Darling Dorothy

“Be bigger than your fears.”
Dorothy

Usually I share “Something Wonderful” on Friday night, but my mom Dorothy had other plans for me. You see, today — December 20 — is her birthday; she passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2004. Since then, my beautiful sister Stephanie and I came up with the idea of getting together to celebrate her birthday by going to a cozy restaurant for lunch in Manhattan not far from where my mom lived. It serves great cheeseburgers — one of my mom’s all-time favorite meals. We always hoist a glass in her honor, usually a gin & tonic or a Bloody Mary, depending on how we feel. My mom was a gin & tonic gal, but she also enjoyed a good Bloody Mary now and then.

As I sit here writing this, feeling sad and missing my mom, I’m surrounded by reminders of her. They’re all over my office. There’s a beautiful picture of her when she was young on my desk and other pictures of her holding my son Alex when he was little. She adored him and he felt the same about her. “Dot, I need you!” he would call out when he wanted help with a button or tying his shoelaces.

I also have all sorts of knickknacks from my mom’s apartment — a silver wizard standing atop a huge amethyst stone is my favorite. Nestled by it I have a Fortune cookie slip that says: “You should be able to undertake and complete anything.” The two are perfect together, because my mom really believed that about the people she loved. She believed that we could do anything we set our minds to. Anything! Whenever I was discouraged about my writing, I could call her up and she’d give me a pep talk. She was always in my corner. She had a tough life in many ways, but she was a Sagittarius and like the Archer, she was always outward bound and optimistic, young at heart and adventurous. “Be bigger than your fears,” she said to me once. Great advice for all of us. So today, in her honor, I’m passing it on. “I need you, Dot!” That’s what Alex used to say when he was little. So now, I’m saying it, too: “I need you, Dot!”

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Writing Rhythm

Rhythm in writing is a many splendored thing: There’s the rhythm we find in the pattern of words that can be lyrical and ear-pleasing or jarring and agitating. But there’s also another kind of rhythm in writing: the rhythm of the regimen we embrace in order to get our thoughts out of our heads and onto the page. While this is often called “writing process,” I like “writing rhythm” better, because it seems more in tune with what we’re trying to accomplish.

For quite a while, I had a steady daily rhythm going: I was working on my YA novel revision for about three hours and then committing another hour or sometimes more, to working on something new. And the rest of the time, I was letting ideas percolate and roll around in my head. This set up seemed to work well for me on several fronts:

It gave me just enough structure to feel anchored: Having a core commitment of time to build my writing around was calming and reassuring. Whatever the plot issue or scene I was working on, I knew each day that I had a nice chunk of time to noodle it around in. Paradoxically, this was relaxing and also freed me to focus intensely.

It helped me find a smooth groove: I was making reasonably steady progress every day, which felt satisfying. I knew I could count on my daily regimen to push me forward: I’d come up with a workable strategy to support my writing goals.

It sparked exciting moments of creativity: Having a strategy I could sustain from day to day strengthened my resolve to keep going, even when I hit rough patches. And fighting through these tough moments often resulted in new ideas and insights into
my characters: the universe was rewarding me for staying on track.

All this is in the past tense because I recently lost my groove — and now I’m committed to getting it back. How about you? Do you have a rhythmic approach to your writing? If so, has it helped you move toward your goals? I’d love to know — as we all write on.

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Run Free

We all know that exercise is good not just for the body, but the brain. Thee’s also growing evidence that it helps fuel creativity as well, which is good news for us as writers. After all, anything that enriches and supports our flights of imagination is worth exploring and embracing. In “The Neuroscience of Imagination,” a fascinating online story in Psychology Today, author and athlete Christopher Bergland, explores the connection between creativity and physical movement.

At one point, he notes, “In an essay from 1911 called On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men and the Gospel of Relaxation William James said, ‘when you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, keep them out of the details. When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.'”

One of the best way to “unclamp” your mind and “let it run free” is through physical activity. In his book, Origins of Imagination: Exploring the Neuroscience of Creativity,” Bergland spends an entire chapter on writers who have used physical movement, from walking and cycling to running, to wipe away mental cobwebs and jumpstart their creative juices: A few examples:

Louisa May Alcott, an avid runner:

“Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run.”

Henry Miller, an avid endurance cyclist:

“Each man has his own way. After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever. . .You’re working, your mind is working on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get back to the machine it’s a mere matter of transfer.”

Joyce Carol Oates, another devoted runner:

“Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream. I rarely invent at the typewriter but recall what I’ve experienced…. Running is a meditation; more practicably it allows me to scroll through, in my mind’s eye, the pages I’ve just written, proofreading for errors and improvements.”

Now that we’re psyched and pumped, let’s get moving — and write on!

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Conrad Compels

“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”

“In everything I have written there is always one invariable intention, and that is to capture the reader’s attention.”

“by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”
Joseph Conrad

Fueled by wine, pizza, and pretzels, my reading group plunged into the Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s masterful novella. What a ride! We all had different editions; one of us even retrieved a well-worn college text. My copy was only 77 pages long — and yet, this incredibly rich story has spawned countless pages of lit crit and probably enough dissertations to sink one of the ships our boy Joseph sailed on in his youth.

