Áine Greaney

Irish Author

Leading Creative Writing Workshops and Writing Stuff for 20+ years.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Category: writing and publishing

Writing about Tough Stuff (and then getting on with your day?)

I'm writing my first book-length memoir. It's something I thought I would never, ever write--that I would never have the stomach for.  But I am writing it. I feel compelled to write this story about my leaving Ireland at age 24 to come and live in the U.S.  

The story is, of course, about much more than the cultural bloopers, the adventures and misadventures of my early years in America.  

I've just drafted and printed the first 50 pages. I have no idea if it will ever get published.

Last Monday, I flipped back through the "easier" stuff to write and insert a really difficult scene.  How difficult? I, a woman who (mostly) breezes through the transatlantic airport departure lounge completely dry-eyed, sat here at my computer weeping.

Then, this morning, almost a week later, I got up, made coffee and tackled the second-most difficult scene. As soon as I began to write Difficult Scene 2, I instantly sank into another bout of  melancholy.

2013-06-15 11.27.38
2013-06-15 11.27.38

Surely this is a kind of willful psychosis?  Surely, on an ordinary American Sunday, a day when the sun is shining through my writing-studio window, it would be easier and healthier not to revisit or revive the past. To simply stay in the present?

But for better or worse,  I've written both scenes. In doing so, I've committed to typed words one of the saddest and loneliest times of my adult life.

Writing these scenes--actually the whole book so far--has taught me that sometimes, we commit our worst acts of cowardice, our most heinous acts of negligence against ourselves.

So I'm done.    I'm free to get up from this desk and go about the rest of my normal American Sunday.   

Or am I?

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that's located only about a half-hour from my office. It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks--one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, "You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that."

The elder monk smiled and said, "Why don't you pray what you can, not what you can't."

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that "I can't" do, or haven't done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, "emotional self-flagellation," a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this "emotional self-flagellation" is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as "real" writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo's writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I've been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can't get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journal
journal

Can I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday's paragraph so that I have at least "visited" my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what's left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I'm driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done--or at least, I'm staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I'm on much better terms with myself--and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Writers, Join this book giveaway by sharing your tips

This week I was lucky enough to be featured at The Writer's Place, a spiffy blog by writer Nancy Christie. Then, today, the interview gets included in Help for Writers.

I enjoyed the entire Writers Place interview, but I was especially charmed by Nancy's last question in which she asks for my "top three takeaways" (or tips) for balancing creativity with work (based on my book, Writer with a Day Job).

Here are my top 3 tips for balancing writing and life:

1.  Define your own path to writing and writing success. Comparing ourselves with other writers is counterproductive—even deadly.

2.  If you’re a beginner writer, create an overview of your month’s typical schedule and commitments. Circle the items that can either be outsourced or dropped altogether. Only keep those commitments that are truly, honestly as or more important in your life than writing. Even if you don’t use your freed-up time for actual writing, use it for writing-conducive activities such as reading, yoga or just sitting and staring into space.

3.  Learn how to say, “no.” When we do, people are not as miffed or disappointed as we assume that they will be. We fall into these “I should” and “I must” habits because —duh!— we’re not clear with others about what we need in order to nurture our talents as writers.

So you've got my three tips. Now, what are yours? Insert below in the Comments section and join my book giveaway. 

If we get 15 responses (each with your hot tips), I will enter all names in a random drawing for a signed copy of my book, WRITER with a DAY JOB. I will mail the book to the winner, so make sure to include a website or blog where I can reach you. Sorry, U.S. addresses only, please.

We need a minimum of 15 responses ... so ... pick and post your best tips... and spread the word  ... 

New Year's Resolutions for Writers: Ernest Hemingway's "Truest Sentence"

Should some writing come with a "made-in-China" label? In our digitized 21st century, how much of our writing is too cheap, too quick and too disposable? Has the sheer volume of digitized, podcast, broadcast and hard-copy content spawned a  24/7 static, a persistent distraction?

I have been a lifelong lover of the jigsaw process of writing, of yoking apparently disparate ideas together for a cohesive whole.  As a teacher and a writer, I have told my students and myself to "let yourself play in the word box to find that first, unfettered draft."

But lately, I have been questioning my own advice. In the time that it takes us to pen that first draft of a 3,000-word essay or story,  have the writing and publishing rules already changed? Has everyone already gone onto the next and louder message?

December has not been a good writing month because the first week was spent in my native Ireland, where I flew across the Atlantic to visit my family and to close out the mourning year for my late father's death.

It has not been a good writing month because my day job was really busy.

It has not been a good writing month because I was jet lagged and tired, addled, anxious and often awake at 3 a.m.

In fact, though I've managed to complete some essays and start a new book project, it hasn't been a very good writing year. For most of 2012, I have been plagued by this sense that some of us are destined to be the gauche maiden aunt at this hyper hip, hyper loud and hyper mercenary party called modern writing.

Or let's put it this way: This December, we tele-witnessed a young man gunning down 20 school children, another man pushing a stranger in front of a speeding train, and another man shooting up firefighters on Christmas.

So what the hell good are we?

