It’s not intelligence. It’s skills, to write.

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I have a favorite writer in my life who’s a good storyteller. Great imagination, vivid characters, passion for the drama of a story. This writer is practicing skills. This isn’t a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of skills.

acrylicsIn other words, being smart will not ensure storytelling success as a writer. Practice of writing skills gives a better shot at that success. You still need imagination, passion, a vivid way of seeing things. You can coax out imagination through playing. You can develop vivid visions by focusing on sensory details. The color. The odor. The feel. That noise. The flavor.

The passion? You can keep that alive by returning to the story, like my dog Tess returns to my chair each night between 6 and 8. I developed a habit of walking her at that time. So now she returns to my desk, passionate about a walk, putting her big-poodle snout under my arm or her paws on my leg.

You don’t have to be smart as a Jeopardy winner to write a story. You only need to dream, to observe, to practice, and have that poodle’s passion for the walk that you take with your story.

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Writer’s Block Number 1: Who would read it, anyway?

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A fledgling memoir writer asked me about the prospects for transforming his work into a book. Within a couple of messages on LinkedIn, he squelched his own efforts. His book idea, about a single year of biking 5,207 miles, seemed too dim to work on. “I just doubt many would read it, even if published on Amazon. If there’s no audience, what’s the point?”

It’s a great question, one we pose all the time while we create any work of art. Without a likely audience, why write for publication? The question often surfaces before the serious effort has a chance to get underway. I don’t see how this could be compelling for anyone but me. The question that should follow is, How do I make this story compelling?

We all work through doubts when we create. How well we do this is influenced by our imagination and our storyteller’s spark. You can imagine your book as a success, a vision you can populate with specific victories. The book opens with a great story right at the top, not just backstory. The book displays awareness and humor, even in the face of tragic events. The book has honesty, imagery, and passion.

What we’re afraid of, sometimes, is unrequited love. After going all-in to love a book they’re writing, authors can be afraid their writing won’t love them back. Imagine the story telling you, “What a godsend you have shared me. You have been honest. I brim with imagery and passion.” Give the relationship a chance, instead of a too-savvy squelch.

We’re often looking to the rest of the world to hear affirmation about our stories and our books. Contests can help deliver a small kudo, but only after some serious work in done. The writing of a book is a wonderful tonic as well as the haunting drink we fear to taste. “Just do it” has become a trite cheer. That command is the open door to experience creation, though.

There’s no way to determine how many people will read a book until you start to create it and share the work: with a group, a coach, or a trusty beta reader. If you doubt that many will read that unfinished book, what are you prepared to do to change that? The answer to that question becomes the point, one that compels you to finish and share your story.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

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Stained Glass DiscipleCreativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these practices are the devotional work we do as writers creating stories.

I do my creation early in mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. As a man of marriage, making love in the mornings is always best. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

Protecting Your Space To Write

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Writing can be a passion in the abstract but a phantom in reality. I love to write, you might say. Perhaps your mantra is “I must write to be a whole person.” Whatever your ideal of writing, we must all put it into practice. This blog article is a reality because I’ve applied my fingers to my keyboard. It’s a bit of a miracle to create something where there was just an idea and a passion moments earlier.

Writing AloneWe all must recognize that writing requires protection, however. To make progress on anything you’ll want to protect the time you need to achieve and finish it. My writing workshop is getting a new table for students this spring. The floors were transformed in our renovation, and now it’s time for the writing table to get a revival, too. To create this table my carpenter-friend Steve and I must estimate the time we’ll need to bring the table from a desire to something you can lean against with your forearms, hands on keyboard or pen scratching upon a notebook.

“How long will it take?” I ask him this morning, after our weekly Mexican breakfast.

“Not more than a day.”

“Eight hours then?”

“Easily that.” He’s from Liverpool, and they talk in that voice.

“So, we can do this on a Sunday. Which one?”

We’re building a table, but now it’s really going to happen, because the Sunday of March 1 has been protected. In the same way, a novel or an essay collection or a memoir moves from passion to reality. What it requires is for you to protect the time needed to create it. More

3 Ways to Succeed at NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMoEvery November, thousands of writers take the 30-day challenge that’s National Novel Writing Month. The goal is 50,000 unrevised words over a month, or about 1,700 every day. You “win” if you can post a file (which is then scrambled for your protection) with a 50K word count or more.

Win or not, you write among a community both local and worldwide. It’s fun, and it will at least get tens of thousands of words out of you even if you fall short.

NaNoWriMo has three ways to succeed, according to its website shared on its Facebook page:

  1. Never edit as you go. If you get caught up with editing, your story will never meet your expectations and you’ll get bored. You don’t want to get bored. Fall in love with your story!
  2. Don’t quit if you get behind. You’ll still feel happy if you finish a book in December.
  3. Remember you are doing this for you. Not to impress friends. Not to get published. Do this because it makes you happy. Remember that you love to write, even when it’s hard.

Yes, it’s hard. The hard is what makes it great.

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Earlier today I sketched out some basics to get fiction onto the page. Just storytelling, but there are a lot of things to think about. Creating character. Plotting. Sensory experiences. Making entertainment out of trouble, pumping up the drama so we care how things are going to work out, if they ever do, in a story.

“Wow, this is a lot. It sounds hard.” But notes went down onto the page about everything. My writer had it, that desire to tell a story.

On the bottom of my computer monitor there’s a little pink Post-It Note. A quote from creative coaching.

Once we acknowledge the truth, and stop fearing hard work, we grow enormously.

I would add, our storytelling ability and experience grows enormously, too. We aim ourselves at great. We fall short, but we aim again. In a part of my house next to the home studio where the classes and groups meet, there’s a beloved old poster. Under a sketch of a circus clown, it says “Why dream of being good, when you can dare to be great?”

Tom HanksAnd so I come to one of the moments that can keep me in the chair whenever it gets hard. It gets hard for all of us, no matter how long we do this storytelling thing, practiced through writing. Tom Hanks said it in A League of Their Own to Dottie, Gina Davis’s star catcher who’s leaving the all-girls team to go back to marriage. “It just got too hard,” she said.

“Of course it got hard,” said Hanks, her team manager. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” More