Áine Greaney

Irish Author

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

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Tag: creative writing

Is Teaching Writing Better Than Actual Writing?

A few days ago, I would have had a very quick and definite response to the question above: Writing is my happier and better place.

Truth be told, I was on a bit of a reclusive kick, and ... well ... you know how that goes. The less you socialize, the less you want to get out there and socialize.

Then, this weekend, I traveled to New York City for a three-day conference by Writers Digest. I was in good company. Other presenters included Harlan Coben, Jacqueline Mitchard and Dani Shapiro. The event also included panels and presentations by agents, editors, and lots of fellow writers. 

At the Writers Digest Conference 2014 in New York

At the Writers Digest Conference 2014 in New York

We had about 600+ attendees, and the event was a nice mix of large-group keynotes, discussion panels and breakout sessions. Of course, we managed to get some socializing in there, too. 

My two breakout sessions were on editing your work for publication (all genres) and how to write scenes for fiction (novels, short stories, micro fiction) and non-fiction (memoir, personal essay) pieces. 

Today, after a long train journey and two high-energy sessions, I find myself back in Massachusetts and already missing the energy and buzz of the conference and mid-town Manhattan. It's not an exaggeration to say that I had wonderful participants who, though each room was large and full, managed to engage with the topic and with each other in a way I've rarely seen before.

We all know that writing is a solitary kind of gig. We all know--or should--that we writers spend a little too much time inside our own heads. So the opportunity to get out there to present and talk writing with other authors is always a thrill.  

Thank you to all who participated.  I enjoyed meeting every one of you, and especially enjoyed hearing your quick writing pieces from our (imaginary) beach scenes. 

As a convenience for the participants, I have posted the session slides at Slideshare (see the links below). You will notice that each set of slides includes the sublinks (3 in all) to the short movie clips we viewed during the sessions. 

I hope you enjoy.

And remember what Stephen King told us: Writing is about getting happy. 

So whether you're out there discussing writing or hiding out in your writing room, be happy.

 

"A Smooth, Clean Finish: Editing Your Work for Publication" slides are here

"Darling, You're Making a Scene" slides are here.

A list of my other workshop topics are at my website

Writers, Learn Lots from a Wind Chime

windchime
windchime

"Where did we get that new wind chime? I asked my husband. We had just brewed some Saturday morning coffee, so my brain was still in sludge mode.

Sitting there on our back deck, he peered over his coffee mug at me. "You-bought-it," he said.

"No I didn't."

 "Remember?" He said, using that sloooow,  nursing-home voice. You gave it to me as a gift? Two Christmases ago?" 

"Not that wind chime," I said.

"You said you found it at an art show in Florida."

"But that wind chime was twice this size. And it had those long, beautiful strips of turquoise stained glass."

"The stained glass broke off last winter" he said.  "It's been gone a long time."

Finally awake, I studied our broken wind chime. For the first time since I had swaddled it in my socks and stuffed it in my airport carry-on bag, I finally saw this remaining, plainer part with its clear and deep blue sea glass.  

Writers, let's call this the parable of the wind chime. And let's remember the parable of the wind chime each time we are (1) So dazzled by our own eloquence that we shush that inner editing voice that cries, "Cut! Cut!" and (2) Already clicking the "send" button, even though we know that our current draft needs one more read and edit.

In business, creative, expository and journalistic writing, less is always more. If you want to find the richest, truest part of your work, be ready to trim all that extra fat.

With the extra parts gone, you can see what's left and beautiful.

Like the remains of a broken wind chime.

Here are my three favorite editing techniques:

1. Email myself the manuscript. Then read and edit the email. This new format allows me to switch from the role of writer to reader.

2. Read the manuscript out loud. This is invaluable.

3. Save it in an online document storage site like "Dropbox," then read it on my phone. This miniature view brings me up close and personal with the text.

What are your favorite tips or techniques for editing your own work?

Writers: Oh, We of Little Faith

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The nuns at my convent secondary school said I'd lost it.

Faith, that is. I had lost my faith.

I only believed in things that could be proven in a science lab or in my math or grammar notebooks (We had paper notebooks back then; this all happened shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania.)

