The school of real life


Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.



Is writing child’s play?


Silk’s Post #151 — I found myself in a playful mood at the keyboard the other day, and suddenly two unbidden questions formed just above my head, like cartoon balloons.

The first was: Why don’t I feel like this more often? The other was: What’s the difference, really, between work and play?

I quickly concluded the first question would be difficult to answer, probably requiring some couch time with a mental health professional. (As it turns out, I now believe I was overly pessimistic about finding the answer, and overly self-centred in thinking my playfulness deficit and longing for more of it is at all extraordinary – but more on that later.)

On the question of the distinction between work and play, I expected to easily find received wisdom with a few clicks. Perhaps there would not be total consensus, but surely such an elemental question would have been deliberately examined thoroughly enough to have been distilled into two or three theoretical camps. Maximum.

But it was not as easy as that.

I found myself at a fork in the road, where the sign marked “play” pointed one way, and the one marked “work” pointed the other. A bit of cyber hiking revealed a lightly explored wilderness between the two camps. It seems “play” occupies a space exclusively populated by children, except in special multi-generational compounds designed for structured activities like drama, sports, or music. On the other hand, the “work” zone is, more or less, an adult gated community.

So, is that the answer, then? Play is for children and work is for adults? This seems very wrong to me. But, as a writer who has been struggling with the balance between the regimented discipline of work and the creative anarchy of imagination, the question feels important. Existential, maybe. It begs a more satisfying answer.

I mean, come on. Two little four-letter words we use every day. You can’t tell me we don’t objectively know what we mean when we say “work” or “play”.

But if there’s a simple definition about the difference between them (and their relationship to each other), I didn’t find it. Is work-play a continuum with varying degrees of combination, like a mixing tap for hot and cold water? Is there one (or more) key differentiator that separates work and play, some litmus test? Is play just practice, a learning strategy, a training ground for a life of work? Is the experience of work or play entirely subjective, all about attitude, all in the eye of the beholder?

There are some enlightened professionals around who are broadening their horizons regarding play – looking beyond childhood development, where it is well-recognized as critically important to development of physical, social, mental, emotional, moral and creative skills. There does appear to be dawning recognition of play as a vital, lifelong companion to work, perhaps in response to the age-old lament “youth is wasted on the young.”

Wouldn’t adults benefit equally from experiencing this effect of play, described in a pamphlet from Play Wales, a national organization for children’s play? …

Play is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish; when we play we are freed to be inventive and creative. In play, everything is possible with reality often disregarded and imagination and free-flow thinking taking precedence.

To me, this sounds like the ideal state of mind for a writer. An interesting series of articles by Dr. Peter Gray in Psychology Today (check out “The Value of Play”) suggests these five attributes of play (paraphrased from Gray):

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit – Play is an expression of freedom. We do it because we want to, not because we have to (or because someone is making us do it).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends – What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions (i.e., meeting a goal, solving a problem, earning a reward), while in play this is reversed: we engage in play primarily for its own sake, even though there may be intrinsic goals within the play activity itself. The corollary (an important one when play is applied to creative pursuits like writing) is that fear of failure is absent or diminished.

Play is guided by mental rules – While play is a freely chosen activity, it is not without shape and form; self-imposed rules are conceived to guide and stimulate choices, problem solving, actions, imagination and (in social play) shared understanding – all of which imbue play with satisfying (but not threatening) challenges.

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality – Play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real; it is a work of imagination – a “let’s pretend” fantasy – like a novel that is based on, reflects and experiments with reality, but is fictional.

Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind – Because play demands our active engagement and creativity – but emphasizes process rather than outcome – it challenges and stimulates us in a low-stress manner; play is only possible when we fully focus on the “here and now” without being constantly distracted by the past and future (i.e. goal-oriented pressure to perform, which is a creativity killer).

Gray does note that children are more capable of engaging in pure, 100 percent play than adults, citing his four-year-old son’s ability to stay completely in-character as Superman for days at a time. He suggests that adults more often experience some mix of play (imaginative fantasy) and work (disciplined reality), depending on their activity and attitude. He estimated his work-to-play ratio in writing his blog post as 20/80 – obviously a man who loves to write.

In fact, 20/80 is my new personal goal for work-to-play ratio when I’m writing!

