Extreme Makeover: The Big Build/ Guest post by Julie Mata

The word revision can mean a lot of different things. Maybe your manuscript just needs trimming. Maybe you need to knock down a few walls to provide better flow. Or maybe something more extreme is in order. Think big cranes and earthmovers.

When I finished my middle grade novel, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, it was roughly 41,000 words. I was convinced it was pretty close to perfect, especially after several agents asked to see the full manuscript. That’s when reality set in. They liked it but they wanted changes. Big changes. My knee-jerk reaction was to emit a shrill Ha! and do some serious flouncing. As I stewed and simmered, a nugget of wisdom hit me. Agents know what sells. Their job is to test the strength of plot hooks, to analyze character and voice and conflict. Usually, you have to pay for that kind of professional advice. And, it was mostly good advice. So I started to revise.

One agent wished my story was “a bit longer and more complicated,” and she thought “some of the emotional situations weren't addressed well enough…” 

Yes, it’s pretty vague, but I realized she was right. My story needed more… story. I began to hunt for places where I could add conflict. Those boys who tease one of Kate’s schoolmates? They begin teasing Kate too. And her best friend doesn’t just dump her. They have a big fight in the school hallway. I also ramped up the conflict between Kate and her mother. Each new addition gave me chances to have Kate reflect, to feel sorry or sad or vindicated. As I made the story “more complicated,” my main character came more to life.

Then, I reexamined my “emotional situations.” If the plot points are the bricks of a story, then emotion is the mortar. I had a lot of bricks and not enough mortar to hold it all tightly together. I wrote new scenes and more inner dialogue. In all, I added about 13,000 words. I decided my manuscript was ready again.

I resubmitted to three agents, confident that I had done exactly what they wanted, and they would be fighting each other to represent me. Instead, each one found new reasons to decline my manuscript.  The agent who wanted more complications did give me one last suggestion. It was along the lines of, chop off your family room, move it to the other side of the house, and glue it back on. It meant substantially reworking my entire plot.  My first reaction was to emit a shrill… well, you know. I came around. Bottom line, she was right. It would improve the story. When I finished rebuilding, my manuscript had expanded to around 60,000 words.  This is considered long for contemporary MG, but I felt my novel was upper middle grade and, as such, could be a little longer.

Even though the original agents turned it down, their suggestions made it a stronger story and after a fresh round of query letters, I soon got “the call” from my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. She sold it as part of a two-book deal to Disney Hyperion. Interestingly, my editor liked the longer length. According to her, middle grade readers like longer books these days because they feel “older.”

Julie's post originally appeared on the Rate Your Story blog. http://rateyourstory.blogspot.com/2014/04/

Julie's post originally appeared on the Rate Your Story blog. http://rateyourstory.blogspot.com/2014/04/

With the help of good advice, I took a one-story house and added on a new addition, with more rooms and more levels. I flipped it, and it sold. So the next time you receive thoughtful criticism, feel free to emit a shrill “Ha!” Then, take a big step back and evaluate the feedback. Even though your manuscript is finished and you can’t stand the thought of working on it one second longer, ask yourself if the suggestions will make your story stronger. If the answer is yes, grab your construction helmet. It may mean lopping and chopping. It may mean calling in the cranes and undertaking a big build. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger story with a bedrock foundation and, hopefully, a shiny new contract.

Watching your feet

Sometimes I look down too much when I’m walking but you do this after you’ve fallen a few times, even if your mother bought you dancing lessons from the age of six, even dancing with you sometimes, giving you your first taste of the spotlight and then stepping back and letting you be there on your own. Grace can still be slippery. I like it best when I can walk without stopping, both stepping into a rhythm and carrying myself somewhere. I look down and I look up and I like to see things, odd details, discoveries that are big and small and big, a tiny dragon on a high wall, a stone pig on a tower, a sewer grate with a fleur de lis. And while I care on some level about the facts behind each angry-faced door knocker or Roman inscription embedded in rock I prefer to hear through the silence the ideas that come, the thoughts that step through or no thoughts at all and just allow things to sit and I think about them later or maybe they show up later on their own when I need them. I step through these places and really see the smooth rock under my dusty shoes, and that memory allows me to recall the way a favorite city smells, like an old stone on which someone has put out a cigarette and then spilled a few drops of perfume. I want to take everything in. Sometimes I want to walk alone because the senses are too much. But this also allows me to find things.

