4 Steps to Building a Writing Practice

I used to have fantasies that, once I decided to become a writer, I would just become this writing powerhouse. It would just happen. I would be writing all the time. Nothing would stop me.

But changing careers isn’t like that. A lot of things need to happen mentally before you can start to have something to show for it. You’re not just going to buy a pile of bricks and think that you can start building a house. You need more than just the supplies and tools. You need a plan. And with this plan, you can start to build your practice.

Step #1: Decide Your Plan

What do you want to be, an artist, writer, or actor? Whatever it is, choose it. Own it. Call yourself an artist, writer, or actor. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t done art, or written a book, or been in a play. If you say that you’re aspiring to be, then what your subconscious hears is that you are holding yourself back from your commitment. Even if you work in accounting, but you want to become a writer, then say you’re an accountant and writer. Say it yourself. Say it often.

The more you tell your brain what you are, the more comfortable you will be telling others. I’m an accountant and a writer. Put it in the present, positive tense. But do it. Whenever you start a new endeavor, things feel uncomfortable for a while until you start to get the hang of it.

That’s OK. It’s OK to make art for yourself, write for yourself, or practice acting and still call yourself artist/writer/actor. The point is to get yourself mentally in it. Painters paint. Writers write. Actors act. Start doing any one of those things, name it for yourself, and get your mind in the game. Your body and soul will follow.

Revisit this step as needed.

Step #2: Start and Stay Small

Ask yourself: What can I do right now to take the next step? What can you do with your hands or your mind or your time that will start you on the path. Maybe it’s getting paper, watercolors, and brushes. Maybe it’s buying a book and a new pen that you like using. Maybe it’s watching a movie with your favorite actor so you can study their moves.

Whatever it is, ensure it is a small step that you know you can do. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on your new path, don’t sweat it! Just do whatever you can do in any amount of time you can find. If you only have five minutes, then take that time to write for that five minutes, or put a few colors down on the paper, or sign up for an acting class online.

Your small steps can grow and change over time, too. First, I decided to write at least 1 page of writing warm ups. Then I decided to substantially add to my memoir during Camp NaNoWriMo in April. Then, I decided to continue writing in May, three days a week at least 500 words a day. Anything over that would be great. That’s where I am now. Because I started small and allowed myself time to get used to it, I was able to add to my workload without feeling overwhelmed.

I have learned that, when you start small and stay small, you will find that virtually everything you can do is within your grasp. Just do the next best small step that will move you forward.

Step #3: “Don’t Break the Chain”

Those words, “Don’t break the chain”, are attributed to Jerry Seinfeld who was giving advice to an aspiring comic. Seinfeld allegedly told this comic that he should write every day, mark it off on a calendar, and not break that chain of writing.

Get yourself on a schedule that you can hold yourself to.  Every day, to some degree, is best. The schedule reinforces your commitment to your goal. I find that putting up an accountability calendar wherein I check off each day that I work keeps me motivated.

I got my calendar from Carrie Brummer’s Artist Think pages (but you have to join to get it). You can search for others online or make your own. Her Carrie’s calendar is basic with diamond placeholders for the days that are big enough for you to check them off. At the top, there is space for you to write what your goal is. I wrote that mine was to write.

Across the top of my accountability calendar, I wrote “Don’t break the chain.” Every day when I sit at my desk, I see my calendar, my goal, my unbroken chain of writing days, and those words written across the time. They are my daily visual reminder to write every day. When I need inner motivation, I remind myself not to break my chain.

I’m over 70 days of writing every day, and seeing that proof, right in front of my face, helps build confidence.

Step #4: Seek the Company of Others

Seek out others in the same field. Attend conferences. Join  groups. Take classes. Read. A lot. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, start your own group. Try volunteering or working in companies who are in the field you want to be in. Even writers and artists who spend a lot of time working on their own benefit from finding people in their field with whom they can work. Not only will you grow in your field, you will begin to feel connected to like-minded others who are focused on the same goal as you are.

Why I Read The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I tend to read a lot of YA fantasy and not a lot of mainstream books. Although I read a lot of fiction as a child, I found a fiction I read as an adult to be disappointing. As a result, I eschewed a lot of books that have been hawked by Oprah and/or made their way onto the New York Times bestsellers lists. I’d made a couple of attempts to read David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephens, but I simply couldn’t get into their writing style.

