Fall Photos and Fabulous Fiction

This morning as I walked my usual path in our neighborhood—feet crunching on unraked leaves, eyes squinting into a strong early November sun, face soaking in unusual fall warmth—I listened to writer Karen Russell read and discuss Mavis Gallant’s New Yorker short story “From the Fifteenth District.”


The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is one of my favorite ways to discover new authors and pick up some craft tips. The length of about 40-50 minutes is perfect for a stroll. and because I listen to that particular podcast only when walking, I realized this morning that I’m practicing temptation bundling.

fullsizeoutput_138cIn a summer 2016 New Yorker interview about balancing humor and horror, Russell said of Gallant’s short story:

One of my favorite short stories is Mavis Gallant’s “From the Fifteenth District.” In it, the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word. It’s a monocular capture of her life. This got me thinking about eulogies—someone ascribing a single, static identity to you, posthumously. We do it to one another all the time, of course.


Listen to the podcast online here and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.


See Also

Do you have a favorite podcast that inspires or informs your writing?



NaNoWriMo Tips: Use behavioral economics to stay motivated

It’s that time of the year again! No, not election season. If it’s November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

While I don’t plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I do want to piggyback a bit on NaNoWriMo to share writing resources and tips daily throughout November, beginning with some interesting behavioral economics research by Katherine Milkman.

Professor Milkman’s work first came to my attention through her Freakonomics podcast interview, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough,” in which she describes two motivational techniques: temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect.

Temptation Bundling

Think of two activities you want to do, one of which you engage in readily and one of which you tend to avoid. Examples might be listening to a favorite music playlist and cleaning out a cluttered basement. A common strategy would be to reward yourself with the playlist after doing some cleaning or to clean while listening to music.

Temptation bundling takes the second option one step further: listening to the playlist is bundled with cleaning, but you listen to the playlist only while cleaning and at no other time. Milkman explains:

What we’re doing here is basically combining two commitments with each other and they sort of fit like puzzle pieces. So you’re using something that’s instantly gratifying to create a pull to provide the motivation you need to do something that’s unpleasurable at the moment of engagement. And then the other component that’s different is that you can actually have complementarities, which is an econ-speak term for peanut butter and jelly, two things that would go better together and are more enjoyable together than they would be separately. And so, one of the neat things about, for instance, only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show while you’re at the gym, is the fact that you might actually enjoy your workout more and you might enjoy the TV show more when you do them together, whereas a traditional commitment device just penalizes some behavior.

For writers, temptation bundling is a bit of a challenge, as it’s hard to multi-task while writing, but we might drink our favorite tea or coffee only when working on NaNoWriMo or some other writing project, or wear a comfy sweater or slippers only when working on our daily word count, or go to a favorite park or coffee shop or museum only when we also write there.

Fresh-Start Effect

Another technique Milkman discusses in the podcast is the fresh-start effect. This one I can relate to a lot (I love new beginnings of any kind). In simplest terms, it means taking advantage of the motivation we feel when we have a fresh start, such as a New Year, new week, new month, or birthday or other holiday. This fresh-start effect helps us to make the initial effort needed for larger goals, an effort that otherwise might seem overwhelming. Milkman explains how this might work:

So one thing we’ve tried is just reminding people that a given day is a fresh start. So, for instance, we have one experiment where we reminded people that a certain day was the first day of spring. And we experimentally compared people who we reminded a certain day was the first day of spring, with another group that we didn’t. And the group that got that first day of spring reminder was more motivated to pursue their goals and receive a reminder about their goals specifically on the first day of spring, when it was labeled as such. And so, you can think about just reframing a given day, reminding someone that it is an opportunity for a fresh start is one intervention that might increase engagement in fresh start behaviors. You could also think about just asking people to do things that are good for them on fresh-start dates. So you might try to roll out, for instance, a planning prompt campaign or offer people an opportunity to sign up for a commitment device or for a temptation bundling device on a fresh start date when we know their natural inclination and their motivation to do things like exercise and diet….

