Tag Archives: writing

Our body connects to mind’s creative work

Maybe the best part of being a writer is getting to know and at times work with other writers. They are a fascinated breed. I simply never stop learning when I connect with others committed to the craft of placing meaningful words on a page.

One such fellow writer, I met through her words on the page. More precisely, I observed her talent as the words sprang to life and told a story in my mind as clear as a movie on a screen. When I heard Susie Meserve read poetry more than a year ago, I knew I wanted her in our fledgling writer’s group. I reached out to her, and she agreed. She infused our group with her energy, talent, and expertise.

The great news is more people can connect with Susie just as we in the writing group did. She is offering a writing workshop this weekend, that you don’t want to miss. As I stated when I started this post, I never stop learning from writers. This workshop will be no exception, as Susie and her co-instructor, Pilates Trainer Sandra Stringer, will connect our physical experience to our creative experience. Called “Releasing Your Body, Releasing Your Story: A Movement and Writing Workshop for Writers,” this mind/body connection should help stir writers in new and impactful ways.

It’s not too late to sign up. If you live in the Bay Area,  write sandrakstringer@gmail.com to register. Here are the vitals:

When: Saturday March 19, 1- 3:45 p.m.
Where: Flying Studios, 4308 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Cost: $75

If you go, I invite you to reply here and write more about what you learned.




My favorite word: ardor

OK my writer friends, quiz time. What’s your favorite word?

Ever notice how some words just clang in your ear and others sound like a musical note? Ever notice how you find yourself in speech and in prose returning to certain words again and again?

Of course. Words are the medium we use. How we choose them and how we place them do more to create that mystical, necessary essence we refer to as “voice.” Without it, your prose is doomed.

Well, I think life imitates art in this instance. Our favorite words set the voice for our lives. It’s good to know what they are and what they mean to us. It’s good to remind ourselves of them and use them so our lives too, have voice.

My favorite word is ardor. I love the sound of it. I love its meaning. I love that the word is beautiful, yet its root can also refer to the struggle that accompanies that which has the most value; e.g., the arduous path led to stunning views…

Beyond the nuance of the word ardor, its ethos launches it above other words. I want to live my life with ardor, i.e. enthusiasm and passion.

I’ve been working on my personal mission statement, as I wrote recently. But when I tell people I’m doing that, like my spiritual director, they often can’t hide the quizzical look because the idea of a personal mission statement, on the surface, runs counter to my desire to life a more centered, present, spiritual life. Mission statements are so entrepreneurial and corporate and ambitious, all things at odds with me to some extent. But in crafting a mission statement I have had to center myself, become very present, and decide what I am doing and want to do and should do, so that I can resist becoming enmeshed in good things that aren’t necessarily my things, or worse, not-so-good things I think I should do rather than have faith in the plan centered on the best things that fulfill my purpose here on this side of heaven.

I say all that in my lengthy run-on, breathless sentences to say this: ardor will be in my mission statement once its finished. Ardor is a word I want around me quite a bit.

So, what’s your word?

While pondering this in the grand scheme of your life and purpose and meaning, let me use this word play to make a little point about writing, which is the art form where my ardor originates.

Too often as writers we fall in love with a word. It becomes a crutch. We lean on it and lean on it and burn it out. It loses its specialness altogether. I can do that with the word and. Every now and again, I’ll slide in an unneeded and for emphasis and style points, But way too often it’s just laziness. There was a reason our elementary teachers said we couldn’t start a sentence with and. And, you know what? They were right. (See what I did there? Ha!).

Want to know another word that’s used way too much: furtive. It’s a good word. It concisely describes emotion, physicality and scene. I can understand why it’s often used. But oh man, read any suspense novel these days and everyone is looking at everyone else so furtively you wonder if anyone ever just settles down and relaxes a bit. I don’t recall James Bond ever looking furtively so perhaps it has overstayed its welcome.

Do I have a point? or Two? Yes. Two.

First, find your favorite word. Think of why it’s a favorite. Then live by it. And second … (no, I won’t be lazy, scratch that)….

