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.”

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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.

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

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See Also

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

 

 

Writers, Social Media, and In-Between Moments

This past summer I took a bit of break from social media, which I’ve done periodically in the past for a few weeks at at time. As always, the time off offered some good reminders and fresh perspectives (including what I love about social media, but that’s another post).  One insight that I’ve been thinking about lately is writerly obsession and our use of in-between time.

“Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always ‘over there’—’over there’ being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing…. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time.” ~ Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, page 5

Social media becomes an easy substitute for the kind of obsessive thinking that is good for writers, a kind of positive distraction. Think of the last time you were truly engrossed in a writing project. You went to bed thinking about it, you woke up thinking about it. If you were lucky, you dreamt about it. You may have bored your family and friends by talking about it. Like Terry Brooks, you went through your day only half present, because the other part of your mind and heart and soul was somewhere else—with your writing. This meant that any in-between times in the day—waiting in line at the Post Office, sitting in a car wash, watching a pot of water come to a boil—would be jealously snatched as writing time, if only to think more about the words you would put on the page as soon as you were able.

Photo credit: mat_n (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ https://flic.kr/p/2pf9kY

Photo credit: mat_n (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This was how writing worked for me at the beginning of my writing career, when our son was very young and before 24/7 internet and smart phones. I admit it happens more rarely these days. Those in-between times are too easily filled with checking email or Facebook or Twitter, playing Words with Friends,  seeing if a friend has posted a new Instagram photo, or, these days, compulsively checking election news and polls.

When I do sit down to write, it takes much more effort to gather momentum than if I’d been quietly obsessing all day long. And if I can’t think of what to write or how to continue from where I left off, rather than stare into space until I figure it out, my phone is always within reach.

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Cross-Writing to Improve Writing Skills

I’m not athletic by any stretch of the imagination, but I do understand the value of cross-training. Wikipedia defines cross-training as follows:

Cross-training is athletic training in sports other than the athlete’s usual sport. The goal is improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of one training method to negate the shortcomings of another.

An ice-skater, for example, might include training in bicycling, karate, or even yoga as a way to complement the benefits from on-ice training. According to one expert quoted in a US Figure Skating article on the topic, “placing an athlete in a new environment with different demands awakens their muscles and senses, and refreshes their outlook on training. The change can be invigorating as well as beneficial.”

Writers can use this idea by adding cross-writing to their writing training as a way to use and build different creative muscles. The point of cross-training is not necessarily to become competitive in the new sport but to find new ways to sharpen skills and strengthen muscles. Similarly, when we dip into new genres, forms, lengths, or styles, our goal is not to be perfect or publishable, but to try something new:

  • Non-fiction writers can add poetry to their routine to focus on language and rhythm.
  • Fiction writers can start a blog as a way to write to deadlines and schedules.
  • Poets can write short stories to experiment with descriptions and character.
  • Essayists can write a novel to practice long-term planning and persistence.
  • Literary writers can try science fiction or fantasy to stretch their imaginations.
  • Biographers can write a romance story for the pure fun of it.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas.

The article “A Beginner’s Guide to Cross-Training” at Runner’s World offers these cross-training suggestions, which I’ve tweaked to apply to writers:

Make it regular: This advice is especially good for writers, regardless of whether we are cross-writing. In sports and other arts (music or dance, for example), regular practice is expected. Engaging in the activity “when we feel like it” isn’t enough. Writers, however, easily fall into the trap of waiting for inspiration. Maybe it’s because writing is done alone or there isn’t the tradition of working with a coach or writing doesn’t have the same kind of training program as many other skills. If we make cross-writing a regular part of our schedule (e.g., once or twice a week), we can use it to build a more sustainable writing practice.

Choose one. Once you decide upon another kind of writing to try, stick with it for awhile. Learn what you can by reading books on the form/genre, watching videos, or listening to podcasts. Immerse yourself.

Enjoy yourself! Remember, the goal is not to be published or competitive in the new venture, but to learn from it. Your poetry or science fiction or first novel doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be written.

Let effort be your guide. If the new form of writing feels uncomfortable and you are struggling a bit to meet your daily word count, you are probably doing it right. Remember to have fun (see above), but fun and effort are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t get hurt. Okay, I admit this one is kind of amusing, but here’s my take for writers: Don’t set your expectations so high that you feel bad about your writing for trying something new. Also, be sure to budget enough time for your usual writing tasks and goals. (On the other hand, you might just fall in love with something new and never look back.)

For inspiration, see Christi Craig’s blog post, “The Editor as Poet.”

96 Years Ago Today My Great Aunt Voted for the First Time (and wrote about it)

Hattie Whitcher

Harriet E. (Whiting) Whitcher

Tomorrow I will return to daily posts on writing in support of NaNoWriMo participants and other writers, but today I have something special to share, also related to writing and especially pertinent this year.

As I’ve written about here before, my great aunt Harriet (Hattie) Whitcher, a Great Plains homesteader and part Native woman on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, kept a daily diary for most of her adult life, from 1920 through much of 1957. One of her entries that I treasure most is from November 2, 1920. At the time, she and her husband, Will, lived about a mile outside Spencer, Nebraska:

1920 Nov. 1st Monday

It was windy and snowed all day but in eve stopped. Will could only do the chores but I cleaned part of basement and it was cold all day.

Nov. 2nd Tuesday

Was a bright day all day and snow melted a little. Will took me to Spencer as Mamma was sick and I staid until eve and he came for me. Will went to Brad’s for dinner as he & Mr. went hunting. I voted at Spencer Polls for the first time. [emphasis added]

Nov. 1-2, 1920

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Hattie often capitalized nouns that were important to her (e.g., “Spencer Polls”)—held over from a common practice of the 18th and 19th centuries. The 19th Amendment would have been ratified only 76 days earlier, on August 18, 1920, and knowing Hattie from reading her 37 years of diary entries, I am certain she would have looked forward with excitement to exercising her right for the first time at the age of 39,

This particular presidential election was between Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin Roosevelt. While Hattie does not mention whom she voted for in 1920, she would later become an ardent supporter of FDR, writing often of listening to his radio speeches and noting the anniversary of his death for years afterward.

I often think of how Hattie’s life would have been different had she lived in a different time or place. She was smart, sensitive, and keenly interested in politics both local and global. In later years, she complained in her diary that the women of the Legion Auxiliary of which she was a member spent more time “fussing over” children than dealing with business, and noted with impatience that the “men are right on to ropes of Legion stuff and continue to have their same officers” while the ladies often “just visited.” She often felt frustrated and outnumbered by the male voices around her, such as when, at a community meeting, “all the men were upset because I wanted a higher school at Hidden Timber [the local community], and I am in for making them prove their charges against the referendum, but I guess the day was spent in vain.”

Aunt Hattie's Diaries

Aunt Hattie’s Diaries

Whenever I feel too tired or uninspired or simply lazy to write, I try to remember Hattie, who poured her experiences and heart and soul into 77 volumes as she chronicled the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, World War II, Korean War, and progress in transportation and everyday life that must have seemed, at times, magical.

And, of course, the right to vote.

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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?