A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life

Dulcimer Lesson for Writers

dulcimer lesson writers
In high school I played percussion, but I never mastered a tuneful instrument–which I’ve always regretted. So, I recently started taking dulcimer lessons. The instrument and the music are rooted in Appalachia, as am I. In short, it’s important to me.

But so far, I’ve managed only one lesson and one practice per week– usually the morning of the lesson. This is not the road to proficiency!

clock face
I truly intend to practice, but there’s always something else to do first. Make the bed. Empty the dishwasher. Celebrate my birthday with my bridge buds.

washing dishes
Write my twice-weekly blogs. Submit a short story. Come up with and deliver a couple of tattoo stories to honor Amy Black. Spend Easter with my family in New England. And on and on.

AND THAT BRINGS ME TO FIRST THINGS VS. IMPORTANT THINGS.

It’s easy to fill your life with things that are right in front of you–or that have a date certain–and never get around to some things that are truly more important.

kids room
When my children were little I often lamented the clutter and mess in my house. (I was a psychology professor at the time.) One day a friend with four children just older than mine said, “If they aren’t doing structural damage, don’t worry about it.”

Which brings us to the point: LOOK AT HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME AND DECIDE WHICH FIRST THINGS CAN BE MOVED TO LAST. If writing is truly important to you, make time for it.

And so, off to practice dulcimer!


Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.

Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Nine New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

new years resolutions writers

ONE: I will write something every day.

TWO: I will set a realistic daily goal. It can be minutes, hours, word count, or pages, so long as it is quantifiable. (One needs to be clear on whether the goal was met.) And keep it realistic. (Why set up for failure?)

THREE: I will create a writing diary/calendar and record my writing achievement every day. I’ll star every day I meet or exceeded my goal.

FOUR: I will reward myself. I will treat myself whenever I accumulate X-number of stars.

FIVE: I will read at least one book about the craft of writing.

new years resolutions writers

SIX: I will read at least one book on self-editing.

SEVEN: I will attend at least one writing conference, book festival, or class.

EIGHT: I will read at least one book in my genre with a conscientiousness of how I would have done it differently.

NINE: I will be supportive of writers. This includes not beating up on them or myself!

nine new years resolutions writers

Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

Writing to Feed Your Soul

Although some people write to put food on the table, more write to feed their souls.

According to an article by Alison Flood of The Guardian, a 2014 survey revealed that 54% of “traditionally-published” authors and nearly 80% of self-published authors earn less than $1,000 a year. In this same survey, only a minority of respondents listed making money as “extremely important”—around 20% of self-published writers and 25% of traditionally-published authors.Overall, Flood concluded, “Most authors write because they want to share something with the world or gain recognition of some sort.” Clearly, most writers aren’t in it to put food on the table.

The joys of writing to feed one’s soul can be summarized in the word freedom.

  • Free to write on your own schedule.
  • Free from worry about sales covering the advance.
  • Free to write in any genre, not just the one(s) that sell best.
  • Free to ignore industry guidelines/standards for works of a certain genre, such as page length, structure, and language.
  • Free to switch genres or to write in many genres.
  • Free to write a series with a different protagonist.
  • Free to write anything and everything under one name.
Many big-name authors (i.e., those who make a lot of money writing) find themselves limited in the previous three freedoms. The reading public wouldn’t let Arthur Conan Doyle kill off Sherlock Holmes. Many authors write under more than one name. Search online under “famous authors who use multiple pen names” and go from there. Some authors do so to reinvent themselves—e.g.Stephen King/ Richard Bachman, J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. Some use different names for different genres—e.g., Jenna Peterson writes historicals but uses the name Jesse Michaels for erotic romance.  Other multiple-name authors include Dean Koontz, Richard Matheson, Joyce Carol Oates, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Asimov. There are more.

  • Free to mix several genres in the same work.
  • Free to label oneself or not.
diana gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon [Photo credit: Andreas Pavelic]
Diana Gabaldon started off writing to feed her soul—in my opinion! She says that she wrote Outlander for practice, to learn the craft, with no intention of showing it to anyone. Not only did she write an impossibly long book (by industry standards) but she mixed romance, adventure, history, time-travel, and magical elements.

diana gabaldon outlander series
The Outlander series [Photo credit: Tripping Over Books]
 
For an excellent, thoughtful essay on blending genres, read Joyce Dyer’s “What’s on Your Mind?” recently published in The New York Times.

joyce dyer what's on your mind
You can also read over seventy comments on this piece online. She starts with a discussion of how writers’ brains work and moves on to the limitations of genres.

When you write to feed your soul, the only real requirement is that you write.

Nimrod Lingers… You, Too, Could Benefit!

I’m still working on re-entry. The thing about Nimrod is that there is always something to see. Here is a selection of things you might use as writing prompts:

 

The frog statue is supposed to be Elvis. You know the story of the princess kissing a frog and turning him into a prince. Who might have kissed The King to turn him into a frog?

 

elvis frog nimrod hall
Who might have curated these collections, and why are these particular items of interest?
Write your own rules. Or write about a place that would post the ones below. What happens if someone breaks the rules?

