5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Ernest Hemingway was known as an avid fisherman. There’s a fishing contest still running in Cuba that’s named after him. It’s been running since 1950 and he won the first three years it was held. He once caught seven marlins in one day. He’s the only person to ever pull a giant tuna into a boat in one piece. Apparently, the only way he could do that was by shooting at the sharks that tried to eat his catch with a sub-machine gun.

In 1935 he won every fishing contest in the Key West-Havana-Bimini triangle. After living on his boat, Pilar, for a while, he eventually moved into Room 1 at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Bimini in the Bahamas.

If you Google Hemingway and fishing, 2.57 million results show up.

I went fishing in Buzzard’s Bay recently with my brother-in-law. It wasn’t your typical “movie-version” fishing trip where we got up at the crack of dawn to hurry out on to the boat and be alone in the outdoors to learn more about ourselves. We left casually around 10:15-or-so a.m. when the tide was on its way out. We invited a neighbor to come with us by yelling through his window as we were passing by. He paused, thought about it for 2 seconds, then said, “Yeah, sure.” He threw on a shirt and sandals and came running out to join us.

We jumped in the whaler and headed out to the spot where they had caught several large striped bass over the past few days. Instead of being humid and overcast like the past few days had been, we had clear skies and a cool breeze. It felt good to be in a boat on calm water, to smell the salt air, to feel the wind in your face. My thoughts turned to Hemingway. While the guys scanned the radar looking for schools of stripers, my imagination took me to the Keys and the Bahamas with Papa Hemingway, rod in hand, reeling in the big ones.

We threw in our line, an eel rig with spongy white rubber eels on an umbrella set-up of massive hooks, and let it out to about 30 feet. We trolled back and forth to the number 26 channel marker, trying to avoid the lobster pots that were just below the surface. The first few passes we mostly caught seaweed and had to clear the lines before the next pass. Occasionally we’d notice that a hook had or one of the fake eels was twisted on the line, a sure sign that we’d had a hit but didn’t know it.

On the third or fourth pass there was a loud click and high-pitched whirr as the fish took the bait and started to run. My brother-in-law handed me the rod and I pulled, feeling the weight of the fish pulling against my arms. I could barely move the reel and I sat back, adjusting the rod for more leverage.

“Keep the rod tip up.”

“Don’t sway from side to side.”

“Keep reeling or he’ll get away.”

The guys coached me and I reeled with as much strength as I could. It was tiring and the fish felt like it was fighting hard to avoid being pulled in. My arms started to feel weak and numb, but I kept reeling, reeling, hoping to see the fish as it got closer to the boat. The way the rod was pulling down, we all thought we had a monster of a fish on our hands. As I got near the end of the line, the guys stood up to get a better look.

“There he is, bring him around to port.”

I moved the rod around to my right, since I was facing backward, and my brother-in-law gaffed the fish and dragged it into the boat. It was a good-sized fish, a keeper, but not the monster we all thought we had. The silver scales and white belly flashed in the sun and a small pool of blood drained onto the deck. I put a foot gently on the fish’s tail to keep it from flopping around on the boat.

“That’s why it was so hard to reel in.”

We all looked at our catch and saw that the fish had gotten hooked in the back, not the mouth. What made it so hard to reel in was that I was pulling the fish through the water sideways.

Our neighbor put the fish in the live well and we went back for about fifteen or sixteen more passes, but we had no more luck that morning. Time after time we trolled the passage from rocks to channel marker but the fish weren’t biting. It was time to go home.

We came in to shore and cleaned the gear and the boat. I posed for a photo with the fish on the dock and we cleaned it right there. I was grateful for the camaraderie, the challenge the fish brought and for the meal we had later that day. As I walked back to the cottage, freshly caught fish in hand, I thought about how what I had just experienced was a lot like writing.

What was the first thing we did when we saw someone who had not been fishing with us?

We told them the STORY of what happened.

Here are 5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law:

  1. Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.
  2. Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.
  3. Making a choice about where to start is important.
  4. You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.
  5. What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.

