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The Stars and the Sky

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I’ve been reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. There’s one passage in which she talks about the conscious mind vs. the wild mind and urges writers to not diddle around our whole lives in the dot (our monkey mind or conscious mind) but to take one big step out of it and sink into the big sky and write from there.

I stopped and hung out for a while at that thought.

Let go of control – surrender the reins. Once a theme or idea starts to unspool, to allow ourselves to follow the thread. Find the end and let it take you. Up into the big sky.

In most parts of my life my tendency is to be neat and organized. To tidy up as I go. When I bake or cook, I’ll often assemble the ingredients beforehand, clean up as I go. And it works. In the kitchen.

But not at my writing desk. Even a short blog post like this.

Not in the beginning of a piece.

An author I know told me how she edits as she goes. In theory, her book is good to go by the time she gets to the last page. I’m going to suggest that the book was percolating in her head for a while, growing, plots materializing and shifting, characters coming and going. The story gradually told itself and the author transcribed it. Now, this in no way minimizes this author’s role in all this. It’s still a lot, a lot of work. But it works for her. She’s good at it. I’ve read her work; it’s magical.

For me, however, this method would trip me up. It would kick my perfectionism into high gear and put me into one of those endless loop processes. You computer folks have a name for that. For the rest of us it’s a descent into a rabbit hole.

Especially in the beginning.

This blog post started with reading Goldberg’s book. Then it came on a walk with me. It got splashed messily onto the page two days later. I let it settle, went for another walk a few days later and came back to it. I tidied it up; did a little organizing. It’s just about good enough. Although I know there will be at least one more pass before you see it.

Its beginning was a leap into the big sky. And that’s how it should be. At least for me.

There’s a poem I love and frequently use as a warm up prompt in my writing circles. “In Spite of Everything, the Stars” by Edward Hirsch. It begins: Like a stunned piano, like a bucket of fresh milk flung into the air or a dozen fists of confetti thrown hard at a bride stepping down from the altar, the stars surprise the sky.

The stars surprise the sky.

How wonderful it would be to feel free enough, to trust my process enough, to loosen my grip on my pen enough and toss my words up into the sky. To startle the heavens and then listen to the sky tell my story. To let word follow word and line follow line and watch as the story unspools from my consciousness onto the page.

That is where I like to begin.

Where do you begin? In your writing, in your projects, in your life?

Schedule a coffee chat with me and let’s talk about beginnings.

Memory is Fickle

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Memory is fickle. It is fractious. It can fool us and fake us out. It’s a shapeshifter. But capture and corral memories into words on the page? They are enlightening. They become our legacy.

Many years ago, I listened to a radio program about memory. Ironically, I will not remember it perfectly. However, that was the point of the program. How each time we dip into our memory bin and pull something out, it changes.

A memory from even longer ago, when I was about twelve, was when I quit the Girl Scouts. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my father later that day telling him about it. My father said “we don’t quit.” I rescinded my quit and returned.

Memory takeaways

That conversation rose out of my memory decades later when I was preparing my ice breaker speech for Toastmasters. I realized at that time that quitting was very difficult for me even when it was in my best interest. Staying in a career that was not a good fit was a perfect example. Forcing myself to be successful at a high cost. I associated this with that long ago conversation. My father was long gone at this point and I relayed this story to my mother.

“Oh, he never would have said that!” she exclaimed. I didn’t argue with her. I didn’t remind her of how he stayed at his job for decades. How he encouraged my brother-in-law to go off on his own rather than staying in a secure job. (Was there a little wishful thinking back then on his part? I thought so at the time.) How he died on his way to that very job when he was 62.

Instead, I said, maybe. But I knew it was what I took away that was more impactful than his actual words. It was how I constructed and internalized that memory.

Because memories are fickle. It’s what we take with us that’s important.

Why write about our memories?

Writing about our memories helps us extract their essence. It lets us take them out and inspect them, see them in a more objective light. And when we share these memories and their impact in our writing, it lets our reader connect with us in a powerful way that can be a catalyst for their own memories.

Writing about the memory of my conversation with my father as I prepared that speech illuminated hidden drivers in my working life. It helped me understand that quitting isn’t always a bad thing. Knowing when to let something go is actually wisdom. In unpacking that memory I found the permission to continue the shift of my career into writing and coaching. It was okay to “quit” the old career that didn’t fit anymore.

Writing our memories is like panning for gold that transforms our lives over and over again while giving value to our readers.