And, worse than being ineffectual, aren't we writers--aka "content providers"-- part of the problem?  Our words are part of that blathery static that postures and obscures and, by extension, belittles the gut-crushing realities of life, death and loss?

Two nights ago, on the evening of December 30th, I was thinking about all of this when I suddenly remembered that line from Hemingway:  "Write the truest sentence that you know."

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

But after the madness that has been December 2012,  I could find or write no fixed, existential truth.

At least, not about anything out there outside my office window.

But a quick Google search threw up this wonderful writing exercise from a Canadian writer who encourages us to adapt Hemingway's advice to write some truths about ourselves.

To atone for our year of spin and cruelty and sycophancy, I tried to call up that one true thing about me.

I wrote down 20.

Some are those bare-knuckled truths that set us on the offensive or make us brace or duck for the next upper cut.  Some of my self-truths made me hold my breath. A few made me tremble. One made me cry.

The fact that I wrote 20 truths on 16 single-spaced, handwritten pages doesn't make me super prolific or super honest.  It simply and sadly means that,  in the busy-ness and babble of life, in the gussied-up version of me that I present to the world, I had abandoned what was true.

Now, all 20 of my truths are written down. They are an excellent blueprint for 2013.

Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. I don't like your writing. Given your macho, hard-living shtick, I probably wouldn't have liked you.

But in a world turned mad and bad, I love your saving advice.

Thanks (giving) for my writing life

"It’s Thanksgiving,” he said down the payphone. His American voice sounded woken-up cranky.  "So my roommates are off work and gone home. ‘Like, Thanksgiving's a holiday over here.”  Oh, come on, I wanted to say.  I mean, with nobody getting born or killed or risen from the dead,  just how big could this 'holiday' of yours really be?  The year was 1986. The era: way, way pre-cellphone. The setting: My native Ireland.

But only for one more month. That day, the day before Thanksgiving, 1986,  the American Embassy had issued me a temporary visa. My lucky day. How lucky? I had even found an un-vandalized payphone to call across the Atlantic to one of my expatriate  friends. Now that I had my visa, I needed a landing pad in the land of the free.

I watched the last of my money clink into the payphone slot. “Is there a message?” The man asked.

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Please tell my pal Mary that I’ll ring again next week. When she’s back from … um … this ... Thanksgiving." “Sure,” he said. Then ... Clunk.

Standing in that phone box, I was one of the 19% of unemployed young Irish people. I was among the estimated 30% of college graduates for whom there were no suitable jobs in our own country.  And we're not talking "dream job" or "creative job." In fact, I didn't even know what these terms meant.

As an unemployed person--then and now--you don’t feel like part of an unemployment statistic or a unified group.  There's just you. There’s just you and your shame and your assumption that everyone else—especially your old college friends—all have jobs. And those friends who have moved overseas? Yup, they have jobs, too. And new jobs mean new friends—the kind of friends who invite you home to their family for secular-sounding American holidays that aren't named for a saint or a savior.

Even more than a job, I needed a place to be—somewhere far away from that damp, November afternoon in Ireland.  Oh, yeah, as I left that phone box to walk through Dublin's city center, I knew it in my soul: I needed a life.

But there’s one big advantage to being 24 and jobless.  Your emigration to-do list is really short.

Get yourself a temporary American visa. Check. Empty your savings for a transatlantic airline ticket. Check.Start saying ‘goodbye’ to your family. Check.Track down an expatriate friend to lend you a couch and a place to stay.

Um … well … I was working on that last one.   But I couldn't work on it until this Thanksgiving thing was over, when I’d scrape up enough courage and spare change to call across the Atlantic again.

A month after Visa Day, I landed in JFK Airport, New York on a freezing afternoon. I had a backpack and a borrowed $200 and yes, a place to stay.

I never did get to California, at least, not to live. From New York I took a Trailways bus three hours upstate, where, as an act of mercy, a family member had set me up with his American friend. That American friend, a man I had never met before, would  pick me up and put me up until I got on my feet.

In America, I went and found me some jobs. I became a waitress, a bartender, a secretary (when we still called it that), a college administrative person, a marketing assistant, a substitute elementary school teacher (quelle disaster!) and ... well, a host of other things. One year, by the time Tax Day rolled around, I submitted a whopping nine W2 forms. I went back to grad school at night. And, even with a strange accent and with substantial holes in my resume, even during the most recent U.S. recession, I managed to stay (mostly) employed.

But did I really like any of my jobs? Did any of them feed me or my vague, dreamy hope of one day being a writer? As an immigrant and as a child of working class parents, there were many, many years before I even let myself consider these questions.

My writing and editorial skills led to better and more fulfilling jobs. Almost at the same time, I began submitting my writing to literary magazines. Suddenly, the rejection slips were intermingled with a few "we'd-like-to-publish" notes. Eventually, and still with a jittery disbelief, I found myself with a dual career as a creative writer and as communications professional.

kitchencounter
kitchencounter

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my 25th Thanksgiving in America, and before I left for my office and job,  I took my cup of coffee to the kitchen counter.

In my iPhone, I went through my last minute Thanksgiving list:

Turkey? Check.Cranberries? Check. Sweet potatoes? Check.A really good writing life?  Check. Check.

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Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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