For NaNoWriMo or any long-term writing project, we might build in various fresh starts along the way—planning certain scenes or chapters for Mondays, for example, or even making a big deal about each day’s goal, knowing that the next morning offers a fresh start to succeed all over again.

You can follow Professor Milkman’s research on Twitter and watch her explain temptation bundling in the video below.

What are some other ways that writers can take advantage of temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect?

Online Writing Courses: An Interview with Christi Craig

L Is for Lifelong Learning

Today I am very happy to share an interview with online writing instructor Christi Craig. Christi and I first met, appropriately enough, online several years ago through a writers’ social network, and when we realized we lived only a few miles from each other, we began to meet in person. Christi is a writer’s writer: an essayist, storyteller, novelist, blogger, and writing teacher. She gave me the idea to write flash narratives, convinced me to use my real name as my Twitter handle, and is a good friend and continual source of support and inspiration.

Last year I took a couple of Christi’s online writing courses, and one of my responses to her prompts, thanks to her top-notch editing skills, found its way to publication. That’s not the only reason to consider taking her online classes, however, as she explains below. Her newest course—Write, Critique. Rinse, Repeat—runs through the month of May and has a sign-up deadline of April 23.

Read Christi’s bio at the end of the piece, follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and enjoy the interview!

Christi Craig on Taking & Teaching Online Writing Courses

Do you have any experience in taking online writing courses or workshops, and, if so, what do you like most about the experience as a participant?

My very first writing course after a long hiatus was an online class with Ariel Gore. The story goes: I had complained to a good friend one too many times about the fact that I really wanted to be a writer, but how could I write with two young kids and a day job and almost fifteen years distance from any kind of English class I took in college, and on and on and on. She finally turned to me and said, “Why don’t you stop complaining and do something about it.” You can always count on a good friend to nip your pity-party in the bud. So I said, Fine, I will. I marched right to the library, ran my fingertip along the spines of several books on writing, and landed on one in particular: How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore. Who could resist a book with that title?

In her book, I learned about her 8-week online course, Lit Star Training, and within a few months I signed up. Ariel’s course provided writing assignments (both short and long) and a safe place for critique, perfect for a newbie like me. Especially since those early pieces of mine were “issue pieces,” as I call them–necessary writing but reeking of melodrama. No one in the class batted an eye at my very rough work; every other writer and Ariel Gore gave me thorough and thoughtful feedback and much-needed confidence to keep moving forward with my writing. Plus, I began building my writing community there. As the course neared the end, several of us from the class decided to self-publish a tiny anthology of our work. So, in a sense, this first online writing course turned out to by my first foray into serious creative writing, editing, and publishing.

I still take online courses, most recently with Joan Dempsey. This style of learning continues to be a great way to work with excellent instructors and writers outside the borders of my hometown without the expense of travel.

What are some of the differences and similarities between online and in-person classes?

The differences lie mostly in logistics.

  • Online courses offer flexibility in scheduling, as there’s usually no set time that you have to be online and work can be spread out over days or weeks; in-person classes require you to show up at a specific hour and place and are usually run in a concentrated amount of time.
  • Feedback happens on-the-spot with in-person classes and sometimes (but not always) only grazes the surface, while a reader can take more time with an online course and give the writer a deeper critique.
  • There’s some anonymity with online courses in the sense that (if you’re new to the workshop experience) you can click SEND, share your work, and let go for the moment of what others may think of it; with in-person classes you might read your work aloud and sit in a long moment of silence (aka discomfort) while readers feverishly mark up your paper—not necessarily a drawback, as reading aloud and waiting for immediate feedback forces you to leave your ego behind and focus solely on the work.

Whether you’re looking for a more flexible schedule or a face-to-face group critique, both online and in-person classes offer camaraderie that we as writers need. We write our stories alone, but we grow in confidence and in skill when we mingle in numbers. Any kind of course provides that invaluable community, challenging us to learn more, revise better, and continue to create.

What do you enjoy about being an online teacher?

