In My Next Life I Will Be a Stand-Up Comedian

I found myself in need of some cheering up so, in accordance with my ongoing fling with Netflix, I spent a lazy Sunday watching different stand-up comedy specials. Some of the specials I loved, and some I watched for about ten minutes before I decided they weren’t for me. I’ve loved comedians for as long as I can remember. I’m dating myself here as the child of the 1970s I was, but I remember listening to records like Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy, Robin Williams’ Reality, What a Concept, and anything by George Carlin (yup, kids, we had big, round record albums in those days).

No matter which comedian I watched on the stage, microphone in hand, pacing before the audience, saying their witticisms (or not-so-witticisms, but that’s entirely a matter of personal taste), I had a sense that these were people who followed their hearts. Despite family protests, lack of money, difficulty starting their careers, they followed their dreams, and getting started in comedy clubs is not an easy thing to do. To me, the comedians were a lesson about staying true to your vision for yourself no matter what others have to say.

Writing is a tough enough gig, but writing that makes people laugh is especially hard. The ability to write and tell jokes consists of a few different skills. You need to be observant about the world, and you need to be able to share those observations in a way that could only have come from you. Timing is everything in comedy. The way someone tells a joke is as important as the words being said. A comedian needs patience so they don’t speak too quickly and lose that timing. They also need to be able to read their audiences. The way a joke worked last night might not work tonight with this audience. It must be a thrill to get an immediate reaction the way stand-up comics do. That’s one thing novelists don’t experience–immediate reactions.

It’s harder to make people laugh than it is to make people cry. Many people are saddened by the same things—such as death—but our senses of humor are largely dependent on how we’re feeling at any given moment. If we’re having a good day we’re more likely to laugh. If we’re having a bad day we’re more likely not to laugh. Senses of humor are like thumbprints, we each have our own unique version, so for a comedian to be able to get a roomful of strangers to laugh at the same thing at the same time is no small gift.

As I was watching the comedians talk about their families I realized that I have more than enough material about my own family to keep me going from comedy club to comedy club for years. But don’t we all?

Who knows? Maybe in my next life I will come back as a stand-up comedian.

Here are a few of the stand-up comedy specials I enjoyed. If you’re in need of a laugh, try them out:

  1. Hasan Minhaj—Homecoming King. I’ve loved Hasan on The Daily Show, but I found his special particularly meaningful. It was the right amount of humor and poignancy as he talks about his experiences growing up Muslim in America.
  2. Jim Gaffigan—yes, I watched all five of his specials. I had never seen his stand-up before, and I loved him. He talks about every day stuff we can all relate to—watching Netflix, eating too much, and being lazy.
  3. Tracy Morgan—Staying Alive. Beware—this one is pretty raunchy, but it was still great seeing him come back from that horrible crash. It’s Tracy Morgan doing what he does best—make people laugh.

The Joy of Art Journaling

While I’m going week by week through Julia Cameron’s course The Artist’s Way, I thought I’d share a bit about art journaling since I’ve been using it as the basis for my artist’s dates. I tried out art journaling last summer, loved it, and then I totally let it drop and didn’t touch any of my paints, pencils, or stencils for nearly a year.

I fell in love with art as a sophomore in college when I took an art history class. I didn’t know much about art then, but the class fulfilled a liberal arts requirement so I grabbed it. The class covered the time period from the earliest cave paintings in France through the Roman Empire. I remember the professor who seemed so ancient to my 19 year old eyes, but was probably in his mid forties, not old at all now that I’m in my mid forties myself. He was a slight, slender man in his khaki pants, polo shirts, and sweater tied around his neck though it was summer in the San Fernando Valley in California. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as excited about their subject as that professor was. He spoke with such enthusiasm, describing the hieroglyphics inside the Egyptian pyramids as though they were indeed handed down by the gods. I remember the professor leading a class expedition to the J. Paul Getty Museum, and I remember the feeling of complete enchantment as I studied the Greek statues and pottery. I found the professor, and his subject, endearing, and it was because of that class I developed a lifelong love for art.

As much as I love to visit museum exhibitions, I never thought of myself as much of an artist. I was a writer, so I had to content myself with creative expression from writing. A number of years ago I dabbled in painting with acrylics, but that didn’t last long. I tried to take a painting class at the extension university where I was teaching creative writing, but the teacher wasn’t all I hoped she would be. She was a short French woman with the oddly elfin look of Dobby from the Harry Potter books. Her dyed jet-black hair was cut into an ear-length 1920s flapper’s bob and she wore huge round black glasses that took up the whole of her face. She tottered around the classroom shrugging at the students’ paintings the way only the French can. There was no instruction. There were no directions. She put some flowers in a vase on a stool at the front of the classroom and told us to paint what we saw. I looked around the classroom and saw students painting, but I didn’t even know where to start. I had never taken an art class. Yes, I loved to look at paintings, but looking and painting are two very different things. I started painting the flowers in the vase the best I could. Finally, Dobby stopped besides me and shrugged. “You are supposed to paint what you see,” she said. “This is what you see?”