One day I found a treasure and another and another. There was a church where nuns sang Ave Maria. There was a shop that invited you in with colorful scarves invoking sunshine and a carefree mind, rows of hopeful alabaster owls and hooks filled with canvas bags and a table of Mexican friendship bracelets and overstuffed racks of sundresses and tie-dyed skirts. A woman my mother’s age with gray tight curls watched me as I dug through the rack of dresses and found one I liked and held it up to my body to see if it might fit and she came out from behind the counter and flattened the dress against my body and said, “Maybe.” She directed me to the back of the store to find the place behind a red patterned curtain, in a corner with an ancient mirror, where I could try on the dress.

Looking down again to navigate the narrow path between the tables of zippered bags and stone boxes, I found a window. A window in the floor, plexiglass and yellowed, opening over a lighted stone cylinder to a buried floor beneath. Clay pot replicas sat at the bottom of the pit. The woman saw me gazing through the window and joined me. “When we bought this store, we found that buried underneath.” She said the Romans built it for storing grain, and it was two thousand years old.

Sometimes I think of the alternate me in a parallel universe, the one who paid more attention in school or didn’t marry that man or took better care of herself or learned to listen to herself much sooner. Wherever she was, she wasn't seeing this.

“It was for farrow,” the woman said. “You know farrow?” We talked about it and she showed me walls, one of them Roman and one of them medieval and the difference in the way the stones were built. She asked me where I was from and I told her. She said, “People from Italy, they live all over the world,” before she knew that someone long ago, a great great great great something had been born in Sardinia, a recent discovery, a thing that had been unearthed under my own family’s floor. “You see?” she said, before showing me the curtain and telling me to try on whatever I liked.

Turning Angst into Art: The Story Behind the Writing of Clear Out the Static In Your Attic/ Guest post by Isla McKetta

When I’m not writing I’m angsty. When I’m angsty I’m not writing. It’s not a good circle and it can be a hard one to escape. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to harness all that angst and turn it into a full manuscript. I’ve actually done this three times now, this is the story of the book that’s been published, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art.

Working in marketing can be an interesting way of getting inside the mind of an audience and honing your writing to make the most of all the triggers available to you as a writer—from the heightened sensitivity of stretching time during a momentous scene to knowing which words you can ____ out without affecting a reader’s understanding of your text. Writing for marketing can also be a soul-deadening experience of feeling like you’re pulling puppet strings rather than connecting with human beings. It gets worse when your department of four is suddenly shrunk to two but the workload is not.

When this happened to me, I had the good fortune to be working with a fellow writer. Rebecca Bridge went to Iowa for poetry which means not only did she have the writing chops, but I was also deeply intimidated by her.

So when Rebecca saw the Write Bloody book contest was looking for how-to books on writing and that she thought we could write one together, I flattered, inspired, and scared.

I was feeling down and pretty certain I had neither the luck to get accepted nor the energy to see another book through to publication.

But things at work were going from bad to worse and I needed an outlet or I was going to spend every night for the rest of my life weeping. I took Rebecca’s lifeline and we started conceptualizing the book. Most writing prompt books are simply ways to get writers’ brains started, and the format is relatively straightforward. We wanted to do something more to make the book more memorable/marketable, to give beginning writers something to hold on to, and to make the book fun for us to write. I never could get the line “static in my attic” from “Channel Z” by the B-52’s out of my head and we worked around that, thinking about all the things that might be in an attic and how those could translate to interesting exercises for writers.

We were lucky that the publisher was looking for a proposal to start because we had one month to get that in. We wrote an introduction for the book and six exercises. We also took a clue from Write Bloody’s personality and created a list of selling points in the quirkiest but savviest ways we could, from “We use our MFAs from Iowa and Goddard to write really good words that people like reading“ and “There are two of us which means we can cover more speaking engagements“ to “We stole the title of this book from the B-52s.“

It worked! The contest ended on March 31. By April 9, we had an email saying that we were among 20 finalists and they wanted the final manuscript (including at least 50 prompts) by May 15. Fifty prompts is a lot of prompts to write, especially on such a short timeline, and I’ll admit that Rebecca and I stole more than a few minutes of work time for brainstorming and writing. Rebecca is more creative than I am and I’m better at deadlines so we played off our strengths throughout this process.

