Recently, I attended a webinar put on by CSARN (the Canadian Senior Artists Resource Network.) The webinar was all about social media and presented by Sue Edworthy, a multi-disciplinary arts planner. Sue uses social media as tool for business but she admits limiting both her time and range of platforms to avoid stretching herself too thin.
I picked up some useful tips and ideas, some of which I’ve already put into practice but I’ll readily admit, social media – Twitter and Facebook in my case – is a big rabbit hole I approach carefully. I can disappear in there for hours. So I space out my visits to keep on track with deadlines and remain as positive as possible in my posts and shares. And besides, there can be a lot of negative energy on social media.
Despite knowing that there are so-called “haters” online, some of my best moments have come as a result of social media. For example, a tweet from a reader who missed the local book club visit led to a trip to Michigan for a luncheon presentation with a warm and welcoming women’s club. A Facebook question from a distant American relative led to a lovely book club session tucked away in the autumn-tinged hills of Stafford, Virginia. I’ve enjoyed other great experiences and support through social media.
So, I’m generally a believer in being online for the connections and for creative thinking. But the positive vibe of social media also nourishes others when we all keep that upbeat approach.
A tweet from BC author Frances Peck had a ripple effect that surprised and delighted me.
It started with a Thank You from Frances Peck on Twitter.
Frances was thanking me for my glowing review of her just-released book, The Broken Places. It was a well-deserved glow. But still, those comments from Frances made me smile. A lot.
And of course, I had to reply.
A snowballing effect
It could have stopped there. But my tweet reply garnered several “likes” – always a nice response.
And then my friend and colleague Heather O’Connor gave it all a boost by replying to Frances’s tweet. I especially loved the cheerful GIF she added to her post.
Once again, it could have stopped there. But as you likely figured out, it didn’t. And this next one was the nicest surprise of them all.
First, a bit of back story
Long-time readers of Writescape’s Top Drawer may recall how I’ve relished my time working with teens and young adults through the Durham District School Board. The energy and joy the participants of these creative writing workshops offered me can’t be measured. I watched wary students allow their shoulders to drop and their creative souls to escape onto the page.
And I don’t mean they all wrote like geniuses or even that words on the page would be their forever path. It was much more than that. For many of them, it was recognizing that being themselves and taking risks creatively was a doorway to showing them who they were and who they could become, what ever path they chose.
At least, that’s what I hope happened in those classrooms and arts camps over the years.
It’s this tweet that helps me believe that.
Of course, I replied with my gratitude. All the positive tweets from colleagues was, for me, a wonderful reminder that we may write in solitude but we never have to be alone. But this last one is precious: you never know how you can impact another person’s life. And that’s a gift of inestimable worth.
As a nod to April being poetry month, 10 on the 10th looks at the craft of writing poetry. So the books below are not poetry collections, but backstage glimpses into how poems are created and why, how they have evolved and how you can write poetry yourself.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it an “approved” or “recognized” list. This is a list of different aspects of writing poetry compiled by a lover of poetry and a work-in-progress poet. (Me, Gwynn Scheltema.) Some of these books I own, others have been recommended by friends and teachers at poetry courses. Be brave. Explore a few.
A Sky Full of Poems – Eve Merriam
book for children, is what got me started writing poetry. Eve Merriam explains
the elements of rhythm, figurative language and other components of a poem with
actual poems. Out of print now, it is still available as a used book.
How to Write Poetry – Nancy Bogen
version of A Sky Full of Poems, this book covers the basics of the mechanics of
poetry: meter, rhyme, traditional forms, sonics, tone, and rhythm. It also
offers ways to get started.
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry – Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
Want to dive
deeper? This is the book I keep
handy for its brief essays on the elements of poetry, technique, and suggested
subjects for writing, with exercises—a kind of do-it-yourself course—along with
tips on getting published and writing in the electronic age.
An Introduction to Poetry – X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia
My well-thumbed textbook from poetry studies at Trent University, this comprehensive yet accessible volume offers everything from how to read a poem, to writing critically about a poem. It explores everything from irony to word choice, from imagery to assonance. All aspects are illustrated with examples, supported with further reading lists, questions and exercises to fully engage.
20th-Century Poetry and Poetics – Edited by Gary Eddes
like aspiring artists study art history and the old masters, so modern poets can
benefit from a study of how poetry has developed up to the modern day, and what
was written by those that came before. Over 70 poet profiles with poems and 30
essays provide fascinating reading. I especially like that a large number of
the poets featured are Canadian.
Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World – Jane Hirshfield
A fine poet in her own right, Hirshfield takes the reader
through close readings of poems by famous poets from Dickinson and Bashō to
Heaney and Bishop, and shows us how poems work.
The Art of Description: World into Word – Mark Doty
A master at evoking emotion in his own poems through
description, this is a great book for poets looking to take their craft to
another level. He explores the importance of describing the observable world
and the inner experience of it, and the informing of each by the other.
