Category Archives: Inspiration

Writing Life: Celebrating My “Irish” by Writing

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I was woken this St. Patrick’s Day morning by the most Irish of my sons studying me in my jammies and challenging, “Are you wearing green?”

Slice of Life Challenge - TwoWritingTeachers.com

Slice of Life Challenge – TwoWritingTeachers.com

My family is not fully Irish — one grandfather is Finnish, a grandmother French, another grandfather English. It’s one grandmother alone who feeds my Irish roots. Her family was Irish as they come. I can’t say that without image coming to mind of any of her wiry-haired brothers with his head tipped back to laugh.

Yet I never felt so Irish until my sons were born. I inadvertently tipped their focus toward their Irish roots when I name my oldest son Liam — less in Irish obsession than in the fact I liked the name (it is actually nod to my Finnish grandfather, William).

His younger brother, Blake, however, is the true throwback.  I’ve never met a more Irish person than my youngest son, whose looks and mannerisms perfectly replicate Irish ancestors so long dead he could not be mimicking, and it was Blake (who slept in green shorts) who challenged my commitment to St. Patrick’s Day this morning.

My sons get the double-dose, as my mother-in-law was full Irish, complete with her dark humor. I cracked up over the tweet from Weinstein Books publicity director, Kathleen Schmidt, below, because it so much represents the “catching up” conversations we have with my mother-in-law each visit home:

Not only does my mother-in-law catch you up on family news by cataloguing the latest illnesses and disasters (in the most dramatic stage whisper, as if she were nearly — nearly — too shocked to tell you), but she is an avid lover of murder fiction.

She was never so pleased with a trip to visit us in Florida than the night we ended up trapped on South Beach, in Miami, because the FBI had the island cordoned off while they chased Gianni Versace’s killer. We had given her the perfect mystery-lover’s outing as we walked past the still-stained sidewalk in front of Versace’s house and inadvertently walked through the live taping of America’s Most Wanted, on our way to take her to a salsa-dancing club, where the blue-lit helicopter footage of the chase was being broadcast over the bar.

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Still, my boys’ and my own Irish identity reached its peak after a family trip to the ole sod in 2006.

The trip planted a seed that later grew into a novella and then a novel draft, which is the novel I have been working on the past 2 years and often write about here (click for all posts on Wake or on novel revision).

The picture of my son on the lawn of an Irish country house, at the top, epitomizes a certain essence of the internal motivation in the novel. While early drafts focused on the love story between Carinne and the paramilitary man she met in Ireland, development of her character and the story have made it clear that it is the need of her son to find his father that becomes the inciting incident for her to unravel all the mysteries in the book. Where she has been paralyzed to act on her own motivation, she is made brave enough to do for her son.

What’s interesting to me, as my boys and I celebrate being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, is the backwards connections we have to Ireland now. For the deeply passionate connection we feel, my own inspiration is often in reverse to our factual roots.

In tracing family roots, we traveled to the south, although the Cooleys are from north of Dublin. My son poses in front of a country house, although our family left behind roots as humble as a mud-floored cottage. In Kerry, where the Irish Troubles didn’t reach, I first felt the dark spark of my paramilitary character, Michael Roonan, on the shadowy, cool bed of a room in the garden wing of a English peerage hunting lodge. As much as the violence of the north was absent, the dark shadows of the surrounding forest seemed to speak of something in hiding, and Roonan was vivid in my mind from one sleepless night as if he leaned against the wall impatiently waiting for me to write.

But writing is like that. And our Irish love of story is like that: craving surprise, darkness, even shock.

I celebrate this St. Patrick’s day by making the most of the week I have off for spring break by writing. My characters have been speaking loudly to me since the first hour I left work on Friday. I’ve written each of the last few days. I’ve copied new material from the last months into the existing draft (I’m well up to a 6th or 8th draft by now).  I’m due for another print-and-read-through, expecting much from early drafts will be deleted now, and there will be big challenges in weaving together the reveal moments of various threads of the internal and external conflicts.  Lots to do.

But I think I’ll start with the promise to my son: I’ll go don green.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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How About You?

What are you working on today?  Are you celebrating your Irish roots?  Or, how does your own ancestry inspire what you write about?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on – but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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grasp c Elissa Field

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Motivation to Write, Relentless Wake, Time Management for Writers, Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Friday Links 01.18.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the third week of January. For me, it has been a week busy with the beginning of a new semester, including getting to work on production of my students’ annual literary magazine. I’ve also been thrilled with some of the work coming out on my novel draft, Wake (shared last Saturday, here).

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!

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George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

Deputy Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Joel Lovell, writes a fascinating discussion with George Saunders (“more or less universally regarded as a genius”), which opens with an amazing reflection on the awareness that comes from a recent proximity to death — and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk around with that kind of awareness all the time.

Writing About What Haunts Us

Thanks to Gerry Wilson for sharing the link to this New York Times essay by Peter Orner — whose images of confession and truth and ensuing emotion really do haunt. Together with the Saunders interview, these two articles made for a great reading morning.

Breaking Down Story Structure: MORNING GLORY Act One

Thanks go to Sarah Turnbull for sharing this link.  As I drafted Wake, through much of 2012 the posts I shared had to do with developing character. But, at some point, as your novel draft takes shape, what you are looking for is an understanding of the story line, and talk turns to analyzing plot. This link is to Lydia Sharp’s post which demonstrates story structure by breaking the first act of a movie into opening, inciting incident, catalyst, etc. The expression “instinctively preserves her self-concept” perfectly triggered my morning writing, as I closed a gap in understanding of my character’s early motivation.

Creative Writing: A Master Class

Gee, you know what I just did? Subscribed to a series of free masterclasses with Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, Rita Dove and more, via iTunes! The Creative Writing: A Master Class link takes you to the full list of courses offered via iTunes Academy of Achievement. Each “course” is an audio or video podcast on craft from some of the masters of fiction, poetry and memoir. For me, these are a welcome download for listening in the car or when too tired for reading before sleep, or as a morning warm-up. For a more complete summary: I first read about this in Fordham MFA candidate Josh Jones’ post on Open Culture.

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Friday Links 01.11.13

The second week of January means I began the week tying up last week’s semester and finished the week having started with a new group of writing students. It also means my sons are back in school, so I’ve had a few productive mornings writing before afternoon classes. Two great a-ha moments led to some great work, so I’m ending the week in a fabulous mood.

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!  If you have an article you think I (or my readers) should see, share the link in the comments.

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On Beginnings: Ann Hood

Ann had mentioned in May that she wrote an essay for Tin House outlining the dozen or so different ways she had identified that a writer can use to begin a story. Somewhere, on a fat, full legal pad, I have notes on all of them — but had been periodically checking Tin House for the full essay to post. Oh. Found it — ran in October — but it’s just a tease. Click through for this one piece on opening with dialogue. I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to buy the full collection of essays when it is published.

12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet

A title like that suggests lead-in to a Far-Side-esque joke about letters not up to snuff. No such gag. I dog-eared this article in fascination, as it shares the evolution that left certain letters out of our permanent alphabet, even as their sounds or symbols still linger. An interesting piece for all of us working with words.

Solving a First-World Blogging Problem

As we start a year evaluating our goals, accomplishments and maybe even worth as a writer, this is a fabulous post at Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara. Applying medical wisdom (“If the results won’t change your treatment plan, don’t do the test in the first place.”), she offers thought-provoking inspiration.

Inspiring Your Writing With Contemplative Practice

Just as many of us are beginning the new year with goals that have us wondering how to carve more writing hours (or discipline) out of our days, Patrick Ross (an instructor at The Writing Center in Bethesda, MD, and blogger at The Artist’s Road) shares Kurt Caswell’s advice for using contemplative activities to create healthy writing practice. Taken from a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, this short piece is just enough to get you inspired — but not keep you from your morning’s writing!

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Friday Links 01.04.13

One of my great discoveries during 2012 was the wealth of insight I stumble across each week –  from the fabulous writers, editors, agents, journalists and more that I follow on Twitter, to some of the professional groups I participate in, to resources I come across in my work.

Fitting for the first Friday of the new year, I’m kicking off this new column — Friday Links — to share the best reading I’ve found each week, just in time for your weekend reading. I anticipate featuring anything from interviews with writers, advice on writing and publication, reading and publishing news… to issues on art, education or culture.

Welcome to Friday Links — and the new year!

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“Posthumous” Jeffrey Eugenides | The New Yorker

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, this fabulous essay from the New Yorker’s blog is identified in the magazine’s link as “Jeffrey Eugenides’ advice to young writers.”

Is That Kind of Like a French Pencil?

Perhaps I found kindred spirit in this interview — connecting over the voices of his 7th grade writers compared to my own middle grade writing students — but I loved The Literary Man’s interview with Andrew Slater, a writer and former soldier who has gone back to live in Iraq, teaching English and writing. The title was his answer to the question, What is your writing routine?

Rachelle Gardner: What Not to Blog About

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has endeared herself to writers with the depth of her advice about all levels of the publication process, including best uses of social media. In this article, she offers the most important “no-nos” for a writer to avoid in protecting their professional persona.

Day of Week Affects Facebook Responsiveness

While on social media… here is an interesting analysis via MarketingVox. I’d heard analytics before about best days of the week to post to Twitter or Facebook — but this analyzes the level of interaction posts get for each day of the week by industry.  Holly Harrison (@hollharris; the “marketing broad” for litmag Paper Darts) cleverly observed that each industry’s target graph looks like a different origami animal. For those of us communicating in publishing, Sunday is a hotter day to hit than Monday.

And, celebrating the new year, some great New Year posts:

Stones in My Pockets: Resolve for 2013 by Gerry Wilson

Starting the New Year 60,000 Words Ahead by Laura Maylene Walter

In Which I Fail (Most of) My Resolutions… But End 2012 on a Good Note (Really) by Nova Ren Suma

The Yearly Reboot by Jeannine Bergers Everett

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January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

write start badgeI started yesterday’s January Challenge (read overview here) by saying I’d found 2 great online challenges — the only problem being that the first month of 2013 required me to focus not just on one thing, but many.

So the January Write Start Challenge was born:

  • Week 1 (that’s now), I’ll finish one thing
  • Week 2, I’ll start one thing
  • Week 3, I’ll focus on improving one thing
  • Week 4 will be the wrap up to evaluate how things are progressing and plan what comes next.

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First, for housekeeping’s sake – if you want to participate at any point in the month: say hello in the comments here, then post your goals on your site. Be sure to share link to this post in your article (you can include the badge above, if you want to be festive), and then come back here and share link to your article in the comments so readers can follow your success.

Most of my readers are writers, but you’re welcome to share any goals you are working on!

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Week 1: Finish One Thing

Inspiration for the Week 1 Challenge:

Christa Desir was the source for this week’s challenge.  Christa is a writer (repped by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown) whose debut young adult novel, Faultline, comes out in November. So, first off, kudos to her — I look forward to seeing her book in the fall.

Picture 6Earlier this week she shared her 2013 Jan Plan: an unstructured challenge to simply complete one thing in January.

She said, “This is the month for all of us to take a project and finish it. It can be anything…book, cleaning out the garage, knitting a sweater…it doesn’t matter. Just whatever you have been putting off, it is time to finish.”

Be sure to visit her blog and let her know, if you take on this challenge.

Choosing The One Thing to Finish:

Originally, I intended to take on only Christa’s challenge for January (and you are welcome to do that, rather than a different challenge each week).

It was the perfect excuse for me to take on one of my nearly-finished short stories, complete revisions, and get one submitted to a literary magazine. I have unfinished grad school applications.  I have a half-painted living room. I’m sure everyone has some project like these on their to-do list – and there’s something reassuring, even fun, in tackling them together.

But the truth is that I have a deadline to complete all paperwork for fall semester by this Monday, which includes grading all the essays turned in just before the holidays.  So — while I may use Christa’s challenge to tackle one of those other projects later in the month – my goal for the first week of the challenge is to complete grading for last semester.

Some Thoughts on Tackling Unfinished Work:

It’s possible you are just taking up the next thing on your list. Maybe you just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Maybe it was already the thing you planned to do this week — like my grading or taking down holiday decorations or writing holiday thank-you’s (shoot, I need to do that). If that’s the case, your path forward may be simple. Get to it.

But often, when we face an unfinished project like the unrevised short stories, or the grad school application or even things like unfinished painting or a half-knit sweater, we are facing a project that has lingered, getting stale and unlikable, on our to-do list for months or even years.

Strategy for Tackling Stale Projects:

Awhile back, I faced a to-do list like that. A couple items rotated from one to-do list to the next, but never got smaller.

