Listening for Voices by Rochelle Melander

0894-DSC_0178-001Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up on rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. —Margaret Chittenden

On Saturday, I attended a mystery writing conference (MWA-University). Sara Paretsky spoke about how her best books emerged from fallow periods, when she had the time to listen for the voices of her characters.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle wrote about the value of listening to our work:

And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand. (p. 22)

I’ve written repeatedly about how writers need idle time to develop their ideas. Lately, I’ve become aware of how little time I have to simply be idle. It’s a rare moment when I’m not working, writing, talking, texting, coaching, caring, teaching, reading, watching, or surfing. And when I do have a free moment, I tend to use it to check one of my digital devices. I’m not alone. Consider these stats:

+The average user checks their phone 110 times a day.

+Americans spend 16 minutes of every hour on social networks.

+Americans spend 11 hours a day with digital media.

L’Engle, writing in the late 70s before the onset of the digital life, said it like this:

When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. (Walking on Water, p. 13)

Writers, if you’re struggling to find new ideas, develop your story, hear a character’s voice, describe a setting, or simply get words on paper, you might need some idle time. Turn off your devices and try:

+Taking a walk


+Riding in a train or bus

+Sitting still

+Chopping vegetables


A final word of advice: Keep pen and paper close by, in case the muse—or your next protagonist—speaks to you!


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Three Hurdles to Writing Your Book (And How to Overcome Them) by Rochelle Melander

file7861238965439He would like to be capable of writing as he thinks, quickly, without effort, the word as agile and dynamic as athletes in a race, jumping over hurdles, one after the other, go, go, go, flying towards the finishing post, faster than the disgust limping behind him.

—Filippo Bologna

We desperately yearn to write that book, to become a published author, to find our passionate readers—and yet we don’t. Day after day flies by, and we do not put pen to paper. Why? Are we failures? Do we need to go back to school? Does procrastination hold us so tightly in its ugly grips that we cannot free ourselves to write even a few words a day?

Over the years, I’ve worked with many people who want to write books. I’ve noticed distinct differences in the attitudes and behaviors of people who finish books. When I examine my own writing habits, I can see why I manage to finish some projects while others languish untouched.

Last week, you wrote out your writing goals for the rest of the year. Although not all of you want to write a book—some of you have blogs, articles and poems to finish—this applies to you, too. Here are three hurdles to writing your book this year, and how to overcome them.


Hurdle One: Purpose

So you know what you want to do—write a mystery, a memoir, a self-help book. But do you know why you want to do it? Most of my procrastinating clients tell me that they have no trouble finishing an assignment for an editor or a teacher. When we puzzle over why, a variety of reasons come up from pay to punishment—you get paid to write for an editor and punished if you don’t. But the real difference is purpose: When we write for an editor, we have a purpose. Real people will read our work. When we write a novel—unless we’re under contract to a publisher—we have no idea if it will be read by anyone other than our critique group.

The Fix: We need a reason to be writing a book, a purpose beyond ourselves. Rewrite your goal and add a purpose statement:

  • I will write my book this year so I can teach my clients how to overcome symptoms of depression.
  • I will write my book this year so I can achieve my dream of becoming a children’s book author.
  • I will write my book this year so I can … (Add your reason here!)


Hurdle Two: Other Goals

You’d be writing the great American novel, but first you have to finish training for the marathon, planning the launch of your business, or redecorating the living room. Your big life and career goals conflict with your goal of writing a book. You don’t have the life-space or head space necessary to think big thoughts and write them down.

The Fix: Take a hard look at your life and list every single thing you’re doing that might get in the way of writing your book. Let go of one or more activities that conflict with your goal of writing. Open up time and space in your life to think and write. If letting go of one thing doesn’t help, go back to your list and choose another activity to let go of. Repeat until you’re writing regularly.


Hurdle Three: BHAG

Lots of coaches talk about the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). I often meet writers who have BHAGS—like writing a nine-book epic fantasy series or the definitive guide to the care and feeding of rabbits. I tend to like a good ol’ BHAG myself, but the truth is: having a big hairy audacious goal is a huge hurdle to actually writing a book.