What memory can you pull out of your virtual filing cabinet that, in retrospect, vividly colored your life? A memory that shaped your identity or influenced your decisions? It could be things you took for granted that, when seen for what they were, free you in tiny ways. (Why did we keep frying pans in the oven? Oh, because there was no room for them anywhere else!) Big and small, deep or funny, lesson learned or crisis averted.

Memory explored and written down is alchemized into memoir.

Memoir is a statement that we were here.

When teased out and captured on the page, it is our legacy.

I have a Legacy Writing group in the works for the fall. A workshop leading to a published anthology. More on that as we move into summer. There will also be a few taster  workshops in between. Interested? Contact me and I’ll add you to the Legacy Writing interest list.

One Writer’s Journaling Journey

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Have you ever thought about how keeping a journal might enhance your writing? Here are some thoughts and tips from one writer who also been journaling for many years…well, maybe decades! Mary Cash is a teacher, journal keeper and writer (to name just a few things) who lives in Colorado and, along with her husband, shares life with John Snow (the cat) and Shadow (the dog.) More about her here.

One Writer’s Journaling Journey

by Mary Harris Cash

Do you journal? I’m curious what you journal about. Do you keep track of everyday events? Vent about someone in your family who makes you angry? Plan for the future? Talk yourself through a big change happening in your life? Perhaps you write about the birds that show up at your bird feeder. I do. The nifty thing about keeping a journal is that there are no limits to what you can write about. You can find blogs, books and research studies that offer suggestions on journaling techniques, but in the end, it’s your journal, and you’re in control of what you write in your journal. I wonder though, when it comes to journaling, do we tend to forget we can use our journal to help us with our writing projects?

Me? I’ve kept a journal since my mid-20s. Of course, I’ve had some down time. When I had twins, I didn’t pick up my journal until the girls were well into toddlerhood. And, this past November, when I got a new puppy, my journaling went out the window for a few months, and it took quite a bit of effort and schedule juggling to get back to it. Overall, however, my journal has been my constant companion through the adventures of graduate school, relationship ups and downs, parenting tribulations, the joys and stresses of several new jobs, the sadness of my girls going off to college at the same time, the uncertainties of a couple of scary medical diagnoses and more.

Doing it my way

These days when I journal, I like to do my version of Morning Pages, complete with a daily weather report (it’s 7:45 am and 10 degrees on March 27 – will winter ever end?), bird report (Crow! Stellar Jay! A cute woodpecker!), and my tarot card pull for the day. I fill my three pages with whatever concerns I have for that morning, and I find that I can write about anything that pops in my head, including my latest writing project. This morning I used my journal to brainstorm for this guest blog post.

However, I’ve not always thought to use my journal for my writing projects. For some reason, when I decided to try my hand at writing fiction several years ago, I had this idea that I needed to keep my journal and my fiction separate. I bought a spiffy 3 subject spiral notebook and diligently used that for my brainstorming and for drafting scenes for my cozy mystery. I carefully made sure not to write about my cozy in my journal. I had to keep the spiral notebook next to my journal so I could hop over there if I had some grand idea in the middle of journaling about my day.

A place to capture my brilliant ideas!

Eventually, because I’m one of those people who has brilliant ideas either in the shower, or right after while I’m getting ready, I found myself putting down ideas for the latest scene or questions to ask my main character as I was writing my morning pages. That way, I got my ideas out of my head, and on paper so I wouldn’t forget them. At the same time, the instructor I was working with for an independent study class through the Story Circle Network gave me suggestions for dialoguing with my characters or brainstorming about the setting or some other aspect of my mystery and she always suggested I journal about it. Sooner than later, my journal and the spiral notebook bled together. I would bring both to my desk so I could work on my scenes on the computer.

To be honest, I’m not sure where the idea of not using my journal to help with my cozy mystery project came from. When I took time to think about it, I realized in the past, when I was working on research papers and even course updates for the college English classes I teach, I always used my journal to write about some aspect of those projects. I can’t say books on fiction writing told me to not use my journal because some actively encourage using one. I guess it must have been a brain glitch at the time.

The safety and freedom of your journal

From my experience, if you plan on using your journal to help with a writing project, it’s best to consider your journal as a safe place where you can write anything. It’s important to ban that critic when journaling, especially when you’re focusing on your writing. Start out your journaling session by telling your inner critic to go wash the dishes, do the laundry, or better yet, get busy vacuuming. And if they threaten to pop into your journaling session, just push them out the door with another task to complete. Also, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or format. Find some engaging tasks for the Grammar Queen to do when you’re journaling, or better yet, get her to help your inner critic clean out the downstairs closet.