Before I could answer, she shrugged and moved on. A little while later she stopped near me again.

“Why is your canvas so small?” she asked. Now it was my turn to shrug (I’m French too, you know). I didn’t remember there being a canvas size requirement in the class materials list, I said. Dobby opened her arms wide. “If you want to learn to paint, you paint big!”

I told her I didn’t think I was going to learn how to paint from her if she didn’t give us any instruction. I was a complete beginner and knew nothing about painting. Her only response was “Hmpf!” as she tottered away. Another student next to me shrugged and said that that was just the way the teacher was. I grabbed my materials, left the room, and got a refund for the money I paid for the class. I practiced a little on my own, but then decided I didn’t know what I was doing so I stopped. I still considered myself a wanna-be artist, but I limited my non-writing artistic experiences to watching craft shows on TV.

In time I started coloring, which I do enjoy. It’s stress free because someone else has done the drawing. All I have to do is choose which colors I’m going to use and have fun filling in the blanks. One Saturday afternoon I was watching one of my favorite craft shows, Scrapbook Soup on PBS with Julie Fei-Fan Balzer, and she had a guest on who talked about art journaling. Certainly, I knew what journaling was. Like most writers, I’ve been keeping a written journal for years, but art journaling was something new.

If you’re not familiar with art journaling, it’s the same as writing journaling except you’re using art supplies like colored pencils, paints, stencils, and stamps. Just as with writing journaling, art journaling is about the process and not about the finished product. When we keep writing journals we don’t worry about what we’re writing—we’re just writing. It’s like the writing practice Natalie Goldberg refers to in Writing Down the Bones or the morning pages of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Art journaling is art practice. We’re playing with the supplies, trying out different paints and different styles and different color combinations, not worrying about the final result. You can art journal on whatever paper you have handy—a bound journal, a composition book, even junk mail, old books, or magazines. You don’t need to take art classes. It’s the same learning by doing mentality that helped me become a writer, and since no one is going to see my art journal but me, I don’t have to worry about some little Dobby hovering over my shoulder shrugging as if I had no business so much as passing an art supply store.

When I began art journaling, I started slowly, buying some cheap acrylic paint at the discount store, and I already had a pretty good stash of colored pencils, crayons, and markers because of my coloring. I had an old sketch book from the Dobby days when I tried to paint the first time, and that became my art journal. I love stencils because I don’t have to worry about my drawing skills. I added a few paint markers to my stash, and I had a box of patterned scrapbook paper because I’ve created scrapbooks on occasion. Art journaling is simply about playing with what you have, allowing yourself to express yourself in whatever way you feel in the moment. The only way to do it wrong is to not do it at all.

Now, if you’re anything like me and have suffered from compare-itis, you’ll find it’s very easy to fall back into that trap when art journaling. Many of the people who make art journaling videos on YouTube or post their artwork on Pinterest are professional artists, so it’s very easy to look at their examples and think, “Well, I suck. What’s the point?” But that goes against the very purpose of art journaling. You need to look at the examples as what they are—examples—and then do what you can do in that moment. You can make your art journal pages look however you want—you can make them more like scrapbook pages, calendar pages, bullet journals. You can paint flowers, stencil flowers, doodle flowers. If you try something and don’t like it you can either paint over it with gesso or try to work with it. You can’t do it wrong. How cool is that?

Art journaling must have been invented for someone like me—someone who loves to play with paint and color but doesn’t have much background knowledge about how to actually make art. Some of my pages are kind of cool, and some are kind of weird, and some are kind of cartoony, but you know what? It’s all good. Anything I do in my art journal is right for me. So there, Dobby!

While I will always be a writer first, I’m enjoying discovering other artistic pursuits. I’m glad Julia Cameron’s course The Artist’s Way is prompting me to explore other avenues of creativity; mainly, I’m glad I’ve found my way back to art journaling.

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The Artist’s Way Week One

Last week I started participating in Julia Cameron’s 12 week course The Artist’s Way. It might seem odd that I would start such a course at this stage of my writing life. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, I’ve had short stories and articles published since 2000, and my novels have been published since 2011. I was doing all right, right? I was writing, publishing, and finding successes where I could.

