Áine Greaney

Irish Writer. Creative Writing Workshops.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

When The Writing Life Turns Scary (Plus Some Fixes)

Vampires?  Witches?  Ghouls? Yes, they're Halloween scary (maybe), but they've got nothing on our spookiest writer moments.    

 What scares you as a writer?

What scares you as a writer?

Here are the three aspects of the writing life that can send us screeching and cowering under our bed covers.  I'm also including some suggested fixes. 

1.  Eeeek! The Blank Screen, aka, Writers Block

You wake up with this idea that's so clever that you skip breakfast and grab a quick coffee on your way to your writing desk. Then you type furiously while visions of that Pulitzer dance in your head. You stop. You re-read.  You want to puke.  You delete it all and now you're plain stumped for what--if anything--to write. 

Or you’re under a big, hairy deadline, but then, 12 hours before submission time,  your brain circuits all fizzle and blow. Now you can't speak, let alone write. Oh. Hell.

Fixes:  Get outside and take a walk or a run. Don't worry. The writer's pity party will still be in full swing when you return.  When you get back, pick up your hand-writing journal to tease out what’s stalling you in this project. Or, if you’re not under deadline, take a break from this freakish project to work on a different one—preferably in a different genre.   

 2.       Bwaaa! Haa! Haaa! The Rejection Letter

 You drafted, re-drafted, edited, polished (and polished). Then, you submitted that short story or essay to that well researched and apparently perfect market.  You followed their submission guidelines. Your piece is within the required word count.    And now, here in your email in-box is one of those, “This-didn’t-work-for-us” notes. Or worse, there's a confusing or snarky missive that reveals that your work never got read in the first place. 

Fixes: First, exorcise (as in, “cast out thy demons”) all self-blame or -flagellation. If you truly worked hard on your submitted piece, then remember that all writing and reading is subjective. I mean, how many New York Times bestsellers have you read that you honestly, truly loved (in my case, not many)?  This rejection may have little or nothing to do with the quality of this piece. It certainly is not an indictment of you as a writer. If the editor was kind enough to offer suggestions, use them. The best cure for writer’s rejection? Review your piece, fix any boo-boos and, within 24 hours, submit it to a new market.  

3.    Help! "I’m About To Turn (insert milestone birthday), And Now It's Too Late!" Today’s workplaces demand more and more of us, and our 24/7, hyper-connected lifestyle doesn't help. In or beyond the workplace, it seems like there’s always someone who needs you. You’re facing down a milestone birthday and here's that inner voice telling you that  life has whizzed by, and so has your dream of being a writer. 

 Fixes:  Switch your own way of thinking.   Taking time out to write does not mean that you are reneging on your work or family responsibilities. Writing means taking care of your own wellness to make you a better employee, a better parent, a better caregiver. Look at your entire week. Find some spots in there for quick, incidental writing opportunities.  Insert those days and times into your appointment calendar. Early mornings?  Lunch hours? Café on the way home from work?  Turn off the T.V. at night. If it really matters to you, make a plan and start tomorrow.   

What are the scariest parts of writing for you? Write them in the comments below. 

Big American Anniversaries

This month I celebrate the 30th anniversary of that day when I landed, terrified and wide-eyed, in America.  

Anniversaries are a time for looking backward, so these days my eyes are firmly fixed in the rear-view mirror.  

Here's what I see in that mirror: On the public and political front, this has been the very worst of those 30 years.  

For many of us in America, this has been the year to chide ourselves for our heretofore simplistic and deluded understanding about who and what this country actually is ( the "United" States? I think not).  

Still, as artists in America, it's our job to offset some of the damage done and being done today, as I write this.  Even in bad old 2016, there's still time. Today and tomorrow and on Christmas Day and for all eight days of Hanukkah and on New Year's Eve, write or paint or photograph or compose or sculpt like your life depends on it. 

Because in many ways, it actually does.

Write and create for those who are too scared or too voiceless or too persecuted or too busy working three low-wage jobs to have the luxury of writing. 

Also, use your art and your voice to advocate and resist. For local protest events near you, check out PEN America's Writers Resist.  

Despite the political schisms and our very, very scary headlines, here's what I also see in that rear-view mirror: All those 2016 days when I pinched myself at my good fortune. I'm not just healthy and alive and with a roof over my head; I'm able to do (and teach) what I love to do and teach.  

In my three decades here, writing has brought me my closest friends. Writing and books have put me in the very best company I know.  Writing has given me my tribe and the existential home that I left home to find.

For these and for you, my friends, I am deeply grateful. 

