I'm a published novelist and freelance writer, editor, and audio tech. Check out my journal for creative writing tips, short stories, and news. To learn more about my books or my services, navigate using the links above. 

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Entries in creativity (8)


Taking People at Their Word


image via freevintageillustrations.com

It’s easy to get discouraged. The truth is, creating is scary and difficult, and we’ll cling to any excuse that tells us not to create, share, or reach out, if it saves us the pain of rejection and embarrassment. Even for those of us with a powerful creative drive, this can be a near-constant struggle. One of the subtle ways we “get out of” this painful business is to pre-emptively imagine rejection where there isn’t any (yet).

For example, if someone offers to help you, follow up with them. Don’t let it slide because you’ve told yourself they were only saying it to be nice and didn’t really mean it. Similarly, if someone asks for news about your upcoming events, send it to them (add them to your email list, for example, and don’t be afraid to send messages to that list when you have something big coming up). A lot of people I know seem afraid to use their email lists, because they don’t want to bother people, but if people signed up for the list, it was because they want to hear from you. Take them at their word. As Jennifer and Julia of iCadenza explain in their great book, Awakening Your Business Brain, many artists are afraid of being "that guy" who promotes himself too much, but the reality is they often overcorrect in the other direction, despite direct requests from fans to hear more from them!

Similarly, if someone turns you down for something, take them at their word when they tell you why. If you detect a pattern over time, it means you probably need to change something; but if someone simply says they’re too busy, try to accept them at their word (and reread my blog post on rejections). Attempting to read the tea leaves to find the hidden reasons behind a simple rejection won’t result in an improvement in your work; it will only paralyze you further. Even if it is a reflection on your work, there’s too little information in the polite and vague rejection to make a meaningful reassessment; instead of trying to read your rejector’s mind, ask a trusted friend to look over your work and give you honest feedback. (This is great advice that I received from another author friend.)

Finally, if an agent or a venue or another place you want to reach out to has an open call for submissions on their website, take them at their word that they want to hear from you! That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success, but it does mean there’s no use sitting on your hands, asking yourself if they really want to hear from you (as long as you meet the stated guidelines of what they’re looking for).

In short, don’t say no to yourself on anyone else’s behalf. Not only will this enhance your creative career, it will also strengthen your relationship with your audience. Self-doubt and uncertainty come with the territory for many creators, but we have to find ways to work through those emotions (sometimes with professional help) so they don’t seep into our interactions with fans in a negative way. It’s okay to expose our fragility, and let our fans “see the brushstrokes”--there’s something beautifully human in admitting to your readers that you’re struggling. But there's a fine line between being beautifully honest, and outsourcing your self-care to your audience. The former can bring you closer together, while the latter can leave audience members feeling drained themselves.

This is where our creative communities become so important. They are the key to balancing our need for reassurance, our demands on our audience, our abilitly to be honest about our struggles with insecurity, and our courage to take risks. You are not weak or stupid for feeling insecure, even in the face of affirmation. You are also not weak or stupid for seeking help in overcoming those feelings. Here are a few ways to learn how to better take people at their word:

Prioritize self-care. Artists of all stripes are infamous for neglecting their emotional health and even living in a cycle of self-abuse. But you don't have to be that way to be a good artist. If you struggle severely with self-doubt and insecurity, seek professional help, be it from a therapist, counselor, life coach, or support group. It's okay. Think of it like learning how to train a muscle, or taking an exercise class to improve your form.

Appoint a few cheerleaders. I've mentioned "creativity cheerleaders" before. It's important to have a few people who can offer you praise and excitement. Sometimes we get that from our audience, too, but at our lowest moments it helps to have a small, personal community of "cheerleaders" to turn to privately when things seem dark and audience response is uncertain. Don't be afraid to ask someone, "Hey, can you read this short story and give me some encouragement?" Try it.

Live up to your own offers to others. It helps us learn to trust others more when we emulate the behavior we wish to see in them. If you're feeling down about something, instead of stewing on it see if you can go out and be the kind of person you wish to encounter more often. Offer to read a friend's manuscript or attend someone's event. Support a local artist by sharing their work, or simply offer them a few encouraging words of your own. You may discover yourself in the center of the creative community you'd been seeking all along.