I wrote last week about how suddenly, after writing and publishing for years, I hit the wall of Resistance pretty hard, leaving me with bruised extremities and a soft-boiled ego. What happened? You name it, and it was probably right–I was lazy, I was afraid of failing, I was afraid of dreaming too big, I was tired of battling between what I wanted to write and what I thought I should write.

I’ve always believed that you will find what you need if you open yourself up to receive it. On a whim, I pulled The Artist’s Way off my bookshelf (it was one of the few paperbacks I kept after I embraced the minimalist movement and started donating books and other things I no longer used). I skimmed through the pages and recognized it as a 12 week course that needs to be worked through rather than read cover to cover. I made the decision to take the plunge. Luckily for me, I had just reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Goldberg’s suggestions went along perfectly with the purpose of The Artist’s Way. Here’s what I did for Week One:

  • I completed my morning pages for each of the seven days. If you’re not familiar with Cameron’s morning pages, it’s a journal that you keep every day. The only rule is you have to write at least three pages, but otherwise you can write about whatever you want. The idea is just to get the thoughts flowing. Natalie Goldberg refers to it as writing practice. I use Goldberg’s idea of using sensory detail and memories and life happenings as fuel for my writing. Here’s a sample from my morning pages from last week:

I have been to this hospital too many times to count. It is as though the hospital itself waves “Hello! Welcome back!” whenever it opens its sliding glass doors to me and I walk from the 115 degree dry desert heat into the cold, stale air of the waiting room. If I think about it, I can count the number of times I have been here: one…two…three…four…five…six…seven… My mother calls this hospital her home away from home, and it is. The hospital is located at the north end of Tenaya Way, the medical district with doctors’ offices, physical therapists’ offices, blood-draw offices, and MRI offices. There’s also a post office and a pub for those in need of a pick-me-up from waiting in tight-fisted doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms where people are packed tighter than pencils in a box. There is the serenity of the mountains in the distance, but there’s also the freeway just a few feet away, and if you stop and listen you can hear the zoom of the car-chase type speeds as vehicles zip past, as though the drivers believe they are race-car champions. 

I won’t bore you with the rest of it, but you can see that I’ve incorporated Goldberg’s idea of including sensory details as a way of practicing the pinpoint eyesight through which I can observe the world and use in my writing.

  • I did my artist’s date. An artist’s date, according to Cameron, is a weekly chance for us to get in touch with our inner creative person. It’s a chance to do something fun and creative simply to do something fun and creative. This week I did a page in my art journal. I discovered art journaling last summer and fell in love with it, and then I didn’t touch my journal for months. It was great fun to pull out my paints and stencils again, and I’m sorry I let it go for so long. The inspiration for this page came from Mimi Bondi, a French mixed media artist living in Australia. I love Mimi because she’s all about finger painting and having fun and doing whatever you want and you can’t do it wrong, which goes right along with the intention behind the artist’s date. If you’re looking for art journaling inspiration, check out Mimi’s YouTube page.
  • I answered the questions and completed the tasks at the end of Lesson One. I wrote my responses right into my morning pages journal. I took a walk (in 115 degree nose-bleed dry desert heat, which is great commitment, I must say), and I discovered that the monster who has done the most to discourage my creativity and my writing is me. Now there’s a revelation.

It’s only been one week, but so far so good. So far I’ve read the lesson for the second week, and I’m looking forward to the discoveries ahead.

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9 Tips for Submitting to Editors

This is one of my most popular posts. I decided to reshare it after I revised it a bit. I hope you find it useful as you prepare your own writing for submission.

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After I was invited to speak at the Henderson Writers Group, I had to decide what I had to offer that was useful. As the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, an award-winning literary journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, I realized I could offer tips on how to make submissions stand out so they had a better chance of being published.

Most writers write with the intention of being published. Not all writers. A few years ago I taught a creative writing workshop for adults in California and I had a lovely older lady as a student. She was taking my class because she wanted to write her life story for her grandchildren and she wanted to write it well. But most writers want to submit their work to magazines, journals, agents, and book editors so they can be published.

Every day writers give editors many reasons to say no to their submissions. If you can help your submission stand out from the crowd, in a good way, then you can increase your chances of getting a yes and being published. Here are my best tips for submitting to editors.

