Writers spend a lot of time alone, and some of us write about ourselves way too much. Today, I invite you to put yourself in the head of a stranger. He or she could be walking or driving by. She could be the waitress serving your lunch, the kid putting gas in your car, or the plumber coming to fix your sink. He could be the guy sitting alone in the next booth, the sunburned teenager sitting on a blanket with her friends at the beach, or the homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk near the grocery store.
Use your imagination and your acting skills to become these people and write from their point of view for a poem or story. Ask yourself: What are they thinking? What are they worried about? What are they looking forward to? What are they dreading? How did they get to this place and this situation?
If you’re strictly a non-fiction writer, can you think of an essay or article idea? Homelessness, loneliness, gas vs. electric cars, summer jobs, sunburn remedies, people multi-tasking while walking, etc.
If you’re home alone, think of someone you saw recently. For example, yesterday I nearly ran over a guy lying half off the sidewalk at 6th and 101 here in Newport. Sandy beard, freckles, wild blue eyes, heavy coat on a hot day. What’s his story? And why is no one, including me, doing anything to help him?
Get out of your own head and put yourself in someone else’s for a while. I suspect you’ll be pleased at the results.
Now go write.
Whether or not you believe in Christmas, you must believe in writing or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. So here’s my gift to you after oh, 15 minutes of deep thought. Fill in the blanks to write tweets, poems, stories, articles, opinion pieces, whatever feels right. You’re welcome share the results in the comments. Unless it’s really good. Then keep it to yourself and publish it.
1. When he reached into his Christmas stocking, he never expected to find____________
2. He said, “I promise you I won’t______________________”
3. It was the first time she __________________________
4. Under the snow, she found _________________________
5. My mother’s (or father’s) idea of a good Christmas was ________________________
6. I stared at my present in disbelief. It was _______________________________
7. If I were in charge of Christmas, I would ____________________________
8. Santa’s on a special diet this year, so I’m leaving him ________________________
9. Gun in hand, he stared at the blow-up snowman and said, “_____________________”
10. Mary said to Joseph the night the Baby was born, “__________________________”
11. Wearing his old suit that was too big for him now, Bud Johnson slipped into the back pew at church on Christmas Eve. It was ________________________
12. “What have you got now?” she screamed at the dog. She reached into the canine’s mouth and pulled out __________________________
Merry Christmas to one and all, and to all, NOW GO WRITE.
A member of my critique group has been struggling with his novel for months. Every two weeks, he’d bring us his pages, excited about the story he was telling, and we’d say, no, this doesn’t work. We couldn’t identify with the characters or put ourselves into the scenes. It read like a textbook, boring. Brave soul that he is, he never got angry or gave up but went home to try again.
At our last meeting, I suggested he open a new file and try something radical: Write a few pages in first person and present tense, as in “Suddenly I realize the gun is pointing straight at me” instead of “He realized the gun was pointing at him.” Oh my gosh, what a difference. Today’s pages are wonderful. I feel it, I see it, I am in the mind of his hero.
I like first-person writing. I think it makes it easier to slip into a character’s voice. But writing in first person doesn’t work for every situation. Often in fiction, you need the distance of writing as an observer. In first person, the narrator can only know what the character knows while the third-person narrator can know everything. In other kinds of writing, such as poetry, writing in first person can allow you to take on someone else’s voice, or it may lead you into verse that is too self-involved.
Nonfiction is a whole other thing when it comes to point of view. If you’re writing articles for a magazine, newspaper or website, you have to go with the publication’s style. If most of the articles are in first-person, yours should be, too. If not, the word “I” should not appear anywhere in your story.
Point of view is a huge subject I’m not going to cover in depth today. You can link on some of the sites listed below for details about POV. I’m just saying if your manuscript isn’t working, try changing point of view. It can make a huge difference.
As for present tense vs. past, it’s up to you. Past tense is the traditional way to go with fiction, but writing in present tense has become quite popular. It definitely helps the reader get into the scene and feel as if it’s happening right now. But it’s tricky to keep all your verb tenses in line. My nearly finished novel is in present tense, and I keep promising myself that I’ll go back to past tense with the next one. With poetry and creative nonfiction, you can go either way. If you’re writing articles, check what the publication does and do likewise.
Sometimes when we’re working on a writing project, we get locked into however we started it, feeling as if we’ve gone too far to change. But it’s never too late. Whichever way you’re doing it now, try a few pages the other way. It might make a huge difference.