In my December post, 5 more overlooked emotions, I suggested playfulness as an “emotion” to spice up your characters:

This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people … So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

What I discovered when I searched for insights into adult play was that all the good quotes were, without exception, attributed to creative people. Aha! Yet another piece of evidence that life imitates art. For your amusement and contemplation, here are some of the best:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) — Mark Twain

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” — G. K. Chesterton

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” — Charles E. Schaefer

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” — John Cleese

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” — William Saroyan

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan W. Watts

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

So, I think I have my answers – or perhaps I should say I’ve found the inspiration I was looking for …

Why don’t I feel playful more often? As with most people whose youth is behind them, life has conspired to turn me into a work-headed adult. Goal-oriented. Realistic. Mostly serious. In the course of “making something of myself” over the decades, I’ve been taught to associate play with relaxation and recreation, not accomplishment and creation. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, as it gets hard-wired in your brain. Yet in the past few years since I’ve been trying to become a writer, I’ve (finally) gained a different perspective.

If I want to write, I need to learn to play again. Focus on the game instead of always the goal. Let fantasy push reality aside sometimes. Make fun of being serious and get serious about making fun. Is this not the most congenial prescription ever? As Br’er Rabbit cried so eloquently, “Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”

What’s the difference, really, between work and play?  The difference between work and play seems to come down to the attitude and perspective you bring to what you do. If you’re fortunate enough to have choices, and especially if you’re creatively inclined, you can turn a good chunk of your life into a playground. How play relates to writing is so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t really “get it” automatically, but had to pursue the concept and process it in my analytical left brain before the epiphany came.

But even mundane or stressful tasks with seemingly limited opportunities for fun or creativity can be re-cast by a play-full mind. Some lucky people can turn anything into play. Peeling potatoes. Making sales pitches. Caring for a patient. Painting a house. I’m convinced of that now. And it’s an incredibly empowering revelation. Probably should be a religion. Maybe I’ll start one.


Note to readers:  Where’s the 5/5/5 box score? It’s a new year and a fresh start, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m just getting some traction on my writing practice again. Getting back up to speed didn’t magically happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. My hope is to re-start my weekly progress reports with my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Writers’ Original Sin

Helga’s Post # 107:

Many years ago, the most valuable advice to writers ever was coined: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. Kudos to Mr. Shakespeare. Much later, Mark Twain echoed his sentiment with a clever pun of his own, ‘If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.’

Mr. Hemingway, too, offers good advice: ‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics’.

Looking back at my previous 106 posts, these words resonate. I realize just how relevant this advice is, how much Messrs. Shakespeare, Twain and Hemingway have a point. Like countless others, I am an offender of the writers’ Original Sin: Long-windedness. With this in mind, I intend to be brief today and I hope in future. Not by skimping on content, but by avoiding flowery language (aka verbal diarrhea) to get to the point sooner and without pointless repetition. I hope this will demonstrate my respect for my followers.

Some good news: I have found my writer’s corner. A physical corner that is. A lovely shady spot outside the house, looking at the perennial blue sky of the desert, shielded from the sun so that I can see my screen. It inspires me. And it’s already paid dividends: I am making progress on my new novel.

Chapter Three almost done. This last chapter thanks to an image I came across today at the local Arts Festival. A confusing, even disturbing image, titled ‘Creation’, painted on an oversized canvas. Briefly, it showed two huge, pale naked figures, one male and the other female, leaning towards the center of the painting, their lips meeting in a kiss. The female figure showed a demonic creature emerging from her vagina (supposedly Satan), while the male seemed undisturbed, unable to resist temptation. The background showed a rendering of paradise on one side, damnation on the other.

3106075915_53bb8efc29_z1A great image of a somewhat bizarre story. Especially as the blame falls squarely on the woman’s shoulders (or loins). The forbidden fruit Eve offered that Adam was unable to resist. Ever since, Adam’s descendants have fallen into the same trap. Here again, I resort to Mark Twain when he observed ‘The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become’.

Clever man. He likely knew.

Eureka! What a great story. It will surely find its way into my novel, played out in the twenty-first century.

Without further ado, I am signing off early, to make sure my Adam and Eve are getting their dues.

Hope to see you in a week. Until then, happy writing to all.


Wayfinding on the writer’s journey


Silk’s Post #119 — We 5writers blog a lot about making progress on our writers’ journey. Or, more to the point, not making progress. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

We have identified the many and varied hurdles we all face – things that hold us back, drag us down, keep us from forging ahead, or even prevent us from enjoying the journey. Our demons include writer’s block, procrastination, distractions, self-doubt, lack of discipline, competing priorities, inspiration deficit, disorganization, fear of failure, lack of focus, time constraints, ad nauseum … you name it, one of us has been stymied by it at one time or another.