Don’t…

9. Cc every editor you’re submitting to in one email

Most editors understand that writers are sending simultaneous submissions, meaning that writers are sending their work to several journals at a time. Even so, it’s important for writers to take the few extra minutes to send a separate email to each individual editor. It looks more professional, like the writer cares about presentation. Cc’d submissions look lazy, quite frankly, and other editors I know agree with me. Every time I’m included in a cc list with other editors, inevitably a few of the other editors will email me and ask “Did you see that email?” Then they’ll follow the question with something like “What a jerk!” or some other expletive I won’t include here. I don’t look too closely at cc’d submissions, and neither do other editors I know.

8. Misspell the editor’s name

7. Confuse the editor’s gender

Make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly, and check to see if the editor is a boy or a girl. If I had a dollar for every time I received an email addressed to Mr. Allred I could have bought out Borders and prevented it from going out of business. I’ve seen my name as Allston, Allen, Allan, and every other variant of All— you can think of. On The Copperfield Review The Staff page, my name is there, spelled correctly, and you can see at a glance that my gender pronoun is ‘she.’ It’s the same for other editors or agents—the information is on their websites. Just three weeks ago we received a submission addressed to “Dear Sirs.” There isn’t a single “sir” on the staff of Copperfield. That submission was laughed right into the no-thanks file. Details are important. Really.

6. Resubmit a new version of your work 

Whether your work is accepted or rejected, don’t resend a new version to the same editor. If your work was rejected, it wasn’t right for that editor for various reasons. It isn’t anything about your talent or even that particular story. Different editors have different preferences, that’s all. Keep sending the story out to different editors. But don’t send it back to the same editor, even if you’ve reworked it—that is, unless the editor has specifically said to send it back after you’ve made revisions.

That goes for work that’s been accepted too. It’s happened where we’ve accepted a piece for publication and then the writer says something like, “I’ve reworked my story. Here’s the new version.” If we accepted it, then we thought it was fine. We don’t need a new version. At Copperfield, we stopped accepting new versions because we were doing twice the work—formatting the original we accepted, then formatting the new one. Now on our guidelines it says writers need to send in the version they want to see online since what they send us (if it’s accepted) is what’s going up. Send in your best stuff the first time, and that will make the process easier for you and for the editors.

5. Forget to let editors know your work has been accepted elsewhere

I took a quick poll of a few editor friends of mine. I asked them what their number one pet peeve was concerning submissions, and every one said they’re most annoyed when they choose a work for publication and then find out the work has been accepted elsewhere.

The issue isn’t that the work has been picked up by another journal. Nearly every editor I know is a writer too, and we’re thrilled when other writers are published whether it’s in our journal or someone else’s. The problem occurs when we aren’t told a submission is no longer up for consideration. At Copperfield, we spend a lot of time reading and rereading every submission we receive. If authors don’t tell us their work has been accepted elsewhere and we spend time considering their work, we’ve just wasted hours, and, like many of you, we don’t have hours to waste. A simple e-mail is all it takes. No long explanations required. But it is expected, professional courtesy to let editors know your work is no longer up for grabs.

Do…

4. Send in your most polished work

I’m a writer too, and I know what it’s like to be eager to be published. It takes discipline to keep reworking a piece until it’s polished and ready to submit, especially since the revising process could take weeks or even months. You don’t need to rush the submitting process. Literary journals, agents, and publishers aren’t going to disappear.

Run your work by a critique group. Take writing classes. Read some great short stories and examine their greatness. Develop an ear for well-written dialogue. Unwieldy or unnecessary dialogue is a common problem in submissions we see at Copperfield. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be. I know we live in the “I want it now” era, but there’s no rush. You’re on no one else’s timetable but your own. Make sure your story is the best it can be before you send it off to editors.

3. Proofread your queries and submissions

It’s important to proofread for typos and other boo-boos. It goes back to showing editors, agents, and anyone else you’re submitting to that you’re serious about writing. You’re not sending in something you wrote off the top of your head, and you took the time to read and reread to check for mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to catch your own mistakes because your eyes see what they expect to see, and they expect to see what you meant to write. Maybe you meant to write ‘she’ instead of ‘the’ but your finger went to the right instead of the left and…you know how it goes. And spellcheck, while a great tool, isn’t perfect.

It’s helpful to have another set of eyes proofread your work for you. Whether it’s a friend with a firm grasp of language and spelling or you hire a professional editor, someone else will often catch those pesky typos before you do, and that will help you create a professional looking draft most editors will be happy to consider.