Now that I’m digging into writing as a field, I decided that I wanted to try and read more widely. Since I’m writing a memoir, I started with reading a few memoirs. I had bought two books earlier in the year by Larry Brooks, author of many books and owner of Storyfix.com, Story Physics and Story Engineering. I haven’t a degree in creative writing, and, after going back two times, I think I’m pretty much done with that. But I need to learn and I want to learn, so I’m trying to learn from those who have gone before.

After reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (twice), I began to read Story Engineering. One section is dedicated to breaking down The Hunger Games; the other, to brekaing down The Help by Kathryn Stocktett. I decided to read The Help before I got to the section on it so that I could understand better why Brooks says it works. I had picked it up, along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I knew I wanted to read The Help last so I could then pick up Story Engineering  and learn from it better.

Yesterday, I started reading The Help. I could not put it down. I mean, I did put it down so I could do things like eat dinner, write in my journal, and get ready for bed. I continued reading in bed until it was done. The pacing was phenomenal and continuous level of tension kept that story moving right along. The racial tensions were nail biting, as you know the consequences of breaking racial barriers and speaking against the bigoted norm, especially in the South, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era, the murder of NAACP Secretary Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, were murderous. Those kinds of racial tensions continue to exist between the police and the African American communities todays, even if the social community has tampered down some of its racism. I will leave it to African Americans to determine how and to what degree it has gotten any better.

I particularly liked how, instead of a third person viewpoint, we it from the first person perspective of three characters: Aibileen and Minny, two of the African American help, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white writer who wants to write more than she want to appease the bigoted society circles through which she runs. Skeeter’s own nanny, Constantine, disappeared while she was in college, and no one will tell her why she’s gone. Each woman’s chapters have a unique voice. You feel kindly towards Aibileen, the peacemaker, riled up and rooting for Minny, the back-talker, and biting your nails over Skeeter’s to cross over the racial lines, meeting with Aibileen and Minny secretly in Minny’s kitchen. Skeeter risks her own life to meet and gather the maids’ stories, along with the stories of about 10 other maids who have worked for white families all their lives and the struggles that resulted. The root of Skeeter’s desire to write is not simply a desire to write, but a way to heal the hurt that has come with her maid’s disappearance, whom she loved and missed deeply. For me, this is the emotional pin that makes the white woman’s story believable. All the women put their lives at risk to get the stories onto paper, edited, and out the door in time to meet the New York editor’s pre-Christmas holiday deadline and so that maybe it will go into print and change the lives of them and everyone in Jackson, Mississippi.

I loved all these characters, and I highly recommend The Help by Kathryn Stockett to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I may just go reread it again myself.

The Benefit of Writing Groups

Back in March, I decided I wanted to return to the commitment I made last year to write every day. My NaNoWriMo critique group started up again in February, and I put up an accountability calendar in March. I wanted to ensure that I would have a visual incentive and reminder at my desk. But I was feeling the urge to connect with other independent professionals more often.

Initially, I organized a weekly video meeting with a former coworker of mine. I envisioned that we would be a support for each other, since my former coworker runs her own business. The arrangement worked for about a month, and then became untenable. We were unable to continue, and I felt bummed.

Then I realized that what I needed was to get support and connect with other writers. While it was great to work with my former coworker again, I needed something more relevant to my work. Since I have had trouble doing work in my house, I thought it would be a good time to start getting out of the house once a week to do work in New York City. I’d just go in, find a cafe, write for the afternoon, and then go home.

April was Camp NaNoWriMo; it’s similar to NaNoWriMo, except you set your own writing goals. I decided to work on the memoir I started in March. I went into NYC three or four times to write for Camp NaNo write-ins. I decided to reach out to my NaNo writer’s critique group and find out if anyone wanted to join me. I knew that at least one person who might have time to meet, and others might be looking for the same thing.

I sent out an email to the group, and a few people answered. With the exception of this week, I have been going on Wednesdays. Two to three other writers join. We sit down, and write for a few hours. We chat about writing and non-writing topics. We get to see each other on a regular basis.

One of the other writers is a group facilitator who started her own business called WIP Squared: Women in Process with Works in Progress – a community for women writers. Since she was starting up a new group, I decided to join. In addition to weekly call-ins, we have a Facebook group where we can post to both give and get support. We’re already half-way done, but it’s added another level of support that I’ve needed.

By having several groups, I have more opportunities to meet writers who are on the same path. We are all trying to keep to to our work schedules, deal with personal and professional obstacles, and have someone (multiple someones) on our side, cheering us on. I’ve felt much less isolated, have met writers along varying points in their careers, and have already had opportunities to share what I’ve learned as well as learn from others. The benefits of writers groups flows both into and out of a writer, no matter who or where they are in their writing careers.