I’ve often thought about fishing on Buzzard’s Bay. I imagined how I’d toss in a line and wait patiently for a fish to jump on the line. I thought we might have to go into deep water to get the big fish and I worried that I might get seasick on the open ocean. But when we actually went fishing we were in fairly shallow water, very close to shore. The fish were right there and we trolled, pulling a single line with a lot of hooks and it was slow, tedious work.

This is what I’ve found writing to be like, too. I have two different ways of thinking about writing. In one fantasy, everything is going smoothly and I write the next great novel in 30 days. It flows from my fingers fully formed with no rewriting or editing necessary. The other fantasy is that I sit down to write and NOTHING happens. No words come. I’m mute and have to give up writing forever. The reality is that like fishing, the thinking about and the doing are very different things. It is rare that the writing just flows, fully-formed, with no need for rewriting. It is unrealistic to think that is even possible.

On the other hand, I’ve never sat down to write and had nothing to say. I’ve resisted the sitting down many, many times. But when I do sit and write, something comes. The lesson learned, “Fishing and writing are achieved by DOING the fishing and writing, not by sitting around thinking about doing them.” If you’re stuck, get in the boat and throw in your line. You might be surprised what comes out of the water.

Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.

As I said, we must’ve made twenty trips back and forth along that channel to catch one fish. That means there were 19 times when we failed at catching a fish. I think this is a good lesson for many things we do in life. For writing, it reminded me that a lot of writing is rewriting and that I might have to make a lot of attempts at telling a story powerfully before I find that way that works. Those twenty passes weren’t failures, they were the journey leading up to the one fish. That fish was delicious and the journey to land it made for a great story. When you’re working on your third or fourth or twentieth draft, you’re just fishing for the best story. Make sure it’s a doozy.

Making a choice about where to start is important.

Buzzard’s Bay opens out into the Atlantic Ocean. There were a LOT of places we could’ve started fishing. We could’ve spent all day searching for the best place or another place, but we started where we started because they had luck there before. They went to the same place and started there and then stopped there. We didn’t waste a lot of time trying lots of different places to see which place might work better. I think this is an important lesson for writers because too often, I decide that the way I’m doing things isn’t working. I think, “Maybe I need new software to write. What’s the latest? What if I went to a coffee shop instead of the library? I started this novel but now I’m going to switch to a short story. What if this short story idea is stupid and I never finish it?” 

If I don’t plan where I’m going to start my writing day, I find that it’s half over before I get going because I spend so much time getting ready to write instead of doing the actual writing. If you find yourself doing the same thing, pick a place to start and stick to it. You’ll get a lot more done and can always a make a change after you’ve gotten your words in for the day.

You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.

I’ve done a lot of river fishing, but never fished for big fish like stripers. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the guys coached me about how everything worked for fishing in the bay. I wasn’t very good at fishing for stripers. I held the rod wrong, stopped reeling when I shouldn’t have, moved the rod too much and I’m sure a lot of other things. The important thing was that I didn’t let that get in the way of catching a fish. If you’re a new writer, or coming back to it after a long time of not doing, you’re probably not going to be very good at it. (There are always exceptions to this, but for most of us mortals, that’s the way it is.) That’s okay. The first time you do something, you’re not expected to be good at it. You might not be good at it the 100th time you do it.

If you believe what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about getting good at something, you have to put in 10,000 hours to become proficient at anything. If I had thrown the rod and reel in the water after being terrible, my brother-in-law would’ve thrown me overboard to get it first of all, but I also never would’ve caught that fish. Every time I start a new project I try to remind myself that this is something new I’m doing. I’m racking up hours until I hit my 10,000. If I give up out of frustration of not being good at it right away, I’ll never accomplish what I set out to do.

What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

We thought we had a monster fish, but it was just average. In our minds, this was the big one. It was hard to reel in and the rod was bending and bowing as I brought the fish closer to the boat. It was still a keeper, but it wasn’t the monster we were hoping for. I’m an outliner. I like to work out beats before I start writing. I put together story boards for small videos I make with my kids on YouTube. A lot of the time I think the story is going to go one way and by the end of working on the story and re-writing draft after draft, the story has completely changed. When I resist this process, I’m get much more frustrated and find myself giving up on the writing I’m working on. When I realize that my writing is a journey, like our impromptu fishing trip, I’ve had much more success and enjoy the process so much more.

