Something Wonderful

In celebration of the balmy and beautiful autumn we’re having:

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
Albert Camus

“Every leaf speaks bliss to me fluttering from the autumn tree.”
Emily Bronte

“If I were a bird I would fly around the earth seeking successive autumns.”
George Eliot

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Writing Simply

“I emerged from the womb hollering for a pencil sharpener…I’m still working every day on writing simply.”
Toby Stein

What more energizing and enlivening a way to spend an evening than rhapsodizing about words in all their glory with the help and inspiration of a devoted wordsmith and editor? That’s what I had the pleasure of doing at a Write Group workshop led by Toby Stein,* the author of five books, a longtime editor, and a poetry enthusiast. Toby began her spirited session by reading “Sea-Sand and Sorrow” by Christina Rossetti:

What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? to-day and to-morrow:
What are fail: Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth.

This poem has no adjectives or adverbs, Toby noted, yet it is freighted with feeling. In her view, it embodies all the qualities of strong writing: “It’s specific, accessible, and clear.” It also possesses a less tangible ingredient, Toby added — “it’s wonderful.” A fierce advocate of direct, unfussy language, she cited one of Mark Twain’s rules of writing: “use the right word everywhere — not its second cousin.” More Toby tips:

•  Hone your words with precision and patience — it’s easy to be trite and hackneyed.

•  Choose nouns and verbs that communicate exactly what you want to say and nothing more. Writers and aspiring writers sweat over what adjective or adverb to use; our work is better served if we put that energy into picking the best verb for the job at hand.

•  Once you have a strong noun and verb, let them stand on their own: resist the impulse to search for clever or unusual adjectives to dress them up. If you use a precise verb, you don’t have to “fancify” it with adjectives.

•  Choose verbs that are “specific, accurate, and strong” — verbs like “walk, laugh, and cry” are too unspecific to really engage or affect your readers.

•  To increase accessibility, strive to keep your words pithy, preferably 1 or 2 syllables.

•  “Make friends with two delete buttons: the one on your computer and the one in your head.” Make it a point to delete a phrase or word that pops into your head if isn’t a satisfying choice. Push yourself to find a better one: Don’t settle for second-rate.

•  If you’ve thought of a telling word to describe someone or something, don’t dilute its power by adding two others — no reinforcement is needed.

•  Beware of larding your language: “So much that we write is extraneous — it doesn’t add meaning or feeling or purpose.”

Wonderful advice well worth applying from a seasoned pro. Bravo, Toby, write on!

* For more writing advice from Toby, see the post, “Details Deliver.”

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Keep Sweeping

“You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”
Dean Young

Whatever we’re writing, we’ve all had the same experience: There are many times — moments, days, and even weeks — when we simply seem to be “sweeping the temple steps.” We’re keep ourselves limber, pushing forward, and slogging doggedly on with our writing even though nothing much seems to be happening.

Sweeping the temple steps — doing the work to prepare for moments of inspiration and insight — may seem like scud work. We may feel that it’s somehow beneath us — that we’ve paid our dues and earned our stripes and that we should have arrived at a point where our writing comes easier: Our muse should be taking up permanent residence in our head and whispering brilliant words and phrases to us all day long.

But like most creative endeavors, writing doesn’t seem to work that way. It just isn’t that easy and breezy. A choreographer like Twyla Tharpe, for example, will put in hours and hours on the dance floor, working and sweating an entire day to come up with only a handful of steps that will find their way into the final version of a dance. When she’s struggling to find her way, but keeps on dancing, she’s sweeping the temple steps.

Sweeping the temple steps is an act of faith — an expression of our belief that if we keep on doing what we’re meant to be doing, our hopes will be answered and our efforts will ultimately bear fruit: We’ll have a flash of inspiration, we’ll receive the gift of a word or phrase, or we’ll pierce to the root of a problem that’s bedeviled us.

Sweeping the temple steps also signals to the universe that we’re ready, willing, and able to do whatever it takes to get where we want to go. We’ll do the spade work — we’re fine with it. We’re prepared to write through dispiriting, lackluster days because we know they’re part of the process, steps on the journey. We’re ready to sweep those temple steps with heart, with gusto, with all the art we can muster, in order to make them bright and shiny enough to woo our muse to our side and win her to our cause.

Writing is joyful, but it’s also demanding. Writing on is the answer — so let’s all write on.

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Don’t Quit

In my rambles today, I came across a sheaf of quotes by Muhammad Ali, many of which seem fresh and energizing. He’s surely one guy who wrote his own story in his own way! Some of his words to ponder:

“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed
in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.”

“It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.”

“I shook up the world, I shook up the world.”

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and
live the rest of your life as a champion.”

“Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and
come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew who I was.”