Now that I’m back to using my journal for my writing projects, I got curious about how others might be using their journals to facilitate their writing, so I did some research. While there’s not as much information available on journaling for writers as there is on the benefits of journaling on mental health and learning, there are some great suggestions out there.

Now your turn

Here’s are three ideas to encourage you to use your journal to boost your writing.

  1. You can use your journal to grow a daily writing practice. No matter what you write about, remember, the more you practice your writing, the better it will be.
  2. Use your journal to clear your head – if you’ve got lots of ideas or perhaps something is going on in your life that’s blocking your writing – do a brain dump write and get all that muck out of your head so you can move on to do some great writing.
  3. Capture life around you. Write about people, places, events in your life. You can go back and pull out juicy tidbits and use them in your novel/short story or even your non-fiction.

How do you incorporate your journal into your writing practice and projects? I’d love to hear from you.

You can email me at Want to learn more about journaling? Sign up here for my newsletter.

The hidden treasures of the writing brain

Treasure Box
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Do you have “shoulds” about your writing? Do you fret that you’re not writing enough? Let it go. Yes, at times you have deadlines. But consider the riches accumulating as you go about your days. There’s a lot happening under the surface even when you’re not putting words on the page.

I haven’t been writing much the last few months. I had taken a brief hiatus in December but that hiatus lingered into January. And then February. Why, I wondered. What’s wrong? The answer that rose up was that my joy in writing had been muscled out by the “shoulds.” I should be working on my book. I should get a blog post out. I should get a newsletter out. I should, I should I should.

I was should-ing all over myself.

Seriously, shoulds take the joy out of everything.

At the same time, I was still journaling. I was still running writing circles. But my book and my blog, well, I felt lots of resistance there. So, this time I decided to do something a little different. I just let it be. (More on the shoulds here)

However, I’m still comfortable calling myself a writer.

I recently read an old article in The Writer where the author suggested that when she wasn’t writing – in between projects or on a break – that she could no longer call herself a writer.

I don’t agree and I’ll tell you why.

A writer is someone who writes.

I am familiar with – and subscribe to – this definition of a writer as “someone who writes.” I also believe that the writing process is not limited to placing words on the page. Writers continue to think in writerly ways. Just like an artist or a photographer whose eyes soak in their surroundings. Or a gardener who doesn’t need to have her hands in the dirt to let ideas germinate.

We constantly take in stimuli that will eventually make their way into our craft. Even when we think we’re not paying attention, ideas are wheeling around in our subconscious.

Some other things that happen off the page:

Our ideas continue to speak to us.

Literally. And sometimes at very odd times.

Characters wander in and out of our consciousness. Inspiration pops up randomly. (A little aside: how do you capture those thoughts?) The mill continues to process the grist.

Bertie, the main character in my novel, hadn’t been speaking to me for a while. Actually, it was this blog that was doing most of the talking. However, she did pop in recently with something to say.

I was on a walk and as my feet developed their own rhythm my mind began to wander. I started noticing how many dog walkers were on my path. Nodding and smiling to each other, some dogs pulling their walker; others, obediently trotting alongside. I suddenly wondered if Bertie had a dog.

No, she told me. She would never have a dog. That would require her to be out and about, possibly having to greet others on a daily walk. That’s pretty uncomfortable when you’re trying to keep a low profile. And no, she wouldn’t let a dog loose in her yard because her garden, well, that’s another story for another day.

I walked and thought about her. She is squirrely. I already knew this. I think I know her but then sometimes she surprises me. She wakes me up in the morning with start. “I did not know that!” I think. She might have a cat, but definitely not a dog. I’m always listening for her. Even when I’m not working on the book.

We get to stockpile wonderful words

Writers are collectors of words. In her book, Poemcrazy, writer Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge talks about collecting words and creating wordpools. A wordpool is a fun writing prompt and a great way to loosen up your creative muscles.

Me, I like to visualize a small wooden treasure chest into which I tuck my words.

In my writing circles we write together and read our fresh unedited work. We look for what’s working (there’s always something working) and those words, phrases, passages that stay with us. I tell the writers that even if it’s just one phrase that’s working, that’s still gold. Save it. I mention my treasure chest.

But even off the page small gems are dropped into your consciousness. Save them! Use index cards, journals, post-its, the notes app on your phone, and yes, maybe even a small wooden treasure box. Save them! You never know when you might need a perfect description of the sound of a screen door slapping closed on a summer day.

We continue to read

Writers are often voracious readers. I know I am. I find myself observing what’s happening on the page and how I’m reacting to it. Oh, look at how she did that! I wonder if that would work for me. I notice the devices the author is using; how the prose was a bit too flowery. I note what I like and also what I don’t like. I see how he makes me want to turn the page. I delight in the surprises I find.