2. Read previous editions of the journal/publication to see what they publish

Sites like New Pages or the Literary Magazines page from Poets & Writers are great resources for finding journals that publish stories like the ones you’ve written. When I first started writing historical fiction I searched for journals that published that genre, but I couldn’t find any. As a result, I started my own—The Copperfield Review. With so many journals online these days, it’s easy to click through their stories to see what they like to publish, and it helps to whittle down your list of possible submissions.

The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction. You’d be amazed at the countless submissions we’ve received over the years that were not at all historical in nature. Writers waste their time sending their non-historical submissions to us. That’s one more rejection letter they wouldn’t have received if they had checked our website. Even a cursory glance would show that The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction.

If you write science fiction, seek out science fiction journals. If you write mystery, humor, romance, inspirational, literary—whatever it is, there’s a journal out there that publishes it. Send your work to those journals because you’ll have a better chance of being published. And if such a journal doesn’t exist, start your own. It worked for me.

1. Follow the submission guidelines exactly as stated

As a writer myself, I understand that sometimes submission guidelines seem petty, even vindictive—you know, a way to make writers more miserable. What does it matter if it asks for a third person bio? What does it matter if I send in seven poems at a time instead of three? But those guidelines exist for a reason, and editors notice if writers don’t follow them. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

Maybe the problem is the word guidelines, which sounds more like submission suggestions. The guidelines exist because the editors need some semblance of sanity, a method to our madness, to help us weed through hundreds of submissions per edition. For example, we don’t accept file attachments because we caught viruses when we did. We only accept one poem at a time and we have a word limit for fiction and nonfiction because we’re a tiny staff with day jobs, families, and other life obligations. We ask for a third person bio because books, newspapers, and magazines use third person bios. I understand that to authors it might not seem like a big deal whether they send in a bio in first or third person, but it makes a difference to us as we put each new edition together.

For writers who want a one-size-fits-all file that will work as a submission for fifty different journals, I’m afraid that’s not likely. Submissions that follow the guidelines are the ones we look at seriously for publication. Writers careful to follow our specific guidelines at Copperfield are showing us that they take their writing seriously, they care about presentation, and they’re making the process easier by giving us what we’ve asked for. All I can say is a hearty “Thank you!” to those writers.

It isn’t so hard to send in a strong submission. It boils down to being professional, sending in your best work, and following the guidelines. If you can do those things, the sky is the limit for your writing career.

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The Discovery, the Bones, and the Artist’s Way

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about beginner’s mind, where we go back to the beginning to remember what it is like to try something for the first time. As someone who has been writing since high school with the intention of being published, and as someone who has had a few literary successes I thought I knew what writing was.

And then I didn’t.

It was the stuff outside writing I started having problems with. I understand what social media is and how to use it (some of it, anyway). I understand more about marketing than I did before Her Dear & Loving Husband was published. Suddenly, publicity and marketing became overwhelming because there’s too much out there. Blogs, books, podcasts–all proclaiming “I’ve sold a million books! This is how you can do it!” And then when I didn’t get close to the numbers the experts claimed to have achieved I felt smaller than a gnat. I wanted to sell a million books too, so I allowed myself to be persuaded by iffy claims and false advertising–sometimes from people who hadn’t sold any more books than I had. If I had been around in the era of the carnival barkers I would have fallen for their every sales pitch, believing that saw dust would cure all my ills. I followed every publishing site, read every book, and listened to every podcast searching for that magic nugget, that one big reveal that would set me on the road to becoming the Next Big Thing.

One day, not too long ago, everything I was reading about publishing started to feel like noise–a residual sound like a tinnitus-type ringing in my ears. Then I wondered, how have I contributed to the noise? Is that what being a writer is now? Spreading noise instead of thoughts, opinions, and ideas? Instead of sharing stories? How much of my work has come from my heart, and how much has come from my beliefs about what I think others want from me? As of right now, I know what I do not want: I no longer want to contribute to the noise.

As soon as last week I was making myself crazy trying to discover what kind of books I should write that would make the most money and how quickly I could write those books and how to best market those books and which influencers I should connect with and how to publicize everything to my best advantage.

Only I didn’t want any of it.