Writing and Courage

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." Anais Nin


This weekend, I found myself writing in my journal that,  among all my mid-life regrets (and there are many),  most or all of my slip ups can be traced back to a failure of personal courage.  

Sure, at the time, it felt more comfortable to take the easy road, the less scary or daring choice. But now, in hindsight, I see this was a mistake. 

So this past week I challenged myself to a daily act of courage. Every day,  I had to do something that scared me. It could be big or small. But it had to be something that proved I could and would push through my own trepidation, my own "no-don't-do-that!" inner voice.  

It was a grey and rainy weekend here in Massachusetts, so this little self-test gave me the oomph I needed.

It also reminded me that writing, by its nature, is an act of courage.  

It takes a lot of chutzpah to fill a blank page or screen with our own words. It takes even more daring to strike out past the fear line, to write into that spot that scares us most.

So if you've written today, bravo to you.

Now tomorrow, write or do something  that scares you even more.  Query or pitch that agent or editor that seems like a reach.  Dive back into your manuscript to edit it again. Write the hard stuff. Kill your darlings.  Cut out all the fat. 

In the rest of your writing life, say 'no' to the naysayers, the time users, the cynics. Say 'yes' to letting your own in-born talent shine through. Say 'yes' to that thing that's scaring the be-jeepers out of you. 

It's a new month, the last week of our 2016 summer. So set your own daily courage test.

Feel free to report your feats and successes in the comments below. 




For July 4th: My 4 Tips for Beginner Writers

Last week I was the featured writer at the Baypath University's MFA in Creative Nonfiction program blog.  I am proud to be among the MFA program's diverse teaching faculty. 

This summer, I'm teaching a class on health and wellness writing--a topic that is close to my own heart. 

Read the complete blog interview here

The interviewer also asked me for my top four tips for emerging writers. 

So ... in preparation for July 4th, here are my top four tips: 

1.     Courage: It takes courage to write. So you better have some or go get some. Push yourself to do one daring thing each week, to write beyond your comfort zone and your fears.

2.    Commitment:  If you’re serious about being a writer, let it take priority in your life. Or at least place it among the top three things that matter. You will never advance your career if you keep letting other things or people eclipse it. 

3.     Write what you can:  If you can only manage 400 words before work, then that’s what you do.  The 12-hour writing marathon is great if you can manage it. But most of us can’t. So write what you can—even if it’s just to doodle some ideas. 

4.     Run away from your life.   I go on writer's retreat a few times per year, and it never fails to jumpstart my love affair with the written word and gives me that courage I need. Away from distractions, I also get a lot done.

Writing About Past Loves

Is it the advent of Valentine's Day, a holiday I claim to dislike, but that I seem to like writing about?

Is it some Chaucer-ian longing for springtime? Is it middle age?

Whatever it is, whatever has come over me, last week I rather grandly told some friends, "I'm writing a collection of short stories about my exes."

This is only partially true. What I didn't tell them is that I'm writing a collection of short fiction about the pathology and injury of romantic love.  How's that for Valentine's Day romance?

I remember the night this idea started.  Last year, I flew to Florida for a conference,  and, being frugal, I bypassed the officially listed lodgings for something nearby and cheaper.  

Well, you really *do* get what you pay for. That first wakeful night in that gritty motel (which looked nothing like its web photos), I relived one particular relationship that, while brief, was nothing short of madness.

After that sleepless and self-flagellating night, I became intrigued by the narrative, the vertiginous and often willful fall from affection to estrangement. 

So I began scribbling some fictional stories that are very loosely based on my own past dalliances. Some stories auto-emerged in third person; some insisted on a first-person voice. Some are from the man's point of view--which is especially fun to write. 

Note I say the stories are only "loosely" based on autobiographical events.  Like I say, I want to excavate and examine the injury,  not the chronology here.  And anyway, when it comes to writing fiction, the imagination can produce much more exciting stuff than the past ever could (most of the time).    

I'm having great, great fun with this. Last night  I even got up out of my bed to pen the latest story and kept going until 2 a.m. 

Listen, if this all sounds a little grim and revisionist, let me tell you that I have little or no truck with all that "don't let your past define you" malarkey.  Of course our pasts define us.  Our history is the only real narrative we have--and even that's dodgy at the best of times.

So I live in the past. Doesn't every writer?



A Christmas Surprise

In my native Ireland, the Christmas season (back then, we were a 99.9% Catholic country, so there was no “holiday” season—just Christmas) always started on December 8.

It was an unspoken but very strict rule. No decorations, no lights, no carols until December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (and no, the numbers don't jibe).

