelink *cough*cough*) or because you’re consumed with worry about [X], then that’s okay.

Life is weird right now. Don’t hold yourself to your normal standards.

However, if you fall into the latter camp and your life is relatively stable, and yet you too are grappling with these questions of validity, here’s some thoughts that may help you.

How would you feel if the book industry collapsed, Amazon folded, and libraries shut their doors? How would you feel if all the novels that lined your bookshelf disappeared? Would you be willing to live in a world that didn’t have any books?

I am guessing no.

So, why is that? What do books give you that is so valuable you wouldn’t be willing to live without them?

Books have all kinds of functions.

They offer entertainment, and provide insight.

They make you feel something.

They teach you stuff.

They articulate thoughts, feelings, and experiences that you have had, but didn’t know how to put into words.

You meet people who are just like you and nothing like you.

You get to walk around in someone else’s world and live through their problems with no responsibility to solve them.

Books do lots of things, just as all art does lots of things.

Our need to make art, to tell stories, to perform, and to create music is ancient.

We write stories in order to process events and circumstances around us. We write stories because a topic has intrigued us, it keeps us awake at night, and we want to know more.

In times of crisis, artists often wonder, what is the point? But the thing is, if you stop making art, how will future generation know what our collective and/or cultural attitudes were? How will they know what we were thinking or feeling?

I am all for art for arts sake, but if you need a ‘legitimate’ reason, a full-blown permission slip in order to write your story, here it is: Art is a record.

Your stories, regardless of their content, are a part of history.

Maybe you’ll only sell 100 copies of your book, but that’s okay. Maybe your novel won’t influence the zeitgeist or become the poster child of an era, but so what?

The world needs your stories anyway, happy or sad, in good times and bad.

There’s no shame in creating art. The only shame would be if we all came out of lockdown and you were left thinking, ‘but wait! I actually wanted some extra time to finish this story!’

This lockdown won’t last forever, but if you want to make the most of this time, then start now. Set a word count, dedicate an afternoon, make a mini-goal and pick out a reward for when you are done.

All progress is good progress.

Art has a purpose. Whatever purpose you want to give it.


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Does Good Writing Actually Mean White Writing?

There’s a good chance that most of the books you have read are written in Standard Writing English (SWE).

What is SWE?

Basically, SWE is a form of English that is uniform in spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. It includes the established formal and informal regional differences used in the writing and speech of educated people, and it is accepted wherever English is understood.

You’ll note that one of the key attributes of SWE is that it’s the language of the educated. For this reason, SWE is often referred to as Standard White English, and the biggest criticism of SWE is its contribution to the ongoing oppression of marginal voices.

So, why am I talking about SWE and why should you care?

Because the publishing world is overwhelmingly white. Because the vast majority of books published are written in SWE. Because maybe you’re unknowingly contributing to the problem by only writing white characters and/or only reading books written by white authors. Because it takes an intelligent and contentious writer to create a riveting story that not only reflects our present moment, but also interrogates it.

One of the core questions (there are many more*) that bubbles to the surface whenever discussing SWE is: What is good writing?

The short answer: White.

The long answer: this sh*t is complicated.

The pragmatic answer: clear, concise, emotive, propelling, compelling, invisible.

Good writing feels like a universal standard. We just know it when we see it.

People in positions of power who uses subjectivity as their defence for saying “no” — it’s just not my style — fail to witness their own biases. They do not realise that their judgement is steeped in cultural and social beliefs; a lens that shapes their perspective on what quantifies as “good art”.

Personal “taste” is biases in wolf’s clothing. The publishing (and reading) world’s definition of what is literary, worthy, high-brow, intellectual come from somewhere for all beliefs have a history.

The reason why we assume that good writing is white writing is because most of the books we have read, studied, and see on listicles and shortlists are written in SWE. Now of course, there are exceptions, how could there not be when, according to Google, there is nearly 130 million books in print.

The preference for and publication of SWE is a perpetual cycle.

People in power (white) published stories by people who used the same language as them; writers kept writing in said style so they would get published; writing teachers trained their students how to write in order to meet industry standards (ie: get publish); and teachers across disciplines trained their student how to write in order to meet their industry standards (ie: get a job).

Now, SWE isn’t evil, after all, there are benefits to having a wildly accepted and understood form of writing. Being able to write a book in a language that is comprehendible to a wide audience is an efficient way to share a story.

While a standardised form of writing allows for mass communication, it is not fully inclusive.

However, writers, readers and publishers are more aware than ever about the faults of standardised writing. Debates about appropriation and the demand for greater diversity in fiction continue to appear on the bill of literary festivals, book events, and conferences. Not to mention the volumes of opinion pieces and articles that have been penned on the matter.

The issue here is that appropriation bumps heads with diversity.

White writers continue to write white characters because they fear the criticism that could follow if they wrote non-white character – even though that is what readers want. This fear is not without warrant; many white writers are accused of appropriation. However, this usually only happens if the non-white characters are depicted stereotypically or if the story is somehow exploitive.

This then raises a whole slew of questions, such as: who are books for? What is a universal language? What are writers for? What are novels for? How can you judge the quality of prose without standardisation? How do we want the system to change? How are we asking writers to change?

And again, what is good writing?

A basic answer: you know it when you see it.

But this defence of subjectivity is no good to us other, for how can we trust that our biases will not affect our judgement?

The only conclusion I can arrive to is this: writing is not writing, it is revision.

Writer, readers, and publishers are aware of the limitations of standardised writing and they want to do better. In the same way that a work of fiction can be tweaked, rework, and improved with time and effort; our desire to do better and to expect more of ourselves and the books that line the hallways of our homes will begin the dismantling of an industry that favours the voices of some while silencing others.

What do you think? What are the pros and cons of a standardised writing system? Have you read many novels that would not be considered SWE? I’d love to know, please leave your comments or reflects below.


 

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