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Paul and Striped Bass

Enjoy your writing journey by actually taking it. Decide where to start and stick to it. Take as many passes as you need to get the story you are looking for. Don’t worry if you’re not good at writing at first, we all take time to get warmed up and get better. Don’t be discouraged if the story has turned out a lot differently than you thought it would, you’ll surprise yourself and us.

Stories are the Wildest Things.

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E.L. Doctorow – Writing Quote Wednesday

Writing quote and photo by Paul Jenny

Writing quote and photo by Paul Jenny

For today’s writing quote I chose another actor/writer and fellow New Yorker, E.L. Doctorow. According to Wikipedia, Doctorow acted in college productions as an undergraduate at Kenyon College in Ohio. He did one year of graduate work at Columbia in English Drama before being drafted into the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army.

Doctorow married fellow Columbia drama school student Helen Esther Setzer while in Germany. He wrote his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, as a response to his job as a screenplay reader. He had read so many Westerns while working on that job that he decided to write a parody of them, but by the time he finished the novel it had become a serious contribution to the genre.

His most recent novel, Andrew’s Brain,published in 2014 is about a “freakishly depressive cognitive scientist klutz”. You can read a review of that work by Terrence Rafferty HERE. 

You can also buy the novel on Amazon.com.

Watch Doctorow talk about Andrew’s Brain on YouTube.

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According to Cory Doctorow, most recently the author of the YA novel Homeland, is often asked if he’s related to E.L. I found a quote on Answers.com where he’s attributed as saying, “Writers always ask if I’m related to award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow. The answer is ‘probably.’ Family legend has it that my paternal grandfather’s uncle is E.L.’s grandfather. My folks met E.L. in 1998 and tried this theory out on him, and he said that it sounded about right, but didn’t seem very excited by it. ”

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DON’T FORGET, I’m still looking for short-stories and essays about writing to read on the Stories are the Wildest Things Podcast. Please send me your short-stories and essays to pauljennynyc@gmail.com

Stories are the Wildest Things Podcast – Now Seeking Story Submissions!

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Samuel Butler – self-portrait in oil

As readers of the Stories are the Wildest Things blog, you know that one of the reasons I started this blog is to help you tell your stories in the most powerful, creative and wide-reaching way that you can.

To that end, I’m starting the Stories are the Wildest Things Podcast, hosted on Soundcloud.com, featuring fiction and non-fiction stories from around the world.

I have a lot of readers from many parts of the world and I want to share as many of your stories as I can. I’ll also discuss writing tips and techniques, do interviews with writers and other creative people, and fill you in on news about what’s happening in the world of writing including: contests, book releases, cool apps, classes and more!

For the next episode I’m looking for short stories in any genre or short essays about writing.

Submission Guidelines

Please submit your best writing up to 5000 words (double-spaced with author name, story title and page numbers in header) to pauljennynyc@gmail.com

Use the subject heading Podcast Story and your title in your email. (e.g. Podcast Story – The Little Engine That Could)

Please submit only one story or essay at a time (in English only for now) and give me some time to respond.

If I choose your story, I’ll read it on the podcast and offer links to your website or blog and any other info that you’d like to include. If you’d like to be interviewed about a book or project you are working on, we can discuss that as well. Right now, there’s no reading fee and no pay (that could change with sponsors and number of submissions), but the podcast will be professional and something you can be proud of sharing with others. Click HERE to listen to the first episode featuring an essay by Samuel Butler entitled How to Make the Most of Life.

Thank you! I’m really looking forward to reading your submissions. 

Paul

Stories are the Wildest Things Podcast – Ep. 001

On Trying to Write in McDonald’s and Malls

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Flickr photo “Dream House” by Marie Kare

If you’re a reader of Stories are the Wildest Things, you know I have an energetic four-year-old who doesn’t like to nap, especially when I want him to.