Why has this slim 1910 novel endured — and continued to spark controversy? While our crew didn’t crack the code, we took an admiring look at how Conrad hooks his readers:

He uses incredible detail: Whether he’s describing a ship at anchor on the Thames or repairing a rattle-trap riverboat, Conrad writes with a level of detail that’s both immersive and engaging — it’s detail in the service of emotion.

He revels in words: His language is rich and ripe, yet precise. A forest is “like a breathing animal,” a dying man is “like a vapor exhaled by the earth.” Vivid images constantly arrest the reader’s attention.

He employs repetition skillfully: Conrad explores ideas and images in a cumulative way, lulling readers and sweeping them along on a tide of words freighted with deepening emotion. He hooks you and doesn’t let go.

He makes singleness of purpose a virtue: His theme and story are very deep and dark — and he pursues them relentlessly. There are no subplots, no escape into lightness or humor — there is only the journey the reader is compelled to take into heart of darkness.

What a rivetting, disturbing story. What a master craftsman. Write on!

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Bookaholic Benefits

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Cicero

Passionate advocates of books and reading aren’t just committed, they’re also creative. “The Gentle Diva,” a sprightly blog by seasoned agent Molly Friedrich of The Friedrich Agency, featured a hilarious post about her adventures schlepping cartons of books out to Queens as a volunteer for “World Book Night” — now that’s dedication! But the post that really caught my eye featured a poster emblazoned with these words: “Turn It Off/Read A Book” and offered this creative take on the benefits of being a bookaholic:

“Besides, book-reading is actually good for your health, did you know this? Cool, no? According to Maryanne Wolf, the author of PROUST AND THE SQUID: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, any book-reading, the immersive experience of it, causes an immediate boost in mental acuity. It’s a regular memory and focus work-out, with visualization skills sharpened! And get this: according to a study from the University of Buffalo, book readers tend to be more compassionate, empathetic, even! One final stat, you’ll love this one: according to the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, people who read books for pleasure are 52% less likely than ‘reluctant readers’ to develop cognitive impairment.

“So the next time Aunt Erma’s birthday comes around, ease up on the cashmere scarf, buy her a book instead. Try, hard, to avoid the ease and convenience of Amazon; go on, find an Indie and buy a book, especially if you’re already in this wonderful industry called publishing!”

Books: what a gift! Reading isn’t just soul-satisfying and heart-opening, it also makes us mentally sharper and more compassionate: We learn not just about other lives, but about how to live our own in a kinder, gentler way. Wherever we are in our writing life, let’s remember the power in our fingertips. Bravo, Gentle Diva — write on!

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Brainpower Boosters

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
Vincent van Gogh

Sometimes small steps can lead to big benefits! Here are a few simple techniques I’ve come across that can easily be incorporated to your day and might just give your writing an extra jolt of creativity and insight:

Tracing triangles: Facing a thorny plot problem or scene snag? Here’s one quick way to find a solution: Take a minute to doodle a few triangles with points that reach toward the top of a page. Here’s why: According to psychology experts, the triangle symbolizes self-discovery and revelation, while the upward points signify driving toward a goal — so sketching a few triangles when you’re stuck can help you unleash a flash of inspiration. Sounds like an easy solution-stoker — I’m going to try it!

Standing up: Want a simple way to rev up your creative energy and focus? Try thinking on your feet: According to a recent study published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, when groups tackling the same project worked either sitting down or standing up, the standers generated the most innovative ideas. Why? According to study author Dr. Andrew Knight, standing fires up activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to improved energy, focus, and mental speed. Maybe this is why so many writers — myself included — love to walk or run: we’re giving our brains a boost!

Sitting up straight: Good posture doesn’t just help your back, it helps your brain. When people tackling stressful tasks were asked to sit up straight, they felt more enthusiastic and strong while slouchers felt sluggish and unmotivated. Straightening your spine sends a message to your mind that you are alert, focused, and ready for action, according to a new study in Health Psychology. This positive mental message not only sharpens your concentration, it also improves your overall mood.

Reciting poetry: The ear-pleasing patterns of rhyming poetry spark right-brain activity, enhancing memory, focus, and reasoning skills.

So let’s all doodle, stand up and sit up, recite poetry – and write on!

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Something Wonderful

As we relax and renew ourselves, here are the opening stanzas of a lovely
song to inspire and encourage us:

“The River”
Garth Brooks and Victoria Shaw

You know a dream is like a river
Ever changin’ as it flows
And a dreamer’s just a vessel
That must follow where it goes
Trying to learn from what’s behind you
And never knowing what’s in store
Makes each day a constant battle
Just to stay between the shores.. and

I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky
I’ll never reach my destination
If I never try
So I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry

Too many times we stand aside
And let the waters slip away
‘Til what we put off ’til tomorrow
Has now become today
So don’t you sit upon the shoreline
And say you’re satisfied
Choose to chance the rapids
And dare to dance the tide…

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