We still struggled to come up with the full list and sometimes wrote things that were terribly duplicative. But we kept working on the book and found a form that worked. The prompts started to separate out into three categories that mirror the writing process: Inspiration, Carpentry, and Finishing Touches. Each prompt included a little essay about where it came from or how it related to our work, the prompt itself, an example using our own work, and a list of books that exemplify the technique at hand. The reading list was my idea. Not only did I find the annotation process extremely helpful in grad school but recommending books to people is my favorite thing.

We finished! On May 15 we looked a little like this:

 

And on June 12 we watched this video anxiously to see if we’d been accepted:

Round about 2:25 there was a big exhale! We’d done it!

There was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and polishing the book over the next year, but by April 2014 Rebecca and I had our book in our hands. That’s not to say it’s been a great commercial success, most books aren’t. But when I open the pages of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, I still get the “I can’t believe I made this” thrill.

And success attracts success. Somewhere during the year we were editing Clear Out the Static, my thesis was accepted for publication by Éditions Checkpointed in Paris as Polska, 1994.

Lessons I’ve Learned

  • When you’re feeling awful, grab at the things that feel like opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re completely up to them.
  • Break your project into manageable chunks so you can see the next endpoint clearly. That gives you roadmap and a chance to reward yourself along the way.
  • Put yourself on a tight, but achievable, schedule. A little pressure can help you work through the hard parts.
  • Help others when you can. Whether you choose to collaborate on a project or just use each other as touchpoints on a lonely journey, a buddy is invaluable. Some of my best writing buds are the ones who manage this retreat and this blog. Although I usually do my best writing on my own, we all help each other out when we can and I’d be lost without them.
  • Project the best of yourself into the world, even when you’re feeling badly. You want a publisher or agent who wants the you you want to be, not the one who thrives on nursing you through misery.

Submit!

If you’ve turned your angst into art and that art looks like performance poetry (no writing prompt books this go-round), try submitting to this year's Write Bloody submission contest. The deadline is July 21. You can do it!

No matter what form your writing takes, write. And when life is too hard to write, do it anyway.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

What to write when the ideas aren't flowing

Do you love the idea of a writing retreat, but feel intimidated by having to write something on the spot and share with other participants? Me too. What consistently surprises me, however, is most of the time the magic happens--even when it doesn't seem like it. During our last Tuscany retreat there was an evening when I just couldn't come up with a piece -- so instead I wrote about why I couldn't write.

***

How we find water, stand in it, how we’re drawn there, how it cleanses us both in reality and symbolically. The truth is the cumulative effects of emotion and travel and listening have caught up with me and also I stayed up too late finishing a book and so today don’t know what it is that I want to write but at least I have a lot of new dresses to wear. And even if I can’t come up with the thing I want to say I know I am being filled, that rising waters will one day spill over or break through an inexplicably built dam, hopefully in time for the start of Nanowrimo, because wouldn’t that be cool, to finish a novel in one mad rush, like standing in a river that scares you with its power. I know that water is a thing that restores us but it also can destroy, and the book that kept me awake was about this, in part, the destruction of a city, and also about the destruction of reasonability, of snowballing hubris, of the lack of sense, of stolen lives and the absence of compassion, of bold-faced lies and dead dogs. And the truth is this truth has hung in my mind today like a poisoned haze, and so has the fact that I can’t always say what I want to say when I want to say it. Thoughts and ideas spiral, a tide pool or a tidal wave pushing along small cars that are supposed to roll but instead they float. So if I’m glad to be where the earth is dry and hot salamanders skitter across baked bricks you’ll forgive me, If I like to be where the color of the sun brightens walls and trees and grass and pots of dry flowers, you’ll understand.

***

It's not a perfectly coherent piece, and it doesn't have to be. The important thing is I wrote something, allowing a stream of consciousness that drew on the experiences and emotions and present-moment awareness of what was going on -- the heat (I finally bought several new sundresses and wore them in succession throughout that day), the book (Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, about an American Muslim family's experience during Hurricane Katrina), the writing prompt (which had to do with water), the parallel thoughts about my internal struggles and the greater world external struggles, the contrast between the place I was physically and the place I was emotionally. Writing is messy, just like us, and that's okay. Come try it out with us.