This often means that I have to grab writing time in between shouts of, “Look at me! I’m wearing nothing but Play-doh for clothing!” and “Daddy, watch me jump off this six-foot tall bookshelf and land in this pile of Matchbox cars!” and “See how I can fit my wet finger inside this electrical outlet? It looks like a surprise face.”

Sometimes, just to get some writing done, I have to pack up my little stuntman-in-training and head out to a safe and padded place where he can find wee ones his own size and energy level to play with. That way he can spend some of that energy and I can keep my head from exploding like in that movie, Scanners. (WARNING: Graphic Head Explosion)

As you know, I’m not a big fan of their food, but McDonald’s often has a playground and free WiFi. Sometimes I’ll take him there so he can run around and around in the Habitrail-like maze with children whose parents often looked as exhausted as I do. Although it can sometimes be chaotic in Mickey D’s, I’ve often gotten a bit of writing done there, especially if the children are about the same age as or younger than the four-year-old.

Yesterday we went to the mall, however.

There is almost no writing to be done at the mall. The mall is not a good writing place. No one, to my knowledge, has ever said, “I had a great writing day at the mall.” (If you have, please leave me your secret in the comments section. Please.) The mall is a place where ghouls harvest the wails of little children crying to be given the shiny, blinking, furry objects displayed there.

We go there because there is this Bouncy House Place the four-year-old loves where the children can run around and scream and jump on giant blow-up sliding boards and castles and, well, bouncy houses. It’s also has free WiFi.

Now, McDonald’s and the Bouncy House Place at the mall might seem like similar kinds of places, but there are some crucial differences.

In a McDonald’s you can see your child in the Habitrail happily scampering about. There is only one room and you are in the room with them. The children are contained and they can really get inventive with the way they play in the Habitrail.

But at the Bouncy House Place their energy gets all ramped up by the noise and the giant bouncy places and…they disappear.

The bouncy houses are so big and dark you can’t see inside the things. A lot of them are as tall as two-story buildings. There are also two sections in the Bouncy House Place, one for the younger children and one for the…braver children. My son likes to flit between both.

So, after he took off his shoes, he bolted and disappeared into the bowels of a bouncy house. I wasn’t too concerned. We’ve been here before. I placed myself strategically near the exit gate so he couldn’t make a run for the mall when I wasn’t looking.

I opened my beat-up Mac and tried to concentrate on writing a sentence or two in Scrivener, my favorite writing app (get a free trial HERE), but as I tried to write I was distracted by the droning whine of the air blowers and the piercing screams of other children coming from deep inside the inflatable structures.

At least I thought they were the screams of other children. But when a chorus of children is screaming at the same pitch as an industrial air blower, it’s really hard to distinguish which child is yours.

I immediately got up and started searching the bouncy houses for his little blond head to see if he was the one who was hurt (or if he was hurting someone else). I think I catch a glimpse of his shorts disappearing into the no-access upper regions of a two-story tall sliding board and I yell, “Get down from there! You’re not allowed up there. You’re going to fall!”

Just then, a child-who-is-not-mine (but wearing similar shorts to mine) jumps down and looks at me with his little scrunched up face like, “You’re not the boss of me.”

He slides down the slide, arms in the air, then gives me the finger and steps on my toes as he runs gleefully to the next bouncy apparatus.

I call the four-year-old’s name. No answer.

I run from bouncy castle to bouncy race car to bouncy farm-house. He’s not there. I run to the younger children’s section. There he is, crouching low inside a playhouse with a little girl whose hair is the exact shade and length as his. I can’t tell them apart at first.

They stop me with fingers to their lips. “Shhh, we’re spying on those mean kids over there, Daddy.”

The mean kids he’s referring to are standing in a circle about three feet away and can both hear and see them pointing at them and calling them mean kids. They’re pummeling each other with every sharp toy they can reach and laughing wildly as the toys ricochet off their heads and arms and bodies in spinning, dangerous arcs.

I duck.