Visit these sites to read more about Point of View:
Now (second person, present tense), go write.
When life takes you away from your desk and your routine, look around. Raw material for your writing lurks everywhere.
I’m in San Francisco this week. My father had heart surgery here on Tuesday. I’m happy to report that he did spectacularly well and is recovering quickly. At 91, he’s the strongest man I know. So there’s a character for you: the nonagenarian widower determined to keep living on his own. Yes, we’ve all seen the clichéd movies of the week where a woman shows up and softens the heart of the grumpy old man, but don’t go there. Find the real human being and the real story behind him.
Here’s another character: the tall stylish black woman in the elevator shouting into her smart phone, “Don’t let them cut off her leg! It’s not like what happened to Joey.” She has a Bluetooth in her ear and holds her phone at waist level. When the other passengers get off at the second floor, she turns to me. “They want to cut my mama’s leg off. Nobody’s listening to me. I can’t let them do it.” She follows me off the elevator at the wrong floor, still talking, then pauses. “How the hell do I get out of this place? I hate this place.”
The curly-haired woman whose 56-year-old husband collapsed on Thanksgiving Day with an aortic aneurism the size of a grapefruit and underwent 10 hours of surgery while she waited, sure he was going to die. Today she follows him, smiling and brushing away tears as he takes his first steps around the intensive care unit, pushing an IV cart.
The woman from India whose husband also went to the hospital on Thanksgiving in need of a triple bypass. She waited all weekend for an opening in the surgery schedule. In the intensive care waiting room, she deals with phone calls from co-workers who can’t seem to do their jobs without her.
The young black woman at the security desk who has been working since 5 a.m. and is making her Christmas list between visitors.
The guy selling bread sculpted into the shape of flowers in the courtyard in front of the hospital.
The Italian-born surgeon hurrying into the cafeteria to buy sushi between heart surgeries. He wears green scrubs and stops to shake hands with three middle-aged people picking at salad-bar salads. Their father is next.
The man on the street digging cans and bottles out of a garbage can. Above his ragged tennis shoes, his bare ankles are grimed with dirt.
The tiny old man sitting on a plastic crate outside the Japanese cultural center.
The man in a suit waiting for the bus at Geary and Fillmore.
Every one of these people has a story, a real-life story we could tell if we interviewed them or a fictional one we can make up. There’s a poem to be written about each one, too. Use your imagination. Where are they going? Where do they live? What will they eat for dinner? Do they have spouses, children, lovers, cats? Do they have hundred dollar bills in their wallets or a few coins? When they woke up this morning, what was their first thought?
Wherever you are, look around and ask questions. You will never run out of stories, I promise.
Now go write.
I’m having one of those days when I don’t want to write. In fact, I don’t want to do anything. I’m leaving on a trip in a couple days, I’ve got someone coming over later today, and I’m worn out from Fourth of July, so I just want to bag the whole business. Why not, you might ask. Lots of folks are taking a long holiday weekend. Good question.
There’s always a good excuse for not doing it. So what are the reasons TO do it? Take a moment here to think about your reasons or try to guess mine.
Got something in mind? Good.
Here are my top five:
Momentum: If I stop in the middle of a project, it’s going to be hard to get my head back into it when I return to it. And I might be tempted to stop altogether. I’m also a musician, and I know that when I’m trying to learn a song, if I don’t keep coming back to it, I never really learn it. Same thing with writing.
Keeping my writing muscles in shape: If I don’t keep to my writing schedule, I get rusty. It gets harder. I don’t like that.
Time: I’m old enough to order off the senior menus, and I’m all too aware that people my age—or any age—can suddenly die or become too sick or disabled to work. If/when that happens, I want to have written everything I possibly can.
Money: I want to publish as much as possible and keep as much money coming in as possible. Self-employed writers do not get sick leave, vacation time, or days off for not being in the mood.
Readers: I have at least a few people who look forward to my next book, article, poem or post. If I don’t keep at it, they’ll lose faith in me and find another writer to read.
So there you have it. I have now written two blog posts and plan to get back to my novel. What are you going to write? What are the reasons that keep you going? Please share.
P.S. Starting Sunday, I’m going to have limited Internet access for about a week. Please forgive me if I’m slow approving comments or putting up new posts. I’ll be back.
Now go write.
Earlier this month I went to California for my cousin’s wedding reception and some quality time with my dad. I took my laptop and a pile of work to do, but you know what? I didn’t do any of it. Didn’t even get those papers out of the case. All I had time for were some hasty notes at bedtime and lots of photos. But that’s okay.