Dread Has Lifted by Dulcie Witman

Thank you to the Stars.

And the Saints.

Thank you to the Brothers and the Sisters.

Thank you to Friends and Healers and Potions and Herbs and thank you to Spring and it’s promise of Summer.

To Flowers and Vegetables and Peepers and Baby Deer and The River.

Thank you to Unexpected Money and Plays about Old Women and New Visions and thank you even to Cigarettes for joining me when I asked you to but leaving when I ask you to also.

Thank you to my Partner in Life.

I didn’t know that Dread was ruling me.  I thought it was Pain.  And Loss.  And Grief and Anger.  I thought I was broken and I would not find Joy or Light until I was well again.  I thought I would not be able to write another thing, not be able to want to write another thing until I was mended.  And I did not know for sure if I would ever be mended.

But somewhere on the road from Middlebury to Topsham, Dread lifted.  

I still felt poorly.  My hip hurt and my neck hurt and my belly down where the scar is, that hurt too.  Same shit different day, I was prepared to think.  

But I didn’t think that.  

I thought about this art project I want to do where I map out a New Vision I have of what it’s like to be human, this human, at this time in my life.  And then I thought of my cabin and how I’d like to set up as an art space so I could go out there and paint and play with paper and glue.  I was glad that we’re putting an outdoor shower on the back side of it, the side that faces just trees and that we’ll have a place to plug in things if we want to.

I drove the speed limit, I stopped and saw a family friend on the way. I got home late and didn’t unpack but, instead, took a bath and went to bed.  

I slept well even though I still didn’t feel good.

And now it’s three days later and I feel a little bit better in my body but not well.  I’m writing this down and sending it out so as to make note to myself that I felt this way and thought these thoughts.  I feel better even though I am not all better.

And just in case you have ever had this kind of time in your life, just in case this is one of them, I want you to know that at least this one person who it turns out was taken up with Dread can now feel past it.

And it feels good.

 

Writing for Writers

It feels like I’ve got a megaphone up to my mouth when really, all I want to do is whisper in your ear.  I want to tell this story in a way that makes sense, in a way you might relate to, even if you’ve never lived it.  I want to be next to you, ever so close on a crowded train, within inches of your face. I want you to hear me with your heart.  

Mostly, I’d like to think that I am not worried about what you’ll think of me.  But the truth is, the narrator in me is a tiny bit terrified from time to time.  I am afraid that you will think I am a bad person, that everyone will think I am a bad person, that it’s going to be me baring myself to a whole lot of people who get to keep their secrets secret.  But really, I’ve never been interested in keeping secrets.  Not my own and not anyone else’s.  I think it’s far too fun to say our secrets to each other.  Not to say I’m a gossip or I go around telling other people’s secrets.  I only tell my own because those are the only ones that are mine to tell.  Your secrets are yours.  And if you’ve held onto them tightly, for fear of what people might believe about you, well then good.  That makes us even.  The same, even.  And it means that my secrets have something to say to yours that might open something inside your chest that has felt too constricting for too long.  

Am I afraid?  Yes I am afraid.  I am afraid that what I’m writing is shit.  I am afraid that how I’m telling this story isn’t enough.  I am afraid that the future I want so dearly will be unavailable to me because of this story, because of the secrets I will tell.  Here’s a secret: I’m afraid that I left my life to go off and write whatever I wanted and live however I saw fit and then I wrote about it and now that I’m writing about it, I’m afraid who might read it and think lowly of me.  Kind of.  And kind of not.  I’ma little concerned, yes, but also I know that there is nothing more liberating than telling one’s truth.  It puts you in a place of power because no one can really have power over you after that.  Not when you have nothing to hide.  

But having nothing to hide is a scary place to be in.  

I have been misunderstood sometimes.  For telling people the lesser things I’ve done.  They’ve taken my confession as a strange form of braggery.  But that’s not at all what it is.  To declare, claim and own “I did this,” is not to be confused with boasting.  To be able to say ‘this was the choice I made’ doesn’t mean I’m proud.  It just means I’m willing to be honest about it.    