Based on the fact that my post on procrastination last fall, Wasting Away in Mañanaville, has now attracted nearly 1,800 comments in the Linked In Books and Writers Group, it looks like we’re not alone.

But, frankly, I’m tired of hearing myself talk about why I’m not getting there.

I just want to get there.

The “writer’s journey” – a parallel with the fabled “hero’s journey” – is exactly that: a quest for a desired outcome (in the writer’s case, reaching “the end” of a compelling story) that requires wayfinding over unfamiliar and difficult terrain, and the determination to overcome all sorts of hurdles to see the mission through. Maybe all writers should wear a T-shirt that says “I AM FRODO” in solidarity.

So, for the next few posts, I’m going to try to offer some tactical ideas to overcome these self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

You may object to the idea that most hurdles are self-imposed. You might argue that some obstacles are thrown at us by a world that isn’t really designed to support people who have creative callings which may or may not ever make any money. Okay, granted. But we can’t turn the world into an artists’ utopia, sorry. The one thing we do have the power to change is our own reaction to external obstacles. If the world gives us a wall, we can beat our heads against it. Or we can go around, over, or under it.

So, really, I’d argue that all the walls are our own walls.

What I’m looking for is tactics that will help me, personally. So I’m not talking about advice like “just do it”, which I consider to be the most unhelpful comment in history. “Just do it” is not something you say to encourage someone (at least not someone like me, and I admit I may be hypersensitive about performance). In the boosterish but unforgiving language of athletic coaching, it says “I’m tired of listening to you – just quit your whining and get on with it.”

In fact, whenever I hear the word “just” in preface to a piece of advice, my inner skeptic takes her battle stance and goes on full alert. “Just” belittles the problem and suggests that anyone who hasn’t figured out how to solve that problem isn’t trying very hard. Or perhaps is an idiot.

The worst thing is when you find you’re saying things like this to yourself. This is supremely inhibiting. Essentially, you’ve just dismissed your artist and thrown cold water on your spark. The inevitable next step is a chocolate binge, or your preferred equivalent.

So don’t go there. Instead, you might focus on wayfinding.

Writer’s Journey Tactic #1: Milestones

Every journey requires wayfinding in order to get from the starting point to the destination, without getting lost in the wilderness or stuck in some dead-end place with an empty gas tank. The writer’s journey can be a long, daunting trip.

Some of the most helpful advice cited in my recent post on How to overcome writing inertia was this common sense prescription from Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

Writing a novel is nothing if not a “complex overwhelming task”, but how do you break it into small manageable tasks? Often, this seems to be visualized in a mechanical way, like Henry Ford’s assembly line with its efficient division of labour.

On its face, this seems to make a lot of sense, and there’s no shortage of lists in the “how to” blogs and books that lay out the sequence of a novel’s construction, neatly broken down into discrete tasks. Of course, there’s no agreement among them, including the order, the tasks themselves, how big the chunks are, or how they all come together to form a novel that actually works. This is because different writers get there via different pathways. Also, these helpful lists are silent on what to do when you hit a wall.

Writing a novel in 16 steps (Novel Writing Help)

  1. Get motivated.
  2. Harness your natural creativity.
  3. Get organized.
  4. Discover your market.
  5. Discover yourself.
  6. Prepare to plan your novel.
  7. Sow the seeds of theme.
  8. Create the characters.
  9. Build the setting.
  10. Write the plot.
  11. Decide on the point of view.
  12. Add the magic ingredient of time.
  13. Write the first draft.
  14. Revise what you have said.
  15. Revise how you have said it.
  16. Publish your novel.

Writing a novel in 9 steps (by Kasia Mikoluk on the Udemy Blog)

  1. Pick a genre.
  2. Start from the end.
  3. Create your characters.
  4. Make an outline.
  5. Write the first draft.
  6. Get yourself a drink.
  7. Rewrite.
  8. Edit.
  9. Party.

Writing a novel in 5 steps (Mythic Scribe)

  1. Summarize your idea.
  2. Write a synopsis.
  3. Outline your story.
  4. Write with abandon.
  5. Revise your manuscript.

 Writing a novel in 4 steps (Writer’s Digest)

  1. Develop a kick-ass idea.
  2. Create 3-dimensional characters.
  3. Give yourself deadlines.
  4. Sit your butt down and write.

Any of that seem really helpful for “breaking complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks”? Hmm. No, not to me either.