Doty’s “Description’s Alphabet,” an
A to Z of random thoughts on description is just as relevant to prose as
Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry – Stephen Dobyns
If you want to understand more about communicating with your
reader, Dobyns guides the poet through the intricacies of voice and tone, metaphor,
and pacing among other things.
In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry – Edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve.
This all-Canadian anthology presents more than 25 forms and 180 poems arranged by section, one for each form, giving the form’s history and variations. Used in classrooms across the country, it covers formal poetry from sonnets and ghazals, triolets and ballads, to villanelles and palindromes and many more.
This list began simply and ends simply, and there are many versions of rhyming dictionaries available including online. All I know is that I have a Pocket Oxford version that has been a mind helper for years and can travel with me easily.
Why do you write? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Why we write (or create in any medium) can be as visceral as an urge you can’t deny, a simple desire to channel creativity, a deep-rooted emotional need to achieve or be accepted, a way to earn a living, or bits and pieces of all those things and more. Over our writing lives we often have different reasons at different times. All are valid.
Today’s guest blog comes from Aprille Janes, who I met over twenty years ago when we attended writing retreats together. These days, Aprille chooses to create through visual and fibre art, at her Stoney Bay Studio in Nova Scotia, but her message is relevant for any creative.
Aprille tells us why her answer to “Why do you create?” may have been wrong all along.
Guest post: Aprille Janes
the Joy Again
I baked a cake from scratch this week and in the process, I
learned something important about why I love making art. One thing that changes
everything for me.
I used to love baking but haven’t done much of it in a long time. However, over the holidays I really got into the Great Canadian Baking Show on the CBC. The fact that bragging rights is the only prize seems to make the relationships more sincere and honest. They weren’t competitors as such but simply people with a common love for baking. Even the judges and show hosts exhibit a warmth and kindness that is an antidote to all the negativity and anger out there these days.
Getting Prepared for Something New
Inspired by the show, I looked for something to bake myself. I
browsed cookbooks, Pinterest and recipe sites. I savoured the time searching
for something special. It’s hard to make plans these days when Covid keeps
blowing them up but this was one thing I could plan with confidence, one thing
in my control. The process gave my outlook a real lift. (BTW – Click on link
below the image if you want the recipe, too. )
After choosing the recipe, I went shopping. I invested in a springform pan and a couple of other tools I was missing and the freshest ingredients. Not rushing the process is a gift whether I’m working in flour, fabric or paint. Taking time to anticipate and choose added to the enjoyment.
The Big Ah-ha!
When I got home, I made my cake, delighting in the scent of the
lemon zest and the colour of blueberries. The warmth of baking filled my
Finally, when the cake was done, I shared it with family and friends. I even posted the photo on social media along with the recipe. Because, in the end, seeing someone else enjoy something I make is why I do it. THAT was my big Ah-ha.
Why I Create
I finally get why I love making things. It’s not just painting
for me. It’s about making art quilts and needle felting, baking and knitting
and just working with my own two hands. I’d been making it hard when really,
it’s so easy.
It’s the pleasure of making and the joy others take in what I’ve
made that motivates me. Looking back, I can track the journey to this point but
it felt like a bolt out of the blue. The business lens that I’d been looking
through isn’t right for me.
I’d been struggling with a decision about Instagram. Marketing
wisdom said I needed multiple accounts to share these other facets but removing
the business mindset provided the answer. Sharing who I am is the common
So I’ll be shifting focus. I will share my art on social media
but I will also share other things that bring me joy and satisfaction. I won’t
be doing a newsletter any longer because I’m ‘retiring’ the business side to
follow my heart.
My wish for you is that you too find something that warms your
heart and gives you deep satisfaction.
Aprille has fond childhood memories of outdoor adventures and time spent near the water. Today, she lives by the Bay of Fundy and her art reflects this love of the outdoors. She divides her time between painting, fibre art, writing and teaching watercolour workshops.
Have you ever watched a movie without music in the
background? No? There’s a reason for that. And it’s why even in the silent film
era, many theatres had a pianist or organist adding a soundtrack to augment the
Keystone Cops shenanigans or tender moments with Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Music
has a way of adding emotional heft to what we see on the screen.
Taking that one step further, in this 10 on the 10th we’re offering ways that writers can opt to use music to support, inspire and even direct words on the page.
1. Mind Cleanse – A focus on music can offer you a type of mindfulness at a time when your muse is obstinate and your creative brain refuses to kick in. Television host Stephen Colbert, in his “Colbert Questionnaire” asks guests “If you could have only one song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?” The answer is likely to change over time for most people but if you were asked this question right now, what would you say? What piece of music brings you joy? What song elevates your mood or deepens your thoughts. Whatever your answer is, that is the song or music that just might be the key to finding your way back to feeling creative.
2. Main Character – Many movie heroes have some form of theme music that plays when they show up on screen. So, what about your main character? Does she have a theme song? Is he pensive and brooding? Are they powerful and energetic? Doesn’t your main character deserve to have their own theme music? Ask Spotify to play mood music that matches your character’s qualities. Or spin the dial on your radio and discover a song that represents the power (and weakness) of your main character.