Post Poned

Despite pain medication, I have a tooth with a lost filling where I can see the root and cracks throughout the enamel. The shooting pain creates a stress response in my body, and I am at the point where I can no longer think. I have an appointment for a temp crown to be put in on Thursday morning.

If I feel better tomorrow, I will post to my blog. Otherwise, I will post again on Thursday when I am no longer experiencing shooting pain in my head.

I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Why I Hate Water Parks

When I was growing up in the 80s, water parks started becoming all the rage. I liked going to pools in the summer. The water made the searing sun much more bearable. I had already decided that amusement parks were not for me, but somehow I didn’t see water parks as the same thing.

Not at first.

During high school, I remember going to Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey with at least two of my sisters, M and A.  Because I wasn’t a great swimmer, I feared drowning, even there. I tried to go on the rides that were not as scary, but I also had a streak of daring in me. I didn’t want my fears to hold me back, and I wanted to have a good time.

On one ride, you sat in an inner tube with handles and a stream of water moved you along to the pool at the end.  The beginning of the beginner inner tube ride seemed more intimidating to me than the beginning of the advanced inner tube ride, which had less of a slope. Once you got started on the ride, there was no way to get out except to go to the end.

After about 1,000 feet, we were brought to the edge of a six foot drop. The only way that you were going was over that ledge. Too late did I realize that the fear I could immediately see kept from me correctly reasoning that the advanced ride was called advanced for a reason.

And over that ledge I went, with my sister A not too far behind. I closed my eyes and gripped the handles. The drop was over quickly, and the water carried me along quickly to the end of the ride.

Except that I was backwards. I tried to turn myself around, with no luck. My sister A was having much more fun on this ride than I was. I was glad that I had gone on the ride, but I would have liked it more if I had not been scared as much as I was.

Which brings me to my next, terrible decision: I decided to go on a slide called the Kamikaze. Yes. Yes, I did.

The 4-story water slide sent you down a near-vertical slide that exited you at the bottom into a small pool of water. The only instructions you got were to lay flat, cross your arms in front of your chest, and keep your legs closed. I got the lay flat and crossed arms part right, but not the legs closed.

I shot like a bullet down and immediately my legs parted. As I flew down, my sister M tells me that a stream of water flew up between my legs like a fountain the entire way down. She was laughing at the sight. How could she not? Luckily, I was in the small pool at the bottom before long. The fear and the adrenaline rush had me trembling, and I pissed myself in the pool. I walked out of there with trembling legs, embarrassed that I had just given a show to the entire water park for free. I wasn’t sure what had possessed me to go down that slide, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be back to a water park any time soon.

Eventually, another trip to a water park showed up in my life. I think it was when I was on a student exchange trip to Madison, Wisconsin with my high school. This time, I thought I would play it safe. You know, having learned my lesson from my last trip to a water park and all. Instead of going on a bunch of water rides, I decided to go into the wave pool.

I liked the wave pool because it had ladders on both sides and a zero point entry. I wouldn’t be thrown against steps, I would just ride the waves out of the pool. So in I went, just like I was going into the ocean. I grabbed an inner tube and used that for support.

Before long, I started to feel seasick. I do get motion sick, but I was surprised that a wave pool would cause me to feel so nauseous so quickly. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it out of the wave pool by riding the waves out in time to avoid throwing up. So I decided to head for the one of the ladders on the side.

The wave pool was in full swing. I struggled to grasp onto the ladder. Every time it seemed I had a hold, another wave would come by over my head and almost, but not quite, make me lose my grip. Every time a wave washed over me, water went up my nose or into my mouth. I gasped and choked and struggled to pull myself up in between the wave crests.

After several attempts at the end of which I was certain I was close to drowning, I pulled myself up out of the pool and held on to the ladder as I stood at the top while I hacked and coughed my lungs out. One of the life guards saw me coughing and asked me if I was ok. I responded testily, “I am now!” I wondered to myself what was the point of having lifeguards at a wave pool if they don’t even notice when someone is in distress or having trouble getting out.

After that, I was just done with water parks. No park was worth risking my life. However, if you wish to go to a water park, I can only leave with you with the two best pieces of advice that I know:

Keep your legs closed, and never exit a wave pool by ladder when the waves are on.

