Keep Calm and Write On

“If a writer stops observing, he is finished.” —Hemingway

 

iphone-410324__180Maintaining focus has probably been my biggest challenge when trying to write. I feel it is paramount for good writers to not only learn to drown out distractions but also to learn to work with them. Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful with my writing process:

  1. Finding a quiet place is helpful, whether that is somewhere as obvious as a library or some place more subtle like a clearing in a park. If it is relatively clear of most action, it’s usually pretty helpful. Should you feel there aren’t any places like that around, you can always just buy some noise-cancelling headphones. It’s just harder to focus if you hear music, talking, crying, or various noises rushing through your head all at once. The key is to just find a place or scenario where you feel you can get the most work done.
  2. When writing, try and distance yourself from electronics if you can. In the digital age, this advice may seem hard to take, but I feel that this reminds us that there is an entire world out there that writers need to watch.
  3. I find I come up with more of my more clever ideas at random moments during the day. That is why I suggest keeping a small notepad/notebook on hand to record what you think in those moments. This way these ideas can be expanded upon and spruced up when you are solely focused on writing. Don’t worry if they aren’t complete thoughts. Write. It. Down. writer-1421099__340
  4. Dedicate one day during your week, for at least one hour, to do nothing but write. With all the other hours in the week, you can (usually) get done whatever needs to be done, and still get thoughts to paper. Hopefully, you will learn to eventually donate more and more of your time to honing your craft.

Today’s guest post is by Grant Weingart. Thanks for stopping by!

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Take a Page from Other Authors

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Have you ever paused to consider how many stories have been told over the course of human history? The number must be astronomical. Narrative is as old as language itself, something that is built into our very being as a species. The ancient Greeks knew that the best way to preserve history is to relay it as a story. Folklore and fables continue to serve as a means for teaching tradition and morality in many cultures, and there is no way to quantify the amount of impromptu bedtime stories and campfire tales told each year.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, if the modern writer should at times lament his or her lack of originality. In a world filled with tropes and archetypes, cliches and story models, how can an aspiring writer hope to stake his or her claim on uncharted territory? It is tempting to break from convention altogether in pursuit of originality, but I would encourage writers to embrace the stories of the past as a treasure trove to which we have unlimited access. We acknowledge that it is good to learn from other authors, but we will not truly benefit from their work unless we are willing to plunder it.

books-1605416__340I am not here advocating for plagiarism (most assuredly a mortal sin in the world of writing), nor am I trying to dissuade anyone from coming up with original plots, characters, or settings. Indeed, there are few things as delightful for a reader as becoming immersed in a world he or she never could have imagined with characters that are so fresh they spring from the page. Writers must strive to take readers where they have never gone before with a clear, unique perspective.

However, I am advocating for writers to find things they love in their favorite tales—from childhood picture books to blockbuster movies to literary fiction—and take the best bits for themselves. I, for example, have always loved Greek mythology and find that, when I am writing for my own enjoyment and not to impress others, my characters and plots often reflect the old myths in very obvious ways. The real fun starts when I use my distinct voice and perspective to give new life and motivations to these ancient archetypes, making them my own. I firmly believe that this is how even the oldest and most renowned storytellers developed their tales.

Let us not forget how many wonderful authors have plundered Tolkien’s fantasy worlds, Poe’s detective works, and Shakespeare’s tragedies to bring us inventive new stories that still manage to be unequivocally original in their own right. I suppose I most want to encourage writers who are discouraged to find that they subconsciously employ plot elements or tropes that they have gotten from an experienced author. It’s completely natural (and, I think, necessary) to steal from storytellers of the past. The most important thing is to use one’s own experiences and values to breathe new life into what could otherwise become an uninspired rehash of a story that has already been told and retold.