As I said earlier, I love the opportunity to connect with writers near and far. I had a student who was living in the Caribbean when I ran a class and another who was traveling in Scotland at the time. I also love how online technology allows for greater ease in sharing the work and resources surrounding the craft of writing. There are plenty of podcasts and videos out there that I use to minimize the two-dimensional “stare at print on screen for hours” aspect of online learning. And I really love the flexibility in scheduling and extended time for critique. Not only am I a busy mom with a day job who appreciates being able to log in early or late or any hour in between, I am also a thoughtful critique partner…meaning, I like to read a piece, put it down, think on it, read it again, and then leave comments. Online courses allow for that kind of process.

What are some tips for participants for getting the most out of an online writing class?

Try all the exercises, even if you think the work you will produce will be awful. It’s the practice that counts. Find a class that will stimulate you but not overwhelm you. And know what you’re signing up for.

If you take an online class that draws thousands of participants from all over the world, assume the discussion boards will be busy and maybe difficult to stay on top of. If you’re okay missing chunks of discussion because the lessons and resources are worth your time alone, then you will still gain a ton from that experience. If you want to participate on all levels and don’t have as much time to dedicate to sifting through conversations online, then look for courses with limited seating.

What kind of person is a particularly good fit for an online class?

A writer who likes structure but also wants control over their time; someone who is a self-starter (there’s no instructor in front of you putting on the pressure!); someone who is also at least a little tech-savvy. Several of my classes are a good fit for the writer who’s been on break for a while or who is new to the process, which I love. If I can create a safe and creative atmosphere like the one I experienced in my first class, then I count the course a success.

Tell us a little about your new class. What about it excites you?

Write, Critique. Rinse, Repeat is writing-intensive with brief lessons on story techniques and tips on critique, warm-up writing exercises, and longer assignments each week: prompts, prompts, and more prompts. I’m excited about this course, because I know how hard it is to generate new work; I can get stuck on revisions and rewriting and not creating anything completely new for months on end. And I know the value in getting feedback on work sooner than later. This is a course that will provide opportunity for writers to build their repertoire and workshop those pieces in quick succession—and then move on to another new piece. There won’t be time to linger on what you did right or didn’t do enough of or why you are doing this at all. The course is a place to gather with other writers, see what they’re creating and read what they’re saying about the craft, a place to rediscover why stories matter—why your stories matter—because they do.

CCraig-0181Christi Craig lives in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print in places such as Hippocampus Magazine and The Drum, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition. She teaches writing classes in-person and online, focusing on story technique, creativity, and critique. Visit her website at christicraig.com

LThis post is part of the April A to Z Blog Challenge. For more on my 2016 theme of Private Revolution, see A Is for Ambition. Click here to read all posts in the Private Revolution A to Z Challenge blog series.

The Discipline of Passion

Resources for writers and other creatives

“I don’t need discipline because I love to write.” ~ Jo Nesbø

The Discipline of Passion, Part I

A good friend sent me a link this week to Marion Dane Bauer’s “While I’m Talking about Aging,” a thoughtful piece about life, death, writing, and the choices we make every day:

“My discipline is the discipline of doing each day what I most love to do, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a day spent with my daughter and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a Pilates session followed by lunch with a friend followed by grocery shopping and preparing another meal for myself and my partner. (I’m one of those who loves grocery shopping and food preparation. It’s only putting the groceries away that annoys.) Sometimes it’s doctor’s appointments, of course, or other unpleasant necessities, but whatever else I’m doing, each morning I rise knowing the writing waits. And I always turn to it with gratitude.” Read more

The Discipline of Passion, Part II

To keep myself motivated during NaNoWriMo, I have been listening to podcasts for and by writers, especially when driving to and from work, and one I particularly enjoyed this week was a Guardian interview with Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. This was his answer to the question of how he keeps himself from getting distracted:

“I’m not disciplined, really. I don’t have any routines, but it’s easy because I love writing. I never saw writing as a job. I saw it as a privilege, to actually spend time writing. I try to keep it that way, and I mean this seriously. Writing is something I do when I have nothing else to do. I never decide that I’m going to get up early in the morning and write from eight to four. If I wake up at eight, I may get up and go to a coffee shop and sit and write for two hours because I want to. Or when I’m traveling I write in trains and planes. It’s as simple as that, I think. I don’t need discipline because I love to write.” Listen to more

While I do need to impose discipline on myself, there is wisdom in his words. The question we can ask ourselves is this: When we have “nothing else to do,” what do we do? If the answer isn’t writing, maybe it should be.