Mystified, I applied a new trick —  I wrote my To Do list in 3 columns:

  1. The first column named the project that needed to be done.
  2. But, in the second column, I answered the question, “Why have you not done it yet?” Almost always, the answer was that it took materials, money or time I didn’t have, or… eek… I was afraid of failing or lost interest.
  3. So, in that third column, which became my actual to-do list, I wrote what I needed to overcome that resistance. Instead of “paint the living room,” my to-do item started with, “match paint sample, buy paint and roller.” Instead of “revise Hotsy Totsy,” my to-do item became “send HT to a beta reader for feedback; then, revise with feedback.”

Why is it so important to ask why you didn’t get it done before?

  • To address any resistance. We couldn’t finish painting the living room because the paint had been discontinued, so it helped to add “get new sample” to the action list. Addressing the resistance honors that you weren’t being lazy or unproductive; there is an actual obstacle to fix. Action steps always feel more constructive.
  • (Restated as a specific for writers:) Avoid telling yourself to “revise that story”or “finish that book” — it helps to break writing projects into action steps. Where vague orders like “revise” or “finish” beat you down with over-repetition, being clear gives you direction and the chance of actually completing the step.  Try “write the ending,” or “submit a proposal to (target publications),” or “address rambling in middle chapters,” or “research names of participants in the Easter Rising.” I gave the example of my short story Hotsy Totsy because we sometimes bang ourselves (and our stories) over the head with the same approach to revision, over and over. I knew that story didn’t need my revision again, but feedback from another reader, and solutions came much more quickly when I wrote “find beta reader” on my to-do list. (Kudos to Gerry Wilson for that!)
  • To identify overlooked steps. “Submit grad school applications” sounds like I need to fill out a form. But no, I did that already. What I’d need to write on my action list is: “email (specific names) for recommendation letters” and “write personal statement.” I might have forgotten, also, to budget for the application fees.
  • To plan better. As a mom, often I’m short on time. If that was the case, I answered the question, “What did I do instead of this thing?” I used my answer to that question to plan better times to work on the project — say, when I had time off from work or when my boys were at school.
  • To shift priorities.  Sometimes you need to honor that there is a roadblock that won’t move any time soon. When almost all of my hold-ups on one list were the cost, I realized the some of the unfinished projects were low priority compared to other expenses — and literally moved them off my list. In fact, I switched them for tasks that increased whatever was in short supply (“send out resumes” or “submit expense report”).

In some cases, projects are unfinished because we lost interest.  Maybe sharing this challenge will help you regain that excitement. Post a picture showing progress of that baby blanket getting crocheted. Post the garden you hope to plant, come summer.  Share your fears or frustrations, and the small steps as you move forward.

Here’s mine:

I have stacks of essays to grade, which is daunting. I need to chug my way into them.  I will find inspiration to move forward as I hit some great work.  Some of them I will flag for inclusion in the literary magazine I’ll be working on next week.  But I’ll use other milestones to keep me going: the satisfaction of watching grade columns fill in our grading software. Or I might use a timing clock, setting an estimated time-per-paper to help me read more efficiently. Maybe I’ll put some easy ones first to make quick progress, then save a few easy ones to reward myself with as I near the end.  And I’ll schedule a break, here and there.  Thirty minutes of TV with my boys, or a walk, or a snack, or 30 minutes to work on the novel… If I’m not back by Sunday, send a rescue crew. (Kidding.)

For more strategies for finishing a goal, read Sunday’s motivational post:  January Challenge: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work

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Your Turn!

In the comments below, on another post this month or on Christa’s blog, be sure to share with us the unfinished project you will be tackling whether this week or any time in January. 

What obstacles hold you back? Did you do the 3-column to-do list, and what did you learn from it?  Whatever your challenge, know you have a cheering squad here and be sure to check back in for the rest of the challenge, throughout the month!

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January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow – I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome – whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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Novel Revisions — Danger: Book May Bite

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Writing is a timid thing – right?

Delicately crafted with feathered pens by a dainty woman unused to the outdoors. Cough, sputter. Fantasize.

No fear. No wild things lurking. All purple ink and soft whispers.

She’s being ironic, the guard mutters as the wild thing rattles its cage. Writers do that, he nods, proud of the knowledge – and hoping, soon, such writer will step out of the shadows and tame this unwieldy thing, growing daily, hourly as it waits release.