What if an uninvited guest drops by?

Notice the edge of a folding chair just visible in the big, hollow sycamore. Write about who might be using that chair, and why.

 

sycamore tree writing prompt
Or try your hand at writing flash fiction and include all the items from one–or more–of these groups.
#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

#6

And when all is said and done, if you aren’t writing at or about Nimrod, read!

 

And this really is all till next year!

Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life. 

Wrapping Up Nimrod, 2016

 Energy is always high when I arrive at Nimrod on Sunday: getting settled, reuniting with friends, meeting the new writers, and getting the schedule for the week ahead.

 I was in Square House again this year, my favorite room!  It’s downstairs, dim, and I know where my things will fit and how many extension cords I’ll need.

 

Monday through Thursday at Nimrod is intense: focused writing, talk with fellow writers—who often ask how your work is going, which certainly reinforces that focus and productivity are expected and rewarded—reading every day for workshop, sharing opinions with other readers, then listening to the 8:00 readers after dinner…

 

All of this happening across varied genres leaves me feeling worn. I suspect others do as well.
flowers nimrod hall
So an open day on Friday was cherished! I walked in sunshine for the first time.

 

imaginative writing janet burroway
Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway
It’s also a chance to tie things up. I (finally) turned to to the reference Cathy Hankla had given me on Monday! Unfortunately, I could not send off “Repair or Redecorate?” because my computer went all wonky. The touch-pad didn’t control the cursor. Damn! But at least it’s ready to go. I started packing to leave on Saturday.

 

Thurday's readers at nimrod hall: Kristy Bell, Ruth Gallogly, Kit Wellford, Jane Shepherd, Judy Bice
Thurday’s readers L-R: Kristy Bell, Ruth Gallogly, Kit Wellford, Jane Shepherd, Judy Bice
I got a photo of Thursday’s readers on Friday evening, in the course of a most entertaining variety show! This was new to my years at Nimrod. Kristy Bell did an incredible job as MC! We had multiple readings of poetry, fiction, memoir, and all the other genre’s represented here, up and down the emotional spectrum. But we also had musical interludes!

 

Terry Dolson accompanied Judy Bice, Amelia Williams, and Sheri Reynolds while the rest of us joined in as well as we could on such classics as “Country Road” and “Bobbie McGee.” I’m here to tell you, Sheri Williams does a mean Janis Joplin!

 

Most year I’ve gone to the Jefferson Baths. This year, I mourn missing it. But several of us had accepted a neighbor’s invitation for drinks and a visit to the champion sycamore tree: 10 feet across, 33 feet around. It was good viewing and very good scotch!
Every year we take a group picture. This one came was Saturday morning, just after breakfast.

 

nimrod hall summer arts program 2016
L-R, kneeling: Foust, Kristy Bell, Nancy Hurrelbrinck,Jennifer Dickinson, Judy Bice, Ruth Gallogly; L-R standing, Terry Dolson, Jane Shepherd, Kit Wellfod, Charlotte Morgan, Cathy Hankla, me, Sheri Reynolds, Molly Todd, David Cooper, Betsy Arnett, Amelia Williams, Frances Burch.
Unfortunately, several people left on Friday. Oh, sigh. Maybe next year!

 

By 10:00 Saturday morning, Frances Burch and I were on the road. We followed our usual routine: we stopped in Crozet, Virginia for shopping at Over the Moon Bookstore and lunch at Crozet Pizza. For the first time ever, we had their specialty pizza that is a white base, topped with herbs, summer squash, and peanuts! It was excellent.

 

I was home by 3:00, but Nimrod lingers. There’s always a long re-entry time!

 


Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life. 

Writers at Nimrod, 2016

What a week it’s been! Where to begin? Well, I guess with this message:

Begin Anywhere Nimrod Hall
“Begin Anywere.” -John Cage
So, how about walking through a typical day? As you know, I’m fond of before-breakfast walks—usually damp and misty. But glories abound, from wildlife and flowers along the way, to the little graveyard up the hill, to the Cowpasture River down the hill.

People gather to await the breakfast bell, still slightly groggy. But after a coffee infusion and a more-than-ample breakfast, we are hyped for the sacred writing time, which lasts till 1:00 lunch.
This year I finished and revised a 6K word short story mystery AND submitted it! So thanks to my fearless leader Cathy Hankla and my workshop/critique group members for comments and suggestions.
One of Cathy’s great strengths as a teacher is that she always seems to come up with targeted reading for specific writers. This year she brought Imaginative Writing for me. It contains “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri, a wonderful example of showing an incident from the POV of a hired worker. But of course, Cathy is incredibly talented herself.
I tend to be a cave-dweller, so while others hike, run, do yoga, or go tubing on the river, I keep writing. And everyone understands.

Happy half-hour was typically celebrated with our workshop group, followed by dinner during which we dispersed among the other writers present. Then we adjourn to the renovated Rec Hall for 8:00 readings. On Sunday night, Cathy Hankla and Sheri Reynolds read and Charlotte Morgan gave us our marching orders about the week’s structure.

