Áine Greaney

Author

Boston author and essayist from Ireland

Filtering by Category: Writers resources

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice. "She's a pure devil in the mornings," she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but ... anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I've never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I've gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there's a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap--all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I'm still not really awake. But I'm done with that day's writing. I'm ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I've written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it's late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I've read through and nitpicked--and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren't for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it's a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Peak Time for Everything," cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn't I? So why, oh why didn't I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

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?

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven't prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA's site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant). I'm a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I've come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I've created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant's categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

numberblocks
numberblocks

Look, I know that it's second-grade math.  I know I'll never get into CPA school. But it's the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can't remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here's a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers' fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here's a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel ... Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here's one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here's a fully intact MTA parking receipt from ... when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you'd think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn't you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It's coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America's first public library.

And then ... (cue the creepy music) ... it's time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell--as in, tax-evaders' prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn't she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that .... Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let's just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

"See the page on ..." "Read the addendum on ..." "Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

And then, here's the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  "Was this trip for business or pleasure?"

Phew. I've got the rest of my receipts. I've got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It's from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Writers dish on balancing writing with work and family

I'm delighted to announce that Alizah Salario, a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of my signed book, Writer with a Day Job. All of the names were entered for a random drawing. Check out Alizah's work at her website.

Below are Alizah's tips on writing and you can read all of the tips in the last blog post.

Tips from Alizah Salario:

1) Don’t confuse your job with your career: Because the type of writing that pay the bills and the type of writing that creatively fulfills and sustains me are two separate things, it’s easy to feel like I’m not a “real” writer if I’m not earning money doing what I love. I often remind myself there is no shame in doing something for money in order to do what you love.

2) Find an ally: Even supportive friends have a difficult time understanding the unique rhythms of a writer’s life. Find a fellow writer – through a writing group, a friend, or simply write to someone you admire – who can relate and help you stay on track when it feels hopeless.

3) Create your own criteria: So much of what is considered “successful” on the web is determined by the number of comments, likes, or tweets. Remember that some of the best writing out there gets the least attention, and there are countless talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. Make your own markers of achievement that don’t have to do with responses from others – otherwise you’ll constantly be looking for external approval.

Thank you to all who shared their writing processes and tips. I know I learned a lot.

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  ... 

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.

--

Should You Come Out (as a writer) at Work?

It's happened again. This morning, my Google Alert told me that my name had been mentioned somewhere out there in the cyber galaxy.

Was it a glowing online review? Some writer blogger mentioning or  (or damning--who knows?) my book for writers? Some agent who had come upon my last novel and now, she or he had a question or a quibble or a hot writers' advance for the next book?

It was none of these.

Instead, it was a press release that I posted at work as part of my job as a communications director for a non-profit here in Massachusetts.

Dang. It's not that I'm disappointed that the search engines are picking up my work-generated press releases, but I don't like this public link between my paid work (aka, the day job) and my life as a creative writer.

I hate when that happens. In fact, I do everything I can to not have that happen, to keep  my day job and my writing life separate.  So I never stand in the lunch room blathering about last night's rough draft. Or I never announce a new publication.

2011-10-20_19-50-56_853
2011-10-20_19-50-56_853

I don't invite my colleagues to any of my public readings or panel discussions.

I never bring one of my books to work, and I never, ever mention my workplace on Twitter or on my author's Facebook page. Sometimes, when and if a colleague reads a piece of mine or sees my name in the local newspaper (the arts, not the business section), I grow suddenly bashful and embarrassed, as if I've been caught out in a secret.

Why?

Mostly, I like to honor the requirements and ethics of my professional life and workplace. I feel grateful to have a job I like with colleagues I respect.  But then, I don't write anything salacious or pornographic or outrageous. I don't write on the job.  So what's the harm in sharing my life with those people with whom I wait in line for the coffee machine?  Just as they tell me about their kids and their kids' birthday parties, why can't I share my extra-curricular life?

Mostly, I want my colleagues to see me as fitting and fulfilling the role I'm paid for. So I hesitate to introduce another variable of myself, to charge them with seeing me in another and separate light.

And make no mistake: They are separate. The worker me and the writer me are very different. Especially on those self-effacing and writer-blocked days, I like the worker me better. It's a far more confident and competent version.  It's a version that gets things done.

But mostly, I think I keep things separate because, even when I'm writing fiction, some part of that manuscript will reveal my past and my innermost thoughts and sensibilities.

Do I really want my colleagues to know that much about me?

How do you manage it? Really, I'd love to know. Do you allow colleagues or business associates to share in the joys and challenges of your writing?

Do you share rough drafts with your family or life partner or best friend?

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
Contact