The Biggest Misconception People Have About Cats

When I was a toddler, we had an outdoor cat named Meesh who had a litter of kittens. After the kittens had found homes, Meesh disappeared. I then spent the next eight years begging my mother to get me another cat. On the Valentine’s Day after my 14th birthday, my mom took me to the North Shore Animal League. We came home with a four-month old black girl kitten. I named her Valentina, but her name quickly became Meesh. Although I did not take her with me when I went to college, I went back to an animal shelter just two months after I moved into my first solo apartment. I have been encatted ever since. That was 23 years ago.

About four years, I began volunteering with a friend at the MSPCA Angell Animal Adoption Center. For two years, we pet kitties of all shapes, sizes, and ages, fed them, cleaned their litter boxes, and gave them medication. We received training in cat behavior and worked closely with the animal technicians in order to learn as much as we could about cats in order to make their transition from intake to adoptee as easy as possible. The only way that happens is if you are paying attention to cats, their body language, personalities, and preferences.

The number one misconception about  cats, as a whole, is that cats are aloof, antisocial creatures. Nothing could be further from the truth! If you were with me when I was volunteering, you would have seen cats meowing for attention who would then rub your hand furiously to get some pets in, rub against the cage to get to you, roll around, and generally put on a show. Yes, they wanted out of the cage, but they were also dying for attention and affection (and, yes, food, too).

Kittens and cats are social creatures, especially when raised by loving caretakers and appropriately handled. Remember that , just like human beings, any particular cat may be more or less independent than another. For example, kittens who are taken from their mothers too young can actually be needier than normal cats.

I suspect that this is the case wtih my cat Norman. He loves to bit a blanket, lay down, and then knead, like a kitten trying to knead the momma cat’s belly to start the flow of milk. Norman follows me around the house like a dog and sits in front of my computer screen when I don’t pay him the attention he wants. If he’s not with me, then he visits with my mother who lives downstairs from me. When either of us goes out for the day, he acts as if he hasn’t seen a human being for a week.

My husband and I recently went on a short trip to visit his family. While Norman spent all his time with my mother, Gwenny hid under the bed. Unlike Norman, she did not get affection for three and a half days. When we got home Sunday evening, Gwenny kept coming over to me to get pet for the rest of the night. Today, she came over to me for pets a lot more than normal. She let me pet her a lot, rolling over and putting her paws into the air so that I could scratch her belly. She loves affection, but especially those belly rubs! Since she was two months old, I have been petting her belly and she loves it. I do not suggest you try and belly rub a cat you do not know or else you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Over the years, I have noticed that, the more I give affection, attention, and play to my cats, the more social, friendly, and sweet they become. Is every cat like that? No, and I do not recommend that you assume anything when you meet a cat. However, if you don’t like cats because you think they are antisocial as a rule, then I would like to suggest that maybe it’s because you haven’t met the right cat.

The Kind of Man I’d Wish For You

Last time I saw my niece, she looked the most beautiful I have ever seen her. Tomorrow, she will attend her junior prom. I starting thinking about my own junior and senior proms, the black and white dresses I wore, and the friends who came as my dates. There’s something about being 17 and attending prom that makes you feel the cusp of your adulthood with much ahead to anticipate. Choosing a life partner is a huge part of that.

If my niece is as lucky as I am, she will find the kind of man that I have been so lucky to find. I am convinced that my husband Mark is an angel who came down from heaven in order to spend his life with me. The man has more patience than the patience of all the Saints put together. He is, by nature, gentle, kind, and selfless. I have never met anyone who gives from the heart as easily and readily as he.

Mark regularly puts me first, is communicative and honest, and does not pick arguments. Not a single mean bone resides in his body. He’s intelligent, pursues hobbies and interests of his own, and never makes me feel guilty. He encourages me to follow my heart, develop my own interests, and has supported me in countless ways.

More than anything, Mark makes me feel loved. When I tell him he is the best thing that ever happened to me, he protests that it is he who is the lucky one. Affectionate and loving, Mark cares about my feelings and is a great listener.

I love his sense of humor. I could be pissed off about something, and Mark will find a way to cast an amusing twist on the situation. Like the sun breaking through storm clouds, I am suddenly enlightened and happy. When he laughs, I love to watch the laugh lines that crinkle at the corner of his eyes. He’s handsome, sexy, and is an attentive lover. As if it couldn’t get any better, Mark is  utterly devoted, faithful, and loyal.

I once told Mark that I used to have an idea of the kind of man I wanted to spend my life with, a man who was smart, funny, and kind. However, Mark blew my ideas apart and showed me how reality could be better than I imagined. If my Mark, my angel in human form, was the template for men in the world, the world would be a much, much better place.