Episode 1: My first public crisis of faith went like this: There we were, us convent girls, all wearing our navy-blue uniforms and all pretending to listen to Sister S.'s latest speech on our "one, true faith."  I was 14. I politely interrupted to opine that, if Sister's hypothesis were true, then the entire faith/formal religion thing amounted to a rigged (and therefore illegal) horse race in which every bettor had an insider's tip for the favorite.

"But it's not, is it, Sister?" I said. "The other faiths (protestants, et al) are all backing their own horses, so we're all in a punter's race."

Sister S. argued back.

I counter-argued and trotted (ouch! sorry!) out more horse-racing analogies to make this woman see.

She sputtered and spat and fought back tears. She said she would pray for me.

(Psst! If your eyes are glazing over already, or if you've gone back to reading your daily racing pages, then skip this next episode of "Convent Kid Goes to Hell." I'll pray for you).

Episode 2: Two years later, we were all studying for our final exams and (hopefully) university. One day, Sister G., a younger nun, announced that advanced biology and French grammar and mathematical theorems were all fine for the mind, but we also needed to feed our young souls.

So Sister G. arrived with this box of religious books. They had book jackets with celestial sunrises and petrified martyrs gazing sky-ward. We could pick what we wanted, so of course I chose an extra big edition of the four gospels because it was hefty enough to camouflage my own latest creed: a steamy paperback novel.

Pant. Swoon. Now, this was the best religion class yet.

Until that day when Sister G. hauled me up in front of the class and held up my clandestine paperback filth as Exhibit A of what happens to girls who lose their faith.   I was, she said, "rapidly heading toward atheism."  So she said she'd pray for me, too.

Between then and now,  I've been a student and a teacher and a waitress and a dishwasher and a secretary and a professor and an editor.

Oh, and I moved across the sea to America, where my faith never returned. My faith done gone.

In America, I don't leave home without my GPS.  Every morning before work, I check my bag for my wallet, my phone, my lunch and water bottle. I often check twice.

At work I need written assurances of projected finish dates and what the project will look like.  I would never do one of those executive retreat thing-ys where you pitch yourself off a mountain ledge in the belief that your colleague will catch you.

Not me.

I only believe in what I see. In what I've been promised or contracted or what I can behold.

But then ...

Just before Christmas 2011, I started my third novel. So far, it's a crossover novel with a young adult main character but some fairly adult themes.  Beyond the main characters and the initial set-up, I have no clue what will actually happen. And worse, I cannot cast my mind forward 300 pages to envision a page that pronounces, "THE END."

As writers, are there ever any promises?  Is there ever a GPS or Godly voice announcing, "Destination on the right." Heck, most of us don't know where our story will end or if it will end or if this current draft will be the draft or if it will all just end up as kindling or kitty litter.

Writing is the ultimate test of personal faith. It presents many crisis of faith, like when the back-story becomes the front story. Like when the main character pouts and stalls and regresses to baby talk again. Like when the phone rings. The sink is full of dishes. Like when work is so busy you just about keep it all together.

Faith is damn hard.  And yet, to not believe, to not have faith is to not write.  It's to declare yourself as a permanent non-runner in every race.

And hell, we can't do that.

Joppa Flats
Joppa Flats

Today I abandoned my writing to take a long walk. On my walk, I stopped to  listen to the wind in the marsh grasses and how the incoming tide makes the ice snap and pop.   As I watched the winter sky out over Plum Island, I needed to believe.

So I kept walking and thinking and kept asking that little brat-character o' mine to reveal her true self.

She hasn't. Yet.

But she will.

Do women lose their writer's faith more easily than men? Or is it about equal between the genders?  How do you keep believing in yourself and your project?

A More Palatable Sandwich--Writing, Parenting and Elder Care

This week, I have the great pleasure of welcoming Katherine Hauswirth, a working mother and professional writer from Connecticut. Katherine is the author of Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey, available through amazon.com or offthebookshelf.com.  As well as being a working mother, she writes prose and poetry, including a recent poem at Chronogram and guest columns on books at BiblioBuffet.com.  Lucky for us,  Katherine agreed to be one of the profiled authors in "Writer with a Day Job."  Now, she has graciously agreed to write on her expereience of being a member of the "sandwich generation"--those of us who are caring for our kids and our aging parents. Yes, all this, and writing, too. Welcome Katherine. 