I stayed at my father’s house, which may be the last place in Silicon Valley where I can’t get an Internet connection. Sure, the neighbors have Wi-Fi hookups, but they all require passwords that I don’t have. I could go to a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, but that would mean peeling myself away from the family I had driven 700 miles to see. So I couldn’t get online for three days, and I didn’t get much work done. But as I sat in the backyard listening to Dad’s stories and watching the squirrels and the crows, I felt my brain relax. And then, like the squirrels gathering nuts, I started gathering ideas.
I think that’s what travel is for, at least for writers. Can we call it a vacation? Maybe not; maybe it’s more of a supply trip. If you stay in the office day after day with most of your input coming from the Internet and TV, you find yourself getting stale. But out in the world, if you’re open to it, ideas sprout up everywhere, like mushrooms in October on the Oregon coast. The question is: Are you prepared to pick them and bring them home in good condition?
If you’re going to pick mushrooms, you need a bucket or a basket. A writer gathering ideas needs at least a notebook and pen, a camera, and perhaps a computer or iPad. I also use small voice recorders that I keep in my car for the ideas and information I can’t write down while I’m driving. Bring lots of rechargeable batteries and a charger; today’s electronic gadgets eat batteries like I eat chocolate chip cookies. Make sure you have a memory card and flash drive with plenty of room on them. Expect to take lots of pictures, gather all the handouts and brochures you can find, and take notes. Also expect that you might not write every day, that your schedule may fall completely to pieces. That’s all right. If you’re going to write about life, you need to live it in order to gather the raw materials for your writing.
Capture whatever you can before you come home. It starts to fade as soon as you return to your ordinary life. For me, when I get within a few hours of South Beach, I start thinking about upcoming appointments, deadlines I have to meet, and oh God, I still haven’t called the plumber. That magic I feel on the road, whether it’s standing alone on a windswept beach, staring up at the redwoods, or enjoying a family moment, fades away.
So gather the notes, impressions, stories and pictures. Don’t publish it all half-baked on Facebook without looking at the bigger possibilities. When you get home, spread your treasures out around you and look at all the ways you can use them. Parcel them out little by little, taking time to write, edit and publish what you gathered on vacation.
Travel disrupts my writing schedule, but it also brings the focus back, like a reboot. It hushes the noise in my mind and allows me to fill my bucket again.
It’s summer. Get out, change your scenery, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. Just don’t forget your bucket/notebook and camera.
Have you heard about Natalie Goldberg and her classic book Writing Down the Bones? If you haven’t read it, you should. Its stories and exercises will knock the blocks right out of your writing practice. So will her other books, like Old Friend from Far Away and Wild Mind. Meanwhile, she has a new book, The True Secret of Writing, coming soon. I heard her speak a couple years ago, and I was transformed. Visit her website at http://www.nataliegoldberg.com.
U.S. writers, our income tax deadline is only about two weeks away. If you have put it off, my previous posts on income tax may help you figure out how to handle the writing part of your tax forms. The key things you need to know: keep track of every penny you earn with your writing and every penny you spend. You are legally required to report your income, and your writing expenses are deductible. For advice, visit “Last Minute Tax Tips.”
You open the door and find an Easter basket on your front step. Except this basket contains something you would never expect the Easter Bunny to bring. What is it? Use your imagination to come up with a story or poem based on what’s in the basket, maybe what you wish was in the basket or what you’re afraid might be in the basket.
Now Go Write
Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work.
Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, Writer’s Digest Books, 2006. Remember how boring it seemed when your high school teachers forced you to read and analyze poetry? Well, this isn’t. Read some of the world’s most famous poems, see how they work, then try writing some yourself.
At her Practicing Writer newsletter and blogs, Erika Dreifus offers a steady stream of advice and resources, paying markets, jobs and opportunities for writers. Don’t miss it. Click on http://www.erikadreifus.com/blogs/practicing-writing.
Stuck for a writing idea? Reach into your purse or pocket and pull out one thing, anything. Set it on the desk or table in front of you. Study it. What does it bring to mind? For example, a key might make you think of the door it opens or how you got that key or how you lost your keys on a special occasion. A receipt might bring to mind what you bought and why you bought it and who you met at the store . . . Give it a try. In live classes, I let students pick one more thing if they just can’t stand their first choice. Don’t have a purse and there’s nothing in your pocket? Try the junk drawer.