I think there’s a different way to break down this long journey, and it’s through …


These don’t need to be based on completion of tasks, checklist-style. They can simply mark points in the journey that are meaningful to the writer. They can be practise or craft goals, like writing every single day for a month. They can be epiphanies, “aha!” moments that change everything. They can be waypoints that mark the completion of “legs” on the trip, like inns along the road.

Milestones are the moments when a writer reaches a significant point in the creative process that is meaningful to their progress. These need to be recognized and capitalized on – not ignored or rushed past. If you were literally hiking up a steep path, a milestone moment might be when you reach a viewpoint, where your natural inclination is to stop, catch your breath, take a swig of water and appreciate the panorama.

But not only would you take a break and enjoy the view – maybe give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far, and gather your energy to press on – you would also do two very important things:

  1. Figure out where you are. Milestones orient you in time and space. Wayfinding for a writer means taking stock of your work and yourself at those points where you have a real sense of where you are – a clear perspective – which may or may not arise from a task-related achievement.
  2. Start over. Each milestone generates a new beginning, where you’ve acquired some fresh insight that can help you on the next leg of your journey. In this way, the long and arduous path of writing a novel doesn’t have just one start and one end – instead it’s a series of fresh starts from milestone to milestone.

This is a different way to break down a daunting journey into a series of manageable legs. For each writer, the path and the milestones will be unique. The trick is to be mindful. You need to be aware of when you’ve reached a personal milestone, and then take advantage of it.

Of course, not every milestone will necessarily be a happy one. You could also find yourself lost in the woods, at which point it’s time to stop and do some orienteering so you can get back onto the path. Maybe your epiphany is that you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, or that the first person point of view isn’t working. That’s all part of wayfinding.  Some fresh starts require retracing your steps.

I love this thought on writing process from Walter Mosley in his excellent how-to book This Year You Write Your Novel:

The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway: this is a path that you are creating, discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told.

One last thing. Celebrate all your milestones. You’ve earned it.

How to overcome writing inertia


Silk’s Post #117 — This is the “how-to” post that I wish someone else had already written, because I really need to know the answer. Having waited in vain for enlightenment on this topic from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, I have reached the inescapable conclusion that this will have to be a self-help effort.

It’s a hard topic to nail down. Google “writer’s block” and you’ll be rewarded with 7,890,000 results. Wikipedia states the blindingly obvious, as only Wikipedia can, by defining it thusly:

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.

A site called io9 is a little more creative, describing 10 types of writer’s block. (Isn’t it amazing how many difficult or enigmatic issues in life seem able to be reduced to a list of exactly 10 bullet points?) Unfortunately, I think the authors of this one got writer’s block somewhere around item 7, but I do give them credit for illustrating it with very nifty old covers of Astounding Stories magazine.

Flavorwire beat them out by three when they celebrated NaNoWriMo 2012 with quotes from 13 Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer’s Block, from Maya Angelou to Ray Bradbury.

One of my favourites of these quotes is by Anne Lamott, who says that “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.”

Ray Bradbury claims that “I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year.” Good for Ray, a lucky man indeed. But how he achieved this state of grace is unexplained.

Barbara Kingsolver is all business and no nonsense. “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”

But the odd thing about me – and maybe about a lot of writers, or perhaps wannabe writers – is that I don’t actually have “writer’s block“. Once I start writing, I can write like a woman possessed. I can hardly stop myself. It’s one of the only activities in life that I’ll skip meals for and not even notice.

I’ve written before on procrastination in my post Wasting Away in Mañanaville, which appears to be the most popular topic I’ve ever blogged about, attracting over 1,400 comments to date in the LinkedIn Books and Writers group. (This is a sure sign that there are a lot of other procrastinators out there who haven’t resolved this problem.)

But what I’m talking about here – writing inertia – is subtly different, I think. It’s a state of low energy, like a run-down battery or a pendulum that needs rewinding. It feels like one of those dreams where you try to run and you can’t get your legs to move.

Writer’s inertia isn’t just another variety of procrastination. It isn’t incurable laziness. It isn’t some kind of complex character flaw, or lack of confidence, or fear of failure. In fact, maybe it’s less psychological and more mechanical than one might think.

The most useful advice I read in the 13 Famous Writers piece came from the most practical and plainspoken among them: Mark Twain. I’ve read entire books on writing and productivity that take 100 pages to get at the simple truth he nails in two sentences:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

I would call this secret “simple momentum”. Isaac Newton’s famous First Law of Motion.

The innate force of matter is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly in a straight line.