3. Villain – This one may be more important than a music theme for your Main Character. Many writers have to work harder at their antagonist character. Developing the Main Character for readers to cheer for and worry about is usually not a problem. But villains – human or otherwise – are often more of a challenge to peek inside and figure out their innards. They don’t always cooperate or want their story to be told. Finding a theme song or piece of music might be the ticket to open up the inner workings of the one who opposes your Main Character. For example, when Darth Vader shows up in the Star Wars films, you know from the music that this is not a good thing for the heroes.
4.Plot Structure – The three-act structure (beginning, middle and end) is a common plot form. The beginning is short, the middle holds the meat and is longer that the first and final acts, and the end often carries echoes from the beginning as well as the climax. Similarly, classical music structure has three basic elements: Exposition (begining): The material is presented for the first time. Development (middle): It’s where the music in the Exposition is transformed (key changes and modulations) through various movements, pulling the threads along. Recapitulation (end): Here, the music in the Exposition appears again but in a slightly different and shorter form. If you’re having trouble with your plot, consider yourself to be the conductor of your symphony and apply the basic elements of classical period music. It won’t hurt to listen to a Mozart or Bach symphony to hear the “plot structure” play out and then you can play on with your own plot.
5. Scene Development – Similar to using music in plot structure, a song might be key to deepening a scene or increasing the pace. Seek out emotional, haunting music such as John Williams theme for the film Schindler’s List (featuring the amazing Itzhak Perlman) to heighten your own response and it may find itself embedding into the scene you write. If you want some mood music for a high-energy or battle scene, treat yourself to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, part of his four-opera Ring Cycle
6. Jazz It Up – During the Beat era of poetry, jazz figured largely in coffee houses and poetry readings. It’s no coincidence – the energy and the surprises that jazz delivers is a lovely match to way a poem builds through rhythm and wordplay to reach audiences. Successful writers recognize that prose needs to offer varying rhythms and unexpected developments to keep readers engaged. So before you put fingers to keyboard next time, try a little Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday or Benny Goodman. The genius of drummer Gene Krupa in Goodman’s Orchestra’s Sing Sing Sing should wake up your muse and get your creative toes tapping.
7. Speculative Reset – Science fiction, fantasy, surrealism – it’s all weird and wonderful forms of fiction. If you can fall easily into that different place, if you never find yourself with a flat brain that gets stuck in the linear, well you can skip this one. But, if you ever struggle with finding the sweet spot of sci-fi in your writing, try a little musical medicine: go alternative. And not just a gentle slip into alternative rock of the 90s – instead, go deep into experimental sounds and compilations. Just as speculative fiction pushes boundaries, musicians and composers who experiment to create new unexpected combinations push the boundaries of traditional music. Marcus Layton’s YouTube channel offers a taste of experimental music and samples a range of approaches.
8. Time and Place Immersion — Maybe you’re writing a historical novel set during Prohibition. Or a biography of a 1960s Civil Rights activist. Or a story located in contemporary England. What music was common in historic settings? What are the kids listening to today in the West End of London? And that last question sets up an important point. Be careful about your “generic” ideas of music. Sure, in North America jazz was popular during the Roaring Twenties but there was all kinds of music playing on the radio and in performance places: old time music, Christian music, country music, and so on. Listening to the music of a particular era can give you a “feel” for the time and place, and that “feel” can help you recreate the setting. And it can be used directly in the story. Just watch you’re not being stereotypical in what you choose or how you deliver it.
9. Absence – When music is stilled by decree or when the opportunity to learn a musical instrument is kept from certain members of society, that is powerful energy. What about a world in which music never existed? Or simply could not be allowed? We often forget the power of absence to energize a story. Consider Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the oppressive decrees of Gilead — no buskers on street corners, no concerts for ordinary folks. Or the alien invasion in the movie,A Quiet Place, in which the characters had to remain silent to avoid being killed. We take our access to music for granted, don’t we?
10.You in Music – Finally, here’s another way to use music: your own theme. Each of us approach the page differently — we have our own take on the craft: pantser, plotter, researcher. Our inspirations are also individual: an overheard conversation, an article in the paper, a deadline in a contest, and so on. You may have a theme song for each character. Or you may choose music to echo the emotion in a scene or to recreate the feel of a setting. But what about you, as a writer, as a creative person? Why not choose a piece of music that somehow reflects you? A pop song or a classical piece or theme music from a movie or something you composed yourself. Use it before you start a writing project. Use it when you finally put The End on the last page of your current work in progress. Use it when you sign that publishing contract. Use it any way you want and see if it gives your inner self a truly good feeling.
At the start of 2021, I wrote a goal-setting blog that wasn’t focused on lists of things to accomplish, a.k.a. lists of my future failures, lists of not meeting my own expectations.