“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief
becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

“I should be a postage stamp because that’s the only way I’ll ever get licked. I’m beautiful.
I’m fast. I’m so mean I make medicine sick. I can’t possibly be beat.”

“My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.”

“Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right — when he knocks you out, you’ll sleep for the night; and
when you lie on the floor and the ref counts to ten, hope and pray that you never meet me again.”

“Life is so, so short. Bible says it’s like a vapor.”

“I wanted to use my fame and this face that everyone knows to help uplift and
inspire people around the world.”

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

“What keeps me going is goals.”

“Superman don’t need no seat belt.”

“The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

A bit of Ali’s bravado might be bracing for us all as we write on!

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Shifting Gears

Bruce Springsteen describes writing his new autobiography, Born to Run:*

“In 2009, we played the Super Bowl and I wrote a little essay for a website. I felt like I found a good voice to write in with it and so I said, ‘Maybe I’ll try to write a little more in that voice and see where it takes me.’ And I didn’t have any idea whether it was going to be a book or something else or maybe just something for the kids.

“So I just started and went back to what I felt was the beginning and slowly started to write. I think after two or three weeks, I had a little bit of something that I could look at and say, ‘That feels pretty workable.’ Then after that, I wrote intermittently for seven years. There was no rush. Mainly I was just trying to write as well as I could and having all that time to do it kind of gave me a chance to come back to it fresh.

“Even from my original manuscript, everything was rewritten two or three times, very similar to the songwriting process, in that you write down your first thoughts, which is your blueprint, and you see if you have something that can be worked on. And then I’ll go back and I’ll get into each verse and I’ll rewrite it. And so the book was very
similar to that.”

I love this description of Bruce’s writing process for several reasons. First, like so many books, his began with a seed, a short essay. After a while, he found a voice that he felt comfortable in and kept writing. Second, he shifted gears from song writing to narrative prose without any great drama or difficulty: He simply applied his approach to creating a song to long-form storytelling. Third, he was patient: he took the time he needed to tell the story he wanted to tell. He didn’t try to speed up the creative process — he let it find its own rhythm. And fourth, he wasn’t overly attached to his words: Once he had his blueprint  on paper, he went back and revised several times.

Watch any video of Bruce performing or see him live and it’s clear he’s a high-energy guy. That’s why it was so much fun to see a photo of him in his book-lined study with a notebook filled with handwritten text. Bravo, Bruce — write on!

* Born to Run is published by Simon and Schuster (

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Dangerous Opportunities

A familiar story:  Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two picture characters — the first one means “danger” and the second means “opportunity.” A little-known tale: Consider for a moment, how these two words came into play in the writing of The Scarlet Letter, one of the great classics of American literature.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne lost his job in the custom house where he labored long hours, he returned home in despair. His wife listened to his tale of woe and all his worries, then set a pen and paper on the table in front of him, lit a cozy fire in the fireplace, put her arms around his shoulders to comfort and encourage him, and uttered these words, “Now you will be able to write your novel.” Hawthorne seized the moment and The Scarlet Letter was born.

So often, when we hit a obstacle as Nathaniel did, whether it’s a bump in the road or a roadblock, we look for the worst that can happen instead of extracting the best from it. We see the cloud and forget about the silver lining.

It’s happened to all of us:  We hit a snag in a story and instead of letting it stoke us to come up with a solution, we let it stump us and put it aside. We feel discouraged because a character we’ve created seems two dimensional; instead of pumping life into it, we feel deflated ourselves and suddenly, our work comes to a halt. We receive yet another rejection from an agent or editor and instead of getting energized by the opportunity to push our work to the next level — to make it so irresistibly exciting and readable that no one will be able to pass on it again — we let the turn down dispirit us.

How do we shift from danger doomsayers to opportunity discoverers? How do we push through the cloud and find that silver lining? Mostly it’s an issue of attitude: As my great friend and mentor Dr. Rob Gilbert says on his wonderful Success Hotline (973.743.4690), when we run into a roadblock, we have two choices: We can get frustrated or fascinated.

If we get frustrated, it’s game over — we get into a negative spiral and a “woe is me” pity party. If we get fascinated — if we get energized and pumped by a problem instead of deflated by it, then anything and everything is possible. Our upbeat attitude helps us generate fresh ideas and see new solutions.

Some time this week, we’re all likely to hit a roadblock. And when we do, we’ll face a simple choice: getting frustrated or fascinated. Let’s choose fascination and write on!

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Something Wonderful

This lovely and haunting poem says so much in a handful of words. It comes to us from Toby Stein, my friend and fellow scribe, who shared it with our Poetry Study Group:


What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? to-day and to-morrow:
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth.

Christina Rossetti

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