Or, more familiarly, the principle of inertia says that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion. The obvious implication of Mark Twain’s advice is that the only way to build momentum is to get started, then keep going.

Well, duh.

No wonder writing “propelled” Ray Bradbury, joyfully, through life. He was an exemplar of the writer in constant motion.

Can the cure for writing inertia really be this simple, or perhaps even simpleminded? Maybe we creative types just take ourselves, and our sometimes fragile psyches, too seriously. Maybe we look for deep reasons to explain lack of artistic productivity, assigning all sorts of tortured meanings to the dreaded “writers block”, when elementary science offers a much clearer and more practical model.

Just start. Then keep going. That’s momentum.

For you writers who find all this totally obvious or maybe even laughable, who have been consistently writing on a regular daily basis, who never suffer “writer’s block” or battle with procrastination, who always manage to find the time to keep up your writing momentum no matter how busy you get with other things – sorry to take you back to boring old square one. I salute you.

For the rest of you who are more like me, I think the enemy has a name, and it’s “inertia.”

The goal also has a name, and it’s not “get published.”

It’s “keep moving.”

Imagination lessons


Silk’s Post #112 — We don’t take imagination seriously enough. Maybe it’s because we’re born with imagination and don’t have to go to college to acquire it. In fact, imagination is most obvious and charming in childhood, like dimples and a button nose. Then, as we mature, we’re supposed to trade imagination for reality.

No, thanks.

There is nothing childish about imagination. The idea that children live in their imaginations because they haven’t yet learned to distinguish fantasy from reality may be true in one sense, but the implication that imagination is not a vital, life-long skill is profoundly false. Especially for a writer.

Don’t just take it from me. Some of the greatest minds in history have had their say:

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” — George Bernard Shaw

“Imagination rules the world.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.” — Albert Einstein

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” — Mark Twain

“Imagination creates reality.” — Richard Wagner

“You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.” — George Lucas

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West

“Imagination is the eye of the soul.” — Joseph Joubert

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” — Carl Sagan

“An idea is salvation by imagination.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

“I imagine, therefore I belong and am free.” — Lawrence Durrell

Imagination is an intellectual need, a driving force, an essential enabler of the learning process, a pathway to inspiration. One way to think of it: imagination is needed to make sense of perceptions.

Yet many of the “real world” lessons we learn as we grow up to become “productive members of society” encourage us to colour inside the lines. Follow rules. Be practical. Yes, there’s lip service paid to imagination and creativity, to “thinking out of the box.” But ask yourself: in most fields, how often is the exercise of imagination really welcomed and rewarded? Not enough, except at the elite level of industries that are, by nature, driven by creativity and innovation – notably the arts and sciences.

Progressive cultures have begun to recognize the value of imagination – sometimes characterized as “right brain”, or non-linear, thinking. A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink offers an encouraging perspective on this trend. Yet the literature on “imagination” still tends to examine it through a psychological lens, with a focus on pathology. In this model, too much imagination equals a break from reality. Otherwise known as craziness. Okay, settle down all you mental health professionals. I imagine I’ve oversimplified this. But my point is that a vivid – even wild – imagination can be a powerfully positive thing, so let’s not give it a bad name.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

In fact, for most of us – especially writers and other artists – imagination needs to be cultivated and polished, lest it dull with the relentless abrasion of reality’s day-to-day grit. This is not a “nice-to-have” option, or a parlour game. Imagination is a vital aptitude that creative people need to take seriously.

Realistically, you can’t be a writer if you don’t have a healthy, limber, well-functioning imagination. It’s more essential than any other skill when it comes to storytelling. It’s what allows you to empathize and get into the skin of your characters. It’s what compels you to ask the “what if?” questions that grow into a plot. It’s what allows you to “symphonize” (a great conceptual term from Daniel Pink, which means the ability to put together many pieces in a pattern and see the relationships between them). It’s what inspires themes and metaphors that bring depth to your story.

So, yeah. You need to exercise your imagination, just like a muscle.

“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.” — W. Somerset Maugham

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” — Maria Montessori

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” — J. K. Rowling

“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the centre of your life.” — Ray Bradbury

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” — Philip José Farmer

And to rest my case on the topic, I love this simple observation, which is also a wonderful call to action for writers who want to get in touch with their imaginations …

“Children see magic because they look for it.” — Christopher Moore

Late bloomers take heart


Silk’s post #25 — I wonder how many of you reading this post are over 40? I see quite a few hands going up. How about over 50? Or maybe, like me, over 60? And how many of you are writing as a ‘second career’?