Back then, our religious holidays  and celebrations were set and celebrated by the liturgical calendar, not the retail or advertising industries.   

December 8 was an official Holy Day of Obligation, which meant we had a day off from school and we were expected to attend Mass up in the village church, but unlike Sundays, the shops stayed open.

Now, although this date kicked off the Christmas season, and although it was dark and cold outside, to an impatient kid like me, December 8 felt like a non-holiday.  Christmas--the proper holiday--was still days and days and days away.

Back then my family lived in a tiny, thatch-roof farmhouse at the end of a dirt road or boithrin that ran up through our fields and paddocks. Our house and farm sat in a hollow behind the village proper, giving us a distanced,  bottom-up view of the backs of our village neighbors’ houses.

One December 8,  I think I was eight (or perhaps seven) when, after church and our midday meal,  my live-in Grandmother summoned a taxi to drive her to the town three miles away. 

The house was always quieter when Grandma wasn’t there and, without the usual rush to and from school, with no evening chores or homework, the afternoon dragged.   

Bored, I ventured up to our tatty little sitting room (usually for guests only) in the mad hope that, maybe this year, my mother would have started taking the tinsel and decorations from their box.

She hadn’t.  As I wrote in this Christmas essay last year,  especially when it came to holidays, we were a family of last-minute-ers. 

 But someone had lit a fire in the sitting room grate, so I switched off the light and sat in a brown leather armchair to watch the firelight and shadows chase each other along the flocked wallpaper.

Later, a set of car headlights arched against the front window.   

Grandma. She was home from town and now, there'd be lots of chatter about what and who she saw and what that person said and how crowded or empty the shops were and all the news from Kit’s, her regular hairdressing salon on High Street.  

That farm of ours was an isolated and lonely place, so there was nothing I loved better than reports from town--or from anywhere out there beyond our farmyard gates. 

But by age 8, I was already growing secretive. I was already finding ways to hide out rather than join in. 

I heard the kitchen door bang shut.  I heard the burr of grown-up voices from the kitchen.  Another door. Then, here came Grandma's shuffling step in the hallway.  Damn.   She always kept her winter coats (all black) with the fox fur collars hanging in a white closet in the sitting room. So now, here she was, coming to hang up her coat and she would discover me hiding out here and order me, at once, to join everyone in the kitchen where the range was lit and the evening programs were on T.V. 

In the sitting room, she started at the sight of me sitting there in the firelight by myself.  Thanks to Kit's handiwork, my grandmother's gossamer-white hair was now tinted a surreal blue-grey, and the room reeked of hair lacquer. 

“I brought you something from town,” she said, switching on the overhead light and holding out a little brown-paper bag. 

What was this? We weren't a family for sudden or un-earned gifts.  

Chocolate? Toffees? No. This paper bag was far too big.

I opened the package to find a kiddie novel by Enid Blyton, a hugely popular British children’s author. 

A book. A brand-new book that had never been owned by anyone else before me.  A book. For me.  And it wasn’t even Christmas yet.

 Grandma hung up her coat and shuffled off back to the kitchen. 

 Nobody came to get me. Nobody summoned me for supper or told me it was time to get ready for bed and school tomorrow.

I switched off the light again and sat there, reading by the firelight and letting my new book transport me far, far away from that room and our house. 

Instead, I joined the book's kiddie characters as we all ran and rode across a windswept moor in the south of England.  

Oh, yes. This was Christmas bliss.



Hey, Writers! Can You Come Out To Play?

I love when I find a class or presentation on a topic that's dear to my heart and that links my working and creative lives.

So, a few weeks ago, imagine my joy when I landed on a six-week course, "Medicine and The Arts,"  presented by the University of Cape Town.  

I'm far from a technical Luddite,  but I must admit that I'm not quite over the shock of being able to sit on my American couch while listening  to interdisciplinary faculty in a university half-way around the world. 

Still, brave-new-world technology aside, I can honestly say that I rush through my dinner each night so I can log in to learn and discuss with my fellow online learners. 

Last week's module was on creativity and play. 

Hmmm ... play. As a writer with a busy day job, I think there are times when I forget how to pronounce that word. I forget to be--or how to be--playful.

And, if you read some contemporary author interviews, it seems like I'm not alone here. 

One interview: "I started writing seriously when I ..."   Another:  "I got really serious about my writing after my first short story got published." Or, "I knew it was time to stop kidding around and get serious (about my writing)." 

Reading these (and some of my own past commentary), a non-writer could be forgiven for thinking that we writers regard the creative process as an acetic vocation--and a rather punishing one at that!  

 Now, what if,  instead of regarding each writing project as a mountain to be scaled, a race to be run, a set of creative boxes to be ticked, we took time out to let our minds and pens just wander?  In playing (posits one of last week's video lectures) we unleash our subconscious to go hunt and gather new ideas.  Also, in terms of reflective or wellness writing, play provides a  temporary reprieve from the current or past circumstances (such as an illness or trauma) and this, in turn, gives us ownership over our own stories. 

I know when I'm stuck in an essay or chapter, it helps to shut down the laptop and take out my writing journal to free-write or doodle or just make silly lists. I've also had great fun writing and recording audio essays.  

This morning, I listened to a radio interview with poet Mary Oliver in which she described her daily habit of going outdoors and waiting, pen poised, for whatever comes. By switching the genre and format, we give ourselves a recess with no rules or expectations or limits.

Of course, a long walk helps with this process, too. 

Can you incorporate play into your writing life?  How?

Writing: The Enemy Of Mindfulness?

I meditate, but only for 10-minute stints, and I don't do it every day.  I’m a very sporadic and inconsistent yogi. I've never been to an ashram and probably never will.

Yet, I claim to live a (sorta) mindful life.   I can sit in traffic or get horribly lost and turn these mishaps into a positive--something I could never have done when I was in my 30s or even in my 40s.  I can assure myself: “This (detour) is letting me see places I’d never have seen otherwise.”

Or, two weeks ago, I sat in gridlock on the way to meet writer friends on Cape Cod. Rather than yanking on my steering wheel to cut across three lanes of traffic to exit (as some of my fellow Boston drivers did), I sat back to enjoy the Sunday-morning radio programs on National Public Radio.

So to some degree mindfulness—the ability to just live in and enjoy the present moment—has made my middle aged life much richer and, I hope, healthier.

So has writing. 


So why, then,  do writing and mindfulness often play against each other?  Why does one (writing) undo what the other (mindfulness) achieves?  

For answers, maybe I need to look no further than my online calendar and all its reminders for future submission dates for maybe- or future publications or bylines.

So here's the biggie question about writing and mindfulness: How much does this future-ness, this possibility or promise of selling or placing our work influence or diminish the actual work itself?  

I'm not proud to admit this, but there are days when my writing life, my whole sense of my career and life success, is governed by that calendar and what might arrive in my email in-box.

To my credit, I often use Macfreedom to block my WiFi service and the  possibility of  digital distractions.  My household phone could ring off the hook before I’ll race to pick it up.  At home and at work, I am good at prioritizing, categorizing and scheduling my responses to non-urgent emails.

But hands up, now. How many of us have instantly stopped what we're doing—including writing—to open and read an email from an acquisitions or magazine editor? I know I have.  I've even been known to  pull my car into a roadside car park in the hope that this is an email that tells me that, at some future date, in some magazine's future issue or a publisher’s upcoming list,  my essay or manuscript will get published.  

Now, wouldn’t this kind of future-tense (or should that be 'tense future?') thinking get me permanently disbarred from the mindfulness club?  

But wait! There's more. 

I’ve urged my writing students to shut out their inner critics to just write, write, write.  I’ve begged them not to stop the creative flow to go trawling back through the story or essay to look for potential spots to edit or change. "Write onward!" I say. And, in that moment, I actually mean it.  

But wait! It gets worse. 

I’ve facilitated journal-ing and wellness writing workshops where I’ve assured the participants that, other than the scratch of pen on paper,  there should be nothing else in this precious writing moment. 

So I renege on my own mindfulness promises,  When I do, I know that I cheat myself and my writing.  

I've got to find a way to fix this.  Really. 

As a writer, how do you shut out the world—including the publishing world—to write, write, write and be mindful, mindful, mindful?

Surviving Writers Rejection

I still remember that day when my then-publisher rejected my second book, which was to have been Book 2 in a two-book contract.  

In retrospect, I'm sure that editor was justified. The book was a 180-degree switch from the first book, it wasn't very plot driven, and it was, she said,  "very dark in places."  

Etcetera, etcetera. 

Now, over a decade later, it's not  the editorial rationales that I remember most, but my  own sorrow.

 I'm not proud to admit this, but I did actually take to my bed.  I did actually weep into my pillow. I did actually believe that I would never publish anything again. 

I was wrong about that last part.  A few editing rounds later, the novel got published and even garnered some awards and recognitions. 

I was also wrong to waste my tears, to let an editor's rejection reduce me to a level of grief that we should save for life's real traumas--like death or illness. 

And yet ...