The four-year-old seems content to be playing spy, but now I’m wondering if it was smart to have left my Mac unattended in the other room. I don’t know anyone here, so it could be gone.

I run back to the braver kid’s section and it is still sitting there whirring loudly, like a plane about to head down the runway. The other parents are much too busy trying to find and/or control their children to worry about taking my beat-up old 747/Mac. This is a relief, but as soon as I sit down and start to type, I hear another wail.

I step into the room just in time to hear a parent asking my son not to throw objects at her daughter’s face. Great. He’s now a mean kid and needs to be spied on.

He apologizes. We have a little talk about not being mean and how play can include everyone. He says, “I’m itchy” and wiggles and wiggles until I let him go play with his spy friend. He runs away, smiling.

I’m just about to start writing again when I hear another wail.

The girl he was playing with is now leaving. I’m informed that he has no friends here now and that this is boring. He is also itchy.

I direct him to the jumpy castle in the braver kids’ section of the Bouncy House Place.

He runs over eagerly and dives through the door of a bouncy race car. He disappears. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Wail. Screams of pain. He rolls out of the door he just dove through and lies in a crumpled heap on the floor.

I rush over.

“I jumped into someone and their body was hard and it hurt my foot. Owie! Ow! Owwww.”

The tears make little river beds through the dirt on his face.

“It’s time for lunch,” I say, wiping his face with a tissue. He squirms.

“We have to le-eave?” he asks with more wailing.

“We can come back later. You’re getting hangry.”

“You mean hungry?” he asks.

I explain how the wordbo (or portmanteau) “hangry” is a combination of hungry and angry and he laughs.

“I’m hangry!” he yells.

I pack up the computer and the cord and my phone and my paper notebook and pen and we find his shoes and slip them on and head to the food court. Pizza is the only thing he’ll really eat in a food court, so I order some. I ask the bored teenagers behind the counter to please make sure the cheese slice is not too hot, I have a four-year-old who is very hungry. (I don’t say hangry to them. I don’t want them to scoff at me.)

They nod their heads and say, “Of course,” but ignore me completely.

When the pizza comes, it’s so hot you can see it steaming in the air-conditioning of the mall and there seems to be burn marks on the paper plate.

I warily give my hangry little man the slice of pizza with the warning, “It’s too hot.”

“But I’m HUNGRY NOW!” he yells, too hangry to remember to say hangry. He puts his tongue on the molten cheese. More wailing.

“Blow on it to cool it off,” I say. It’s something I’ve told him 100 times.

“I don’t know how,” he whines and instead of blowing on it, he punches it with his fist. Several times. Hard.

Oil and cheese and tomato sauce fly through the air, staining my t-shirt.

“That won’t cool it off. That will just smoosh it.” I say, the veins in my temples throbbing. I start thinking of Scanners again.

More hangry wailing. I make him drink his water. He coughs and it comes out his nose.

I touch the pizza to my lips and say, “It’s cool enough now, please eat it.”

He takes a few tentative nibbles, then shoves about a third of it into his mouth in one giant bite. His cheeks puff out and his lips and shirt and nose and even his eyes instantly have tomato sauce on them.

“Use a napkin to clean your face, little guy,” I say.

He nods, then wipes his face with the shirt he’s wearing, saving the pristine white napkins for the garbage can.

He finishes his pizza and we head back to the Bouncy House Place. He is dancing in circles around me and singing his own lyrics to Do You Want to Build a Snowman? as loudly as he can. I ask him to stop dancing around me in a circle. I’m afraid he’s going to trip and fall. As he grabs me around the waist from behind, I tell him so.

“Please stop dancing around me, you’re going to trip and…”

CLUNK!

A sound like a pumpkin hitting the side of a refrigerator lets me know that he has, indeed, tripped and fallen and bounced his head off the granite floor of the mall.

A siren wail of searing pain alerts everyone in our wing of the mall that a small child is in distress. I scoop him up and hold him close. This wailing is real and drawn out. His tiny chest is heaving. Copious tears wet my punched-pizza-stained t-shirt. I check him for a bump or a bruise. I worry that he has a concussion.