The Fix: Break down your BHAG into absurdly tiny steps. So instead of “write nine-book epic” or “write book one” or even “research characters” try something like:

+Write physical description of Mist Le Doux, the evil queen of the fairies.

When the steps are small enough to be workable, you’ll know. You’ll feel calm and able to tackle anything. And you will be writing.


Bonus Hurdle: Getting around to it. In my head, I’ve got a lot of stuff I’d like to get done—including organizing the bathroom closet, practicing yoga, and writing a few new books. I’ve even put some of these goals on my to-do list—every single week, all summer long. Clearly, I never get around to working on them.

The fix: Schedule the small steps. A to-do list isn’t enough. Get out your calendar and create a schedule. Add a time slot for each small step.


But Rochelle, you didn’t talk about …

No doubt I’ve missed a few hurdles. Maybe I’ve even missed the hurdle that trips you up the most. Don’t worry. During this month’s Write Now! Mastermind class, I’ll be talking about overcoming writer’s block, procrastination, and other hurdles that keep us from writing. If you have one that you’d like me to discuss, email me or leave a comment at the blog.

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Set Your Writing Goals by Rochelle Melander

file0001029169644When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it. —W. Clement Stone

Effective teachers enter the classroom with a set of learning objectives—information, techniques, or skills that they expect the students to learn by the end of the class. The objectives direct the daily practice, giving the teacher and the students something to work towards.

Writers need learning objectives, too. We need to vision:

*What we want our writing career to look like.

*What ideas we want to explore in our writing

*What products we want to create—poems, articles, short stories, books.

*What writing skills we want to learn.

*What additional information we want to learn.

Take time this week to imagine what you’d like to be and do in this next phase of your writing career. Then write out your learning objectives for the fall. It will help to direct your writing time. It will also guide what you read and what conferences you choose to attend. It might even ignite your passion for writing. As Stone said above, when we get our sense of mission—we are filled with “a burning desire to get to work on it.” Yes!


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Review Your (Writing) Life by Rochelle Melander

_DSC2102If you change nothing, nothing will change.

It still feels like summer, the hot and humid air leaves me breathless, desiring only to sit on the porch, drink lemonade, and read books. But the calendar reminds me that Labor Day weekend is coming up and with it, the start of school.

We might not attend school or have children to send off, but this season still calls us all to make changes, to let go of old habits and take on new projects. I can tell I’m ready for something new because over the weekend I began rearranging my office—a sure sign that I need a change.

Before I make any major change, I like to pause and consider what is. If you’re in the mood for a shift and aren’t sure what it might be, here’s a tool to help you review your life:

1. Score your life. Examine your date book for the last few months (or whatever else you use to keep track of your working life) and evaluate each item. Keeping in mind what you value and love to do, give each item a plus or minus. If something was amazingly wonderful, go ahead and give it more than one plus mark. If an activity was fun to do but didn’t pay well (or paid well but was a pain to complete), give it a plus and a minus.

2. Consider the missing. Review your goals for 2014. What had you hoped to work on this year? Perhaps you wanted to journal more or write a novel. Maybe you’d planned to start a blog or take up an exercise routine. As you look at what you’ve actually done, make a list of the activities or goals you’ve forgotten to work on.

3. Evaluate it all. Assess the results of steps one and two. Given what worked and what didn’t work, what you did and what you wished you’d done, ask yourself:

*What kind of work would I like to do less of?

*What kind of work would I like to do more of?

A note: You will have some immediate answers to these questions. Write them down and honor them. But you may also want to sit with the questions for a bit until the right answer shows up.

Your turn: If you have additional life review tools, please suggest them in the comments section below! Happy reviewing!

Resource: Last November, we did a similar exercise called The Reckoning. Check it out for more resources.



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Three Tools to Boost Your Creativity by Rochelle Melander

New CrayonsLogic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere. —Albert Einstein

In 2006, I launched Dream Keepers, a writing program for at risk children and teens in Milwaukee. Since then, I’ve taught at dozens of libraries, schools, and churches. In the past year, I’ve noticed that many of the young people have difficulty imagining. When I ask them to write a scary story, they write what they’ve seen in movies and on television. When I push them to create something of their own, they stare at me like I’m from outer space.