My assignment to you, dear readers, is to go back into your memory bank and think of one offer that you were afraid to accept--you know there's at least one--and follow up on it this week. Don't be afraid if it's been a while. Maybe the offer has expired. But let the offerer be the one to tell you that. Be gentle and respectful, but also be brave.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here. 


Letter to Students: Positive Techniques for Busting the Exposition Trap

The latest session of Writing Games begins TODAY at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop! Sign up here.
Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

Last week's Letter to Students featured some emotional techniques for dealing with the "exposition trap" and self-limitation. This week, I offer three concrete, stylistic tips for reducing or transforming exposition in our work.

This week we did three short games to explore three common sticking points for writers. The overarching theme was fighting the tendency to get lost in exposition instead of slowing down and creating scenes instead of flying past them with expository prose. We have three tools to fight Creeping Exposition: dialogue, action, and the creation of incident/filler scenes/transitional scenes.

Dialogue: How many times in your writing have you skipped past an opportunity to write out a dialogue scene? I recently experienced an example of this. In my current work in progress, a teen sneaks out all night to participate in some scary supernatural stuff. When she returns in the morning, her mom catches her and asks her where she was. Her alibi is that she snuck out to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time. As I was revising my first draft of this book, I realized I'd just written something like "And then we had an awkward conversation about sex," and then moved on to the next scene. Looking back at it, I thought, "Um...I need to write out this dialogue."

Action: The same thing happens with action -- action can be as difficult to write compellingly as humor. It's easy to skip past it without even thinking, too: "They chased the hero down the alley. It was a close one but he made it out." That could be: "The turned, chasing him into the long, dark alley. He dodged behind a dumpster, holding his breath. They shuffled down the alley with muffled steps, hoping to surprise him, looking for any sign of his presence. He held in a sneeze, clenching his fists. They got to the end of the alley, rattled the chain-link fence in frustration, and then marched out again. The hero waited until the sound of their steps was far away, before taking a deep breath." To break the habit of skipping past action, err on the side of too much detail; it'll train your brain to think of action sequences as a series of small and distinct actions.


Creation of Incident: Often we imagine stories in the form of a synopsis, hitting on the major peaks and valleys, and then we sit down to write and realize we have to fill in the gaps with incident, and we're stumped. My suggestion for this challenge is less of a technique and more of an attitude change. If we approach these transitional or filler scenes as unique opportunities to create "mini" stories within the story, they no longer seem like a boring chore, and they become a fun writing experience within themselves. See if you can approach your own work that way.


To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 



Tough Crowd


image via freevintageillustrations.com

When we were visiting Edinburgh, Seth and I saw a street performer setting up his act. He'd marked the perimeter of his space with a chain on the ground, and had left several flaming rags and and other items on the cobblestones. He turned on a boombox with some hype-up music and started walking around the perimeter of his space, holding two flaming torches, amping up the crowd. We stopped, looking forward to watching him juggle and tumble with his fiery props (while carefully minding our wallets).

A sparse crowd began to gather. The performer told us a bit about himself. Then he told us to show him some more excitement. Then he told us he was going to start his act as soon as a few more people showed up. Then he started shouting at passers-by, telling them they were the reason he couldn't get started yet, because they hadn't stopped to watch his act. Meanwhile, those of us who had stopped began to wonder if there even was an act. We left before he ever started, and when we passed the same street again on the way to catch our train out of town, we didn't even bother peeking back to see if he'd begun.

It's easy to make fun of that guy, but at the same time it's easy to become him without even realizing it. How many times have you found yourself wishing you could instruct your audience on the "correct" way to consume your art, whether it's telling them how to respond to or interpret it, or simply trying to wring a little more enthusiasm out of them?

If your audience is doing something you don’t like, in direct response to your performance or artwork, try to fight the impulse to correct them. Maybe they’re talking through a show, or skipping chapters of a book, or leaving a bad review, or completely missing the point of your artwork. Sometimes, they’re downright rude. But I’ve found there are only two reasons (that are relevant to artists) for why an audience is misbehaving:

1) You’re not giving them what they want.

2) They’re not the right audience for you.

