Wednesday, March 25, 2015

4 Creative Ways to Beat Writer's Block

Alexis Ulrich
            A common bit of advice given to writers is that in order to improve, you should try to write something every day. Oftentimes, that’s easier said than done. Whether you’re writing a blog, a short story, an essay, or something else, your environment is often full of distractions. Maybe you’re distracted by the Internet, maybe you’ve been staring at a blank document for twenty minutes. Maybe you’re just letting your mind wander. No matter what’s stopping you, getting started is the hardest part. My personal experience has told me that sometimes, you just have to break the mold a bit to get started. If nothing’s coming to you for your current project, take a break from the norm for a few minutes and try pushing the limits of your skill to see what you can do.
1.         Write outside your genre: Do you normally write nonfiction? Try writing a short story. Do you write slice of life novels? Try your hand at fantasy. Have you never written a poem? Give it a try. No matter what you normally write, find out what your comfort zone is and push at its edges to write something you’ve never written much of. Practicing by trying something novel can sometimes keep you focused better, in addition to expanding your horizons as to what you can do.
2.         Write something completely insane: Not everything you write has to be shared. Another way to push boundaries is to come up with the wildest idea you can think of and stretch your imagination to its limits.  After all, one of the best ways to relieve the stress of feeling stuck is to let down your boundaries and make yourself laugh a bit.
3.         Write fanfiction: Fanfiction isn’t just a pastime for teenagers, it’s a genuine way to practice your writing skills with a story you already love as a platform. Take your favorite fictional characters as you know them and put them in a new setting. Not that into fiction? Write a nonfiction parody. Have fun with it, as it’s a great low-pressure way to exercise your creativity when you’re feeling stuck.
4.         Likewise, mess with your own work: If you get stuck in the middle of a piece, go to a separate space and stay on that task, but incorporate some of that wild, mind-wandering creativity into your project. Of course you might not want to keep that in your final draft, but if you let yourself go off on a tangent while keeping the subject matter in mind, you can get all the benefits of my previous suggestions without taking your mind too far off task!
Even if you want to write a bit every day, sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. But if you push your own limits and write outside the box, you can still exercise those writing skills. Take a break from thinking about one thing and try some fun, low-pressure writing activities. You may find that when you get back on task, the ideas flow much more easily.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Keeps You from Writing?

Mari L Barnes
Me, I have a list.
I have yet to develop the all-important writing habit. I don’t write regularly. Even after six books, I don’t write with commitment. I am distracted by the minutiae of my entire life, presented here in no particular order of importance.
1.  The Pit. That’s the day job.
2.  Housework/ Yard Work. I can actually hear the dishes crying out from the sink. And flowers being strangled by weeds.
3.  Exercise. There goes 30-90 minutes.
4.  Volunteering. Anything from talking to a group to pulling weeds at the arboretum.
5.  The Computer. This includes the publishing business, email, the social media abyss, shopping, researching, etc.
6.  Reading. That’s why we become writers in the first place, isn’t it?
7.  Television. Way too much television.

There are other things in my life—family, friends, forays into the outside world—but nothing fills the overflowing cup of my days like the Big 7.
Recognize anything?
Here’s how we’re going to take on the Goliaths that are standing in the way of our literary genius:
1.  Life gets in the way.
a.  One of the perks of being an adult is that sometimes we get to be the boss of ourselves.
b.  We’re going to give ourselves permission to do something that is important to us.
2.  We don’t believe we have enough time.
a.  Starting today, we will schedule our writing if we can.
b.  Choose your best time: before everyone else gets up, once everyone else is asleep, on your lunch break, while waiting to pick the kids up from school.
c.  We will write in opportunistic spurts if we can’t schedule writing time. Fifteen minutes at a time is better than nothing. Don’t scoff: Lynn Chandler Willis helps her family with her nine grandchildren. She writes when toddlers are napping, everyone is on their favorite playground equipment and while sitting in the carpool lane, waiting for the older kids to get out of school. Her latest release, Wink of an Eye, was chosen as the winner of the 2013 Minotaur Books/Private Eye Writers of America Best First PI Novel Competition. She was the first woman in 10 years to win the contest.
3.  We don’t believe we have enough talent.
a.  Steven King’s first words as a child weren’t the opening sentence in The Stand. We LEARN to write by writing badly and then a bit better and then better still.
b.  Let’s give ourselves permission to write bad first drafts. We’ll think of them as our practice drafts.
c.  We’ll take breaks and reward ourselves. Write for 20 minutes, have a walk around the block or a cookie, and get back to work.
d.  Establish some rituals. Let’s respect our writing by giving it what it needs to flow. Try writing in the same place, at the same time each day, having things organized the way you like them, always using the blue pen—you’ll figure out what works for you. I have a cup of tea and put on my “Writer Working” hat.
e.  Remember, “Every artist was first an amateur.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
4.  We don’t think we have anything profound to say.
a.  Your life, perspective and experiences are unique enough to be of interest to some and universal enough to resonate with many.
b.  Every novel doesn’t have to be War and Peace. There’s plenty of room for Bridget Jones’ Diary, Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Any Color.