Instead, because almost a year of COVID had taken its toll, I
decided to put kindness to myself first in any plans I made or goals I set and to
strive for participation and passion, not perfection. I decided to find joy and
fulfilment in the unexpected, big and small. And part of that was the
acceptance of self, flaws and all.
And here we are, at the end of yet another year of pandemic existence. And yet, I feel that I did indeed reach my 2021 goals, and am better for it. And as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
here was my list for 2021, that I’m going to repeat in 2022:
Be kind to myself and don’t expect perfection
Do more of what feeds my soul, my passions and my creativity
Do less of what others say I should be doing if it doesn’t feel right
Be flexible and willing to change direction and do it positively
Be present, mindful, grateful, and notice and appreciate
Go with the flow
I’ll continue to put time spent on the things that are important to me first: my health, my family, my creativity. I’ll continue to prioritize using my butterflies and frogs method. I’ll continue making daisies to help me focus.
I have two large projects to work on this year: completing my poetry manuscript for publication and heading up the Steering Committee for Northumberland Festival of the Arts, taking place September 2022. One will focus me inward, and one will connect me with my community, arts and otherwise. It will be a good balance.
a relief in NOT having a long list of must do’s: lose 10 pounds, finish the ABC
project, start the XYZ project etc. etc. etc. Even with just two, I’ll be
careful to work on them without compromising my health or family relationships
and other important aspects of life.
And here’s another thing I’ll repeat: my wish for you all:
Take time to live. Take time to grow. Take time to love. Above all, be kind to yourself and others. Look for the good in everything. Enjoy the writing journey you’ve chosen for yourself. Enjoy life. Be positive and you’ll get there. Have a wonderful 2022.
Five years ago, we posted some ideas on writers’ resolutions for 2017. With just three days to go before the world shifts into yet another year, I think our suggestions are still valid. I’ve tweaked it a bit to acknowledge that the past couple of years came with pandemic challenges. But honestly, I didn’t need to make a lot of edits.
So here you go: Gwynn and I kept it simple and
doable back in 2016 and that much has not changed. Six resolutions to choose
from to enhance your creative skills. You only need one commitment for New
1. To pay attention. Yup. Maybe you think
you already do this just fine. We’d like to suggest two very different
approaches that maybe you’ve not yet tried:
At an Andrew Pyper workshop, he suggested that paying attention without judgement is a great way to develop characters and ideas. He calls it “reportage” — take a seat in a public space and people watch. Simply record the facts of what you see. No emotion. No subjective consideration. e.g.: Young woman without a face mask in red halter top and white shorts pushing dark blue stroller without a baby inside it. Man in N95 face mask, yellow ballcap and biker jacket runs up library steps and goes inside.
Gwynn Scheltema suggests that there are benefits to being subjective when noticing, and that it really is a kind of art. Her Art of Noticing in The Top Drawer takes us on a trip in 2016 to her childhood home, Zimbabwe, where she notices everything in a sumptuous five-sense immersion.
2. To write while travelling (and yes, we know
we’ve not travelled a lot lately)
We didn’t say “write a book” when travelling. We only suggested that you write when on a journey. “Writing” can be a restaurant napkin recording a snippet of overheard conversation. “Writing” can simply be notes on a map or guidebook: stopped here and ate weird-tasting burgers at Fast Eddy’s Eatery. Nobody got sick.
The point is that there are all kinds of ways to “write” while travelling. And there’s all kinds of travelling: lately, even a stroll to the neighbourhood park, or a trip to the grocery store has become for many of us the most common form of travelling. You’re creative. In 2022, see what you can do to Write While Travelling. And if we’re lucky, 2022 will be the year that proves Omicron to the be the last blast of COVID so that real long-distance travelling will return.
3. To devote at least one day exclusively to the
Think about it. Just one day. C’mon, you can do it. Pack a lunch and head to the library. Or unplug the phone and the Internet and spend the day writing. Maybe you can pretend it’s a snow day. Or maybe you can book a one-day escape at a local hotel or B&B. Consider what “craft” means: In Old English (pre-900 CE) cræft meant strength. A day to focus on the art and skill of your craft can only strengthen your words on the page.
No matter what option you choose, make sure you schedule your day devoted to writing. And then make sure you show up, as scheduled.
4. To write something different from your “usual”
Step away from the familiar and head
down the rabbit hole. If your passion is fiction, go for non-fiction or poetry.
If your comfort zone is poetry, try your hand at playwriting. If non-fiction is
your go-to, start a graphic novel. Science fiction writers, take the time to
meet romance. Mystery writers, shake hands with erotica. There’s a strange
chemistry that happens when you shake up your pen and at the very least, you’ll
return to your writing nest with some fresh ideas. And maybe you might find
that trying something new opened up a whole new “writer” in you.