— A word from guest blogger Jessica Vaughn

On Writing: Diversity

Diversity is an absolute good in storytelling. We live in a world with an infinite amount of people with diverse backgrounds who look, talk, and act differently. Telling stories that feature people with various ethnicities, sexualities, body types, and gender identities isn’t an attempt to appeal to the widest demographic or to “pander to SJWs”; it’s just personal-3108154__340honest. Each individual writer might not see every kind of person in their lifetime, and I understand why people could scoff at certain terms like “demisexual” and “gender fluid” if they never met those types of people growing up, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m reminded of some advice I once read about writing authentic dialogue: “Everyone doesn’t speak the same way you do; the world didn’t grow up in your backyard.” Don’t exclusively fill your stories with heterosexual white men; they aren’t the only people on Earth.

Of course, nothing is ever actually that simple. As easy as it is to describe a character as Black or Muslim, making that portrayal authentic is its own struggle. How can I write with any certainty the viewpoints of people with different backgrounds? I don’t know their struggles, their mentalities, or how they interact with the people around them. As much as I would love to write a story about a demisexual character, I have to accept that I don’t actually know what it’s like to view the world from that perspective, and writing that character without understanding that worldview could easily be seen as hollow or pandering.

On top of that, even if I were to interview hundreds of people with atypical sexualities to the point that I knew with certainty how to write that character, my heterosexuality would undermine any authority I have over the subject. People could read my work, look at me, and say, “Well, that’s not his story to tell.” I can’t argue with them. No matter how much I research and study people of different backgrounds, any story I write runs the risk of seeming inauthentic. personal-2923048__340For example, if I were to write a story from the perspective of a woman and I included a passage detailing the many annoyances of menstruation based on my experience growing up with sisters who constantly complained about their aching uteruses, I cannot avoid the scoffers who claim that I’m not allowed to describe periods because I’ve never had one. I don’t think they’re wrong for being dubious about my description of an experience I’ve never had, but that suspicion makes writing stories with characters unlike myself much more daunting.

Does having more ethnically and sexually diverse characters even matter if the writers are the same old white men? Representation is great, but if the people controlling the media are all the same race and gender, then what real world benefit is there to diversifying our characters? Perhaps it’s selfish of me to demand that I be allowed to write characters with distinct backgrounds. Maybe the solution to this problem is to encourage people of all colors, genders, and sexualities to become writers so that the market can be filled with authentic stories of people from all walks of life. That would require a major upsetting of the status quo, but maybe that’s what we need.

After writing this, I’m left with more questions than answers. Ultimately, I think as long as we consciously desire to make everyone feel loved, respected, and represented, then we’ll find ways to make that happen. The details will come later. For right now, I’m okay with just accepting the radical notion that diversity is good.

Special guest post by Ian Malone.

 

A Writer’s Life

work-1627703_960_720“Write drunk, edit sober” was the first hint I had that the writing life might be prone to certain vices. It’s a piece of advice attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the well known alcoholic and womanizer who would take his life in 1962. I’ve seen drunk writing. Even after sober editing, it’s not usually great. Stephen King, in his autobiography/guidebook, On Writing, says he doesn’t remember writing Cujo, and talks about how Jack Torrance, the alcoholic “protagonist” of The Shining, is more or less a mirror image of the writer himself.

Throughout high school and college, I have read and come to love more and more authors who dealt with addictions of various kinds: Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Evelyn Waugh are just some of the writers that I can think of who struggled with alcohol, drugs, or a violent mixture of both. Since I realized I wanted to be a writer circa Sophomore year of high school, I have always had a certain fear that I too would succumb to one or multiple addictions, and end my life in the way that so many of the above authors did.

There’s something about the writing life that is prone to both introspective existentialism and a need to battle that using whatever means necessary. Anxiety and depression are staples of the creative writing major in college, and post-graduation, that doesn’t seem to change. The world is strange, awful, and scary, and writers seem to see that in a different light than many people.

Maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe everyone feels the same way that authors do, struggles with success in similar ways, worries about the future, and wants to make their mark on the world, leaving a legacy. I don’t know. I do know that myself and many of my friends struggle with these ideas, and I worry that we will try and fill these problematic spaces in our lives with substances, illicit or not.

I’ve seen good friends struggle with addiction already, writers and not. It’s a scary thing, as there’s no definition of alcoholism. It’s a spectrum. How much is too much is a question that many writers probably ask themselves in the midst of a bender, and I hope it never comes to that for me or any of my friends.