Maybe it’s something you’ve dabbled in since you were a teenager. Maybe you did your best to scratch your fiction-writing itch by pursuing a tangentially related ‘first’ career, where you had to write something else (newsletters, legal briefs, manuals, speeches, advertising, academic reports, lifestyle features about patio furniture).

Maybe writing a novel is something you always dreamed of doing, but life got in the way. The need for money won out. Or the demands of a family. Or maybe every time you hunkered down alone in your writing space with a blank page in front of you, the world called you out, whether joyfully or rudely.

Or maybe you just got on that career track and didn’t get off until you reached Retirement Station.

It’s okay. It’s all good.

We are the Late Bloomers: the hardy, vibrant, colourful displayers of creativity who dare to run riot in autumn. We bring our own heat to the season, our own illumination.

I once asked an agent on a panel at the Surrey International Writers Conference whether age made any difference in his inclination to represent an unpublished writer. I’m a realist. My thinking: it’s in an agent’s interest to sign hot young writers on the ascent – early bloomers who might produce years of lucrative bestsellers.

His answer was, “No, I’m just looking for great writers.” But he took a half-step back before he figured out what to say. It told me that: a) yes, a writer’s age probably does make a difference to an agent, but b) it’s politically incorrect to say it (or maybe even think it), especially in a room full of conference attendees who have an average age north of 40, and who have just paid a bunch of money to rub elbows with you, and who are good prospects to buy your book on how to write.

Okay, call me a cynic – but you’d be wrong. I just wanted to know the truth, but it doesn’t change my passion for writing one bit.

Now, call me a romantic, an optimist, even a pollyanna, and I won’t argue.

I think late blooming writers are like vintage wine. Our ideas, feelings, perspectives, and understanding of people and the world have reached the peak of flavour and complexity. We may be new to novel-writing, but we’re not new to reading and observing and thinking and feeling and communicating. As Helga reminded us in her great post on why writers write, we have stories in us that are bursting to get out.

Some pretty smart people have contemplated the subject of creative late bloomers, and they seem to love to quote each other. I followed an interesting trail of Internet breadcrumbs on the topic, starting with a link on Nathan Bransford’s great blog, which took me to an article from 2008 in The New Yorker by writer and culture guru Malcolm Gladwell titled “Late Bloomers”.

Gladwell, himself anything but a late bloomer, examines the idea that:

“Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exhuberance and energy of youth.”

galensonI can’t tell you how happy I am to report that this turns out to be a myth. But, of course, you already knew that and so did I. Gladwell’s essay borrows heavily from Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, a book by University of Chicago economist David Galenson that studies artists and writers who did what is acknowledged to be their best work either very early or very late in their careers. To quote Gladwell quoting Galenson:

“Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues … tend to be ‘conceptual’, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental.”

I especially love the example Galenson uses to illustrate the experimental approach of the late bloomer: Mark Twain’s trial-and-error method of fictional storytelling. Galenson quotes yet another observer, literary critic Franklin Rogers, on Twain’s methods:

“His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.”

According to Galenson, Mark Twain “fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on Huckleberry Finn so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete,” at the age of 50.mark twain

Sounds all too familiar.

The implications of this insight may explode some of our received wisdom about late bloomers. They aren’t necessarily late starters, for instance. Some of them work most of their lives at their art in obscurity, often with the help of a patron, such as a family member (think Van Gogh), before they become ‘overnight sensations’. If they’re lucky, that happens while they’re still alive.

Some late bloomers just “don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re 50,” Galenson asserts. Another assumption he questions is that late bloomers are simply “discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts.”

Galenson’s 2011 article on the Huffington Post, “Literary Late Bloomers,” cites a veritable galaxy of literary stars, in addition to Mark Twain, whose most famous works were written in middle-age or later: John le Carré, PD James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, John Updike and J.M. Coetzee, for example.

Although I’m glossing over the more arcane and subtle points of Galenson’s arguments, and Gladwell’s comments on them, my interpretation of their conclusion about late bloomers can be summarized as follows:

Late bloomers do their best work late in life because that’s when their genius ripens.

reading-specsAre you still with me, all you old boomers and late bloomers? Doesn’t it make your heart glad to hear that you may be at the peak of your creative powers right now – even if you have trouble finding your reading glasses from time to time?

Last word here to Gladwell, who has such a great way with words:

“But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after 20 years of working at your kitchen table.”


Now get back to that kitchen table, or that pillow-strewn bed, or that coffee shop, or that writing desk and bloom.