5. To devote at least one day to NOT writing
Actually, this is a great resolution for those who have trouble leaving their
desk or pen or computer. It’s great to be a devoted writer, one who writes
every day without fail, one who will forgo lunch if a plot point needs
adjustments or a character is sitting a bit too flat on the page. You might be
surprised how giving up just one day of writing can do. The tension of staying
away from the writing could fire up your pen in ways you hadn’t imagined. The
“day after” writing may be something you choose to create more often.
At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment for the relentless writer to
6. To read something different from your usual
This doesn’t have to be a big book. How about an article in a bodybuilding
handbook or a finance magazine? Or a graphic novel, or modern play, or a
children’s board book? Or a corporation’s annual report, or a technical how-to manual.
The object of this resolution is to teach your eyes to look for what made it
publishable. Where is the strength in the writing? Who is the reader or
audience? And why do they need this publication? What changes might you make to
This analytical approach might prove useful in your own writing. At the
very least, you introduce your eyes to a way of writing or content that is not
what you normally choose to read. An excellent exercise to expand your writing
As noted, you only need one of these resolutions
for midnight on December 31st. But consider holding onto this list and dipping
back in from time to time. It may be just the medicine you need to fire up your
muse and ignite your imagination.
Here’s to 2022. May the world put COVID to bed at last and may your writing dreams all come true.
There’s nothing better than words of encouragement that arrive seemingly out of nowhere. That recently happened to me when my long-time friend, Jessica, sent an email with a link to the local online newspaper, in which she had written a letter addressed to me.
What? Was she airing dirty laundry? NO! She was supporting
me as a poet. To explain…
Jessica Outram currently serves as Cobourg’s Poet Laureate. One of her projects is an online poetry chapbook called Poetry Presents. I have successfully submitted poems a couple of times. Jessica also writes a poetry column for Cobourg Now, where she engages with a poet and /or a poem and muses on poetry generally. Here is where the stars aligned. Jessica chose one of my submitted poems to feature in her column. Thank you , Jessica!
Story is at the Heart of Poetry
An exchange between Gwynn Scheltema & Jessica Outram, Cobourg Now
(Note from the Poet: I grow as much of my food as possible and forage as well. I love the memories of nature that cooking smells bring forth for me.)
Dear Gwynn Scheltema,
‘Carrot Soup’ invites me to reflect on harvest and a way of looking at the
passing of time through the life of a carrot. The food we enjoy today has a
story that connects to more than one season. From preparing the soil to
planting the seeds to harvesting fully grown crops, a process and patience are
paramount to success.
It can be
the same with poetry. From preparing to use form to planting phrases and lines
to harvesting metaphors, poetry thrives with the use of process and patience.
When I was younger, I wrote poetry quickly, usually a poem (and sometimes two!)
in one sitting. Over the past couple years, I’ve looked for ways to slow down,
to linger in a line, to return to a poem over time to better understand its
story. It’s good to give a poem space to change and grow.
at the heart of poetry. Story is who we are and story is how we connect. To
prepare to write a poem, I reflect on these questions: What story do I want to
share? How will this story connect to others? After writing the poem, I return
to the same questions.
Poetic’ Archibald MacLeish writes “a poem should not mean, but be.” A poet
shows a story rather than tells a story, inviting the reader to share the
experience. By appealing to the senses (the eye, the ear, our senses of taste,
touch, and smell), the poet invites readers into the world of a poem. When
reading a poem, rather than ask ‘what does this poem mean?’ Ask ‘what are the
stories here?’ Use questions to shift understanding and points of connection.
starting to write poetry, begin with your stories. The stories of your life,
your every day, and of your imagination. Everyone has stories. What are yours?
You may find that you never have writer’s block since our stories can be more
abundant than the Fall harvest.
Gwynn, for sharing this story of carrot soup with us.
Poet Laureate of Cobourg
About Jessica Outram:
Jessica Outram is Cobourg’s 4th Poet Laureate. She is a Métis writer and educator with roots in the Georgian Bay Métis Community. Since 2019, her mandate has been to honour and nurture Cobourg’s culturally dynamic community. A resident of Cobourg, Jessica has worked in Northumberland both as a principal and vice-principal and continues to participate in local arts, music, and theatre. Currently, she works as Principal of Indigenous Education K-12 in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.
Some weeks ago, one of our regular retreatants, Lori Twining, shared her retreating experience at Writescape’s fall retreat. But what if you can’t get away to write on retreat? How else can you keep the words flowing?
Have you ever considered an accountability partner?
Lori wrote about the magic of accountability partners on her blog in August, and we reprint it here today with her permission.
Accountability Partners: Are They Beneficial?
have a simple goal: I want a writing career.
it is not as simple as quitting my day job and writing the damn novel. Other
things factor into a writing career, besides having money to pay the bills. In
2021, as a writer, it is essential to have a social media presence, network
with others, be searchable on Google, be knowledgeable and experienced with the
craft of writing, have an agent, have a publisher, and the list goes on and on.
It is endless.
writing career something I can do alone?
The writing part falls on the individual writer. However, if you have other
people who share your wants, your desires, and your future dreams of a writing
career, then you should team up and do it together. Build an army. Challenge
each other. Support each other.