I was in grade school when I picked up Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It was on my older sister’s summer reading list. I already loved to read. I fell in love with language with that book. I learned how words could be transformed into something of stunning beauty. I suspect that somewhere the dark recesses of my mind I am trying to emulate him.

I store all this in my mind for when I return to the page.

Because I always do.

Pen + Thoughts = Power

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The pen is mighty. Put that pen to paper and record your words and thoughts… power.

Why write? I’ve asked that question many times in this blog. This time I’m inviting you to consider writing as a powerful agent of change.

A leather bound journal. A diary. Any simple, humble notebook that can capture your words. Julia Cameron recommends this type of writing it as a daily ritual in The Artist’s Way:  3 longhand pages first thing in the morning known as morning pages. Dorothea Brande proposed something similar, what she called “unconscious writing”, in her book Becoming a Writer first published in 1934. Your writing can be impromptu or just thoughts dashed onto the page. In coaching I sometimes offer prompts followed by a 2 or 3-minute writing sprint. In our Find and Follow Your Spark program we call them Magic Pages. And they are truly magical.

Broad Impact

What I have found is that a writing practice can impact you in ways far beyond what is usually thought of when we say “writing.” It doesn’t always have to be about a finished products, publication or book sales.

Your words, captured on a page are powerful. You cannot set your thoughts down, day after day, and remain the same. You will be transformed.

I would suggest you start by doing the morning pages suggested in The Artist’s Way. Experience the effect this will have on you as you develop a writing habit. Power through to that third page because I guarantee you will go someplace deeper and unexpected. But don’t feel this is the only way to do this, that it’s  “all or none.” Do one page. Do it several times a week. Just do something on the page.

Here are some other reasons to develop a journal practice and some of the ways I use my journal.

Writing will amp up your listening skills

Listening to yourself, that is. Thoughts run amok through our mind all day. But if you stop to jot them down, you have the opportunity to actually “hear” them.

You might be surprised at what you hear. You might realize that you say these things all the time, both out loud as well as to yourself. You might recognize that these thoughts/words are an engrained habit, not necessarily true. And, unfortunately, those habitual thoughts are not usually encouraging. They tend more toward the “why am I so ____” with the “_____” not very flattering.

How will you capture these thoughts? Those small spiral notepads that fit in your pocket or purse can do the job quite efficiently. As can the notes app on your phone. It doesn’t need to be fancy. The power is in the act of capturing.

Writing is an act of resolve

You may not realize it at first, however if you keep up the practice you will discover your beginning.

In my writing circle, naturally, there are women who want to write. There are also those who have been told they “should write that book.” There are others who are heeding a call for creative expression. And there are some who are there to just see what they’ve got.

There are lots of reasons. And the end result is always the same.

They begin to understand that they have something to say. They recover memories; discover depths. They become reacquainted with themselves. Gradually, change takes over. They find a new beginning

Writing is a place to ask a small question

Ask a small question on the page and keep going. (There’s an art to the small question. Read more here.) But ask them frequently, day after day, or however often you write. Ask and then listen. As you go about your day, notice what emerges: the email, the phone call, the song on the radio, the quote someone shares. Just keep your antenna up and stay curious. Answers abound.

Writing can be a space for praying

In the book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the maid, Aibileen, keeps a prayer book. A simple, cheap notepad. For her, putting her praying words on the page was like “electricity, it keeps things going.” So, put your wishes and dreams on your page so they can keep going. Put them out in front of a higher power along with the needs of others in your world who can use this “electricity.”

Writing is a place for affirmations

Affirmations are a way to create new thinking pathways. A journal is a place to test out those statements. Saying it is quicker. However when you speak it the “but” that whispers in the back of your mind could be missed. There’s something about the physicality of writing them, the way it gives your brain those milliseconds to catch up with your hand, that makes a difference. If it’s not quite believable to you – as in the “but” in the back of your mind – you have the chance to edit it until it feels right. If it feels right and believable it will seep into your subconscious and do the work. Dare I say it again? Magic!

There are lots of ways to use a writing practice. You will find things that are particularly helpful for you. Try it. Be curious. Be open to the magic.

Need help getting started? You don’t have to do it alone. Contact me to see how I can help.

Welcome to My Writing Nest

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Coming soon! A place to read about writing, hear from other writers, inspire, be inspired.

It’s time to begin and continue your writing adventure.

Look forward to meeting you in My Writing Nest.

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