First find your favorite word. think of why it’s a favorite. Then live by it. Next, root out the words you’ve relied on too much in your prose. Do a search and see how many times they crop up, then dig them out at the root like weeds. Swap in other words. Simpler words.

To recap: Find a great word and live by it. Then rid your prose of the lazy repeated words. Do so and your ardor for both your life and your art will increase. Cross my heart.

The Hardest Part of Writing a Memoir: The Truth

One of my writing buddies asked me to write a guest blog for her site Dawn Revealed, which chronicles her life as a Canadian ex-pat living in Mexico. She’s an environmentalist, surfer, spiritualist and writer, who has taken on the challenge of writing a compelling, truthful memoir.

The blog stems from our conversations over email about the arduous, yet ardor-filled, work of writing about ourselves.  I’d love it if you pop on over to her site and give it a read:

The Hardest Part of Writing a Memoir: The Truth.

While you’re there subscribe to Dawn’s blog. It’s a good one including an in-depth exploration of Dawn’s introduction to Huichol spirituality that has my thinking about little else since I read it.  Enjoy.

Mission statement: Where joy meets need

A  month ago, a spiritual advisor I rely on challenged me to find my joy.

She reminded me of a great quote by a great writer named Frederick Buechner, one that I’m not sure if it’s true, but I want it to be. True for me at least. It goes like this:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

But she replaced the word gladness with joy. What is my joy, she asked.

It serves to reason that I can’t know if my joy meets the world’s great hunger until I figure out the joy part.

She decided to check in with me, putting a reminder in her phone the moment she challenged me.

A month went by. A hard month in many ways. A frustrating one. I spent the month living like a finger that can’t stop scratching an itch. I was a living, breathing, annoying paper cut.

Then the reminder came. “Are you finding your joy?” she asked.

I stopped in my tracks.

Was I?

Not really.

Shit, I thought. It was the start of an eye-opener for me that I had lost my way.

It helps sometimes to give it a second thought. I felt critical. Too critical. I took the time to re-think my previous month. I didn’t come close to finding my joy, but I had pursued it.

Finding your joy isn’t all joyful, I realized. In fact, this pursuit contributed to some of the angst I felt that month. It brought to the surface of consciousness my own sense of discord with God, and sense of restlessness within myself, all of which is necessary if I am to find my joy. Because I know this: the seed of joy can only grow in the fertile soil of truth. Truth with myself, truth with others, truth with God.

I thought back to an interview I had with Dutch Bros. CEO Travis Boersma who oozed joy. I recalled how he recited word for word his personal mission statement. His focus and his relentless pursuit of it made him a success, but more importantly it brought into congruence his life’s ambition and life’s passion. He lives his joy.

I wasn’t living mine because I wasn’t sure what it is.

That simple act of accountability spurred my frustration into action. I met with a spiritual director later that day. The topic filled our hour. He sensed the inner state of unease.

“You touched your chest as you describe this,” he said. “I sense the tightness right there in the center of you.”

Yes, I thought. That describes it.

The next morning I decided to get back to basics. Joy, I realized doesn’t come in the future, it comes in the now. It comes from gratitude, from seeing life’s blessings where they are, instead of hoping for some other version out there in the future.  It starts with truth.

No great revelation, but day-by-day since, my first priority has been to find my joy. Day-by-day since I am getting closer.

My personal mission statement? It’s evolving, but I’m getting closer. I learned the first all-important piece. I want to write and work with other writers. Since then, I’ve redirected my efforts to do more of both of those things and less of the others things that keep from that.

I believe in the power of story over solution. I believe in the human connection as a means to improve the human condition. I believe writers do both. I want to do both.

My joy: a story well told.

My great joy: a story I have written well told.

The world’s great hunger: _____

That remains to be seen. I sense it has something to do with both the power of story and the human connection such stories bring. I think these stories help us choose a better, more honest, more joyous life.

My joy remains a work in progress, but the work is more joyful now than it was a month ago. It remains a worthy pursuit, one I have every intention of seeing through.