This is where the benefits of having an accountability partner come into play. These people establish a relationship with you to help achieve your goals. They hold you accountable for what you said you would do and try to keep you on track, even if you are experiencing a meltdown of some kind.
Let me explain..
I sent out multiple emails regarding my volunteer role as a Blog Wrangler for
my local writing group. Most of my writing group writes novels and short
stories as a side hustle to their “other” careers (that pay the bills). All of
us write blog posts that relate to our writing lives in some way. As a
volunteer, I admit that I get tired and overwhelmed (sometimes cranky) at
working behind the scenes for zero money and little appreciation. I’m not
complaining; I offered to do this to further my writing career (if it ever gets
further than barely existing). I admit that it is a selfish reason. Sometimes,
I have days that I question my choices on volunteering. I want to quit
everything and just write. But, then something like this happens:
the frantic emails (and FB messages and text messages) back and forth with my
writing tribe, I received a message:
anyone told you that you should be a writer?”
laughed. Reading this message broke the stress and frustration I had been
holding tight inside. My shoulders released the tension, and I relaxed a bit. I
wrote back to say, “Not lately. I’m too busy wallowing in a puddle of
self-doubt right now.” I often wonder if all this writing is simply a
time-waster, and I’m going nowhere. Several text messages followed to say they
appreciated my time and effort, and I need to keep writing. This is one writer
supporting and encouraging another writer. I love it.
later, the following email came in from another accountability partner. It
I am late in responding to you. Thank you so much for your accountability email
(you were on time, I’m two weeks late). Ha! I’m never on time. At the moment,
I’m sitting on my couch crying about not making any progress during July. I
decided to email you and tell you the small amount that I did manage to find
time to do. Then, I surprised myself with what I actually got done. This makes
me happy. Writing it down, so I can see the progress. Yes, I was still a couch
slug for most of the month, but I did submit two short stories, sent ten
queries to agents, and updated my website so that if the literary agents ever
decide to google me, I will look important! I might even fool them into knowing
what I am doing! Thank you for this. I love you! Talk to you in a month. Or
After reading this message, it reminded me to check in with a few of my other writing buddies. I have multiple people that I keep in close contact with, where we exchange emails on the first of every month (with many emails in between, just to keep us motivated). I keep a list of excerpts from their emails to encourage me, so I remember that working toward a writing career is not a waste of time. People do get something out of this. It keeps me moving forward with my goals.
My partners are inspiring
are a couple of example messages from them:
I did awesome on my goals! I really want to say thank you for this. Having
these goals keeps me motivated and helps to keep me working on all aspects of
excited and scared and motivated and terrified all in one. I am so thankful for
you and this accountability thing we do together. I have WORK TO DO… so here
are my new goals.”
How I stay accountable
I write an accountability email at the beginning of the month describing everything I accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) from the previous month, and add my goals for the following month.
I exchange these emails with a few different writers to encourage them (or challenge them) to do “something” to further their writing career. And they do the same for me.
Here are a couple of examples that show progress in someone’s future writing career:
Woke up at 5 am for two weeks straight. Butt in chair. Writing.
Published four book reviews for novels in my genre on Goodreads.
Posted five Instagram photos of books I purchased written by my
#5amwritersclub writing buddies.
Submitted my short story to a contest.
Attended Inkers Con virtually.
Finished the Dan Brown Master Class on Mystery Writing.
Ran a giveaway on Goodreads. Sent out the print copies to the
Attended two virtual book launches this month.
Signed up for a 7-day IN-PERSON writing retreat.
Took a course online, “How to Nail Writing Multiple POVs &
Timelines” (this one is something I’m doing this month).
All of these examples keep you in the writing game. You are supporting other writers, networking, learning your craft, or writing the book—all good things.
Cutting Yourself Some Slack
The end of my July accountability email listing all my goals was this:
August goals are to tackle as much as possible with my writing, without
breaking down and bawling like a baby because I don’t have enough time to do
ALL THE THINGS that I want to do this summer.”
received this immediate response from one of my accountability partners:
have a similar goal for August and the rest of the year. Now that I’ve had a
vacation, I will try to go several days in a row without yelling/swearing at my
computer screen. And that’s just for work. It doesn’t include the head-hanging
despair during the writing sessions. Maybe we should ease up on our
expectations of ourselves? Just a thought.”
excerpt above is from an experienced published writer, and she has made a good
point. I have high expectations for myself. Maybe this is why I am biting my
nails to the quick? I’m walking the fence between giving up (by sitting on the
couch watching every Harlan Coben Netflix series and not writing) and moving
full force ahead with writing every chance I get, hoping my novel gets a little
better with each pass through of edits.
is an evil monster, and accountability partners can help with that. They remind
you that you are not alone on this path to a future writing career, and
everyone struggles with so many things (and I don’t even have to mention the
pandemic and all the stay-at-home orders that interfered with our mental state
for writing over the last 18-months). They are full of motivation and
inspiration. They can help you plan and strategize how to approach editors or
agents. They can advise on improvement on your query letter or book blurb.
