Three Quick Tips: money for writers, writing about mental illness, try this at a stoplight

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. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.


Looking for funding for your writing career? The PEN America website offers an extensive database of contests, grants and awards for writers. The site also provides all kinds of free information, plus tools for teachers and translators, and news about writing from all over the world.


Are you writing about a character who is mentally ill? Want to give him the right symptoms for the right illness? Want to know what kind of therapy he might have or what drugs he might be prescribed? Are you writing an article about mental illness? Even if you just want to know for yourself, you can get all the facts in The Writer’s Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman, published in 2010 bv Quill Driver Books.

Try This

You’re sitting at a stoplight with another car in the lane next to you. Take a look at the people in the car. Note as many details as you can. Now, based on what you see, go park somewhere and make up a story about these characters, inventing names, lives, and problems to be solved. Who are they? Where are they going? What are they talking about? What’s playing on the stereo? Are they arguing? What about?

You do have a notebook with you at all times, right? Even better, record it on a portable voice recorder. This will make sitting in traffic much more fun.

Now Go Write

Uh-Oh, It’s the Word Warden

A familiar frizzy-haired woman walks into the auditorium. I stare at her, trying to get her to look my way. But she hurries to the other side of the room, pretending not to see me. We have a few minutes before the readings start, so I walk across to where she is.

“Hi, Edith.”

She looks up, guilt in her eyes. “Hello.” Then she blurts out her sin. “I haven’t written anything since I took that workshop with you.”

It’s happening again. Whenever I get within speaking distance of my former students, they start confessing. “Bless me, teacher, for I have sinned. It has been 43 days since I last wrote a complete sentence.”

The class is over. It’s their business whether or not they write anything, but they seem to expect a lecture, so I oblige. “Shame on you,” I exclaim, preaching the gospel of the good writer one more time. “Thou canst not be a writer if thou dost not write. Just one page a day will give thee a whole book in less than a year.”

Edith nods. “I know, I know. I’ll try to do better.”

“Good.” I attempt to change the subject. I tell her about my latest writing project, talk about the authors who are reading tonight, invite her to sit with me. “No, that’s okay,” she says, “I want to sit in the back.”

I know she secretly wishes I would go away. I am the walking, talking, writing embodiment of guilt. I told her to go forth and write–and she didn’t.

Just as the lights dim, another former student slides into the empty seat beside me. I feel a big envelope land on my lap. “I wonder if you could take a look at this for me,” Jerry whispers, staring at me with the same intentness I see in my dog’s eyes as she watches me eat meat loaf.

“What is it?” I whisper back.

“Something I’ve been working on. I just want your opinion.”

“Shh,” hisses the old lady sitting in front of us.

“I’m sorry,” I say, focusing on the author at the podium as if he were Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. At intermission, I’ll skim the pages, gush over how prolific Jerry is, and encourage him to keep at it–whether it’s any good or not.

Wanna-be writers, like children, won’t write unless you prod them, won’t keep at it unless you laud them. Real writers will keep at it, no matter what.

Ironically, my students think I, published author and teacher of writing, write faithfully every day, sell everything I write, and know all the answers to their questions. If only. We all face the same blank page or computer screen with the same fear that the words won’t come to us.

Sometimes what the teacher really needs is for her students to accost her at the mall and ask, “Well, did you write anything? And if you didn’t, what are you doing here?”

But they never ask. Thank God. They’re too busy running away.

Now, let’s turn off the Internet and go write.