5.           We don’t know how to get started.
a.  Sit down.
b.  Pick up a pen or put your fingers on the keyboard.
c.  Write one sentence. Write one more.
Mari L Barnes writes for children under the pen name of Mari Lumpkin and for adults as ML Barnes. Her books, Parting River Jordan and Crossing River Jordan are proof that church can be funny. Mari’s company, Flying Turtle Publishing, specializes in books that families can share.
She is a member of the Highland Writers Group as well as being a member and serving on the board of the Indiana Writers Consortium. Mari is creating a workbook, Life Authors: It’s Your Story, to help people jumpstart writing their life stories. More information is coming soon to

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

That doesn't--I mean does not seem right

Lily Rex
                Revision is, no doubt, the most important part of the writing process. It involves a lot of thought about what you mean to say and whether or not you can say it better as well as consideration for rhythm. Self-analysis is the key to deciding how to present the content of your poem, but careful poets should also pay special attention to the way their work sounds and flows when it is read out loud.
                Very few of us turn around and begin submitting a piece that we’ve written within a few days of finishing it—we recognize that the poem or story might not be ready for publication because it needs revisions that won’t come to us right away. When revising poems, it is a good idea to have a waiting period before you revise as well as a waiting period before you submit.
Since many of us writers have an academic background in literature, it can be hard to resist the temptation to interpret your own poems the way you would analyze a poem by Frost or Dickinson. While this can be a very valuable way to figure out what you want to say and how to say it best, beginning the process of self-analysis too early can make the elements of your poem sound forced. I like to refer to this as getting too close to the architecture of the poem. You’ve likely experienced this if you sat with one poem making revisions for too long and began to feel like you were making the poem too abstract. Setting a poem aside after you finish a first draft can be very helpful. If you give yourself enough time to forget exactly how you were trying to convey your message, you can look at your own technique with fresh perspective. This allows you to revise in a way that is friendly to readers rather than to writers (other poem architects).
            About the sound of poetry, Maya Angelou wrote in her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that reading poetry aloud helped her recover from a traumatic event in her childhood that made her scared to speak. She had a kind neighbor who introduced her to poetry, but that neighbor told her that one cannot truly love poetry unless they read it out loud.
            Reading poems out loud isn't just poem appreciation—it’s also a useful revision technique. Poems have rhythm and musicality. Even if a poet is not a spoken word artist, the way a poem sounds is a large part of the poet’s voice and the overall impact of the poem. Very often, I make small revisions in real time when I read a poem out loud. As I’m speaking, I will sometimes make changes as small as spelling out a contraction or changing "this" to "the." However, if a real-time change feels more natural in speech, it's worth considering a revision to the written version of the poem. Sometimes one extra syllable in a line of poetry can change the rhythm in a way that edits the voice that is supposed to be present and the dynamic of the whole poem.  Other times, one extra syllable can be enough to make a line seem crowded when read silently and feel crowded when read aloud.
                When the content of your poem might not be quite right, let it sit for a week or two. Next time you think a poem is perfect, read it out loud to make sure. These two tips can improve subtle elements of your writing, whether it is fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, by catering to your reader’s mind and ear.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

How to Stand on a Stage, Yell, and Gesture Wildly Without Getting Booed

Lily Rex
 Spoken word poetry, or slam poetry, is generally characterized by topics that the audience can relate to and a writing style that is conducive to performance. Spoken word poems are quite different than the average Dickinson or Levine piece. If you're interesting in writing slam poetry, there are several things you should do when you write in order to fit the genre, and knowledge about spoken word is also transferable to any public reading situation.
Slam poems are similar to songs in length—usually three to five minutes when performed. Some of the complicated metaphors and abstract ideas we like to use in our shorter, more “literary” poems require multiple readings on the part of the audience. This mastery is great if your goal is to show your prowess in print, but it doesn’t work so well in a crowded room. Keep in mind that your audience will only hear this poem once. As a result, the poetic devices you choose should be easily understood the first time they are heard. Rhyme is a good way to keep your audience engaged. End rhyme can sometimes sound contrite or cute, but internal rhyme, used within lines or stanzas rather than at the end, can be a valuable asset. Repetition and alliteration are probably the easiest and most effective devices to use in this genre because they cater to the ear rather than the eye or the mind.
Speaking of the mind, it is imperative that you choose a topic you are passionate about.  Spoken word performers are often known for political activism, and their poems frequently feature social commentary. Choose a topic that you know a lot about—one that you would like to, and could, talk about all night given the opportunity. Spoken word must be emotional, and it is often deeply personal. Chances are that if the topic you have chosen makes you emotional or gets you excited, either your audience will know and care about it too, or the vigor you possess while speaking about it will inform them and at least keep them interested.
Both choosing your technique carefully and picking a topic that is dear to you play into one of the most important aspects of spoken word. A spoken word performance is always best if you have memorized your poems, and that is easier to do if you love the subject of your poem and you wrote the poem in a way that allows you to easily remember what comes next and to improvise if you get stuck.  Now, why is it so important to memorize your poems? Reading a spoken word poem should really be thought of as a performance rather than a reading. Your voice, face, and hands are just as important as the content of the poem. You’ll need your hands free so you can gesture, and you need to connect with the audience on a level that can’t be achieved looking down at a sheet of paper. Similarly, if you know your poem well enough to recite it without reading from a hardcopy, your familiarity with the poem will be heard in your voice. You’ll become more comfortable reciting it on stage—and that leaves extra room for pathos and improvisation.
                Spoken word poetry has gained a lot of attention in recent years--and not all of that attention is positive. While some people are praising the renewal of the oral tradition, a few others say this new style is an insult to what the oral tradition used to be and all the good qualities of printed, literary poems. However, spoken word, like any genre, is not effective unless it is done right. Remembering to write for a live audience, love your topic, and memorize your poem is a great start.
More resources on spoken word poetry:
Sarah Kay’s TED talk: “If I Should Have a Daughter”
Example performances:
Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay: “An Origin Story”
Lauren Zuniga: “To the Oklahoma Lawmakers”