Whose book will yours sit next to on the shelf?

I sat at dinner with a writer and an agent talking shop. Stimtulating conversation kept us glued to our table as others came and went. We ordered dessert and coffee to further prolong the enjoyable evening.

Stories about our past work wandered back to a novel I wrote in 2003, called If Pennies Could TalkThe writer asked me to describe it. I gave it my best and offered a brief overview. I mentioned how much I loved the creative work of fiction. The agent asked me why I focused on non-fiction now. I felt my mind squirm a bit, getting restless as it does when I fear I’ve wandered off too far from my artistic path.

Then the agent asked me the most important question of our long conversation.

“What shelf would that novel be on if it was in the store today?”

I paused. Stymied.

“Whose book would yours be next to?” he asked as a follow-up question.


Gotcha. I didn’t know. My restless mind turned into an anxious squeaking wheel with a hamster running along it. I stayed up a couple of hours after I tried to go bed. I awoke the next morning as if my mind hadn’t stopped picking at this all night.

I realized how easy it is to miss the most basic things required to be successful. If you don’t know what you goal is with a book, you won’t hit it. If you don’t know what shelf in a Barnes and Noble you want your book to eventually sit on, it’s a good chance it won’t. If you don’t know whose writing is similar to yours, it’s a good chance you don’t have a style of your own.

Why am I using second person? I write to myself.

I spent the next morning polling those who read my book. I asked them who they think I write like. Their answers surprised me, especially they were all very similar. If I didn’t know now who I wrote like, I knew it then. I just lose focus too often trying to be something I am not.

I learned more from that than I had in a while. I learned I had gotten stagnant at the worst possible time, a time when I am actively shopping books, when my focus, prose and projects should resemble the edge of a barber’s blade, glistening with precision.

A couple of months back we started a writers’ critique group that meets once a month. It has become one of the best events on my calendar. I catch the motivation and creativity of the other writers like a contagious disease.  In their company, I am reminded of my most basic life goals: to write and work with writers. I rediscover the focus I need to get better at my craft. It sharpens my writing blade. It reminds me I can’t write alone. Nobody, in fact, writes alone.

My frustration eventually gave way to gratitude for the talented writers I work with these days. From the sense of gratitude grew renewed energy. From that energy my resolve stiffened.

Then, I got back to work,  keeping in mind exactly where I expect my book to sit to very soon.

Personal training for the written word

Every year more than half a million books are written. Can you imagine how many more are started, planned, discussed but never finished?

What’s the difference between those incredible writers who put the final period on a book? More often than not: help.

I learned two things early:

  1. Everybody needs an editor
  2. Nobody writes alone

OK, I’m sure there are exceptions, but in two decades of publishing my work, I’ve never, ever, not once, seen any.

Consider this: When I say personal trainer what comes to mind? A buff guy or gal, in a gym or perhaps outside with a yoga mat, enthusiastically cheering you on. Right?

I’m pretty sure you didn’t think some geeky guy with glasses banging away on a keyboard in the “edits” section of Microsoft Office, right?

A personal trainer in a gym maps your regular routines, instructing you and encourages you in a coordinated effort with a specific physical outcome as a result.

A personal training of the written word does pretty much the same thing, by mapping your regular routine, offering instruction and encouragement with specific physical outcome (a book or a blog or a proposal or a script, etc.) as a result.

So I think it’s time rethink the premises of personal training, especially if you want to be one of those in the coming year who actually finish and publish. The work of getting in shape–be it physically, spiritually or simply your writing–is pretty similar. It takes routine, discipline, coaching and encouragement, all of which every writer needs at some time or another. Every, single, one –at least among any writer I’ve ever met.

I routinely seek out help early and often. I pay for editors just as people pay me. I enjoy reviewing proposals or first chapters or whatever you have in rough draft form. I’ll give you an honest evaluation that includes bad habits, technical problems, plot breakdowns, structure issues, character development and more.

These consultations have been the most critical investments in my projects I have ever made. It’s a service I like to pass on to others, which is why I have begun offering free consultations to writers in search of a coach.

