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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Writing Through Chaos: Three Tools by Rochelle Melander

file0001591236156The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything. —John Irving

Last week during the class I taught online (Three Shifts You Must Make To Succeed As An Author), a participant mentioned that she’d tried scheduling time to write, but it never worked. She asked: how do you write if your work or life schedule is too chaotic to depend on?

It’s a good question. All of us experience times in life where it’s hard to find time to write. Here are three ways to make time to write when life is crazy:

+Piggyback. Attach writing to an established habit, the stuff you do every day or week. Even in the land of crazy, you do a few things every single day: get up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, check email, go to bed. You also do a few things every week at the same time: go to yoga class, stop by the coffee shop, visit a family member in the nursing home. Take one of these constants and attach writing to it, either before or after.

+Drop everything and write. In my daughter’s school, they have DEAR time every single day—drop everything and read. In her school, not having a DEAR book is an offense punishable with detention. How many times do you find yourself stuck in time, with nothing to read or write? Despite owning a smart phone, it happens to me more than I’d care to admit. Take a moment to consider what you’d need to carry with you if you wanted to be prepared to drop everything and write at all times. Then do it.

+Social Media Steal. Use your social media habit to write.  According to a 2013 article, we spend about 3 hours on social media per day.  Wow. For the next week, note the time you spend on social media. Pay attention to what tool you use to surf—are you on your computer, smart phone, or tablet? At the end of the week, ask: how could I use some of this time to write? Find a writing app that works best on your surfing mode of choice. Then, next time you log on to Facebook, Tweet, Tumble, Pin, or Link: use that app to write first.

Your turn:

 

 

 

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Overcome Unrealistic Expectations and Write by Rochelle Melander

W4473 WriteAThon-1Dear Writers,

Today at 7:00 PM CDT, I’ll be speaking at Nonfiction Writers’ University. I’ll be talking about Three Shifts You Must Make To Succeed As An Author. The class is free, but you must sign up here.

We’re still in the middle of the July Write-A-Thon. We didn’t get enough people to do the weekly calls, but I am posting daily at the Write Now! Coach Facebook page! Check in and update us on your progress.

Today’s tip talks about how to write forward in the midst of crazy days and unrealistic expectations!

Happy Writing! Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach

 

Autumn morning Oct 06 2013_1014 (5)Overcome Unrealistic Expectations and Write by Rochelle Melander

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. —A.A. Milne

Years ago, I read Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D. In the book, he identified ten common cognitive distortions—unhelpful thinking patterns that leave us feeling miserable.

While I don’t subscribe to the idea of the crazy writer, I do believe that many of us are done in by cognitive distortions. We apply unhelpful thinking to our writing goals, holding ourselves to unrealistic expectations. We think or say things like:

+If I don’t have the whole day to write, I might as well do nothing. (All or nothing thinking)

+I only wrote for ten minutes today, I’m such a loser. (Discounting the positives, Labeling)

+This sounds like crap. No wonder the agent rejected me. I’m a bad writer. (Jumping to conclusions, labeling, emotional reasoning)

Yikes!

Many of us are in the middle of a write-a-thon. We set a big hairy audacious goal. I know I did. And from the notes on the Write Now! Coach Facebook page, I know some of you are doing well. (Yeah you!) But for those of you who’re having a rough time, let me tell you how it’s going for me: it’s not. My life got the kind of busy that leaves one dizzy. I wouldn’t be able to write a chapter a day. My temptation: give in to all or nothing thinking and give up.

Not this time. Instead, I reset my goals.

Every day, I write for 15-20 minutes on my work in progress. I hold onto what Stephen King said: When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “one word at a time.”

Writers, don’t let crazy thinking stop you from writing. Instead:

+Identify the distortion. (See chart.)

+Ask: Is this true? Challenge your thinking with evidence from your life.

+Ask: If this isn’t true, what is true? (I don’t have the whole day, but writing for fifteen minutes will move me forward. I’m accomplishing enough for now.)

+Create a new plan.

Writers, remember: every book is written one word at a time. And if you’re at least on the river, or better yet the stream, your little bits will add up and you will get there…one word at a time.

Your turn: How have you beat crazy thinking, redefined your goals, and written forward?

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Why You Need to Write-A-Thon! By Rochelle Melander

Dear Writers,

WAT_participantToday, we’re starting the July Write-A-Thon (and the second half of 2014!), and today’s tip talks about why you need to write-a-thon. If you want more support, follow the Write Now! Coach Facebook page for daily encouragement, and write!

And, think about coming to my class next Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 7:00 PM CDT at Nonfiction Writers’ University. I’ll be talking about Three Shifts You Must Make To Succeed As An Author. The class is free, but you must sign up here.

Happy Writing! Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach

 

Why You Need to Write-A-Thon

by Rochelle Melander

Be careful what you wish for, because you might not be dreaming big enough. —Dar Williams

2014 Ironman

2014 Ironman

For the last three years, I’ve completed the Idle Ironman at our local Y (and I have the t-shirts to prove it). Although I finished, the idle ironman was a huge challenge for me—a recovering wimp! But by challenging myself to do something really hard, I gained confidence and grew stronger. The idle ironman helped me to see myself as an athlete.

If you’re a writer who wants to write regularly but don’t think you have the time, talent or tools, I’d like to challenge you to take on a write-a-thon this summer. Doing a write-a-thon will help you turn your writing hobby into a habit. And guess what? I’m doing it, too! (Stop by my Facebook page for encouragement every day during July!) On top of that, the creators of National Novel Writing Month have launched Camp NaNo—occurring this July, so you don’t have to write alone.

Here’s how to write-a-thon:

1. Choose a project. What writing project are you most passionate about working on right now? Write what strikes your fancy: a nonfiction book, a poem a day, a memoir, or even a graphic novel. Or write something that has to get done: query letters, that dissertation, or your weekly blog post!

2. Set a goal. This is your write-a-thon, so do what works for you. Your goal can be writing for a set amount of time each day, composing a certain number of queries each week, or writing a few hundred words a day.

3. Choose a cue. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. Wannabe writers tend to depend on inspiration to cue them to write. Unfortunately, inspiration comes most frequently WHILE we are writing and not before.  In order to succeed at the marathon, choose an external cue to trigger your daily writing practice. It helps if you can use a pleasant cue you’re already doing as a cue to write. This could be drinking your morning cup of coffee, walking to the library or local coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon, or changing into your writing clothes at the end of the day.

4. Get rewards. We tend to do the things that provide rewards—whether they are tangible, like a participant t-shirt, or intangible, like the feeling of success. Make a list of daily rewards for the write-a-thon—and make it a habit to reward yourself for writing every day. These rewards might be something as simple as giving yourself a sticker for achieving your daily goal, spending a few minutes on the Write Now! Coach Facebook page to see the daily meme, or taking a short walk outside. Don’t forget to plan a bigger reward for finishing the marathon.

5. Get support. In the middle of the idle ironman, when finishing seemed insurmountable, I depended on the encouragement and support of my workout buddies at the gym. Often a simple, “How’s it going?” or “Keep at it!” was all I needed to stay motivated. Invite a friend to share the write-a-thon journey with you and give each other daily support via email, phone, or in person contact.

Here’s my prediction: after you finish your write-a-thon, you will boldly claim, “I’m a writer.” And it will be true—because the write-a-thon will help you create the habit of writing every single day. Happy writing, writers!

Your turn: Share your write-a-thon goal below!

 

 

 

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