Also, they can help you stick to your commitments and expectations, so you can
continue to make progress.
are all in a different place with our writing careers. Some writers are already
published, and some of us are still struggling with that first novel (that
would be me). But, overall, we are suitable matches for being accountability
partners. We strive to be full-time writers and are putting in the work to get
there. We all struggle with time management, primarily since we all work
full-time or part-time for other people. So, being able to discuss it with each
other is a bonus. It echoes the reminder that we are not alone.
little thing you can manage to do (writing, networking, reading, promoting
yourself & your writing friends) proves that you are showing up for
yourself and committing to the work. The best part of having accountability
partners is that you can share your progress and celebrate everyone else’s
progress too. There is no need for jealousy; it is all a wild and fun
experience of living life to the fullest and conquering that writing dream.
If you are struggling with pulling your butt off the couch back to your writing chair, maybe you should look for an accountability partner? They are perfect for brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, supporting each other, motivating, and inspiring you to continue with your dream. Plus, they are there if you want to cry or rant about something when you are grumpy or extremely pissed off. They are also there to laugh with you, and everyone needs a good chuckle from time to time.
If you don’t have one and would like one, just ask another writer if they would be interested. It is as simple as that. Good luck on your path. Baby steps will get you there. Eventually.
Lori Twining writes both
fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition
and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing
groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In
Crime, Toronto Romance Writers, and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books,
sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed
rodents. Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter: @Lori_Twining
I will go on retreat and when I come back, I will be energized and my writing will be brilliant.
We all start a retreat with optimism, plans and hopes and dreams. But on the drive home, or maybe just as you turn the handle on your front door, something hits you.
It’s over. The planned escape to focus on your writing is done and here you are, back home, facing all that your return will mean. And it ain’t always pretty when you once again face reality.
Some of us easily get past that return to reality and can gather back the positive energy we found on retreat. But others might get mired in one or more of the following disappointments:
NOTHING HAS CHANGED
Right on. Once you add the laundry in your suitcase to the pile you didn’t finish before you left, you realize your life waited for you. And there is no escaping it.
YOU DIDN’T DO ENOUGH ON RETREAT
That’s right. You lazy, good for nothing writer. You spent time staring out the window at the lake or the forest or the desert or…whatever. And some of the stuff you wrote is so lame, you won’t even look at it.
THE RETREAT DIDN’T HELP YOUR WRITING
Oh yeah. This is just like the diet you started in January. Your 3 lb loss turned into a 5 lb gain in April. You are just the same writer you were when you started, so why did you even bother?
MUCH HAS CHANGED
YOU ACCOMPLISHED FAR MORE THAN YOU REALIZED
YOU ARE A DIFFERENT WRITER
PROGRESS IS NOT ALWAYS RECOGNIZED
Don’t look at that laundry pile the same way. Consider that t-shirt you wore on retreat before you put it into the washing machine. It’s full of your writer’s sweat and you can launder that out. But even if you deleted every single word you wrote, you can’t wash your retreat away. Instead, those words you crafted will percolate in the back of your mind and two things can happen:
ONE, you’ll realize the writing wasn’t so awful after all. In fact, those words are looking pretty good again
TWO, those less-than-perfect words will inspire fresh ones that will move your work forward (after all, we all know the true work of the writer is in the edit)
FEEDING YOUR CREATIVE SELF
Even if you did very little writing, your retreat was not a waste of time because everything you experience flavours your creative self. Sometimes, we don’t recognize the new ideas and perspective a retreat gives us. Chats over dinner with the other writers, quiet walks down country lanes, staring out the window at a completely different view — all of this has an effect on you and your writing. While it’s not bum-in-chair writing, it is a legitimate form of creative work. You’re feeding your subconscious.
Your subconscious is your best friend as a writer and none more so than when your main purpose is to create. That’s why you went on retreat in the first place. When you come home, your ugly Internal Editor may perch again on your shoulder whispering negativity into your ear, but your Creative Self is still being fed by your subconscious. And it’s rich in retreat compost.
So turn your back on any negative thinking. Start digging into your retreat compost and see what treasures are buried in your mind. And follow that energy!
What writer wouldn’t love to disappear from their life and spend an entire week hidden away at a remote location? With no other obligations other than to put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper and tell a story. Maybe, a story no one will ever read? That’s a possibility. But hey, if you are a writer, you will have a strong desire to write that story whether someone reads it or not, right?
Disappearing to a remote location sounds fantastic, especially after the tough year or two we have experienced. My doctor said I was becoming a workaholic, even though I’m working from home now, and I should take a mental health break. She said something like, “Take a vacation.”
In my mind, I watched her scribble a prescription on her pad for me:
Go somewhere. Eat, sleep, and write from sunrise to sunset. Repeat for seven days.