Somehow, call it a flash of enlightenment, I understood that I was marching to the beat of other people’s drummers instead of my own. I’m a pretty independent-minded person, and even I followed the pied piper.  I went along because I lost track of what being a writer meant to me. I lost track of being an artist, of seeing the world through wide, open eyes that recognize life on earth as the miracle it is, like when I taught kindergarteners–a job I adored–because everything was new to them. The simplest experiment–making bubbles from soap and water and empty strawberry cartons and watching the sunlight reflect rainbow prisms as the bubbles floated away in the white-cloud sky–made them point and giggle with glee. In that moment those bubbles were the greatest thing ever. After 23 years of writing, that’s what I wanted for myself–I wanted to watch bubbles with wonder. I wanted to get back to beginner’s mind.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones too many times to count, and this morning I finished reading it once again. But it was a different experience this time. This time, it hit me exactly in the innards. I had seen myself as a writer for many years, and while I always loved what Goldberg said and took a lot of it to heart, I didn’t really understand the book until this latest reading. I had also read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way before, only the first time I read it cover to cover, which is not how the book was meant to be experienced since it’s a 12 week course to be studied week by week. I loved what Cameron said about living a creative’s life, but I didn’t take it to heart because I thought I was already doing all right in that department.

Maybe I wasn’t as creatively all right as I thought. I want to get back to the heart of being creative and the soul of what I really love–writing. I am really only at home in the world when I’m writing. I am now going through Cameron’s course week by week. I’m on week one. I’ve started doing morning pages (or writing practice, as Natalie Goldberg calls it). So far I’ve done my morning pages every day this week, though I haven’t done my artist’s date yet. I have a feeling Saturdays will be my day for my artist’s date. I think I would like to do a page or two in my art journal, using finger paints and designing whatever I see in my mind’s eye at that moment. I haven’t touched my art journal in nearly a year, and I have missed it.

For so long, writing had become a chore because I had so many other worries. Like Natalie Goldberg says, writing does writing, and that’s where I lost my connection–to writing and myself. I was trying too hard to push the writing this or that way thinking I should do what others told me to do instead of doing what my heart wanted to do. That is always a mistake.

I’m looking forward to working through The Artist’s Way. I’ll share my experiences as I go through the program week by week. So far, week one, I find the process freeing and exhilarating and exactly what I need right now.

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Decluttering for Writers: 5 Easy Tips

I mentioned in this post that I’ve recently reread Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and now I’m half-way through The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify (Updated and Revised) by Francine Jay. Both books have a message I needed to hear, especially now that I’m serious about creating a career for myself as a writer. How much do you really need to be happy? Am I happier if I have more stuff? (Answer: no.) Did I really need those stuffed animals I kept in my classroom when I taught elementary school or those grunge rock CDs from the 1990s? Over the past week I’ve brought 12 bags and four plastic bins of clothes I no longer wear (some even with the price tag still on them), CDs I no longer listen to, books I no longer read, and DVDs I no longer watch to Goodwill, a charity organization that resells gently used items. I even tackled my garage, which seemed insurmountable but in reality took me about three hours on a Saturday.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a minimalist according to Jay’s definition since I’m not going for bare walls or getting rid of stuff simply for the sake of getting rid of stuff. There’s nothing inherently wrong in things if they are things you love or things you use. It’s the stuff that hangs out in plastic bins in our garages or shoved into the back of our closets, things that you haven’t looked at in years, that can weigh on our psyches. In my case, it’s been 7 ½ years since I moved into this apartment and looked at the things I had stashed away in plastic bins.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the week I spent going through my belongings was a week I wasn’t writing. As a matter of fact, you would be correct. I didn’t get much writing done last week, but I would argue that it was still time well spent. I agree with Kondo and Jay that a cluttered home, or even a cluttered desk, can hamper our best intentions to sit, concentrate, and work. When everywhere you look is busy with things you don’t need and never use, it sucks up brain space (at least it does for me), making creating that much more difficult. As I was going through my belongings, deciding what to donate and how to organize what I was keeping, I realized that this tidying up was necessary for my writing process because I was creating room to work. Instead of my eye falling on clutter or my monkey mind thinking that I was going to have to tackle the garage one of these days, I attacked the problems head on, handled them, and now I can move onto other things. I was making sure everything was in order so I could spend my writing time thinking about—you guessed it—writing.

Of course, a writer’s brain is a writer’s brain, and while I was decluttering I discovered a few tips for writers who want to get their space together.

Yes, the Dickens books had to stay, along with my Dickens and Shakespeare action figures. They’re silly, I know, but they make me smile when I look at them.

  1. Pare down your books

Writers believe that books are magical and sacred, and they are. Many of us decided to become writers because we loved to read so much. I believe we can only ingest so many words before we feel compelled to start spilling words back out. I’m not suggesting that we need to get rid of every book we own, but imagine how much nicer our space would be, and how much more meaningful, if we kept only the books that were important to us. Like many writers, I had more books than I had space, some which I had never read (like most book lovers I tend to buy books faster than I can read them), and others which I read once and that was enough.