Sandwich
Sandwich

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you find yourself a member of the “sandwich generation.”Or maybe not so hypothetically—a study sponsored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that focused solely on women in their 50s and 60s found that up to one third of those in this age group are simultaneously caring for parents and children. The study was narrow. I know I’m not the only one in my 40-something circle affected by these dueling needs, and that includes men also encountering this challenge.

As medical advances continue to stretch the human lifespan and allow for delayed entry into parenthood, more and more adults find themselves caring for parents while trying to do at least as good a job parenting their own children. This might feel somewhat more manageable if a job and/or a significant other weren’t also in the mix. Add to this a desire to pursue creative dreams, and life becomes a super generous and quite complicated sandwich, almost too big to get your mouth around.

So what to do? Well, I learned two essentials while working in psychiatry, and they’ve been reinforced by my own experience as a working mom with an elderly mother who needs more and more care. The first: seeking help, in whatever form you can get it, is so important. That help might be a friend who listens; a priest, rabbi, or worship community; the local social services department; a sibling; or a good book on the subject.

The second essential is that outlook is so critical. There’s a reason the “glass half full or glass half empty” analogy is used so often. Of course, most situations can’t be reduced to a simple “look on the bright side” prescription. But there’s a whole, quite decently validated school of cognitive therapy in which re-framing a negative perception can have a noticeable impact over time.

For writers, it can be worthwhile to “re-frame” that looming sandwich from a different angle.

To take the metaphor a step further, what are the condiments of life that might make that oversized sandwich a more enjoyable experience? Well, for one, your sandwich has just presented you with a wealth of material covering a good chunk of the spectrum of humanity, whether you write prose or poetry, fiction or fact. Tap into it, whether from the pragmatic or the emotional perspective.

If new material is the mustard, the need to become more highly organized might be the ketchup. Ever hear that expression, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it?” The fact that you are in high demand can help you learn to break tasks down into manageable steps and to recognize what things you simply can’t manage, which can make room for a very efficient system of triage. Yes, there’ll be times where writing takes a back seat, but you’ll also know when you take that precious time to write that you really deserve it and will be sure to use it wisely.

Finally, we come to the relish. Stress can be the ultimate crucible for learning what about what makes you tick and what saps your strength. Pay attention to the lessons you are learning about yourself, because they do translate to other areas. I find that I tend to get cold and clinical when trying to discuss a medical decision with my mom; I can be just as distant when doing a writing assignment on this type of situation. What a great breakthrough it will be, in both cases, to let my heart show more.

So, advice for the sandwich you might find on your plate? Sit back, chew slowly, watch out for random toothpicks, and savor the opportunity.

How do you deal with stress--at work, at home or under writing deadline?

Our Just Desserts (Psst! No Calories)


9964-1009-freelinked
9964-1009-freelinked

When I published “Writer with a Day Job” (Writers Digest Books, 2011), I hoped that it would instigate us day-job writers to get chatting and sharing our strategies for balancing work with writing. Or I thought that some readers might comment on the book’s tutorials on the actual craft of writing narrative.

These have happened. But two weeks ago, one reader-feedback  really stopped me in my tracks. It was a note from a woman who said that her personal takeaway from the book was that we deserve to write. Like many of us, this woman is balancing a job, a family and some additional responsibilities for her extended family.

Here’s an excerpt from her very kind email:  

“Sometimes it's hard to justify writing even an hour a day when my job demands so much of me, and when the people I love need me so much. Your approach has helped me make an important shift: recognizing that it's writing that makes me a better person,  that this feeds everything else.”

For years and years (and even still), this “deserving” issue was the biggest block to my own writing.

In 1992, amidst an interstate move and  a few bad financial hits,  I took the first steps toward my lifelong dream of being a writer. I signed up for a master’s program at a college in our new town—a program I financed through a patchwork of cash `n carry jobs, credit cards, a research assistantship and a very large dollop of naiveté.

Three months before this, my husband and I had packed our things into a Ryder truck and rented our house (it wouldn't sell) and moved to this place where he accepted a lower-level position at his old company. It was this or take a company pink slip. I worked as a waitress and as a front desk clerk and as a college administrative assistant. Once or twice a week, I left that day's particular job and gobbled down an after-work sandwich en route to my graduate classroom where, supposedly, I would enter the writing life.