My own ability to imagine has taken a hit in recent years, too. Too much time hooked up to the computer has made me much more likely to research than question. Research backs me up. A 2010 study done by Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, discovered that creativity has decreased in children since 1990, along with the ability to imagine.

So how can we address the problem of our dwindling creativity? We need to practice imagining and immerse ourselves in creating. No doubt, our creative play will support our writing. If you’re up for a little fun, try these exercises:

1. Don’t look it up, make it up! Have you noticed how public wonderments have turned into competitive research sessions? You’re standing in a park talking and someone says, “I wonder what people did for fun in Milwaukee in the mid-1800s?” Then five people pull out their smart phones and race to find out first. (Actually, the answer for that, like the answer for all things Milwaukee, is easy: they drank beer.)

Your assignment: Next time you wonder, don’t pick up that phone (or tablet). Quickly make up 5-10 answers. If you’ve got time, develop one of them into a short story.

2. Play the “What If?” game. As a chronic worrier, I play the “What If?” game all the time—what if my kids flunk out of school and have to live on my couch forever, what if that chicken I ate for lunch was bad, what if I never get this book published! Far better to play the “What if” fantasy game: what if squirrels were really super intelligent and took over the world? What would life look like then?

Your assignment: Create 5-10 crazy “what if” sentences. Then take one of them and follow it to its strangest conclusion.

3. Invent it. Earlier this summer, my dog had a giant sore on his ear (I know, yuck). It stunk and worse, every time she scratched, it bled all over the house. Before we brought her in to have the sore removed, I spent a lot of time devising ways to keep her from itching it. (She can’t use the Elizabethan collar.) Believe it or not, I had lots of fun trying to invent a protective ear device.

Your assignment: Invent a solution for a pesky problem in your house. If you don’t have any problems (lucky you), get a bunch of stuff from your junk drawer and see what you can create with it.


Bonus Tips:

+Do something impractical and creative every day.

+Read about artists and inventors.

+Visit places that honor artists, inventors, scientists, and other creatives!


Your turn: How do you nurture your creativity?


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Make Interruptions Work for You by Rochelle Melander

dovePeople who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. —George Bernard Shaw

I don’t know about you, but I’m addicted to finishing tasks and crossing them off my to-do list. Even when I’m writing a book, I like to cross off a section or two at the end of the writing session. But guess what? Sometimes finishing a task can limit our productivity.

Psychology researcher Bluma Zeigarnik found that not finishing a task in one sitting is good—because we tend to remember the tasks we were working on when we were interrupted. So the next time we get to our desk, we can pick up where we left off. Brilliant!

Try this: Tackle one and a half sections (or two and a half or whatever). Just leave off at a juicy part!

Pro Tip: We can’t always plan interruptions—they just happen. So next time something or someone interrupts you, take time to write down a few words about what you’re writing and what you plan to do next. That will help you refocus when you get back to your desk.

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Why You Need Interruption-Free Writing Time by Rochelle Melander

DSCN2005In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion. —Albert Camus

New research by Cyrus Foroughi, a PhD candidate out of George Mason University, suggests that small interruptions decrease our ability to write well. In two studies, participants were asked to outline and write an essay. In the first, some were interrupted at regular intervals. In the second, they were interrupted at random times. But the result was the same: those who were interrupted wrote less and scored lower than their peers.

What does this mean for you? That smart phone that keeps buzzing? The twitter feed popping up on your screen? Even the IM on Facebook? They’re killing your ability to write.

How do you overcome this? Give yourself a block of interruption-free time each day or week to write. It doesn’t have to be a whole day. It can be two hours on a Saturday afternoon, 30 minutes each morning before the rest of the family wakes up, or ten minutes before bedtime. No matter the amount of time you can grab—take it and write.

Pro tips:

+Turn off anything electronic that might interrupt you, including social media feeds and text messages.

+Decide ahead of time on a signal that your family or housemates will recognize as, “Writer at work” and leave you alone. This might be wearing a special hat or putting a “do not disturb” sign on your door.

+Get out of the house or office and write somewhere new and different.


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Stuck? Ask this Question by Rochelle Melander

DSCN9491To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. —Aristotle

No one loves criticism, rejection, or failure. But if you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to get a hefty dose of all three. Expecting it doesn’t make it easier. Every time I encounter one of these roadblocks, I stumble. I want to eat chocolate, drink wine, and wallow in self-pity. And that’s just fine—for a day. But a steady diet of self-pity won’t help you move forward.