I don’t really have a closing argument or sudden revelation to close this piece. Instead, I want to end with an exhortation to writers: find solace elsewhere. Friends, family, books, movies, the writing process itself, a higher power, anything. Try not to see alcoholism or reliance on substances in a romantic light, and search for meaning, don’t just block out the want to search.

A blog by contributing writer J. Clark Hubbard

Strong Women and the Graphic Novel

batman-2216148__340I recently read an article about how female protagonists in YA and graphic novels are stronger and more empowered than ever. While there are many bestsellers out there with strong female protagonists, I am left wondering:  Are these female characters defined as powerful but in limiting ways? My guest bloggers today are looking into books with strong female characters that face limitations and/or characters that demonstrate independence from gender expectations. Click on the “Comments” tab and see what they have to say.

On Writing about Mental Health

My guest blogger today, Shauna McCauley, is writing about mental illness in current fiction—how to do it, when to do, and if we should do it at all. Thanks for stopping by to read. writer-1421099__340

Shauna writes: In the last thirty years or so, with the rise of pop psychology and general public awareness of mental health issues, mental illness has become an increasingly popular topic among writers of all genres, but particularly horror. It is worth noting that artists, and particularly writers, do often struggle with mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, so, much of the sense of interior instability that shows up in many works of fiction is actually rooted in the truth that they live with every day.

Where many writers fall in to a dangerous trap, however, is with the more unusual mental illnesses. Most people, even if they haven’t been put in therapy, or on medication for it, have experienced some manner of mental instability, such as depression while grieving the loss of a loved one, or heightened stress and anxiety during a major life change, but it’s hard to understand the unique experience that comes with being autistic, or schizophrenic, or even having dissociative identity disorder. The best stories come from writers who take the time to get to know people with these disorders on a personal level, and learn not only how they think, but to have a deep empathy for them.

One good example of this is Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Later adapted into a critically acclaimed stage play, it tells the story of an autistic boy with a talent for maths, Christopher, in his own words, as he attempts to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Haddon had some experience working with autistic children as a young man, although he does not consider himself an expert, but what makes the difference in this story is the very human way that he presents Christopher. He is complicated, flawed, sympathetic, and, most importantly, he is the true protagonist of this story. Sadly, many writers have not faired quite as well.

Stephen King, in many of his works including Secret Window, Secret Garden and The Shining has presented something very much like Dissociative Identity Disorder. In both stories, one of the protagonists, Mort and Danny respectively, develop secondary personalities that they can interact with, Tony and John. In Danny’s case, Tony is a protective personality that allows him to live with his psychic abilities, while in Mort’s, John Shooter is a product of stress related to marital turmoil combined with an overactive writer’s imagination. Neither of these paint a completely accurate picture of what this disorder is actually like. King, however, doesn’t claim anything other than artistic license, not giving a real name to what these characters are experiencing.

In one story it’s a superpower, while in the other, it’s a monster. More apparent to the current popular consciousness is M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film Split, in which the antagonist is explicitly characterized as a man suffering from an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder, with more than twenty individual personalities inhabiting the same body. He develops this idea that different personalities can have slightly different body chemistries in D.I.D. patients, and uses it to allow his antagonist to create a monstrous, cannibalistic personality that is so physically strong it’s practically invulnerable. While he does very much acknowledge that people with this disorder are usually the victims of severe psychological trauma, he makes his D.I.D. patient into a side show of sorts to make an, in my opinion, unfulfilled point about pain making people stronger.

While it’s a good thing that writers are telling stories about people with extreme mental disorders, this subject should be approached from a place of compassion rather than the sort of idle curiosity that has led to almost a fetishization of it. Non-neurotypical characters are a great way to broaden your own, and your readers’, perspective, but not for the sake of novelty, or trend, or if your interest is only enough to do a bit of research. The key to this is the same as it is in any well written character, to see them as people rather than plot devices.