David Cooper and I read the first night. I read 600 words on “Repair or Redecorate?” which I hope you’ll have an opportunity to read in the Richmond Times-Dispatch sometime soon. David is a “retired” man of the cloth and counselor who bicycles, does yoga, and seemed perfectly comfortable surrounded by all these writer women!

Tuesday night’s readings were by Frances Burch, Jennifer Dickinson, Nancy Hurrelbrinck, and Molly Todd.
Frances Burch Jennifer Dickinson Nancy Hurrelbrinck Molly Todd Nimrod Hall
Wednesday night we had Betsy Arnett, Foust, Amelia Williams, Heath Lee, and Terry Dolson.
Betsy Arnett Foust Amelia Williams Heath Lee Terry Dolson Nimrod Hall
Thursday night it was Judy Bice, Jane Shepard, Ruth Gallogly, and Kristy Bell—and I didn’t get a picture! Maybe I can rectify that later.

This diverse group of writers includes poets, fiction writers, memoirists, inspirational writers, historians—you name it. Several are from the Richmond area, and therefore likely to be available for local readings, signings, etc. Besides me, Elizabeth Smart, Frances Burch, Judy Bice, Molly Todd, Kristy Bell, Terry Dolson, David Cooper, Foust, and Suzanne Munson fall into this category. But we also had writers from Roanoke, Boyce, and Afton, Virginia (Heath Lee, Betsy Arnett, and Amelia Williams, respectively), and two from Charleston, WV (Jane Shepherd and Kit Wellford). And then there were the outliers, Ruth Gallogly (Brooklyn, NY) and Denny Stein (Freemont, CA).

These are wonderful, interesting, dear people. What are the chances that I’ll see them again before next year?

One reason I love Nimrod is that I never know what I’ll come across. It might be riders from Vinyard Farms next door. These are Amber and Frankie—the horses, not the riders.

Amber and Frankie horses Vinyard Farms
It might be fellow walkers…
…or it might be an abandoned barn and gas pump. It’s always something!

Barn Nimrod hall
And it’s always great company, great energy, and unstinting support! We don’t leave till tomorrow, but I’m missing it already! Stay tuned next week for a final wrap-up.
Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life.

Nimrod Writers, 2016

I treasure the constancy of Nimrod—all the things that stay the same. The physical surroundings have been spiffed up a bit from five or so years ago, but it’s basically unchanged: the main building, where hummingbirds gather and people wait for meal bells…
. . . the Old Post Office—which is the only pace where smoking is allowed. You will notice that the smoking porch doesn’t get much business!
Square House Porch nimrod hall
The Old Post Office porch
. . . and all the spaces where people could lounge but aren’t, for these pix were taken during the morning, which is sacred writing time, and therefore all good little writers are sequestered in their rooms…
Lawn chairs Nimrod Hall
Another thing that hasn’t changed about Nimrod is, as Charlotte Morgan says often, “There’s no such thing as a forced march!” So if one chooses not to write in the morning, that’s fine—as long as one is quiet and doesn’t encourage others to sluff-off.
hammock lounger nimrod hall
And one more thing that hasn’t changed: every year there are new t-shirts!
Once upon a time, Nimrod was a hunting camp, and reminders of that past are here still. As you can see from the following pix, the image has morphed over the years from the traditional trophy head to my personal favorite:
There are two new deer this year:

What’s new at Nimrod Hall?

This year, for the first time, there are three writers in residence present at the same time—Cathy Hankla, Charlotte Morgan, and Sheri Reynolds. Oh, if I could work with them all!
This year, all the writers mingle over meals and at the 8:00 evening readings:
Other meeting are much as before—i.e., critiques in small groups and a one-on-one conference with one writer-in-residence. I will meet with Cathy. I’m happy to be here!
Vivian Lawry Nimrod Hall
Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life. 

Nimrod Hall, Here I Come!

For many years I’ve traveled to Nimrod Hall in Millboro, Virginia, for their annual writing retreat. Nimrod has inspired several of my stories and given me hours of valuable writing time.

Nimrod Hall main buildling
Nimrod Hall

Last year I kept a travel log of my two weeks at Nimrod. I shared everything from packing my bags…

Packed for Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop

…to the wild women writers I met there.

women writers at Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program
2015 Week One writers at Nimrod Hall Writers Workshop
Note card showing women standing in a stream. Text reads, "We arrived at Nimrod with no baggage"
Note card by Susannah Raine-Haddad

As I prepare to depart, I look forward to my misty morning walks,

Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop misty lane

and family-style meals with writer friends,

Nimrod Hall Writers' Workshop writers at lunch around table
2015 writers at lunch
Nimrod Hall writers lifting fake wedding cake at breakfast table
Who but Nimrod Writer Women would be passing around a paper mâché wedding cake at breakfast?

and uninterrupted writing time.

"Do not disturb" sign on door knob
No writer is ever disturbed between breakfast and lunch–and seldom otherwise.

This year I will share my travel log on my Facebook page. I hope you’ll join me there.

Happy writing!

view of Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during walk
Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during my morning exercise

Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life.