In the first instance, while most performers have to create the energy they want to see in a room, it can be a fine line between energizing and pushy when they try to jazz up a crowd, as our Edinburgh street performer illustrates. In the book world, it can be difficult to walk the line between clarifying the vision you tried to communicate in a book, and telling your readers they’re reading it wrong. But in general, with a bit of distance, I’ve learned that the biggest reason behind unexpected or “unsatisfactory” audience behavior is that I’m not giving my audience what they want. Something needs to change, and it’s not their preferences or behavior. It’s my job to figure out why I can’t engage their attention.

But what if I try and try and try to improve, and I feel confident in my work, and I still wind up with an audience who just won’t take it the way I want them to? It could be a sign that I’m trying to reach out to the wrong people. Maybe I’m trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. I can’t blame the audience for not liking my stuff--they’re just not the right audience for me. And once again, the answer isn’t to try and change them; it’s to change my own behavior, in this instance by trying to seek out the audience that is right for me.

Whatever the cause of your audience’s annoying behavior, the fact remains that they showed up, literally or metaphorically, by consuming your art. Criticizing your audience can come across as ungrateful in the face of that support, even when your criticisms are justified. It's important never to punish, deride, or criticize someone for demonstrating support for your art. So what do you do when it really is the right moment to speak up about a change in audience behavior that you'd like to see?

Be positive, not accusatory. Don't tell people what not to do. Give them reasons to do what you want them to do. If they still aren't responding to your call, reassess to determine if the reason is one of the two listed above.

Learn the difference between universally bad behavior, and pet peeves. Is your audience exhibiting behavior that should universally be considered bad, like harrassing other audience members? Go ahead and call them out on it (but maybe try to follow the previous tip while you do). Is your audience exhibiting behavior that could be considered a pet peeve, like only giving a book five pages to decide whether it's worth reading? Adapt, and make those first five pages killer--don't waste your time trying to tell people how impatient they are, or don't try to "get back at them" by putting your best material on page six.

In fact, this blog post itself could be an example of those two tips at work. I believe that being overly critical of our audiences is a universally bad behavior, because it shows a deep disrespect and disregard for the support that our audiences show us just by showing up and engaging with a work in the first place. I also think it's worth speaking out about, because I've seen this attitude hold back far too many creators--including myself. So I tried to write a blog post about it that touched on the human feelings behind the impulse to correct, that we all share--I tried to be positive and inclusive instead of negative and accusatory. At the end of the day, I still can't be certain how you, the reader, will react--but I can at least commit myself to learning from your response, instead of telling you to withold or change it. So please, share what you think, in the comments here or on my Facebook page!

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.


The Sound of Silent Rejection


image via freevintageillustrations.com

If you create for long enough, you’ll encounter something just as devastating as a scathing rejection: none at all. The silent rejection can do just as much to undermine our confidence as heavy-handed criticism, and sometimes more, because our imaginations fill in the worst possible explanations for non-response.

I’ve been challenging myself to reach out to potential collaborators more, and climb out of my Lonesome Writer box to create experiences that cross boundaries between the arts, combining writing, music, visual arts, and more. I’ve found the biggest challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, or identifying potential collaborators--it’s finding the courage to reach out to those people. Let me tell you what happens:

Every time I write a pitch for a collaboration, no matter how meticulously I craft it or how much I believe in the idea, for a brief moment after I hit “send”--especially on cold calls, but even when I send to friends--I am transported back to high school. I’m the really weird kid who seems to have friends but isn’t sure how she got them. I am never quite cool enough, and I’m always in danger of “trying too hard.” I immediately berate myself for even assuming the idea was worth sharing in the first place. I worry that I’ll come across as full of myself or delusional for thinking I had a chance at convincing that person to collaborate with me.

The truth is, those fears don’t go away. But after that flare-up, they die down to their background levels. That is, until the silent rejections pile up. In that silence, my imagination goes back to all those fears, assuming that they are the real reason I’m not getting traction.

The second-worst part about silent rejection is you’re never quite sure when the door is completely closed. It’s easy to say that, after a month (or insert arbitrary unit of time here), you can consider it a “no.” But it all depends on the industry and the ask. In publishing, many agents and editors will tell you to wait at least eight weeks before following up. I sold my first book about six months after submitting it to its eventual publisher--and I’d even formed a false memory of receiving a rejection from them! (A good reminder to keep meticulous records of my submission history.)