But in that classroom or, later, scribbling in a bagel shop on my lunch hour,  I believed that a girl like me—a new immigrant, a working wife, the child of working class parents—was an imposter.  Creative writing was for the believers. The rich. The leisured. The erudite.  Creative writing was for those who didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage, the in-laws or the credit cards.

Even when I did write or publish, I wrote with a certain timidity.  As I sat there scribbling in strip mall cafes, or when I researched my papers in the college library, I envisioned a grand American literate—an exclusive club of scribes who held the secret code to La Vie des Ecrivans. I would never be a member. I would never deserve it.

What a bloody waste.

Now that I’m middle aged, now that I’ve cleared my credit cards, I know that writing is as much about believing as it is about doing.  Above all, it’s about believing that writing is something that you deserve to do.

What about you? Do you believe, deeply, that you deserve the personal time out that it takes to write?  Do women come to believe this more easily than men?

photo credit: www.freewebphoto.com

Writer with a Day Job - Welcome

Z8079 WriterDayJob
Z8079 WriterDayJob

Creative Writing: You want the Side Salad with That?

I got the idea for the book,  "Writer with a Day Job" while sitting outside my office building.  This was the corporate building (I have since switched jobs) where I made my living, to which I commuted five days per week.

I was sitting on the stone steps at the back of the building, eating a lunchtime salad and trying very hard not to dribble the balsamic vinaigrette dressing onto the typescript pages I was editing.  That day's lunchtime writing assignment: to read and edit a creative nonfiction essay about pet ownership.  Now that I think about it,  I never finished that essay--so don't look for it in the New Yorker.

corporate office building
corporate office building

So there I was, eating, reading, writing--only glancing up from my manuscript to check my watch for when it was time to go back in through those glass doors and back to my cubicle and my other, paid job.

I had about 40 minutes in which to edit and re-draft my essay. As a lifelong procrastinator who tends to draft in my head and then write things just before submission date,I knew just how much work you can cram into 40 minutes.

There's nothing like a sunny spring day in New England to bring the cubicle corporatoids skittering into the daylight. So as I sat there reading and editing,  the rest of the office crowd emerged blinking into the sunlight to mill around that nondescript courtyard. They gossiped, paced or gabbled on their cell phones.

The truth? I wanted to tell them to shut it. But then, this wasn't my personal writing studio.  So actually, I was the one who had to shut out all those voices and distractions.

And then I had a vision. No, seriously. And please don't summon the whacko police--at least not yet. But in my mind's eye, I saw all of us day job writers across America--thousands of us sitting in bagel shops or huddled in doorways or sitting in our cars with our iPods, trying to jam in a little bit of writing while waiting for the kids to get out of soccer practice or while sitting in the dentist's waiting room.  Mine wasn't the Hollywood vision of a creative writer. But it was the authentic, 21st-century version.

Then I thought of all the writing students who have attended my writing classes and workshops for adult learners. Nurses. Accountants. Marketers. Dads. Moms. Doctors. Lawyers. Carpenters.   Except for a very lucky or a bestseller few,  most of us writers are holding down a day job while also writing. We're walking that tightrope between creating art and paying the rent.

So the book, "Writer with a Day Job" was born.

I took another bite of my salad and turned over my typescript page and began to scribble some initial ideas for the book.

For the next few weeks, at home or on the commute, I had more ideas for the book.

But listen,  ideas are one thing. Translating those  ideas into useful, in-the-trenches guidelines is another process. Could my own experiences in the craft and process of writing be useful to other writers?

You be the judge.

Writers Digest Books published "Writer with a Day Job" in June 2011. As well as guidelines, inspiration and tutorials, the book includes interviews with 20 creative writers from across the country. These are novelists, essayists, memoirists and poets who have or currently balance work, parenting and writing.

Since the book's publication date, other writers--all of whom are balancing work, family and creativity--have  emailed with their comments and questions.

And now ... Ta! Da! Le blog, "Writer with a Day Job."

Let's make this our virtual salon.

As I add new posts and guest posts, I invite you to comment. I invite you to  share your own experiences,  successes and ... ahem ... challenges in finding balance between your writing and your working lives.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from "Writer  with a Day Job." Yes, wouldn't you know it? It's about writing on your lunch hour.

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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