I recently came across the book, Conscious Writing, by Julia McCutchen. She is the founder of the International Association of Conscious & Creative Writers (IACCW), which provides information and support for writers interested in spiritual and personal development. So it’s no surprise that her book combines mindfulness exercises and visualisation with writing help.
Much of the book isn’t relevant to my writing interests. But I was taken with her views about how to begin a major writing project, such as a book.
She suggests that even if we have great ideas for a book, we may find that we lack confidence in terms of—
- keeping track of our aims
- developing our ideas
- finding an appropriate voice
Our infamous inner critic can also sap our confidence, to the point where we may start thinking I’m not good enough . . . I can’t write . . . I’m not a real writer.
She suggests two remedies: a regular meditation practice and an early assessment of our topic, aim, and readers.
Why meditation? She believes that meditating regularly enables us to achieve calmness and clarity. These positive qualities can then help us counter the fears and confusions that writing often entails, and quash our inner critic.
Many writing books assume that their readers will have already assessed and chosen their writing topic. The content of such books is more about the details of developing one’s material.
McCutchen believes in the value of writers taking a step back to assess two primary issues—Why and Who.
- Why write about this topic?
How passionate am I about it? What’s motivating me to write about it? What message do I want to convey about it?
- Who am I writing for?
What do I want to share with readers—and why? What kind of experience do I want them to have when they read my ideas, insights, and stories? How can I connect with their needs and interests?
These questions seem useful in getting us to clarify our writing project. Understanding where we’re heading with our topic promotes confidence, and we can start choosing and developing our content, structure and message.
We can’t write to engage everyone. So there’s value in ascertaining our ideal readers, the ones we want to write for, the ones we sense will like what we communicate. The why and who questions can help us identify
- the kind of readers likely to appreciate our ideas
- the kind of relationship we want to have with these readers.
McCutchen encourages us to write keep a record of our responses to the what and who questions, by writing them down or perhaps using mind-mapping to capture possible links as well. By continuing to assess our initial responses, we can sharpen the focus of our big writing project, which in turn can help what we write and how.
Are you old enough to remember receiving personal letters that the postman/mailman delivered to your home?
PROMPT: Jot down memories or ideas, from the time before email, Facebook, mobile phones, etc. A time when letters were the main method of communication. When letters—lost, found, received, not answered—could change a life.
In the pre-computer times, a plot for a novel or story sometimes centred around a letter. In Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the male lead, Angel, loves Tess and wants to marry her. She writes a letter to him, confessing a past affair, and slips it under his door. The next morning, when he is as affectionate as ever, she believes he’s forgiven her. She later discovers that when she shoved her letter under the door, it went under the carpet, and Angel had NOT read it. Tragedy follows.
Today, I received two Christmas cards in the mail. I have one US cousin who sends a beautiful handmade card for my birthday and anniversary. Another relative annually sends an account of her year—written in iambic couplets (!).
My elderly aunt is the only relative who still sends me handwritten letters. I briefly imagine myself doing the same, but know I never will.
A friend’s adult children complained that her emails were ‘too long to read’. So she now provides short, snappy and frequent Facebook comments. I would find that frustrating. I don’t write people often, but when I do, I engage, choosing particular experiences and ideas based on the interests of person I’m writing to.
Christmas postcard date unknown, c. 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The short message is not a new development. I have my grandmother’s postcard albums from the early 1900s. In those days, people enjoyed saving postcards sent to them–often a photo of a faraway location, sometimes a joke picture.
The messages on the backs of the old postcards I have were written in pencil. I guess people didn’t take quill pen and inkwell with them when they traveled. And many senders simply signed their name, providing no message. Perhaps it was enough in those days to share a visual joke or faraway scene, rather than give a personal account of ones’ strip.
Letter-writing paraphernalia is vanishing. I still have some sets of stationery, plus beautiful cards, fountain pens, and different colours of ink, in bottles. All are untouched, as dated as the Model T Ford.
What about the demise of the aerogramme? When I moved to Australia, my mother used the one-page, lightweight aerogramme to convey news. Harper, the small Kansas town where she and Dad lived, had 1800 citizens and a two-block main street. Still, she found a surprising number of developments and dramas to write about. She advised me about the wheat harvest, church and town doings, her China painting, their backyard garden, plus square dance club, fishing trips with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law, duck hunting in fall, and sightseeing trips.
I learned how crucial letter writing was when I was in my first teen crush, with the boy living at the other end of Kansas. I spent time, too much, selecting just the right stationery and ink colour when corresponding. Sometimes I made my own envelopes, using picture pages from Life magazine. I impatiently checked our mailbox each day for a letter. When I received his letter, I took it to school and re-read it during geometry class. (Note to younger self: in terms of preparing for university, spending time learning maths is better than a short adolescent romance.)
The biggest issue was finding a safe place to hide the letters from my nosy older brother. One day he snatched the latest missive and locked himself in the bathroom, threatening to read it. I yelled back, rattled the doorknob, and started kicking the door–and my foot went through a thin panel on the door. For some reason, my parents blamed me!
A few years later, my brother was in Vietnam, where he wrote to my parents and to me. I still have his letters. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll read them. Perhaps they will be healing, helping me understand his life, how two Purple Hearts led to the PTSD that dogged his life, and his inability or lack of interest in keeping in touch.
In my loft storage, I still have a few old letters from various boyfriends dating from high school and college days. Reading them now gives me an insight into my young self, what interested me, worried me, made me happy.
In those days, I never imagined a time when getting mail would not be exciting. But now my letterbox holds mainly bills and flyers. It serves as the occasional dropoff place for a book or gift of produce from a neighbour. And because it’s mostly empty , it’s become the perfect home for a big, but harmless, huntsman spider.
Wikipedia has a long list of fake memoirs from around the world. Three major hoaxes I remember here in Australia:
MUTANT MESSAGE FROM DOWN UNDER.
In this 1990 book, American author Marlo Morgan claimed to have gone on a spiritual pilgrimage with an Aboriginal group in the Outback. After protests by Aboriginal people, and then a court case, the book was re-issued as fiction (at least in Australia).
When it became popular, I was guest-teaching in a Midwestern college in the USA. My students, who said they loved the book, were very disappointed when I told them about the court’s ruling.
THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER. In 1993, a novel by Helen Demidenko won several of Australia’s most prestigious awards. She claimed that her book was based on real events experienced by her Ukrainian relatives during the Holocaust.
Later the truth emerged. Her ‘true life’ was made up. And she was not Ukrainian. And her surname was not Demidenko, but Danville.
FORBIDDEN LOVE (AKA HONOUR LOST). This book, published in 2003, was written by Norma Khouri, a Jordanian-born American living then in Australia. Her memoir covered a period in Jordan when she helped a female friend, who fell in love with someone the family would not accept. Things went wrong, and the friend became a victim of a family honour killing.
Later, it was found that during the period covered in the memoir, Khouri was actually living in Chicago, not Jordan.
The Guardian recently ran an intervew with one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson. The question and answer that I found most illuminating suggests why we write.
Q: The trilogy made up by Gilead, Home and Lila has had immense success. But what has it meant for you?
There’s a way in which, nonfiction or fiction, you learn your own mind, you find out what matters to you, what the questions are for you . . . .
And with fiction, you can put the problem out in front of yourself in a three-dimensional way, and work through it, and that’s very, very interesting.
Why do I like her response?
It’s usual for writers to focus on their readers, real or imagined. But it’s worth remembering that through our writing, we also have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
We generally know this when we write nonfiction, especially when our topic clearly links to our personal experiences and beliefs.
But what about fiction? Reflecting on some of my work, I realise fiction also provides a way to know and understand myself. I discover personal insights from the choices I make in telling a story—its setting, the issues that drive the story, and the characters I develop, especially in terms of how they act and why.
Does your fiction help you understand ‘what matters to you, what the questions are for you?
I had planned an industrious day working on my current writing project. The morning went well. Now the whole afternoon stretched ahead, empty of other commitments or tasks.
Then the phone rang. It was the King Poo people letting me know they would arrive later to drop off my order of worm-castings, a natural fertiliser I use to get my garden ready for summer. I stopped work to wait for them, and after they left returned to my desk. But getting back into the writing flow proved impossible.
I remembered a guest post on WritingCompanion, from Kelly, who wrote about the advantage of giving your brain time to compost ideas. Mental composting is not the same as procrastinating. The latter takes us AWAY from our writing. Composting is more like a creative, focused pause, which can lead to new ideas and enrich our writing. It reminds us that sometimes there’s an advantage in NOT writing, in holding off rather than pushing on no matter what.
I realised that I was tired, depleted of ideas. To keep on writing would be a mistake. I shut down the computer, with the plan of letting my subconscious work on my topic. When I returned to my desk, perhaps this mental composting would bring forth new ideas and insights.
Another helpful post from our local Librarians With Altitude, here in the Blue Mts.
Do writers need to blog? Or is it a big time-waster when they could be working on their writing project?
Anne Allen gives her take on this issue, with 10 reasons why blogging can help writers and their careers.
When writers tell me they want to start blogging, I usually ask, What do you want to get out of it?
Some writers think blogging provides a sure path to becoming rich and famous. They aren’t aware of how time consuming it can be to post regularly and build up a readership.
Others start a blog because they want to share information and develop a community. But it can be demoralising if only a few read their blog, fewer still sign up to get posts, and even fewer leave a comment.
So why keep blogging?
If any of my posts help other writers, that’s great. But when I set up my blog, I decided to use it to help me discover more about writing.
Developing a number of posts about writing issues has enabled me to—
- assess writing issues and ideas that catch my attention
- write more succinctly, due to my self-imposed maximum of 1,000 words
- become attuned to writing matters, given that writing one post often leads me to material I can use for a future post.
- find and read the work of others who blog about writing.
- learn what interests readers by checking which of my posts attract the most clicks.
I’m not a consistent blogger. But I don’t beat myself up about that. Blogging doesn’t need to be an iron-clad contract.
It’s like fishing. When I publish a blog post, I’m dropping the line with the bait and waiting to see what it attracts.