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

My guest blogger, Miguel Vilas, is talking about the lack of sleep and its consequences. He writes:

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Most people have heard that the average teen needs 9-10 hours of sleep every night and adults typically need anywhere from 7 to 9. But on average, most people do not get enough sleep to the point of feeling rested. Not getting the recommended hours of sleep can have a negative impact on adults in the workplace and also on teens at school.

When people are overtired, they can have a bad attitude at work toward costumers or coworkers. They might give the minimum effort needed for a task or be careless and make mistakes. This also applies to kids at school who can’t focus because they are too tired. Some will fall asleep in class while others will take a nap after school rather than doing  homework.

So what can we do? A majority of Americans lack sleep for all different kinds of reasons, but most of those can be controlled. Many people tend to watch television for an extreme amount of time (bingeing on Netflix or Hulu series); others are on their laptop or iPhone. iphone-410324__180All of these are distractions that can be prevented by simply turning them off. By doing this you will get the correct amount of sleep that is required and the results will be noticed immediately. Lack of sleep is a major problem but can be solved fairly simply.

Reality TV: Cancer or Cure for Society?

My guest blogger this week is Josh McCaleb, who is writing about what reality TV is doing to us. Here’s what he has to say:

children-403582__340Television today is very effective in molding the minds of its viewers, and some programs on TV, especially reality shows, are negatively shaping us. While reality shows are meant to simply show what happens in the lives of some of our favorite celebrities, no script and no filter, they can have a long-lasting and negative effect.

Some of today’s most watched reality shows include Duck Dynasty, The Voice, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and The Biggest Loser. Each program has its own individual effect on society. But despite their original purpose of being entertainment, some of these shows can actually bring a person to a point of depression—yes, it’s depressing to watch families yelling at and fighting with each other all of the time or to see a “favorite” get kicked off.

These are the shows that really get under my skin. These are also the ones that send a negative message to the public, which make them some of the worst things to watch. So next time you turn on the TV, stop and ask yourself: why am I watching this show?

What’s new this week—other than our presidential election? Anyone else nervous about who is about to become our country’s next leader? Of course—and for good reason. This election has been like no other we’ve seen. So, I’m nervous to say the least. And when I get nervous, I eat. Anyone else out there a nervous eater? Many of us resort to food in times of stress, so I thought today’s blog from John David Fuzzell was appropriate. sandwich-434658__180While we’re watching who becomes our president, we should still be watching what we’re eating…and here’s why.

John David writes: Maintaining a healthy diet is essential because a bad diet can lead to many health problems. It is extremely important to be knowledgeable about the effects that bad eating can have on our health. A bad diet typically consists of an overload of calories, carbs, and sugars. Sadly, many are unaware of the reasons behind an unhealthy diet. Here are a few tips to consider:

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  1. Before creating a meal plan, take into consideration the proportions necessary for each category of food. Setting up proportions for each category consists of making out a table and compiling the percentages of each category that a person needs.
  2. Try to balance the following categories of food: fruit and vegetables, meat and alternatives, rice and alternatives, and fats, oils, salts, and sugars.
  3. Try to select less of the fats group and more of the other three groups.
  4. Don’t overload on a certain category of food. Likewise, don’t eat tremendously less than the recommended portion of food for each category.

In conclusion, the level of quality and quantity of the food that a person ingests directly determines the way in which he or she operates.

Dating These Days…

My guest blogger today, Shelby Elkins, is talking about dating and how we don’t take it as seriously as we should these days. Here’s what she has to say:

My generation does not take dating seriously. iphone-410324__180Rather than asking someone out in person, we direct message someone on social media such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter with a cheap pickup line that can end up being degrading. Also, people never call each other anymore. Texting has become a huge part of our relationships and girls think it is romantic to get cute text messages from guys. As technology advances, romance gets lost.

And what ever happened to dressing up for datecouple-260899__180s? Girls and guys used to get dressed up and look their best to go out with their partner. Now going on a date has vanished and turned into people texting each other to come over when they are bored.

We should never settle for just Netflix dates or text message romances. We deserve more. It seems like young people today are not willing to invest in relationships like people did years ago, not just with money, but with time. I think love is worth fighting for and it starts with pushing against what has become our norm.