Mary Karr says, “Love the reader, love the reader, love the reader.”  Here I am writing for you but I haven’t actually written to you and addressed you like the real person you are in a long time.  I do better when I think of you, when I place you in my mind’s eye and think about what you are made of or how your heart is shaped.  I feel more connected when I think about the color of your eyes or the lumps on your beautiful body.  Where are you right now?  Why, we haven’t even met!  Probably never will.  And isn’t that beautiful?  That we can be together like this without being together at all.  That I can show you my scars and secrets and you can be there — maybe in a cabin in Oregon, maybe in a hammock at your mother-in-law’s, maybe tucked in bed after a bad break up.  And here I am in London, at this apartment I’ll soon be moving out of — the one where I do everything right here at my desk which is pushed up next to my bed.  This has been this way for as long as I can remember.  My desk next to my bed.  Not much psychic space.  No wonder I can’t sleep.  After last night’s bout of sleeplessness I vowed to start making use of my time.  If I wake up, from now on I’ll get up and write.  I’ll do my work.  I’ll tend to your heart while tending to mine, however wee the hour.   

The other day I walking down near the National Theatre along Southbank and it was seventy degrees outside.  That’s hotter than many a summer day here in London, so the atmosphere was festival-like.  Everyone was out in hordes, drinking, talking, laughing.  I was not doing any of that and sometimes (you might already know this) that’s how it feels when you’re writing a book.  Like everyone’s on an eternal vacation just going about their daily life while you’re sludging through words.  I was overcome with a that dreaded mix of hopelessness and frustration that every writer I know tends to have from time to time.  I decided right then I should give up writing for once and for all, before the world knows my every last secret.  Then I remembered I was very hungry and very tired.  And that’s no place to make decisions from.  Then, this morning, I remembered you.  You’ve unstuck me, dear reader whoever you are.  Maybe you’re nothing more than this very white, very blank page.  And if that is all you are, that is quite something.  Because the page has saved me, over and over and over again.  Is it not true that that which we fear might destroy us has the power to deliver us?  If it is, what else is there to be, besides afraid? 

Grateful, I’d say.  

And thank you, I'd say.     

Magic Connections

A few days ago a friend left me a voice message recounting a near mystical experience she had while journeying through Myanmar.  She and a friend had decided to rent bicycles for $1 and cycle through the countryside to visit sacred caves containing shrines to Buddha.  After making their way barefoot through a series of dark caverns which altered in temperature, going from unbearable humidity to freezing cold air pockets and involved bugs, they came upon a path that led them to an edge.  As they rounded the corner, the cave opened up to an incredible look out of a field of sunflowers where a monk sat nearby meditating.  The giant red sun was just touching the horizon and illuminating everything unlike anything they'd ever seen.  Light cast itself in bright beams and there was absolute quiet, not a sound to be heard.  As the two of them stood, bathed in golden light, they were brought to tears by the magical beauty.  My friend said she had to look away it was so beautiful.      

Hearing my friend's story, something inside me opened, much like the effect the sun has on sunflowers.  Inside, I felt a leaning in, a turning towards; an, "I know this place and this feeling" even though I have never been to Myanmar and have never had quite an experience like that.  Nevertheless, I could hold it in my mind's eye as if I were there, could keep some sliver of my friend's healing vision in my heart.   

A few hours later, my sister FaceTimed me.  She pointed the camera on my beaming nephew who was strapped cutely into his high chair, ever the little man, smiling wide, awaiting his next meal.  I wanted to reach through the screen and nuzzle his plump chubby cheeks, feel and smell his smooth, sweet skin.  We beamed at each other like that; me, one of his many doting aunties and him; my one and only love of my life nephew.  "Hi!" I said, my heart so full of joy, while also longing to be closer than London is to LA.  "Hi, beebs!  I miss you!" I cooed.  Then, my ten-month old nephew did something I've never seen him do before.  He waved at me.  It happened so fast I wondered if I was perhaps seeing things but my sister, who was holding the camera, confirmed it.  "Oh my gosh!  Did you see?  He just waved at you!"   And just like that, hot tears gushed down my cheeks.  I didn't know where they came from, where to put them or how to get them to stop.  My nephew.  A ten month old little boy.  Hello, he says without saying, from wherever he is.    