I hug him tightly and kiss his head. I want to say, “I told you so,” but I don’t.

People passing by are looking at me as if I’ve done something to make him cry. They ask if he’ll be alright. One little girl looks at me wide-eyed like, “I’m glad he’s not MY daddy” and moves on. Her parents cluck disapprovingly under their breath as they yank her deeper into the mall.

The crying subsides and I suggest we go to the Chocolate Store to get a treat. Chocolate heals all.

I buy us some chocolate-covered potato chips and we gobble them up while sitting under a fake Ficus tree on an uncomfortable mall bench.

Melted chocolate instantly covers his mouth, his arms, his hair and yes, even his eyes. I tell him to wait to wipe his mouth until I get a napkin. He nods and uses his shirt again. He now looks like Ed Norton in Fight Club at the end of this clip. (WARNING: Graphic)

We go to the bathroom and clean up. I check one more time for bruises and bumps and cuts. I’m relieved nothing is bleeding or swelling or turning strange colors.

“You doing alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, Dada.”

He puts his head under the full-force hurricane wind of the “Xcelerator” hand dryer and screams while shaking his head back and forth.

He’s fine.

I figure I can still get some writing time in until mom comes back from her errands to pick us up. She’s out with her intern casting a movie and this was our way of getting out of the house.

As we head back to the Bouncy House Place, my phone rings.

It’s mom, she’s here, it’s time to go home.

I tell the little man and he whines a little, but he’s all wailed out and tired. I pick him up and we head back to the Food Court to meet mom. His head rests gently on my shoulder and his body relaxes in my arms. Energy has definitely been spent.

My laptop bag feels a lot heavier for some reason on the way back. My word count for the day has definitely suffered. Needless to say, I got no quality writing done yesterday.

But today we might go to McDonald’s instead.

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Flickr photo by Mike Mozart

Claire Cook – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny from Flickr photo by Aaron Evans

According to her bio page on Amazon.com, Claire Cook was writing her first novel at 45 in her minivan and walking the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of Must Love Dogs at 50. It’s the kind of story of re-invention and stick-to-itiveness that I love.

Cook is now the international bestselling author of 11 novels and a sought-after re-invention speaker. If you’re searching for a way to get a motivated and stay on track, I highly recommend her latest book, Never Too Late, Your Roadmap to Re-invention (without getting lost along the way). You can order it on Amazon.com by clicking this LINK. (4.9 out of 5 stars)

You can also find out more about Cook by visiting her official publisher’s page at SimonandSchuster.com HERE or on Twitter @ClaireCookwrite.

Let me know what you think of Cook’s work in the comments section! I always appreciate hearing from everyone.

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Watch Claire Cook on the #BTLiveChat on YouTube.com

Flickr photo by Aaron Evans (CC License)

Steven Pressfield – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Writing quote created by Paul Jenny from Flickr photo “Black Marble” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Don’t cheat us of your contribution! Leave a link in the comments section to your latest gift to the world and every being in it. Stories truly are the wildest things.

If you need a writing prompt to get you started, click through to my WRITING PROMPTS here.

You can find more of Steven Pressfield at his website: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/

Flickr photo by NASA (CC License)

Writing Prompt 07: The 10 Most Expensive Houses in the World

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Flickr photo “Greystone Mansion” by Graham

Take a look at these sprawling mansions by clicking on this link to HowStuffWorks.com.

  • What motivates someone to build and live in these mega-homes?
  • What happens if you lose your money and have to move into a “regular” home or no home at all?
  • What if you are an impostor living as a guest in one of these homes?
  • What happens when you are found out?

Write a story exploring one of these ideas and post the link here.

Have an amazing writing day! Stories are the Wildest Things.

Eleanor Roosevelt – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Flickr photo by Jeff Kubina

I live close to our longest-serving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest house, Vall-Kill. She said of her beloved cottage, “Vall-Kill is where I used to find myself and grow.”

During all this growth, I wonder how often she was humiliated by telling the truth?