For out-of-the-box situations it’s even harder to say when the silence means a “no.” One time, I nearly wrote off hearing from someone, only to get a reply about six weeks later--they’d been traveling. Other times, I’ve been surprised that someone who hadn’t replied to my initial query at all wound up proactively seeking me out for a different opportunity much later. While these may seem like reassuring incidents, they can also feed the uncertainty and self-doubt about when to move on.

Realistically, I know that a lack of response often has more to do with a person’s busyness or other priorities than it does with the merits of my project itself. After all, I have no right to expect anything from a person I am approaching, unsolicited, with a request for their time, energy, and ideas. And, like them, I’ve had to turn down collaborations at times when I’m simply too busy to add another project to my schedule. It’s rarely personal. But the voices of self-doubt have no time for that reasoning. They tell me, “They probably saw it and thought, ‘What a crock of shit.’” Or, “They’re probably embarrassed for you that you even sent this.”

I tried for too long to fight the negativity I associate with silent rejections by denying my feelings and talking myself down. I tried to tell myself, “Don’t be silly,” or “They’re probably not thinking that.” It didn’t work.

What does work?

Accepting that it’s natural to feel hurt.

Accepting that taking a risk, and reaching out to someone (as long as it was in a respectful and non-harassing way) is worth the pain, because I can continue to grow and learn from the experience.

Accepting that it’s okay to surround myself with people who affirm my creative worth, as well as those who challenge it. Seeking affirmation and validation doesn’t make me weak, nor does it undermine my commitment to growth and improvement. In fact, in order to grow and improve, we all need encouragement. Parts of the writing world seem to have an ascetic attitude when it comes to encouragement and praise as learning tools; but in addition to teaching students how to accept and use criticism, I think we should teach people how to accept and use praise, because not only will it improve our writing, it will also give us the courage to seek more learning opportunities. My community of “creativity cheerleaders” has done more than anything else to give me the strength to face silent rejections.

My “creativity cheerleaders” give me the confidence to say: “So what if the rejectors really are thinking I should be embarrassed by my efforts to reach out to them?” I’m proud that I’m willing to embarrass myself a little bit, in order to learn and grow. It doesn’t make silent rejection painless, but it does make it conquerable.

In that spirit, I encourage everyone reading this to make at least one big "ask" that makes you nervous this week. Whether it's querying an agent or editor, asking a friend to read your work, reaching out to a potential collaborator, or something else entirely, do it with respect and optimism. You may be turned down. Or, you may get a slightly different answer than you were hoping for (perhaps someone can help, but not right now, or they want to collaborate, but in a different way). You may not hear anything back at all. But you will continue to hone your asking skills. And as Amanda Palmer taught us in her book, asking is an art.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.



One more chance to sign up for spring Writing Games!


image via freevintageillustrations.com


The final spring session of Writing Games is almost upon us! And this time, we have six weeks of fun, creativity, and exploration to share!

The next session of Writing Games begins April 18 and runs Monday nights for six weeks from 6:30pm - 8:30pm at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Sign up now, before space runs out!

I love, Love, LOVE hearing from Writing Games students who have finished their novels, or picked up the pen for the first time in years. Will you be the next?

Click here to sign up for Writing Games at CHAW!


Letter to Students: Get Some Action

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.


In our last class, we played a selection of games to explore plot development, writing action scenes, and writing endings. A quick take-home challenge: if you find yourself struggling to write or imagine action scenes in one of your stories, try our action-verb-only exercise. (Every sentence must contain at least one action verb.) It might not result in a scene you want to use in your final draft, but it should help jar you out of your doldrums and start thinking in terms of physical action, and how to keep things moving forward briskly.

Another neat exercise, just to stretch your creative muscles, is to "novelize" an action scene from a movie. Pick a movie you like a lot, and then try to write out one of its action scenes as a story. Explore the pace and type of language you use to describe the scene. See if you can carry that tone over into your own work.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


The Ballad of the Pleather Jacket

Last week, Seth and I made a killing at Goodwill, dragging home a big bag of cheap fashion finds. On the way home, we talked about how we used to feel like we weren’t “cool enough” to wear the clothes we really liked. We talked about the different ways we came to embrace the idea that we were “cool enough” to finally wear the fashion we loved, because “cool” wasn’t a matter of what others thought of us at all--it was a choice we each made, to wear fashion confidently until that confidence seeped out of the clothes and into us.