So, I passed the fake message along to my family and booked a writing vacation. I realize that most writers can only dream about going to a week-long writing retreat. Sometimes, writers struggle to leave their family behind or they find it challenging to schedule time away from work, or they can’t even manage to save enough money to go away. The stress is real, but if you can achieve it, I highly recommend doing it.
At this moment, I’m finally experiencing a writing vacation that I have been looking forward to for almost two years. I booked the retreat with Writescape in the fall of 2019 to celebrate my spring birthday away from home doing something I like to do: WRITE! However, the event was postponed three times due to the pandemic happening right outside our door. Although we are not finished with the pandemic yet, I’m thankful for science and knowing everyone at this retreat is double-vaccinated, masked, and keeping their distance.
With that in mind, I cannot express how ecstatic I am to be tucked away in a bedroom on the second floor of a rustic cottage with a 4-foot wide window overlooking beautiful Rice Lake FOR SEVEN DAYS. I haven’t been setting the alarm because I’m on vacation, but I still manage to roll out of bed around 5 a.m. I make a pot of coffee, pull out my notebook and a pen, and write until the darkness gradually turns to light.
The sunrises are breathtaking at the Elmhirst’s Resort nestled along the shoreline of Rice Lake (see photo above of me gazing out my bedroom window at sunrise). It is so peaceful and relaxing here that I can’t help but focus on the first light breaking through the early morning darkness. The vibrant red, yellow, and orange colours reflect across the serene lake, sending a tingling sensation that rockets from my toes to my earlobes.
Usually, I’m wearing my Jack Nicholson’s grin along with my pajamas, and I think about how lucky I am and whom I might have to kill today. (I’m a fiction writer, so it is allowed.)
I set up a folding table beside a comfortable chair, and my job is to write ALL the words. This is my solitude time where I can immerse myself inside my novel for seven days. I can wear my pajamas all day if I want to; the same goes for the Jack Nicholson smile. I open my suitcase full of notes and reference material and scour through it for something important. I throw sticky notes up on my wall and figure out my plot holes. I read some parts aloud, looking for extra words or clunky dialogue. I slip outside for a breath of fresh air, walk to the floatplane dock, and make an apple disappear. Then, I get right back to the writing.
Occasionally, during this Writescape retreat, there are writing workshops where the instructors, Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema, teach us something small but specific. A timed writing exercise follows this teaching moment. It is funny that when I attended my first Writescape writing retreat, I loathed participating in writing exercises. I wanted to slink out of the room and pretend I was never there. Seriously, what writer can come up with material that is worth keeping during a ten-minute interval of freefall high-pressure writing? Well, it turns out, when I use the courage buried deep inside me, I can surprise myself and find something golden in my words almost every single time. It might have something to do with the other writers’ artistic and creative energy in the room with me. It is extremely electrifying.
By participating in the workshops and partaking in the exercises, you learn that it is a process, not your finished product. It is a tiny step along the way to creating something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as the muse is nipping at your ear, pushing you to experience the magic and go where you have never gone before. The sudden release of endorphins triggers positive feelings in your body, similar to morphine. You can honestly get addicted to the high of someone saying they love your writing or trying a new concept and having it work for you.
We discussed art emerging from art by using Ekphrastic Writing, which was a fascinating workshop for me. I created six pages of new writing about a piece of art that speaks to me. With that, I will select the words, sentences, and statements I want to keep to form a poetic response inspired by the sculpture, thereby enhancing the artistic impact of the original art through synergy. I will need to do a little more research on my own to see if I’m attacking the project in a clever and creative way. I’m excited to see where it will take me.
Today, I’m reaching the halfway point of my retreat, which makes me sad, happy, and freaked out. I have so much I want to do here that I’m considering skipping the sleep portion. *Joking* I’ll just reduce the shut-eye time to five hours instead of six. That will make all the difference.
If you are a writer and you want to be more productive in your quest to finish that novel, then grab a couple of your writing buddies and plan a writing retreat vacation.
I’m grateful for the solitude mixed with the camaraderie that is happening this week. The pleasure of attending this contemplative retreat makes me cherish every minute of this writing journey, and I’m honoured to spend it with friends who have the same passion and mindset as I do.
Thank you to Ruth and Gwynn for running a fantastic retreat that I will miss dearly. I look forward to finding a new adventure for next year’s retreat (although I might just camp in Gwynn’s backyard, looking for poetry advice).
Lastly, I’m thankful to the two writing friends pictured below: Seana Moorhead and Donna Judy Curtin, for always accompanying me on these writing retreats. They are the best cheerleaders a writer could ever ask for. They remind me that I’m here to unplug, focus on my writing, and need to get my shit done.
I look forward to the day that we are successful best-selling authors, and we can tour the world together. Look at me! I’m always dreaming when I should be writing. Ha!
What could be better than going on a writing vacation with writer friends?
Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime, Toronto Romance Writers, and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. Find more info at www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter: @Lori_Twining