Maybe it has had a specific effect on me because lately I am looking for magic.  I am looking for it anywhere I can find it.  And I am finding it.  In the budding flowers on the trees, in the tender green sprouts of newness, on my yoga mat, inside a perfectly ripe avocado, in the way that passing dog caught my glance on the street.  The way it felt he might have just seen my soul.  A secret connection.  A blip of communication from somewhere not here.  

Somewhere not here.  That is where creativity comes from.  It's the source of all magic, where it all hails from; those sunsets worthy of tears, the little babes sending a nod of a wave from the innocent beyond, an understanding yet languageless space.  It is a place easily not found, terribly overlooked and often forever forgotten.  I have learned that this place can be present in just about every moment if we allow for it.  But allowing for it requires a fierceness that isn't for the faint hearted.  It requires an abandoning.  Of ego, for one.  It requires drawing boundaries, around things / people / activities that whisk you further and further away from the place you so long to connect to.  It requires discipline.  Meditation.  Walking.  Yoga.  Dancing.  Maybe a trip to Myanmar.  It requires dedication; a full-hearted wanting that's so big and broad that you'll do just about anything to get your next fix.  

Does this sound like a drug?  Does this sound reckless?  I suppose that's because it is.  The deepest form of listening requires listening with our whole selves.  My ear is forever to the ground below the ground below the ground.  So when I get a little wave, or hear the sound of a crow calling at night loud enough to wake me up I fill with yes.  My heart seeps with gratitude in knowing with all certainty that perhaps we are not all alone here, afterall.               

Finding inspiration

“You have treasures hidden within you … and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think small.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

One of the first questions people often ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” They’re rarely satisfied with the answer, because truthfully, I don’t know.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed in a collective unconscious, a source of archetypal characters that we as humanity carry with us. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book on creativity and inspiration, Big Magic, believes creativity exists on a level of enchantment, something mystical and magical. She says ideas exist independently and may visit you, and if you’re not ready or open to a particular idea, it will visit someone else.

Gilbert tells the story of a very specific plot line she developed for a manuscript but did not carry through. Soon after, she met author Ann Patchett, who later told Gilbert about a book she was writing that essentially had the same, very specific plot line as Gilbert’s original idea. Nobody had shared (or stolen) an idea. Coincidence? Gilbert believes the idea wanted to come into existence and had moved on to another author to make it happen.

Sound a little “woo-woo”? Well, creativity is mysterious. You can chalk it up to coincidence or shared experience. But I’ve seen happen frequently firsthand, either in ideas or elements. For example, a writer friend and I swapped manuscripts and discovered we had both created a character with exactly the same name. A lot of it naturally has to do with being a part of a culture that’s exposed to similar kinds of stories, news and events. But a lot of it’s downright spooky.

The mind wants to be ready and available to capture ideas. But most writers and artists go through dry spells. This winter I’ve felt stuck – lacking inspiration, meh. I opened my works in progress and don’t feel much like working. I think creativity can go through cycles, too, just like the seasons. I feel like winter has descended on my ability to create, too, slowing things down just a bit.

When that happens, how do you “unthaw”? How do you draw creativity out of the ether and onto the page?

1.     Acknowledge that you’re feeling creatively blocked. It sets in motion the intention to be unblocked, and it tells the universe that you’re ready to work and you would like an idea, please.

2.     Hang out with other creative types. Their mojo can rub off, and more likely than not, they know what it’s like to get stuck. Solidarity helps you feel less solitary.

3.     Cross-pollinate. Find another creative outlet. See a concert, go to a wine-and-painting night, take a dance class, make a construction-paper alligator with your child. It all comes from the same place.

4.     Recognize a response from the universe when you see it. Example: Without my bringing up the idea of feeling blocked, a new acquaintance mentioned that sometimes creativity suffers when the mind is in a state of confusion. Determining the source or learning to accept the state of confusion can help shake things loose. The idea that a distraction was blocking me was worth exploring, and helped move my mind around the obstruction.