Next time you experience criticism, rejection, or failure, ask: what’s next? Then do it. Take one step forward. Just one. Send out a query letter, write a blog post, sign up for a writing class. Do anything to stay in the game. In time, the sting that comes with criticism, rejection, or failure will fade. You will move forward, toward success.




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Protect Your Creative Energy: Three Tools by Rochelle Melander

file0001808462945Every single day she fought a war to get to her desk before her little bundle of energy had been dissipated, to push aside or cull through an intricate web of slight threads pulling her in a thousand different directions… —May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

May Sarton published Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, a novel about a poet and writer in the early 60s, long before cell phones and the Internet. As a poet and novelist herself, Sarton knew that writers and artists had to fight through distraction to get to their desks and create before the threads of life pulled them toward both crucial and mundane tasks of the day.

The war to get to our desks—and stay there—involves many small battles. We struggle to turn off social media. We scuffle with our own egos: Does this work matter? Do I matter? Will anyone read this anyway? We battle our sense of duty: I should be taking care of stuff around the house. I need to be earning more. I should do more in the community. We confront the millions of ideas that float around our head: Oh, that’s a good idea! Perhaps this isn’t the right project? Maybe I should work on the other one for awhile.

As writers, we work hard to wade through all the distractions and write. We need to conserve our creative energy and spend it freely on writing. But when you can’t get to your desk first thing, what then? How do you protect what little energy you have? Try these three tools:

+Share less. Talking, tweeting, and facebooking about writing—and especially about our work in progress—spends our storytelling energy. Use your social time to share about other stuff—and save that creative buzz around your story for your writing time.

+Forget Feel Like. I rarely feel like doing the things I need to do—writing, exercising or even cooking dinner. Next time you get to your desk feeling no energy for writing—do it anyway. Like inspiration, our energy for writing often appears after we begin and not before.

+Ignore the critics. So, we already have this robust committee of critics living inside our heads. If you read online at all, you’ll run into plenty of writers who apply the famed Henny Penny/Chicken Little phrase to the writing world: The Sky is Falling! Oh My! No doubt you also have a few real-life naysayers to cope with. If you listen to even a smidgen of this oh-my-literature-is-in-danger and you’ll-never-succeed stuff, you’ll deplete your writing energy. Ignore it all and keep writing.

And a bonus tip: immerse yourself in art. It doesn’t matter what kind—music, dance, even sidewalk chalk drawings. When we nourish and nurture our creative spark, it grows into a vibrant flame. So spend at least a few of your free hours connecting with the work of other artists.

A final word. In case you forget this on the way to your desk today, your work matters. You matter. Write.



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Writers@Work Interview with June Melby by Rochelle Melander

file501312045872Around my birthday, I wandered into my favorite Indie bookstore, Boswell Book Company (just blocks from my house!) and looked for a signed copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I’d been eying it for weeks, waiting for an opportunity to treat myself. But I’d waited too long—they were sold out.

Boswell owner Daniel Goldin took pity on me and handed me June Melby’s new book, My Family and Other Hazards: A Memoir. I loved it! Melby’s book turned out to be a funny and poignant dive into family life and miniature golf courses. Plus, it’s set in Wisconsin. I grew up here, playing miniature golf while fighting enormous mosquitoes. Today I’m delighted to interviewing the author of My Family and Other HazardsJune Melby. Welcome, June!

Talk a bit about your background as a performer. What did your work as a performer teach you about writing?

I moved to California to become a “rich and famous rock musician”—and I put that in quotes because that’s what I really told people. I was very determined. I landed in San Francisco with no job, no connections, $1300, and my grandfather’s accordion. What I discovered:  it was terrifying.  But of course, I didn’t anticipate that, I was incredibly naïve. So maybe the first thing I learned was how not to panic. Ha. I’m joking, but honestly, finishing a book takes a lot of courage. And maybe that’s a good lesson to learn when you are a writer. You’ve got to build it up somewhere!