Learn more about my coaching style here and connect with me via our contact page so we can get to work on your book actually becoming a book, with words and pages, instead of that thing “I always wanted” to do.

Cheering other writers toward their own Ah-ha moment

A couple of weeks ago I went over to a neighborhood park where a handful of homeless folks hang out. As I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve recognized many come and go, but some are neighbors in the truest sense of the word. Many have ambitions and plans and even hope for whatever comes next.

One woman’s personality burst through the normal routine with enthusiasm. Soon she was grilling me about why I spent my lunch with them, who were my family and eventually what I did for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Me too!” she said. “Well, I want to be anyway.”

“That’s what it takes, the desire,” I said, seeing she had plenty of that.

“I’ve started  my memoir,” she said.

She even had a name picked out, Cry Baby, Cry. It’s a good name, I thought.

“Wanna help me out,” she asked? “I’m on Facebook and all that.”

“You have email?” I asked.

She had to have been a regular down at the library. I love libraries for exactly this and a hundred other reasons.

“Of course, man,” she said.

I handed her my card.

“Email me the first few pages,” I said, an offer I’ve made to countless people in countless difference situations.

Writers, I have found, are everywhere. Writers wanting help, any help, are everywhere too. Whenever I offer to read their words — their art — it is almost magical. Some feel energized, others bashful, some worried, and a host of other things. I’ve always felt it an honor to share their words on a page.

“Alright then,” she said. “Fuck it. Let’s make a million dollars. It’s a good book.”

“A million dollars sounds good,” I said.

Why not, I thought on my way home, with just a mild sense of trepidation that my volunteering could open up a whole host of complications I’m not sure I wanted.

Turns out I haven’t heard from her yet. Like many, many budding authors I run into, desire and enthusiasm are often high, but the follow-through can be quicksand.

I’m reminded of another guy who asked me to read some chapters when I was in rehab. I said sure. He told me his plan for his novel. He had big plans. He asked me to offer advice to help him accomplish those plans.

A few days later he brought me more than 100 pages. I sighed. I didn’t have time to read 100 first draft pages, much less give serious editing and coaching tips. But I had said I would. I was learning service had a lot to do with sobriety. I dug in.

It wasn’t terrible. I could tell he’d read a lot of John Grisham and wanted to write like him. My first advice on the page was crucial: Find your voice, I wrote.

I had only planned on reading about ten pages. Soon I had read it all, complete with red line ideas and a laundry list of things to do. It wasn’t that the book was so compelling. Rather it was selfish. The work for me was compelling. I had missed it.

I treated him like the pro he aspired to be, telling him in clear instructions the work he had to put in.  I recall one of them distinctly: “Take Chapter two and tear it up,” I wrote. “You lost your focus entirely and your writing shows it. Jump to Chapter 3 and then refocus the organization.”

The bad news was chapter two was bad. The good news was chapter three showed promise. He had a bunch of stuff to go on. The work could progress. I gave it all back to him and even offered to spend some time over a cup of coffee explaining any of my comments.

I learned later he lost interest in the project. I retraced my steps. Was I too harsh? As an editor in a newsroom I didn’t learn manners. And I know I can be a bit of a diva when I’m working. The last thing I wanted to do was crush a writer’s spirits.

But after a time of critical self-evaluation I realized this man was like so many writers: Full of desire to “be a writer,” but short on the trudging work necessary to become one.

I’ve never stopped helping writers try to discover their art. Recently a book proposal I helped an author finish snagged the first agent he approached. I am not sure if I was more thrilled than he was when a short while later his book sold to a publisher. His agent wants to help him craft a plan for his next books. He’s on his way. I played a very, very small role, but I wouldn’t have missed his “I’m an EFFin Artist, man!” moment for the world.

Yes, I’m a writer. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be and I’m blessed to be one of those people who make their living banging words onto a page. But I’ve realized that I am also a coach, and even more so a cheerleader. I love to spur on others to find their voice and tell their story in whatever fashion it may be.

That’s really what EffinArtist is all about anyway.