The beast itself. Braced to resist domestication, eyes glaring in resistance against such things as braiding of manes, tying of ribbons in its tail.

I’m a wild thing, it purrs, snarls, gnashing a bone. I’ll be ridden, perhaps. But not a trot. Not an amble. Climb aboard, if you dare, and gallop raw across the veldt.

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Today’s post is provoked by Wordsmith Studio’s weekly Take A Picture! photo challenge – this week, the theme is “signs.”

While with my sons at Harry Potter World at Universal, I saw this sign above the caged Monster Book behind Olivander’s wand shop and couldn’t help feel it summarized my summer: taming my novel from first complete draft through second and third revisions.

Danger: book may bite.

My mother once questioned why a tiger shark lurks just out of view in the background photo on my website and I had to say it represents the danger I sometimes feel in writing. I love the rush of creation, yet so much is at risk — pride, talent, loss of that perfect image just at the tips of your reach. Novel drafts are not docile as rabbits and kittens, but bull sharks, boa constrictors, pacing tigers — unwieldy things within our reach, yet with a life of their own.

Or at least, for the sake of today’s photo challenge, this is nod to the days they feel that way!

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October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche – but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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From my Parenting Blog: Parenting Gets Existential

I’ve never loved candy-stripe carnations as much as these that my sons gave to me to celebrate the end of our school year. (That great vase is a bar glass that makes me crave a trip back to Mama Kwan’s bar in Kill Devil Hills, NC.) c Elissa Field

Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.

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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.  And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves?   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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Related Posts:

More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days

Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012

Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?

 

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Enjoy your summer day, all!

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Remembering Ray Bradbury

Falling jet trails & rocket boosters, lit by sunset, after Discovery launch 3-15-09. copyright Elissa Field

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  – Ray Bradbury

To Ray Bradbury, I say thank you. Reading Martian Chronicles in Mrs. Ruebens’ sophomore English class in high school, I learned what it was to capture the ethereal without losing sight of intellect, of logic. You captured dream state, with your words. You captured imagination.

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Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.’”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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Photos from India + Bangladesh

photo varanasi ghats india akashOne of the novel projects I’ve had on hold while finishing revisions on the current work-in-progress has the fairytale mix of tragedy blended with magical euphoria that southeast Asia stirs in me.

In writing, we are told to suspend disbelief — to write images, characters, events with such insistence that a reader could not help but follow faithfully, no matter how reality might beg otherwise.

For me, India encapsulates this mantra, as it presents the impossible with the frank challenge of existence: You see me as I am, so I must be possible.

This magical duality — of fairytale beauty contrasting physical world impossibility — is often breathtaking in the photography of GMB Akash of Bangladesh.  Above, fires rise with the paradox of flames growing out of what they devour, as a saddhu skirts the foregrounds of funeral pyres along the ghats at Varanasi.

Below, our real-world brain acknowledges the third-world strife of precariously hung electrical wires, of the stairwell’s switchback between the crowded box of shared living space — yet the glow of color in the dark of night, captured by Akash’s lens become the loveliest of colored lanterns.

India photo Delhi AkashAs with fairytales, Akash’s photography serves as more than entertainment. Many of his most beautifully artistic, even idyllic shots, as the one below, were intended as cautionary tale. Beginning in 2006, Akash began photographing riders on the railways of Bangladesh to bring attention to the risks endured by stowaways, collected in his portfolio, “Nothing to Hold On To.”

Railway Bangladesh photo Akash

Below, one has the sense of a child adventuring in a fantastical world — perhaps Frodo in Lord of the Rings — yet it is the industry of a child foraging amid the rising gulls and mists of the dump.

picture india dump child

Other striking portfolios bring attention to “Vigilantes in Pink” — women of central India who have taken to wearing shocking pink saris in stubborn refusal to live in fear of corruption, violence and other abuses against women.

Womens rights India vigilantes in pink akash

Better than any workshop lecture could, certain photographs, certain places in our world teach me what it means to suspend one’s disbelief. There is magic in the realism of these images, and I applaud GMB Akash’s talents.

Click through for more stunning photography on his site, or read his most recent blog, “God Strangled me with his own hands” for example of another photo-dialogue he has raised for challenged communities.

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