In that spirit, as I was getting ready to go see Seth perform with Maryjo Mattea that night, I took out a white pleather jacket I’d bought five years ago, but only worn out once before. I’d liked the jacket too much to give it away, but I’d been too afraid of how bold it was to wear it often. Many, many times I’d tried it on over an outfit only to reject it for something more conservative. But that night, I loved how it contrasted with the flowy blouse I wore, and it didn’t seem too over-the-top after all.

Then I started noticing the flakes. At first, I thought just a small patch on the shoulder was peeling, and I’d be able to fix it up. Then I went to the bathroom and noticed that the entire back of the jacket was peeling, too. My plans to salvage it went down the tubes, and I realized that the second time I’d worn this jacket in five years was going to be the last.



That made me really sad. I realized that even though I’d come a long way in terms of confidence and self-expression, I’d still been so afraid to wear a really cool jacket that I actually liked a lot, that it had literally rotted away in my closet without ever seeing the light of day.

We let that happen to creative ideas, too. I’ve had many students who’ve told me about the ideas they’ve been sitting on for years, afraid they aren’t good enough writers to tackle them yet. I’ve also been approached by many friends with story suggestions, when I can tell that the reason they’re suggesting these stories to me is because they’re afraid to write them themselves. I also help a lot of students deal with a crippling self-consciousness that holds them back from writing with the kind of abandon they dream about, resulting in stories that feel stunted and unsatisfactory to them. And then there are the people who quite simply don’t think they’re “cool enough” to pursue art at all. We all have a lot of cool pleather jackets moldering away in our creative closets.

Sometimes I’m afraid I sound manic when I share all the ideas I have swirling around in my head--events I want to organize, stories I’m writing, collaborations I’m pursuing. But I’m learning not to be afraid of sharing my ideas anymore, because I don’t want to let any more pleather jackets turn to dust before I get a chance to wear them out. It sounds like a superficial problem, but losing that jacket hit me hard, because of all that it represented to me.

This applies to participating in a creative community, too. It can be hard to approach other people with our work, because it opens us up to criticism and humiliation. The criticism is hard enough to deal with, but at the heart of the humiliation is the fear that people will look at our work, or listen to our ideas, and think, “Oh, you really thought this was good enough to put out there? That’s pretty foolish.” So we let our ideas rot in the closet, because of this contradictory fear that we are not cool enough for the jacket, and the jacket itself isn’t cool enough to wear out of the house. It’s a really efficient way to never make anything.

But if you’re a maker, you have to find the courage to fully commit to it. I’m not talking about quitting your job or getting into debt to pursue your dreams. I mean it in the emotional sense--you have to be willing to take those ideas out of your closet and wear them around, because they won’t get better by sitting in there forever.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.


Letter to Students: Giving In and Giving Up

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

image via freevintageimages.com

So, this week we just had an intro to Writing Games and the ideas and techniques we'll explore together. We focused a lot on the idea of quieting the voice in your head that says, "Don't write that, that's stupid." We also talked about lowering the stakes, so that when you write you aren't freighted down with self-imposed expectations. Trying too hard to prove that internal voice wrong is really just another way of giving in to it--that's how we sometimes get that feeling of "charlatanism." If anyone in class has practiced meditation, they may be familiar with the idea of not being for or against a feeling, but simply dwelling with it. That's sort of what happens when we stop trying to prove the "stupid voice" wrong, and simply ignore it instead (like an annoying yappy dog), focusing all our attention on writing what makes our hearts sing, and not what sounds good or smart or unique or edgy. If you do that long enough, that voice of inhibition will shrink to a tiny whisper.

Whether you're an aspiring career writer or just having fun, I highly recommend this article by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, on his writing life:  

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

...The most defeatist thing I hear is, "I’m going to give it a couple of years." You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice.

Even if you're not looking to start a career in writing, I like what he points out about "hiding the brushstrokes." I think there's a general impression of writers, that true geniuses nail it on the first draft. Nobody nails it on the first draft. Let's just remove that expectation right up front.

For those who are interested in a career in writing, I think the second paragraph I quoted is very powerful. While I don't agree with him later on in the article when he says you shouldn't get too good at your day job, I do agree that if you set a deadline for writing success (however you define it), you are already resigning yourself to failure. You're basically paying out the time until your deadline, which, face it, is much less frightening than going for what you really want and dream about.

To view all the Letters to Students,click here.