I let go of the extra books and kept only the ones that bring me joy, as Marie Kondo suggests. I still have books. I have my Dickens, books about writing, self-help books that have been meaningful, and of course I have my own books because it brings me joy to look at my shelf and see my name on the books I’ve written. I have a few knick knacks and a few photographs, and I have my coloring books because I love to color. Now when I look at my bookshelf I smile because I’m happy with everything I see.

I rarely buy physical books any more. I have my handy-dandy Kindle, which allows me to buy or borrow books, and instead of physical tomes that gather dust, I can bring all of my digital books wherever I go. I can read on the Kindle itself or on the Kindle app on my phone. I know there are people who still love having a book in their hands, and I get that. Part of my love for my Kindle is that I can make the text larger, which is easier on my progressive lens wearing eyes, so that’s a personal reason for my preference for electronics books. If you want to buy new physical books, by all means buy new physical books. If the book sings to your soul, keep it. If you read it once and that was enough, pass it on to a family member, friend, your local library, or another charity that accepts used books. Remember libraries? We can borrow books from the library, too, so we don’t have to spend money or find a place for everything we want to read.

Here’s my new desk with the handy-dandy shelves for my coloring supplies. It keeps the desk itself free for my computer so I can think without having to push crayons or colored pencils aside.

  1. Keep your desk clear

Desks are easy places to pile things. It must be something about the flat surface. But if your desk is messy or cluttered, it’s often the mess or clutter that captures your thoughts, not whatever it is you’re trying to write. It’s easy enough to get distracted these days by the Internet and Netflix without being distracted by our own belongings. I love to color, but my old desk had nowhere for me to put my colored pencils and markers. The coloring supplies were scattered all over my desk, taking up every square inch of space. There was no room for me to work. I donated my old desk to the Salvation Army and bought myself a nice, neat desk along with a nice, neat set of shelves (both courtesy of IKEA) with room for my coloring supplies. This left the desk itself clear for my computer so I have room to write. Having somewhere to sit and think without distractions makes so much difference.

  1. A place for everything and everything in its place

Both Kondo and Jay talk about steering clear of expensive storage bins, and I’ve found this to be true. Finding a place for everything you’re going to keep doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. There’s a Dollar Store down the street from where I live, and I managed to organize my bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom closet with plastic bins that cost $1 each. This is where organization plays a role because you have to decide where you’re going to keep everything you need. Jay talks about the 80/20 rule—you use 20% of your belongings 80% of the time, so you want to keep that 20% of stuff you use frequently close to where you’ll need them. All of my writing materials are located near my desk so I don’t have to go searching for them. I know where everything is. Instead of scrambling at the bottom of a drawer for a paperclip, I know they’re in the plastic container. It’s the little things that make a difference when we’re searching for time and space to write.

  1. Go digital

To stop the avalanche that happens when we have a lot of handwritten notebooks hanging around the house, I’ve become more digital. I used to keep spiral notebooks, but as I’ve become more aware of decluttering and staying decluttered I started keeping everything in electronic format. I keep whatever I’m working on on my computer and Dropbox and Google Drive help me keep larger files. I’ve started taking notes and journaling on my computer too. It took some getting used to since for many years I believed what Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within—writing longhand in spiral notebooks helps create a hand to heart connection with what you’re writing. I do still believe that, and there have even been studies that prove the point, but this is the digital age after all and I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand. Plus, having all those notebooks around my small apartment became cumbersome. It was a hard decision to recycle years of my handwritten journals, but I realized that I never went back into old journals to read them. I wrote them, got the thoughts out of my system, and then I was done with them. Why keep that old energy around?

If you do comb through your old notebooks for story ideas, then by all means keep them. If you love to write longhand, then do. Find a container where you can keep your notebooks (you’ll probably need more than one), buy cute Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman notebooks as Natalie Goldberg suggests, and do your thing. If you are interested in going digital, Scrivener is a great tool to keep your notes, research, and drafts in the same computer file. You can even import photographs. Here’s my post about my experience learning to write a novel using Scrivener.

Marie Kondo talks about getting rid of papers because papers never bring anyone joy. Lordy, is that true. I had two bins and two cardboard boxes of old papers in my garage, and I finally let them go. The papers were so old I found a coupon from a clothing store that expired in 2009. No joke. If they’re old papers, get rid of them. They will bring you no joy. If they’re papers you need, find a space for them and keep them all together so you know where everything is. One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to clog Mother Earth more than she already is, so please do recycle those old papers, but definitely get them out of your house.