According to Wikipedia.com Eleanor Roosevelt held over 348 press conferences during her husband’s twelve-year presidency. She also published a monthly column in Woman’s Home Companion and once wrote such a strongly worded editorial in a newspaper that her husband, Franklin, had to publish a reply.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project states that she left volumes of writing and never used a ghost writer. According to the site, she wrote 27 books, more than 8,000 columns and 555 articles. She also gave more than 75 speeches a year.

When was the last time you told a truth in fiction that you couldn’t tell IRL? Leave me a comment and let me know.

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Watch Frank Sinatra speaking to Eleanor Roosevelt on YouTube.com

Flickr photo by Jeff Kubina (CC License)

Writing Prompt 06: Can a Story Change the World? Writing Stories for Peace

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Flickr photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

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Flickr photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

Conflicts are raging in the world as I write this post.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright appeared on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ yesterday and summed up the state of the world right now by saying, “there are an awful lot of things that are going on that need understanding [and] an explanation.” According to the Kansas City Star she also said, “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

My Huffington Post news feed certainly reads like the end of civilization:

What small thing can we do to bring peace to those who hate and rage? How can we comfort those who are facing horrors as an everyday fact of life? Is it possible to make a difference with just one small voice?

Stories are the Wildest Things because they can change the world. Sometimes stories can make change that lasts for generations and sometimes our stories are here for the briefest of moments and then gone. But even if it’s just for a few moments of solace in the midst of chaos, stories can help us see the world from a different point of view. Can we tell powerful enough stories to stop the escalating chaos in the world?

I don’t know if that is possible, but I do know that as we write and share our writing with the world, those who read our stories are opened up to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ideas about how the world works and what our place is in this world.

I challenge you today to write a story for peace.

It doesn’t have to be about how to achieve peace or about peace and what it means. It doesn’t even have to be a peaceful story.

Create something beautiful out of this chaos. Write a story that will live on as a reminder to those who come after us that hate and rage does not have to define us. Be creative. Move us. Make us feel something. Do it in 1500 words or less. Then share it with others. Invite others to take part. Starting a dialogue through story can be a powerful thing. Let’s change the world by writing stories for peace.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. How many anniversaries like this will we have on our calendars by the time my four-year-old grows up? Will he grow up and know a time when we have not been at war?

Have a peaceful day.

4 Steps to Get More Writing Done by Sowing your Wild Oats

Flickr photo "Sea Oats" by James Lee

Don’t feel like sitting down at the computer to write? Then don’t.

Not yet anyway.

Sometimes, you can get more writing done by sowing your wild OATS.

The phrase “sowing your wild oats” is an idiom meaning to “do wild and foolish things in one’s youth” according to The Free Dictionary.

Now, when I say this, I don’t mean you should go out and do a bunch of wild and foolish things and then come home and write about them. I want to share a technique I sometimes use to get more writing done. I’m using the acronym O.A.T.S. to explain the technique, so I had to find an idiom that matched the acronym. “Sowing your wild oats” is what I came up with.

Like Grammar Girl, I’m crazy about English idioms. I also love learning about idioms in other languages, too. They really show off the power of metaphorical language to express ourselves. They can also show us how crazy and wild our language can seem to other people.

I chose “sowing your wild oats” as an acronym for this exercise because I was looking for a way to get more writing done by doing something “wild and foolish” instead of forcing myself to sit at the computer banging my head against the keyboard to come up with writing ideas.

If you follow each step of the “sowing your wild OATS” process, you’ll have a finished piece of writing that you gets out there into the world instead of languishing on your hard drive.

Leave me a comment with a link to anything you create using this method and I’ll check it out. Any other thoughts or comments are also greatly appreciated!

How to Sow Your Wild Oats

1. Observe

As you know from my post 10 Ways to Know You’re a Writer, I love the app Evernote. I make sure I have a copy on whatever device I carry with me so that I can make quick notes and keep them organized. I keep a folder called “Observations” in the app where I’ll jot down things I notice throughout the day that might come in handy for my writing later.

