Get Better at Writing with Prompts

girl writing

Photo Girl writing by ZaCky via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Prompt writing is a form of automatic writing, a technique that was popularized by the Surrealist art movement. In prompt writing you begin by writing down a word or phrase (e.g., “I remember”) and then continue writing whatever pops into your head at that moment. The idea is to keep your hand moving. If you hit a wall and can’t think of anything else, you can repeat the phrase and then keep going. Natalie Goldberg describes this process in more detail in her book Writing Down the Bones. She suggests setting a timer and committing to keep writing until the timer goes off, no matter what. No need to worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar– just go.

Continue reading

The Most Important New Year’s Resolution

Like a lot of people, I usually start the new year with the intention to better myself in some way — lose weight, exercise more, eat better, read Dante in the original language*, etc. This year I’m taking a different approach.

My new year’s resolution is to practice self-compassion. Kristin Neff has been studying (and promoting) self-compassion for several years. Her TED talk is a good place to start if you want to learn more about it. In a nutshell, self-compassion is about offering kindness to yourself– the same kindness that you would extend to someone you love. If someone you love made a mistake, would you say “That was a really dumb thing to do! How could you be so careless?” Nope. You’d say, “I see that you made a mistake but that’s okay. You’ll do better next time.” So the next time you make a mistake, instead of saying mean things to yourself, treat yourself kindly.

Continue reading

3 Strategies for Dealing With Criticism of Your Creative Projects

dog chewing a book

This book is insufficiently tasty. Photo credit: “animal critic #2” by dylan Snow via flickr, licensed under CC 2.0

Sometimes you will put out a blog post or a video or a poem or whatever and someone will stop by to read (view/listen/etc) what you’ve done and then offer an opinion. Here are 3 ways to deal with (and not get derailed by) criticism.

Continue reading

What Are You Waiting For?

Woman waiting by doors

photo by Brian Donovan via flickr licensed by CC 2.0

Some writers and other creative types tend to procrastinate a lot. Yeah, don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not the only one who does it.

My friend Julie recently challenged me to come up with two lists: one with unproductive procrastination activities, and the other with productive procrastination activities. We decided ‘productive’ in this context means that when you are done with the activity, whatever it is, you don’t feel bad about yourself. Well, you still feel a little bit bad because you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, but not as bad as if you did one of the unproductive procrastination activities. Continue reading

Sign Me Up


photo by Rubin Starset via flickr, licensed by cc 2.0

I noticed a funny thing about myself the other day. I hadn’t been keeping up with my tai chi practice (long story) and I thought maybe I should go back to class. I tried to do the form on my own, and I found that I had forgotten a lot. So I got out the book* and tried to figure out the missing steps from the pictures. I decided I had to do this because I couldn’t go to class without re-learning the form. The teacher or other students might see me making mistakes!

You may be laughing at this point. I am laughing at myself too. I can’t go back to class until I perfect my form– which is what class is for. Continue reading

The War of Art – A Review

“Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”

– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

photo by   via Flickr cc

photo by See-ming Lee via flickr cc

I’ve read a lot of books about creativity, making art, and becoming a better writer. In many of these books, there are one or two great ideas, and then some ideas that I find are not useful, or not original, or both.

Continue reading

All You Need is a First Line

Sometimes the hardest thing about a poem/essay/story/novel is writing the beginning. Putting the words down on the page is like standing up in front of a room full of people and saying, “Listen up!” It’s a big moment. What if they don’t listen? What if they do, and they don’t like what they heard? What if your work is boring? Really, there’s no end to the ways you can screw up. Continue reading

The Creative Life

The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.

– Lev Grossman, How Not to Write Your First Novel

When I read Lev Grossman’s piece on how he graduated from college and tried (and failed) to write his first novel, I had a rueful moment of recognition– his plan to be a solitary genius and to ‘live the creative life’ in a farmhouse in rural Maine seemed like something I could have done, if I’d had the bravery to do it. I did not go as far as he did, but only because I was primarily a poet, and even I knew nobody makes any money publishing poetry.* As Grossman laid out the premise– traveling away from everything he knew, believing he needed near-complete solitude to write, not wanting to be a sell-out– it was clear that he was going to fail, and fail badly. After six months he packed up and left for the real world. But we know that eventually Grossman did manage to write critically-acclaimed best-selling books. So what is the point? The point is you don’t have to be lonely genius to write a book– in fact, that it’s better to be around other people, and working in an office doesn’t preclude writing books.

He ends the piece with the quote that I put at the beginning of this piece, which hit me squarely in the big bag of excuses I drag around for not doing my creative work– I’m too old, too boring, too bad at writing, etc. He’s right– It’s never too late. The Muse will take you back again and again.

*Billy Collins is the exception that proves the rule.