I switched over to standup comedy shortly thereafter, and wrote funny songs. I loved doing standup and the other comics were great people—all writers. All very idealistic. Ten years later, I got sucked into performing poetry—the performance was very similar, but the audiences were different and had different expectations. I performed at national poetry slams and on toured quite a few times in Europe. It was wonderful experience.  What you learn from performing is timing, which is not just about pauses, but about word choice and syllables. You learn how to use exactly the right number of words, no more, no less. A very good lesson.

MyFamilyandOtherHazardsWhat a fun book! Was it the sale of Tom Thumb that inspired you to write this story now…or something else? And how did you get your family to agree to it?

I’ll answer the second part of the question first…. Agree to it?  Were they supposed to agree to it?  Hmm…. That’s interesting.  Don’t tell them that they could have chosen to opt out!

But what inspired me…well, yes, the sale. I was  40 years old and living in Hollywood when I got the phone call with the news that my parents had sold the miniature golf course which had been in my family for 30 years. And I will never forget where I was when I got that call –it shook me up that much.  It was a hand-built course dating from 1959. It had been around for almost 50 years, and I suddenly appreciated the beauty of that. It was a piece of folk-art, and loved by so many generations of tourists. Apparently, in the back of my mind, I had assumed I would get rich and then return to the Midwest and take over the business. So during the final days of that last summer, I lingered at Tom Thumb and took pages and pages of notes. I tape recorded conversations and interviewed everybody. I knew that some day in the future that I would have to write a book about it. Because I was the only writer in my family, I felt this great responsibility to tell the story.  But I didn’t plan on doing it right away. I was a poet. I had never written anything longer than half a page; I had never taken a writing class. I just figured that some day, maybe twenty years down the line, I would somehow feel capable.  I was going to wait until the day, when I might feel confident. During graduate school at the University of Iowa, the story started coming out, and then I couldn’t stop it. The only way to save Tom Thumb was to capture it on the page.

What books inspired and instructed you as you wrote My Family and Other Hazards?

Well, first I need to give a nod to My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. Obviously I liked the book—I stole the title! It’s about an eccentric English family living in Greece. Nothing tragic happens, and yet as a reader you are totally engrossed.  That takes great writing!

I hugely admire Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia, which is a novel told in short stories.  And The Mezzanine by Nichoson Baker, which gives you permission to consider the importance of our ordinary lives.

What is your daily writing practice?

I’m on tour right now, so I’m craving a daily writing practice, the way you crave your favorite cup of coffee when you’re away from home and have to settle for motel-brew…   But I will say this, I’m a firm believe in making yourself sit there. The biggest challenge is just getting yourself into that chair. When I start my writing day I really love opening up a blank page and just typing. Anything. I love a blank page. It’s fun because I know it “doesn’t count.” Sometimes my daily warm-up will really be just random garbage—quite literally—but sometimes halfway down the page, it will reveal itself to be a short story or short fairy tale or weird-ass poem. It’s how I have fun. It entertains me. Starting out this way helps me remember who I am, creatively speaking, before I get to work on the thing I am “supposed” to be writing. I save these warm-ups in a file I call “Raw pieces,” and never look at them again. But you’ve got to have fun! But I love a blank page.

What are you working on now? 

My next book will be a collection of short fiction I have written over the last ten years, some of which has been published, others from my early days of prose.  I was terrified when I first started writing stories. But when I look at the early ones now, I realize how free they were—maybe it’s easier to be free before you have any idea what you’re doing.  Now that my memoir is done, I am really enjoying the chance to dig through these old documents, and the file of “Raw stories” I have saved over the years. It is like opening up boxes in the attic and finding treasures you had forgotten about.  The next book after that will be a memoir will be about my years in standup comedy, tentatively titled, Bombing.

Boswell Book Company Appearance. June Melby will read from her book at Boswell Book Company on Tuesday, July 22nd at 7:00 PM. Hope to see you there!

© Parker Deen

© Parker Deen

About June Melby. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’sLA Weekly, and National Lampoon Magazine, among other places. In 2011, June Melby was a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and in 2003 received the International Artist Award and residency from the City of Hamburg Kulturbehorde (Cultural Affairs Department). In 2002 she was the winner of the Children’s Poetry Award at the Edinburgh International Poetry Festival. She lives in Decorah, Iowa.

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