I’m currently doing some work on a feature film. The main part of the action takes place in a high school on Long Island. Instead of sitting around waiting and chatting (there is a LOT of sitting around and waiting and chatting on a film set), I decided to “sow my wild oats” and get a little writing done without actually sitting down at the computer.

I pulled out my device, opened up Evernote and made some observations. Since my work in progress (#WIP) is set in a middle school in Tarrytown, NY, I wanted to use this opportunity to get some authentic detail about schools today.

Here are some of my notes:

Boy’s bathrooms – voices echo off tile, rust spots on the walls near urinals (eww), gray tiles with ugly peach paint above, no locks on stalls

Hall lockers have a THICK coat of blue paint from years of repainting and abuse. They really are wide enough for Lance (my main character) to be stuffed into. Should I ask my son if I can stuff him inside one? (I didn’t.)

Most of the trophies in the trophy case were for tennis. Must be a school of wealthy students. Maybe a tennis pro is a coach?

Really confusing layout of hallways. Freshmen must get lost all the time.

There were a lot more observations, but I’ll stop there.

Now I could’ve just closed the app and said, “I did my writing for the day. Ah!” But just observing and taking notes doesn’t really get any writing done. Those notes are like a warm-up. If I stop there, they’ll just sit there collecting electronic dust in my Evernote app unless I do something with them.

If you have tons of files, notes, scribbles, and jottings lying around, e-dust them off by taking the next step.

2. Analyze

Before deciding what to do with your casual observations, analyze them. I don’t mean going through and judging them, “This one is terrible! This one is awesome! This one is meh.” (I often do that, though. Sigh.)

I mean thinking about them differently. Try finding the connections, figuring out what the observations are trying to say and what they mean. Sometimes I see patterns and meanings that I hadn’t noticed when I was just writing down the original thoughts.

For this set of observations at the high school, one or two or possibly all of them will make their way into my middle grade paranormal adventure novel. My main character, Lancelot Greengrass, is kind of small and occasionally gets pushed around because of his size. The kids who do this call him “Grass-stains” because of his weird last name and because he always has grass stains on his knees from falling down when he gets pushed.

As I analyze the observations I made, some them are getting me excited to add those details into my story. I can’t wait to get to the computer and write. Excitement is always a clue that those ideas are the ones to pursue when you take the next step.

3. Transform

The bare facts are rarely enough when writing for an audience. Even news tells a story from the point of view of the person observing it.

What we call “voice” can be thought of as the transformation of “what happened” into “this is how I saw it, processed it, understood it. I hope you will, too.”

This is the part of the process that usually happens in the shower or while you’re doing the dishes. Your inner critic is distracted by the mundane activity and your creative brain makes connections you didn’t think would happen. Suddenly, you have a great idea! The original observations suddenly transform into another way of using them.

The blue paint on the lockers might become an activity for the janitor to be doing in the hallway.

The gym teacher might become a washed up tennis pro after seeing those tennis trophies in the display case.

Lance might get lost all the time because he’s new at Washington Irving Middle School.

And, lastly, the observations I made might make the transformation from details to be used in my novel into details I can use for a blog post like this one. (See how I did that?)

4. Send

This last step is the most important. It’s what Austin Kleon talks about in his excellent book, Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered (and in this GREAT VIDEO).

We all write because we love it and it’s how we express ourselves creatively. Some of us keep our writing to ourselves and some of us have a world-wide audience. No matter what size audience you have or form your writing takes: a blog, short story, play, screenplay, novel, article, poem, textbook, a letter to the editor or a love note, you need to send those words out into the world in order for them to make a difference and to learn something about what your writing is all about and what you have to say.

As Mr. Kleon says, “The only way to find your voice is to use it.”

This final step to getting more writing done is called Send but it could just as easily be called Sowing. Like a farmer sowing seeds on a plowed field, we need to do the same with our writing. When you cast your words out there like seeds, you’ll be amazed at what grows. So go make some Observations, Analyze them for content and connections, Transform them into something creative and amazing and then Send those words out into the world.

Now go forth and sow your wild OATS!