5.     Recognize potential sources of inspiration or seek them out. I’ve had a lot of success with writing prompts, which can come from a number of sources, including single words that evoke memory or feeling. Try flipping through a book of poetry and reading a single line – write about how it makes you or your character feel. Choose a word from a newspaper article. Ask a friend what’s been on his or her mind and see if you can relate it to what a character is feeling and thinking. At a recent dinner gathering of other creative types, I asked each of the guests for “an interesting word” with the intention of using some or all of them in a writing exercise. (It’s also a fun way to start discussions and learn what might be top of mind for your friends.) They offered up the words “riveting,” “empowerment,” “lyrical,” “Mississippi,” and the invented “bulbalicous,” referring to a proliferation of tulips in the spring. (Yes, you can make up words.) How do you use the words? Any number of ways. Can you use all five words in one paragraph? Can you write a poem that is both lyrical and bulbalicious? What does empowerment mean to you? Do you remember learning to spell the word Mississippi in school? What would your character feel riveted by? Which word evokes the strongest emotion in your character?

6.     Get out of your element. Take a writing retreat. Put yourself in a change of scenery: It can do wonders for your creative mindset. We have two retreats coming up this year, Writing in the Wild at Borestone Mountain in Maine, and a Tuscany writing retreat, Tuscany: A Retreat for the Senses. Getting out of your element on your creative mindset: You don’t have to believe in magic to make it work (though it helps).

Remember, the mind wants to be creative. Why not see what it can do?

An earlier version of this blog post appeared first at http://millwriters.org/finding-inspiration-in-winter-by-nikki-kallio/

 

An Year's End Meditation on Beginnings by Regina Tingle

Blank white blur buzz void emptiness — what is there?  I don’t know but I suppose it has to start with something; an idea, an urge, a desire, a mistake or love.  But before that, certainly there must be a destruction, a levelling to the ground, a flattening vacuum-like force eliminating all that once was so that there can be something else.  So there can be nothing else but newness; a notion both simple and profound.  The quaking earth, the rock-sway of trembling terra firma—not so firm.  Creation and destruction: wonderful terrible kinds of magic.

To speak to a beginning is also to speak to an end.  It is to take the next breath, the one that comes after the last.  Such a swirl, a cycle, a season; which has ever come first — do we even know?  Did God begin in winter just before spring or during the fertile summer or was it as the earth was going dormant, falling towards itself? 

Beginnings are like that — so elusive, so mysterious, so fleeting but also sometimes painful.  They seem to go nearly unnoticed, packed tightly inside years, months, days, hours or minutes: what is a birthday but once a year, what is a year but once a few hundred days?   

To speak to a beginning we must go back before beginnings.  And yet here I am, again beginning.  Every new word, every new sentence loops right back around to the start and I have a hard time moving forward.  It is never ending.  Why don’t’ we say “never-beginning?”  I think we all know why, even if we pretend to keep it a secret.  

It is all there — the signs, the symbols, the hawks that swoop and glide in rings.  Certainly they must know something like the wind knows something — it too travels round and round in circles, cones, the cylindrical vortices of yes and no, black and white and maybe and gray and everything all at once.  What isn’t a sphere?  Even the earth, even the distant planets, the sun, stars and moon.    

Fire flicks — it begins with a spark, with heat.  With all the right conditions something can ignite from nothing and begin.  I do not always know where and how or when they appear, these beginnings.  But I believe in them.  I believe they grace us when we least expect them, even if we only come to find out that’s what was happening later.     

Invisible beginnings.  What else are they but the essence of life itself?

Things to know about Toscana

by Alanna Reiser

 

1. The sun hurts sometimes if you sit for long,

if your legs grow weary from the day and you find a grassy spot, but

if you breathe it in, it will be kinder.

2. Open your mouth, let your teeth feel the weight of its rays,

feel the light sink through your enamel, your teeth grow heavy.

Once you inhale the sun, let it wander through you.

3. This sun breeds grapes, they’re filled with water and you watch them nursing on the closest hill.

Crush them with your fingers, pour them out the faucets and fill a cup,

it will taste like sitting on the porch at dusk on a Sunday when there’s no work on Monday.

4. The greens you’re sitting on fill your cracks,

watch them weave through your toes, your fingers,

grab the earth’s hair, don’t dare trim it.

5. The people here stuff their fingernails with gold,

you see the remnants on their fingertips as they graze the windowpanes.

Everything they touch hides these gifts of golden flecks,

the dining chairs,

the pens.

Try to steal some, tuck them away in your pocket holes

to find come laundry day.