Even the toughest writer feels the sting of rejection, especially for that piece of writing that we hold dear.  It double hurts for those pieces or books that we suspect or know are being rejected for marketability over thematic depth or literary quality.  

I've been writing for most of my life and writing for publication for over two decades.  Looking back, many rejections were and are warranted and helpful, while others hit and hurt deeply.

So this week, I was delighted to find  this article, "3 Eye-Opening Lessons for Rethinking Rejection"   at "World of Psychology."

This section rang especially true for me: 

Rejection doesn’t just sting. It makes us question or dismiss whatever we’ve created. It makes us question ourselves as individuals. It confirms our worst nightmares, our inner critic’s blistering beliefs. It shakes up our self-worth, and hurts us at our core

 "3 Eye-Opening Lessons For Rethinking Rejection" not only offers comfort, but also nudges us toward some self-analysis. Where does our fear of rejection come from? How much does that fear hold us back from new or true projects? Worse, is our fear of rejection making us hedge our bets by writing for the current (and always fickle) publishing market?

For a writer, these--not the editor's checklist of personal tastes or marketplace possibilities--are the big, big questions to ask. 

You probably have your own strategies or tips for bouncing back from rejection.  I try to use the 48-hour rule. Within 48 hours of receiving a rejected query or piece, I re-read, re-fix and re-submit to another editor. 

When it comes to rejection, we writers share the pain and should stand together. 

So give us your tips (below in the comments) for rejection resilience and recovery. 

Writers Who Market Too Much

So let’s all stop shouting in a crowd and start having the kind of smaller conversations that actually help us to connect as human beings.

This week, a grand idea was slushing around in my head and I thought, "I must write something about that." But then, another author beat me to it, and her piece is much more eloquent than I could have written. 

Read this blog post, "Please Shut Up: Why Self Promotion as an Author Doesn't Work." by Delilah S. Dawson.  Now, doesn't Ms. Dawson's work validate every red flag you've ever had about that author "friend" who suddenly disappeared the minute her book publicity rush was over?  

Note: I use "she" here for ease of pronoun usage only.  In this case, we actually have gender equality. Male writers do the hyper marketing, faux-friend shtick, too.  

I love the point Ms. Dawson makes about how good books generate good book sales--not pushy social media and not tacky networking tactics.   

In addition to the quote above, I especially like this line from her blog post: "If they're (fellow writers) smart enough to write a great book, they're smart enough to see through your ploy."   

Most of us have been the victim of these "ploys" in which a so-called writer "friend" gets a whiff of a book sale or a speaking gig or a new agent and that friend morphs into a frothing jackal.


It goes like this: You and Ms. Jackal are deep in a bookish conversation that's so meaningful it's positively orgasmic (though those glances over your shoulder make you  suspect she's faking a little).  Then, Ms. Jackal spots her prey: that literatus across the room whom she believes will advance her  career. Or she spots that potential buyer whose purchase will earn her a whopping $1 in book royalties.  So you're conspicuously abandoned, mid-sentence, while Ms. J. goes in the for the kill.  

Why? Because you and Ms. J's own dignity are worth less than a dollar. 

Then there's the sly but equally tacky ploy.  In this case,  Ms. Jackal doesn't actually race away from you.  Instead, she seems positively chummy.  Then, by the time you get home from the book event, there is a "Friend" request or a mandate to "Like" her author page or a cookie-cutter invitation to connect with her on LinkedIn. No problem there, because (you persuade yourself) there will surely be a nice follow-up note or email with a link to that article or publishing lead you chatted about. 

Nada. And then it dawns on you: You were always just a sales prospect. Fresh kill. Nothing more. 

 I'm not a very sensitive person. I can, in fact, be abandoned mid-conversation and not really mind or care or take umbrage--most of the time.

What really burns me is what these pushy writer- marketing stunts actually mean for all of us: That we have begun to favor the commerce of writing over the art, the process and the possibility or reality of genuine writer friendships.

I always thought that the reason to make art was to create something beautiful, not something ugly, gauche or mercenary. In a loud and crowded marketplace, in the rush toward platform building, our art shouldn't become a combat sport. It shouldn't turn us against or set us upon each other. 

 So here's my question: If we allow our book sales to matter more than the words on the page or the friends around the tea table, then can we really call ourselves an artist?  

Don't get me wrong. Of course we writers have to roll up our sleeves and support our own outreach and marketing.  If we're going to pitch our camp in Writer-ville, we better be good literary citizens, the kind of neighbors who offer, give and return every favor, every cup of literary sugar that we borrow.    




Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney