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Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers

Woman meditating

Woman meditating

We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

AspirationsI’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years. Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience, http://www.simplifiedcoach.com, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”

Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.

Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.

Just BeIn a post (“7 Ways Meditation Increases Creativity”) on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingkindnessCompassion or Lovingkindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

I believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.

Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”

Namaste


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Creating Character Contradictions

Opposites

OppositesThink back on the books you love, and invariably it’s the protagonist who comes to mind. Characters are the heart and soul of our stories, and I’ve spent months and sometimes years getting to know mine. But in my systematic efforts to pin down their personalities, I sometimes sacrifice what’s most important: the element of surprise. Even when I think I know my protagonist—her pet peeve, greatest fear, secret ambition, which songs she sings in the shower, and what makes her cry—it doesn’t mean her actions should be consistent.

And that’s a good thing, because predictable characters are boring. Why bother to read about someone if you know exactly what she’s going to do? But if that same protagonist surprises us by doing something unexpected or “out of character,” our interest is piqued. Life is not black and white; our characters shouldn’t be either.

“Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful or wise,” writes Dani Shapiro in her book, Still Writing. “Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types.” One way to avoid clichéd characters is to give them a mix of positive and negative traits–qualities that are both attractive and repellent.

In the movie Crash, for example, Matt Dillon plays an angry, racist white cop, whose actions can be as ugly as his words. Yet, when we see him at home tenderly and patiently caring for his sick father, we understand this ugly side is only part of the story.

Crash Theatrical PosterIn one of the film’s most tension-filled scenes (spoiler alert!), Dillon’s character heroically risks his life to pull a black woman from a burning car only seconds before it explodes. The irony is, he’d abused the same woman only days before by groping her during a traffic stop. Dillon’s partner, an idealistic white cop, wants to do the right thing, and yet he ends up shooting an innocent, black man. The fact that bad people do good, and good people do bad is what makes the characters in this thought-provoking film so authentic.

InexcusableOxymoronic complexities create unforgettable characters. Characters like Frankenstein (a sweet monster), Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (a gentle madman), Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (an honest thief), and in real life, actor Robin Williams (the sad funny man). In contemporary YA, I couldn’t stop thinking about Keir Sarafian (a well meaning rapist) from Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, or Marcelo Sandoval, the autistic 17-year-old protagonist of Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World. Initially, Marcelo appears isolated and incapable of relating to or understanding other people . But as we gradually come to see, it’s those other people in the story who are impaired—like Arturo, Marcelo’s high achieving, Harvard-educated, lawyer dad. Despite his intelligence, Arturo is blind when it comes to seeing the truth about the people around him. As a hypocritical, greedy, philandering father who genuinely loves his wife and kids, he too is full of incongruities.

Marcelo in the Real WorldCharacter contradictions can help create empathy. When the thug reveals his vulnerability—through his fear of an abusive father or his worry about an incarcerated brother—that’s when we start to care. The superficial, shallow cheerleader can seem like a type—until she goes home to care for a handicapped sister or cancer-stricken mother.

A high school student of mine wrote a story about an impoverished 15-year-old living in the projects in Detroit. His protagonist, Jamal, is an honor student and a loving son to his single, hardworking mother. But Jamal also belongs to a gang. What I feel ultimately makes his character so interesting is the juxtaposition between his positive traits and his immoral actions. In the last scene, as Jamal picks up a pistol and heads out the door for a night of thieving, drug dealing, and possibly even murder, he almost forgets the duffle bag he’s packed. Grabbing it, he mumbles to himself, “Mom always said I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.” This affectionate, kidlike statement stands in stark contrast to his criminal activities.

I try to focus on five essential elements when creating my characters: name, appearance, motive, history, and environment. Adding character contradictions to these categories can enhance every one.

NamesNames have associations and images. Would you call a jock Horace? A popular cheerleader Beulah or Gertrude? Give a shy, artistic guy the name of Spike? Probably not…unless there’s a reason to upend your reader’s expectations. Ironic names can be a hugely effective way to ignite a reader’s interest, surprise us or make us laugh.

Clothing and appearanceAppearance. Clothes, hair, body type, fitness level, facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures and speech all provide clues to character. But throw in character contradictions—make that pouty blond in the mini skirt a rocket scientist—and the reader does a double take. My son’s wife wore dusty work boots under her beautiful gown at their wedding ceremony—a statement about their life as farmers.

In Silicon Valley, CEO’s of start-ups saunter down the streets dressed in grungy jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers. But their youthful appearance and slacker attire belie their astounding net worth.

Motive. What does your character want more than anything in the world? The answer is the force that moves stories forward and determines plot and character. But motives can be contradictory too, and conflicting desires create drama. When we lie to protect others, or give up something or someone we love, we are living out these contradictions. Take the classic example of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, who at the end of Casablanca forces his true love, Ilsa, to leave him. Or brave Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park who, after moving away from the boy she loves, chooses to ignore his letters and postcards despite her breaking heart.

History. Knowing your protagonist’s history is the key to understanding her motives. So, leaking backstory into the narrative can help a character’s contradictory actions make sense. In one of my students’ stories, where a young girl is being beaten by her drunk dad, I was startled by the following line: “[she] searched his eyes for any remnants of the kind, loving father she knew.” That’s the line that captured my attention, because it made me ask, “What happened to change everything? How did a loving Dad turn into this monster?” Incongruities like these can spark our interest and cause readers to engage more actively in the text.

Environment: Our environment shapes us, no question about it. Family, friends, school, home, work and physical settings are a few of the many factors that influence character. But you can also play with environment for humorous effect. Look at old sitcoms like the Beverly Hillbillies (poor, backwoods family moves to Beverly Hills) or Green Acres (city slickers move to a rural country farm). Or you can use environment as a vehicle for exploring serious, thought-provoking issues like in the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black (upper middle class white girl goes to a federal prison).

Regardless of whether you’re writing about oxymoronic characters like rich hicks or well-heeled convicts, environmental mismatches can provide story drama that results in valuable new insights for readers.

It’s only human nature to make assumptions about people based on what we see, but when we take the time to pair unlikely elements, the rewards can be rich indeed. Character contradictions are all around us. Notice them, appreciate their oxymoronic complexity, and incorporate them into the people you create on the page. Your stories will be more authentic for it.


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Desperately Seeking Discipline

Time
Helen's desk
My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author, told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.

Time

“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly. “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Working set business hoursSet working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable. “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says, “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”

Prewriting

Running shoesrituals: Light a candleMeditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany- inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story

questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off? Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” my colleague, Frances Lee Hall, explains: “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your brain.

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Teach What You Need To Learn

Walk in your characters' shoes

“Editor. Writer. Teacher.” That’s what my website says I am. But it’s only in the past few years that I have been able to claim the last title. Thanks, in part, to my experiences as an instructor with a program called The Society of Young Inklings (http://younginklings.org), whose mission is to “inspire and encourage young writers because learning to think creatively opens every door,” I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I always knew that teaching could inform my writing, but what I didn’t realize was how teaching could transform it. Now, my only problem is that I’m spending so much time preparing for classes, camps and tutoring sessions that I’m having trouble squeezing in the novel writing.

My husband assumed that once I graduated with my MFA, he’d get to eat real food again for dinner. And we did—for a while. But now, as the take-out containers stack up in the fridge, I realize that all I’ve done is trade one obsession for another. Clearly, I’m addicted to teaching, and my life has become unmanageable. So, I sat down to do a searching and fearless moral inventory. Four cups of coffee later, I was able to justify my passion and recommend it to others. Here are three ways that I believe teaching kids can inspire and empower Kidlit writers.

Young child playing on ocean beach1. Teaching Gives You Permission to Play: To children, play comes naturally. But by the time you’re old enough to be an instructor, this instinct has pretty much been wrung out of you. But in programs where improv and movement games are used to energize students and help them find the truth in their stories, writers can rediscover their inner child.

Making funny facesIt makes sense to get up from your desk and move. When writing scenes, I need to make noises and faces, gnash my teeth, hum, curse, laugh and moan. Sometimes I act out conversations or roll around on the floor. I constantly run to the mirror, so I can describe the expression on my face. How do you show anger, jealousy, or humiliation? Throw out a prompt and watch a couple of fifth graders take the floor and use their bodies to teach you what those emotions look like. Sometimes, I can’t take notes fast enough.

Play-based writing games also enable writers with different learning styles such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, social, solitary, etc., more opportunities to find a way in. In my “five senses” exercise, I expose students to a variety of sensory stimuli and then observe what the experience evokes. For smell, I’ll give blindfolded kids a whiff of Play-Doh, cologne, cinnamon, or fresh basil. It can be an “aha” moment for young writers when they make the connection between scent and memory—and then apply this realization to their stories.

 

2. You Can Steal Their Stuff: Looking for a good knock-knock joke for your young protagonist? To crack the code of what cracks kids up, you can always watch YouTube, but there’s no substitute for “borrowing” firsthand material. For instance, I’ve amassed an impressive collection of fart jokes from one of my favorite fourth grade boys. It all started when I brought a battery-operated fart machine to a tutoring session (you squeeze it to hear four kinds of noises). It had been a White Elephant gift, good for absolutely nothing until I had the brilliant idea to use it as a “reward” for responsible behavior. (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me, it worked.) Not only did I get insight into what tickles the funny bones of fourth graders, but I also got some humorous material for my work in progress.

Teachers can also openly eavesdrop. Last fall, I taught a three-day writing workshop to a group of talented teens at the multigenerational Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Novel Workshop & Retreat. On the last night, my students invited me to join them for s’mores around a beach campfire. Afterwards, we lay in the sand under the stars where, lulled by the sound of the ocean waves, my students talked late into the night, sharing stories about their lives…

3. You Get to Walk in Their Shoes: You may be surprised to hear this, but kids on television and film are not always depicted realistically. How do real teens think, act and talk? Working in classrooms and private homes (I do both) enables me to study young readers in their native habitats. Reading the stories they write gives me valuable insights into what makes my target audience tick. And when students’ eyes glaze over in class, I know exactly when my material has failed and I’ve lost their attention (unlike the anonymous readers of our books). My biggest teaching surprise, however, has been that gender stereotypes often hold true. My boys tend to write about bombs, bullet holes and dystopian worlds (what I call “tough guys in space”), whereas my girls gravitate towards domestic drama and stories that involve “mean girls in school.” Is this cultural conditioning or in the DNA?

Writing from a kid’s perspective isn’t always easy. I’ll never forget the time I told my class a “funny” story about how I once tried to convince my little sister to drink perfume. Afterwards, I expected smiles and laughter. Instead, I was chastised by a sea of stony faces.  “But… that was mean,” a sixth grade boy spoke up. And in a blinding flash, I saw the incident from their perspective—not as a humorous anecdote, but as a red flag. Unlike the world of my childhood—where there was no Internet, AMBER alerts or cyber-bullying—the world kids are growing up in today is vastly different and much less safe. My students’ reaction was a reality check.

In the end, it comes down to this. Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you’re  a teacher and have to explain it to someone else. Empowering young writers can empower you. So, are you ready to take the plunge?


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.