  1. Be honest about your goals

What do you really want to accomplish? This is an important question for both declutterers and writers. Why are you really keeping that high school memento? Why do you really want to publish that book? Often, we do things motivated by how the thing makes us feel than by the thing itself. The more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we can accomplish. I want to declutter so I can relax and feel more comfortable in my own home. I want to clear my writing space so I have room to move my thoughts around and flex my creativity. It’s hard to settle your mind to a creative task when there are things around the house that need seeing to, so take some time to see to the tasks.

The point with decluttering isn’t to get rid of things you use or love. The point is to be honest about what you use or love. If you don’t use it or love it, you have permission to recycle it or give it away. It is a freeing feeling. The only problem I’m having now is that I need fresh excuses about why I’m procrastinating and not getting any writing done…

Writing this post made me think of George Carlin’s classic bit about a house being simply a place for my stuff. If you’ve never seen it, give yourself a five minute treat and watch. Carlin was always ahead of his time, and this bit is particularly funny in this age of decluttering and minimalizing. For me, at least, decluttering has helped me become more aware of what I’m keeping in this place for my stuff.

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Writers Block Versus Readers Block

I feel like I’ve become Chicken Little shouting “The sky is falling!” or, in my case, “Down Salem Way is coming!” I can hear fans of the Loving Husband Trilogy thinking, seriously, lady, how long does it take to write a novel based on characters and ideas you already know?

It’s true that I’ve had other things going on in my life, as we all have. Some of those other things have taken a lot of time, but even that isn’t really an excuse. I’ve always believed that if you want to write badly enough you’ll make the time. It’s true I had other books that were poking at me with pointed sticks until I wrote them down and set them free, but When It Rained at Hembry Castle was published over a year ago, and then there were no more excuses. What else was going on?

I’ve been stalled. I mean really, really stalled. For a while, I thought it was writers block that was stopping me. If you’ve spent any amount of time writing, you know about writers block. It’s where writers are so stuck for ideas that we spend hours or even weeks staring at a blank screen. It’s where writers think they will never have an idea again, the well is dry, and there’s nowhere to find the water you need to survive. That sounds dramatic, I know, but that’s what writing struggles feel like—like you’re searching for that one big idea that will help everything else fall into place, a figurative glass of water to soothe your thirst. To a degree, it’s correct to call my struggles with Down Salem Way writers block. The three books in the Loving Husband Trilogy came so easily. Once I settled on the historical periods for each book (the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese-American internment camps, respectively), the plots took care of themselves. When I finished writing the last book in the trilogy, Her Loving Husband’s Return, I felt that the story was neatly wrapped up—all the odds and ends of the plot had been seen to—and in my mind the story was done. When so many readers asked for more James and Sarah stories, I thought, sure, I can do that. I love these characters and I love their story. I can write more.

It’s a different feeling writing a book in a series that is loved by readers than it is to write a book to entertain yourself. That’s what I did when I wrote the Loving Husband Trilogy—I wrote the stories for myself because I was eager to see what happened next. Suddenly, I was worried about the new story in a way I hadn’t been before. What will fans of the series think? Will they like the direction in which James and Sarah have gone? Will they like the twists and turns? I’m wondering if it has been readers block that slowed down my writing process; of course, readers block is simply an extension of writers block. Readers block is where the writer is so worried about what readers are going to think that it stops the writing process altogether. Writers block is where I’m unable to write because of what I think about my writing; readers block is where I’m unable to write because of what I think readers will think about my writing. It may be a minor distinction—both types of blocks leave me banging my head against the wall—but it was important for me to realize that I was worried about disappointing readers. I had to recognize that I was nervous about not recreating the magic of the first three Loving Husband books. I had to shine a light on my writing struggles and acknowledge them because otherwise I was full of excuses: I have other books that I had to write first; I had to take a break from the Loving Husband stories because I worked on them four years straight without a break; I have other life obligations that were taking too much time. You know the drill. When we’re in the midst of excuses it’s too easy to turn away from the truth that’s staring us in the face. I was afraid to write because I was afraid to fail.

So there’s my rationale behind my decision to write Down Salem Way on Wattpad. I’ve always believed that in order to overcome a fear, you have to face it head on. Rather than not write the story, which is how I had been handling the fear, or rather than writing the story while I was hidden away in the dark with all my worries making my monkey mind spin uncontrollably, I decided to write in the light of day so anyone who wants to can see. What you’re seeing on Wattpad right now is what you get because I’m posting an early draft as I write it, but I think this writing out loud is just what I need to help myself get past my readers block, or my writers block, or whatever this lack of progress is, so that I can get back to what I do best–writing.

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