The Discipline of Passion, Part III

Finally, I was struck this week by Magdalena Kay’s “Leave Me Alone,” in which she asks, “How much does a scholar lose in work time when called upon to pitch, advertise, and network herself into a frenzy?” Although she is addressing academics primarily, her ambivalence about the conflicting pull toward writing and push toward networking is familiar to writers from many disciplines and genres:

“The fact is, I’d rather spend time writing, in as much solitude as I can muster, than advertise it. Should I tweet about forthcoming publications? Should scholarly work be advertised on Facebook? I cherish my minuscule group of Facebook friends, and can only imagine them ‘liking’ a publication out of loyalty and pity. When my publishers sent me sheaves of order forms to distribute at conferences, I slunk around hallways like a thief in the night, plunking down a stack in what seemed a good location and then scurrying away. Publicly begging for book sales just felt wrong.” Read more

If we truly enjoy time alone spent writing, isn’t that, at least in part, its own reward? As Kay concludes, maybe “it is time to reaffirm the value of quiet, solitary, unglamorous work, and to recognize its necessity as well as its pleasure.”


Visual Language

As a writing teacher of engineering students, I’m always looking for ways both to help them become better writers and thinkers and to motivate them to do so (I don’t kid myself that they come to an engineering college mainly to take my humanities courses). The Eide Neurolearning Blog’s Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers is a must-read for anyone who teaches writing, regardless of whether you think of your students as visual thinkers:

“The Visual-Verbal Divide is much more common than educators seem to think. It may be we see this difficult especially often because of our interest in dyslexia; we can’t tell you how many times that wonderfully bright visual thinkers are thought to be somewhat simpletons because their words convey so little of the richness of their understanding and experience.” ~ Eide Neurolearning Blog

The end of the article offers practical advice about helping visual thinkers with writing. Two items in particular caught my eye, because I’ve seen them work time and time again.

Elaborate – Recognize that what you frequently need to do is help with elaboration. What do you see? What is the scene? Are there feelings or sensory details that you can put into words (thesaurus!)

In my class about contemporary issues in the humanities, if we are discussing an abstract topic such as “freedom” or “happiness,” students often fail to become hooked by the topic until we make it concrete. A fun and an effective way to do that is to look up the word in a thesaurus (online thesauruses make this an easy group exercise in a classroom with an lcd projector). “Happiness” suddenly becomes beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness, cheeriness, content, contentment, delectation, delight, delirium, ecstasy, elation, enchantment, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, exuberance, felicity, gaiety, geniality, gladness, glee, good cheer, good humor, good spirits, high spirits, hilarity, hopefulness, joviality, joy, jubilation, laughter, lightheartedness, merriment, mirth, optimism, paradise, peace of mind, playfulness, pleasure, prosperity, rejoicing, sanctity, satisfaction, seventh heaven, vivacity, well-being… That’s when the real discussion and thinking and writing begin.

The Eides also suggest to “Mindmap, then Sequence”:

Because visual thinkers may be in their story, they aren’t thinking about a conventional introduction, middle, and end. Instead they may write like a web, relating characters and events, but not forming a logical narrative.

By Danny Stevens (Own work), CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Mindmapping doesn’t work for all of my students, but, when it does, it frees them to go further with their thinking and writing at a level that was previously unavailable to them. Mindmapping is an excellent tool for all kinds of writers and can be used for both fiction and non-fiction and in various stages of the writing process.

If you are unfamiliar with Mindmapping or want a refresher, watch this video by Mindmapping guru Tony Buzan: