Category Archives: All I Know About Writing

Purpose vs Intention & Creativity

The other day I was having an Issue with the project I was working on from last time, so I emailed a jpeg to my Clayville California Polymer Clay Artists Guild and asked for advice. The first part of the response that I got startled me:  “What is the purpose of your project; it makes a difference.” 

I was stuck at that word purpose. What purpose did I have when I sat down to work with the clay? I rarely set out with a purpose. And why should it make a difference? 

Anyone who has sat in my writing classes or been coached by me knows that I am forever haranguing them that Purpose is the underpinning of all that goes into making a piece of writing successful. So why hadn’t that occurred to me as necessarily transferable to a piece of art? The answer to that is, I realize, why my students and clients so often had trouble with the concept of Purpose. It’s the wrong word. 

Purpose implies product. Product implies a plan and the expectation of succeeding at that plan. But that mindset can often be antithetical to both writing and the making of art as it sometimes works to eliminate discovery, happenstance, sheer creativity.  No, the right word is not Purpose; it’s Intention. Intention is an aim, a direction, a willingness to explore.

Pursuing a Purpose often leads to an entreprenurial urge, and I’ve seen the entrepreneurial urge suck the life out of writers. That’s exactly what happened to me in my early days of my taking up polymer clay as a medium. I was all about Product. I was Creating Jewelry To Sell. How else could I justify the time and expense I was putting into the stuff? Like an assembly line worker, I needed to know that my efforts validated the cost. Except–it didn’t take long before I was face to face with the harsh reality that no one wanted to buy my work. Without that Purpose, what was the point?

That turned me deeper into exploration. So maybe it wasn’t Purpose I was missing so much as Intention. I moved away from the How To’s for creating jewelry and into just looking at, seeing, and wondering about the work of those who are artists first and craftspeople second. Why were they doing what they did? Where did their creative impulse come from?

That has led me to question my response to art and the way it may or may not impact on the work I do. Basically, then, I’m trying to get a bead on myself as a receiver and producer. What do I like? Why? What turns me off? Why? I’m looking at everything visual through those lenses, and trying to understand myself. So the answer to the Guild’s question “what was the purpose of the project” is, my intention is experimentation. 

Specifically, I’m drawn to birdseye views of nature, and the way they manifest as geometric patterning. When I saw that the piece I was working on last week seemed to be turning into some sort of nature scene, I decided I would try to create the foliage using mini-circles of clay. Sort of a pointillist technique. I experimented with using old canes and veneers and tried some of the new texture techniques I’ve learned, most recently from Sage Bray’s Virtual Art Box.

I had fun; I increased my understanding and ability to do more with polymer clay. I did not create a work worthy of anything but my own admiration. Okay, and maybe yours. There are flaws galore in the piece, but I did achieve my intention. Even if I didn’t know it until after I had to think about it long and hard. 

1 Week Left of Coaching Package Special

Just one more week left on the August sale offer on my Intensive Critique coaching package.   This professional manuscript editing normally goes for $100. Right now, it is 1/4 of that–a mere $25. Outside word count is 5000 words.

Want to know more? Read last week’s post. And if you’re interested, contact me before August 12! Leave a comment here, or email me at byjane73@gmail.com

 

 

Summer Offer: Professional Manuscript Editing

Writing is always an act of communication. Whether you, the writer, acknowledge it or not, the words you write have no meaning until there is a reader wanting to understand them. 

However, when we writers, in the exuberance of self-expression, blithely ignore the needs of the reader, our writing often comes a cropper. Organization, word choice, plot, characterization, meaning–all can so easily be lost.

This happens no matter our age, experience, or familiarity with the subject. It is why editors exist and why you should always have an editor look at your manuscript before you write “The End.”

During the Intensive Critique I offer, I am the Reader. While metaphorically sitting on my hands, I read the text as an act of communication. What is it saying? What am I feeling and thinking as I read it? What questions do I have? When do I become confused? Lose interest? Feel the urgency of ‘what next’? I am looking for what works, but I am also looking for what needs work.

As I go through the manuscript, I use the Comments capability of Drive to make specific notes on the piece–asking questions, suggesting, offering my “at the moment” response to the work. 

This creates a file which offers a record of my reading alongside the original manuscript. The writer can print this to have a map of sorts as to exactly where the act of communication either succeeds or breaks down.

Normally I charge $100 for the Intensive Critique. However, during the first weeks of August, I’m offering an abbreviated version for 1/4 of the cost. All genres; all levels of experience.

Want to learn more? Let me know in the Comments or email me at byjane73@gmail.com

Writing Prompt & Free Offer: The Things I Carry

Have you ever read Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried? It tells the story of a platoon of soldiers in the Viet Nam war through the things that they carried in the knapsacks. I used to assign it when I taught Comp & Lit at Lehigh. For one, I wanted my overindulged students to get their minds around something other than their latest hookup. Even more, though, I love the idea that we tell our own stories by the things that we feel we need to have with us every day.

  • Empty your purse, backpack, briefcase, or shopping bag and look at what you’ve taken out. Now choose the things that for whatever reason are always with you.
  • Describe them.
  • How are they related? How are they not? What does it say about you that these things are necessary to you?

This is an exercise in three things:

  1. Your powers of description.
  2. Your ability to analyze, to move from the concrete to the abstract, to see the patterns (or lack of same) in things that seem unrelated.
  3. Your willingness to come to a conclusion about what the things you carry say–or don’t say–about you.

 

Bonus offer: Want to know what it’s like to get an Intensive Critique from me? I’ll give a free Mini Intensive Critique to the first five people who send me their drafts. Just save and copy your draft to the Comment section on the form below.

Writing & the Freedom to Fail

A client once said to me,

“Writing this story feels like I’ve set out on the ocean with a lot of heart and grit and a general sense of direction, but I don’t want to spend months rowing hard to get to France only to learn that I’ve landed in Texas.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

  • Was she feeling insecure about her writing overall and needing me to reassure her that if she had planned for France, and worked hard to get there, she would definitely see the Eiffel Tower?
  • Or was she expressing some subconscious uneasiness that she was actually on the wrong plotting track?

There was no right or wrong answer here. The first speaks to the general anxiety writers all feel from time to time. We’re sitting alone creating worlds out of thin air; how could we not feel insecure from time to time?

The second speaks to a more complicated issue: where does our writing come from? Whose ideas are these, if not mine? So why do they sometimes turn on me and take me to a place I never thought of–or wanted–to go?

When that happens to me, I’ve learned to listen to my silent self and, at least for a while, give it rein to move at will. Eventually, I either write myself out of that place–or I find that it actually is where I wanted to go. It means, of course, that I have to allow myself the hardest freedom of all–the freedom to fail.

Grammar! Punctuation! Spelling!

How do you feel about grammar & punctuation? Is it the writer’s responsibility, or can it be off-shored to a paid editor?

That’s the going debate on a private Facebook writer’s group I belong to. The responses, which seem to be running fifty-fifty, are passionate in both directions.

All that grammar stuff stifles the creative urge

versus

Words and the correct use of them are an essential part of the writer’s toolbox.

I say both of those are true, and what we’re really talking about is…

The crying need for a First Draft.

  • First Drafts, which I affectionately refer to as the Vomit Drafts, are where you just pour it all out without a thought for whether it makes sense or is legible.
  • The First Draft is the draft that only you, the writer, see; therefore, you can spill your guts with impunity.
  • In First Drafts, you can leave blanks to fill in later when you can’t come up with the words you’re looking for now.
  • You can write notes to yourself in your First Draft remind you of something you want to describe but aren’t quite ready to.
  • To treat the First Draft as a Final Draft in which you focus on correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling is to deny yourself…

The essence of the First Draft,

which is the freedom of discover.

 

Is What I’m Writing Too Long or Too Short?

That’s a question I’ve gotten in one form or another over the years I’ve been working with writers. I’ve come to realize that it’s just one aspect of the obsession we can create around our writing. Let me not worry about whether this thing I’m working on is any good, makes sense, says what I intend; let me instead worry whether there are the right number of words in it.

The quick answer is this: if you’ve been given a word count–write a five page essay….a short story of no more than twenty pages–then follow this formula.   Industry standard for publishing and academia is: one inch margins all around; double-spaced; 10-12 point font. If you do the math, you’ll see that 5pp=1,250 words and 20 pp=5,000 words.

The more convoluted answer is:

A piece of writing, whatever the genre, should be long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

That doesn’t seem complicated until you realize that the devil is in the details–and the object of that preposition: long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

This is the tricky part, the place where most writers go off the rails. You must always keep in some part of your mind that you’re not talking to yourself. There’s a reader out there, several or many of them, and they’re not you. They don’t have access to the workings of your mind–your history, both real and emotional; your political leanings; what’s important to you as you live your life; and what’s not. Your audience only knows what you’re telling them. That means you need to make sure you know what specifics you’ll need to tell them to so that they “get” whatever it is you’re saying.

We’ve all been in situations where a story is being told, but it doesn’t hang together. Some information is missing. Some detail, some nuance–there’s a gap somewhere and it drives us crazy because we know that we’d get it, if only that detail wasn’t missing.The other side of that is where the narrator keeps going on forever. He tells you every little detail he remembers, the color of the pants he was wearing and where he bought them. He explain things that seem totally off the point to you.  It drives you crazy because you wish he’d shut up already and stop confusing you with this avalanche of details.

How do you, the writer, avoid making your reader crazy? First, you need to know what you want to say. Is it a concept you’re explaining or a point you’re making? Is it a scene you’re describing or a story you’re narrating? You  need to know enough about whatever it is to determine what your audience needs to know in order to get the point. Does that seem like a mystery to you? Easier said than done? It’s what Roger Angell meant when he talked about the relationship between writing and thinking.

For the second part of the object of the preposition, the no extraneous material part, beware that this is a trap the best of writers fall into. We love the sound of our voice; we confuse clarity with repetition. There are a variety of ways we can get in trouble going on and on and on. For this, the only answer is a firm editing hand when you’re on your second or third draft to make sure that you’re not committing one of the The Sins of Overwriting. I’ll write about them in my next post.

 

When Do I Get To Call Myself A Writer?

Okay, so the little Q&A is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek. But–this is an issue that I hear a lot from writers I work with. Hell, it’s an issue that I dealt with way back when I started my career. I definitely felt that calling myself a writer was a privilege earned. But what was the privilege that earned it? Hence, the four points of the Q&A above. As I recall, however, the whole issue for me was resolved when I applied for a new passport and had to fill in the blank marked “Occupation.” Since my days pretty much consisted of writing, I guess I felt the truth trumped whether or not I had earned the privilege.

The fact that this is an issue for others has something to do with the ambivalent view the outside world has of writers. We do something most people can’t imagine doing. Yet, anyone who is capable of holding pencil or tapping a keyboard can do it. It doesn’t require any education, even if the MFA Writing Programs would have you think so. We tell secrets; we make our version of the story stick; and oh, it doesn’t pay very much, if at all.

In fact, of all the things that make people disparage writers, it’s the money thing. As I wrote the other day in What Real Writers Know, we are a culture that values product over process. The worth of a particular product is determined by how much money it has made. For those not part of our world, the financial end of the writer’s life–who pays us, why they pay us, how much they pay us–is very murky.  And for many, if they can’t put a dollar value to an activity, then it has no value. 

The other day on a Facebook writers group that I belong to, this was part of a long conversation: how do you deal with family and friends who question your being a writer? There were a lot of opinions that ran the range from “Fuck anyone who questions you” to “Do your writing in secret.” Both responses seem extreme to me. The middle ground–have confidence in yourself without needing external approval–strikes me as therapeutically correct, but, damn, hard for a person with a normal amount of self-esteem to do.

Valuing yourself and valuing your writing, no matter what–is it really so hard to do? What do you think?

 

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