Áine Greaney

Irish Author

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

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.

famous-five-13-1954.jpg


  

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?

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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