Monday, February 22, 2021

On Writing Pt. 6: Choices, Choices


As I’m branching out into territory that is beyond the “why” I figured there was room to talk about some of the decision-making involved in my writing process. This post has been one of the most difficult for me to write. I’ve actually had this post written out a few times, and gone through it to change it because it didn’t seem correct. I’ve probably written this topic five or six times and never finished it. It’s hard to put this topic into words because much of the decision-making can be very knee-jerk and reactive. In the moment, it can seem subconscious and without planning. That’s not to devalue those decisions and choices, it’s just the reality of writing. Instead of writing solely about the informed choices that carry planning and forethought; I’ll attempt to cover some of the more spur-of-the-moment choices. I’ll also include some examples where I’ve rewritten something later in life with planning that was originally put to paper in the heat of the moment.

Much like other topics in this series, the choices made before, during, and after writing can stem from a myriad of different places. For me there are the obvious choices I make when writing something: format, style, tense, or topic/subject/content. There are also the less obvious choices: emotions (of the writer and the writing), media used, and often structure (specifically for poetry) fall into this category for me. When I write now there is a lot of frontend decision-making that goes on, much more than at any other point in my life. I write drafts and develop timelines, take notes and make bullet-point lists on longer pieces, even poems often some planning depending on the type of poetry.

I put quite a bit of planning into the writing I do for work. I have a Google calendar that lists a brief synopsis of what is being featured each day of the month including some historic content. I have not one, not two, but three separate pocket notebooks and one A5 notebook dedicated to different aspects of the writing I do at work. Almost every aspect of the writing I do for work is planned out, except product descriptions. Most of those are written in the moment, though I do rely heavily on a “tone” that is part of our style guide. Even the newsletter topics on the weekends, which tend to cover more candid thoughts and moments, do have some planning. The one area where I could really improve upon is writing content ahead of time. Currently, even when I plan things out, the execution is taking place the day each piece is being released, or sometimes the day before. That’s definitely something I want to change.

In terms of personal writing, I admit that I have two modes and those modes depend on the format and style of the piece. I have one mode for stories and even some prose, but specifically longer pieces, and I have a separate mode for poetry and most short stories. The former runs on planning, precision, even mental outlining, while the latter is almost always “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” frenzied. There are a handful of poems and short stories that have a lot of planning to them, but they’ve been some of my most personal writing stuff I’ve really wanted to polish and eventually see published. But when I write for myself, a lot of time the catharsis comes in just getting the words out.

I’ll briefly walk through a few examples of how either of these modes occur, starting with the planning mode. I’ll have an idea or concept frequently based off something I read or saw in a movie or streaming show. More often than not, the touchstone is something small like a thought of “if only they’d have done X in this part of the writing or story, it would be far more interesting” or “what if instead of it being another instance of X being the antagonist, instead Y and Z have interpreted the intent incorrectly”. This leads to a brief sketching of that main idea in my mind of what I thought could have been done better. Then I’ll start the long game; I’ll take that one idea, strip away any element of the original inspiration, go back to a “starting point, and begin to craft a story via a loose timeline with the center of the timeline being the touchstone. I know full well there are going to be changes and revisions, I’ve even completely abandoned the initial touchstone and shifted to other ideas during the planning stages simply because it was a poor idea to craft a story around. I have no idea what other writers do when they plan stuff out. This is just one way I’ve done it in the past, and to be fair, I’ve never completed writing a long-form story. So maybe I’m doing things wrong, but this type of planning and fleshing out ideas and inspirations does get my creative juices flowing for sure.

Writing poetry, short story, and even some prose is far more visceral for me. It’s also a very immediate task, what I have inside of me needs to be written down as quickly as possible otherwise I may lose it. I rarely have a lot of time to polish something inside my head. I’m almost always pushed to write poetry or short story by a phrase or a line or a few words, colors, or sounds. Very tiny details that my brain is connecting with a life event, emotion, need, or memory have suddenly taken up residence in every aspect of my brain. The need to write during these times is almost a compulsion that is painful to ignore. If I put it off, I’ll find myself using those phrases or words in writing I’m doing for work or even when I’m talking to someone on the phone or face to face. My brain is telling me to do something, and it’s just easier to get whatever it is written down or face the consequences.

There have been a few times where I’ve written something just to get it down on paper and out of my head, and then at a later date come back and read it and been prompted to keep much of the original work but to rewrite it. One piece that comes to mind was a poem I wrote a few years ago after breathing a mouthful of dust when I was cleaning something. It brought back memories of the rotor-wash from a MEDEVAC Blackhawk in the desert outside of a tiny border town in Iraq. I wrote down the initial memories quickly on a beat-up Field Notes, and a day later sat down to write them into my poetry journal. Instead of simply copying them over, I made small changes to a line here or there, deleted a few, and made the poem more compact and hurried. It mirrored more of the urgency of the original moment and the memory that had prompted me to write it in the first place. I find this a pretty rare occurrence, but one that crops up more frequently now and I think that has more to do with my growth as a writer than anything else.

I’m sure more accomplished writers will tell you there is a right or a wrong way to do things. I’d imagine they’d really push for planning, writing, rewriting, revising, editing, and more planning. Personally, if the piece has the potential to be published, it needs to be read by someone other than the writer and edited by someone other than the writer and then likely revised. I’m also a contrarian with my poetry because I feel like editing can strip away the raw emotions of the piece, but I also know that often those emotions are mine and the reader is going to experience their own set of emotions. I guess what I’m saying is that I know I need to be more mindful of the choices I make when I’m writing, but I don’t know that I’m ready to make a lot of changes to the process; and I’m okay with that.

Until next time, keep writing.

Monday, February 15, 2021

On Writing Pt 5.: How Reading Impacts Writing


If you’re thinking this is going to get all scientific with a reading list and footnotes, that’s likely not going to happen. I’ve read articles on this in the past, but this post is going to mostly draw from my own experiences rather than pulling primarily from online articles. I’m sure there will be a crossover, but I’ll base my insights on experience and opinion. Let’s dive in.

One of the biggest benefits of reading is an ever-expanding vocabulary. I was homeschooled for several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s before I went into high school, and part of my homeschooling entailed trips to the public library. My mom would take my brother and me to the library two or three times a week. We’d do our “classes” there and between lessons climb through the shelves reading books on all kinds of topics. When I turned 16, I applied for and got a job at the library and would work there for six years. I’d always been a reader, but spending that amount of time at the library flipped a switch for me. I became a voracious reader. I’d stay up until 3 am reading, then get up at 7 am, do my school work, work from 4 pm until 9 pm, eat a late dinner, and then read again until 3 am.

This all led to a rather large vocabulary that I always knew I had but started to benefit me when I went to college. I had professors comment on it, both in positive and negative ways. A few times I had a professor specifically call out sections of a paper I wrote as an example to the class. Though I was happy to be getting good grades, I wasn’t so happy about the rest of the class thinking I was some kind of teacher’s pet. This didn’t just impact my writing though, it also helped me in my speaking. One of my classes had weekly mini-presentations, and the professor of that class did historic reenactments. He had a rather large vocabulary and after my second or third presentation, he kept me after class and talked to me about my presentations. It was interesting to hear him say that he was also a book lover, and he attributed much of his success in life to being such an avid reader.

Reading is an exercise for your grey matter. In the beginning, you’re paying attention to each word and using them to mentally form the images in your mind of what you’re reading. You’re building each story and experience. You’re probably not paying attention to things like subplots, literary themes and tropes, specific contextual elements, character nuance, etc. when you begin to exercise your brain in earnest. As you become more comfortable reading your brain will become better and better at multi-tasking. Suddenly you’re not consciously crafting the building blocks of the story. They’re happening “behind the scenes”; instead, you’re now picking up on other aspects of the piece you’re reading. Structure, dialogue, context, and theme pop up in your brain but also incongruities, grammar mistakes, unresolved plotlines, things used out of context. This “next level” of reading is massively helpful for anyone that wants to write because it mainly deals with everything that isn’t the “story” being told; instead, it is all about the blueprint, foundation, and frame with which the writer has crafted his or her tale.

When you start to write, you’re subconsciously using your analysis of other author’s works in little ways to improve your writing. It’s not plagiarism because you’re not recreating plot and character and dialogue, instead you’re avoiding mistakes you’ve read, ensuring the dialogue is unique and “real” for each character or using nuance and context similarly to good writers. The phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” comes to mind for this. For the most part, writing isn’t creating some new method or style; it’s applying your ideas, experiences, stories, etc. to a method of communication that’s pretty time-tested. Reading helps you absorb the less obvious techniques of both the good and the bad writers.

One thing I learned a few years ago in terms of reading was how impactful reading different types of writing or genres or authors showed me a variety of different styles of writing. Like a lot of people, I have my preferences when it comes to reading. I PREFER to read fiction, and specifically the genres of fantasy, thriller, mystery, and science fiction with a smattering of historic fiction and alternate history fiction. I am a fan of nonfiction biographies and histories but it really has to be on a topic or figure I’m SUPER interested in. A few years back I took a class in college on American short stories; a genre I disliked immensely until that class. Going through that class and analyzing the writing, writers, and techniques was massively impactful on me as a reader and a writer.

Getting deep into short stories gave me a real appreciation for the difficulty involved in crafting a compelling short story. There’s not a lot of wiggle room when you’re constrained in the number of letters, words, and pages you can use. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has only 3,378 words and is considered one of the greatest short stories ever written. In contrast, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, an American classic, is 100,388 words long. Granted these are two very different works, both are considered masterpieces of American writing, and as primarily a reader of novels I figured “To Kill a Mockingbird” would resonate with me more. I was immensely incorrect. This happened time and again when I read a new short story, I was amazed at the breadth of the story being told so deftly in so few words. So, reading this new style of fiction pushed me as a writer to attempt to write in the short story style, but it also gave me tools on how good writers can cut parts out of stories to keep the word count down without sacrificing content, emotion, or story itself.

Finally, reading causes thinking which is crucial for good writing. As a writer, when you read something your brain is sifting through the writing and analyzing it. For me, this is mostly subconscious until something big pops out at me; which is usually something really interesting and new or a mistake. Then as I read more, I’m consciously looking for more of the same from this author. I’m looking for more simple grammar errors, or I’m looking for more correct uses of relatively unknown military jargon, or whatever the case may be but I’m critically analyzing the writing now. It’s another way for me to connect with the writing, and ultimately a skill that helps me hone my own abilities as a writer.

This is something I do with my favorite writers more than I do with new writers. The higher the esteem I have a particular writer, the deeper I delve into their writing. Surprisingly enough this has led to some big letdowns when a writer I really like cranks out something particularly subpar. There are lots of reasons writers, especially those published by major houses, could release an inferior piece of writing; deadlines, contract fulfillment, lack of editing because they’re “an established writer”, etc. are all examples. It’s still a bit of a shocker when I read a new book from someone I consider a superior writer only to realize halfway through they’ve written something far below their talent level. But it is something that I notice quite often now.

Hopefully, this provides some food for thought on your writing journey, and maybe this week instead of writing every day maybe pick up a book and engage in some reading instead. Until next time, read on.

Monday, February 8, 2021

On Writing Pt. 4: Why I Write


I’m finally at a point where I can tackle some of the more personal reasons in the “Why I Write” series. Not that I wasn’t able to talk about this back in 2018 when I started this series, but time and introspection have given me a better grasp and hopefully a more relatable way to communicate this topic. I have prefaced other posts with the disclaimer that what I write is often subjective and is based on my own personal experiences. This post will definitely fall into that area. I don’t want to assume that what works for me will work for everyone. I’m basing all of this on my own experiences, and to be brutally honest these reasons don’t even always work for me, but they’ve worked more often than not and have generally helped me.

I’ll start at an easier place in terms of the reasons of why I write. Enjoyment, pleasure, and fun are all very much reasons why I write. I get a LOT of joy from writing. Both the physical process of putting words on paper and the mental process of compiling ideas, strategizing and crafting an outline. All of these engage my brain in a way that has always been fun. I know full-well that many people will find this taxing even to the point of anger, but for me, there are few other activities I find as enjoyable as writing. It’s one of the reasons large writing projects for school were never a chore for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the task to the point where my teachers starting giving me very strict word count restrictions.

I think one of the reasons I’m good at my job is the enjoyment I get out of writing. I’ve never looked at the correlation between job satisfaction and job performance, but I like my job and I think a big part of that is because I get to do something I enjoy. It’s not a chore to come to work and while I don’t get joy from doing inventory, planning product releases, or inspecting and assembling pens; I do get joy from writing the blog, newsletter, and product descriptions. My love of writing has definitely helped keep me sane and engaged at a few different jobs, and I like to think my employers have benefitted from this skill.

Even though I enjoy writing on a visceral level, I’m still plagued with a lot of insecurities. “Is this good enough?”, “No one is going to care.”, “Does this make sense?”, “I’m never going to finish this story/book/paper.”, and “I just don’t have it in me, I’ll never succeed” are just a few of the myriad of negative thoughts that beat back my writing and sometimes tamp down my enjoyment. It’s a battle to fight through a negative headspace, I’m well aware of how hard you have to fight to get through it. Having spent a lot of my life fighting battles of all kinds, I know this type of combat is one of the hardest to win. It’s why I’m such a huge proponent of finding the tools that help you win. It doesn’t have to be a pen, it could be colored pencils and brown paper bags, a typewriter, or a sharpie and a piece of cardboard. If you can find the right “weapons” to take to this battle, they’ll help you persevere.

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not ALWAYS going to be fun. I don’t always write for enjoyment. Sometimes I write just for catharsis. In fact, there have been huge portions of my life where writing was solely something I did as a form of therapy. Before I ever saw a therapist, I was using the process of writing as a way to process grief, pain, loss, and trauma. I think I was a teenager when I began employing this method of therapy-via-writing. I used it quite a bit when I was in the Army, but by then it was at the direction of a therapist. While I highly recommend using writing in this fashion, it’s even more useful when done in conjunction with a therapist of some kind helping to wade through the sometimes overwhelming amount of “stuff” that’s written down.

I’m also grateful to be at a place where I can now go back and read some of what I’ve written and learn from it. Identify the negativity or things in my life that were impacting my mental state through the words I wrote and use it to help navigate future situations where I could possibly run into the same problems. For a long time, I was “fire-and-forget” when it came to writing. I didn’t go back and read what I’d written, or if I did it was right after I wrote it down and it was still too raw for me to get much out of it. I didn’t go back months or years later and read the pages because I thought it would be too hurtful of an experience. I’ve learned that for me, it can be extremely beneficial to come back and read what I wrote in 2018, 2010, or way back in 1996. I have to be in a good space when I do this, otherwise it can turn into an exercise of just bashing my old self, but if I come into it from a desire to learn from past mistakes or places of harm then it can be very helpful.

I’ve used journaling, poetry, prose, short stories, and even writing prompts to process grief, loss, abandonment, depression, loneliness, failure, and a vast array of other painful emotional and mental situations. I wrote every day when I was deployed to Iraq during my second tour in 2005-2006. Mostly poetry and short stories that dealt heavily with loss, fear, loneliness, and anger while at the same time running an Operations Center and leading several soldiers. It’s my opinion that my writing allowed me to be a better leader and to do my job better; that not keeping all of that bottled up inside allowed me to focus on the mission. Looking back, it’s surreal to think that I spent most of my downtime writing some really raw personal experiences, but it allowed me to then work 12-16 hours a day and not be distracted.

So far, I’ve covered the opposite spectrums of why I write in terms of emotions and headspace. I’ll finish up with a different look at it. Another very real reason in terms of why I write is just the amount of stuff I have in my head at any given time. I’ve mentioned having a pretty big imagination in other posts, and that’s definitely part of it. I’m constantly thinking of ideas for stories. They pop into my head at random times, mostly unbidden. If I allow them, they’ll take over almost all of my thoughts throughout the day. I can remember times when I worked retail where I’d spend an entire 8-hour shift working through an idea that grew into a story. Covering characters, dialogue, plot structure, etc. eventually simply playing the story in my head as if I was reading it, from start to finish. If the story was good enough, I’d start the process over the next day with this story playing in my brain like an audiobook. I can build entire stories this way, developing them and nurturing them as if they’re a living thing inside my head. The problem with this overactive imagination is that while I have these massive stories complete or nearly complete in my head, it’s a daunting task to transfer them to written form. I continue to try to write them down, in bits and pieces because it’s so overwhelming at times. This is the hardest part for me, knowing that I will probably never get all the words out onto the page.

But it’s not just story and plot. I can be pretty opinionated; though I try to hold that side of myself in. I’ll read something and start crafting a response or rebuttal. I’ll be at work reading through articles on writing, marketing, or something similar, and I’ll get a bit fired up, my brain will start working through what I’d say in response to parts of the article. There’s only so much space inside my head, and getting that stuff out onto paper helps free up my mental RAM. Plus, in these situations, it’s usually pretty healthy to get my opinions written down, and then most of the time I end up tossing them in the trash. So much of this type of writing is a knee-jerk response to something I don’t agree with and while it’s helpful to get it written down, it’s not always healthy to share it with anyone. So I end up deleting or tossing this type of response in the trash.

Writing is a lot of things to me, and I know that what I write isn’t going to be for everyone. My audience is pretty small, sometimes my audience is just me. But I’m okay with that. Even if what I’ve written is never read by another person, the process is genuinely helpful for a variety of reasons. I’ve come to think of writing as not just a chore, it’s become a part of me. It’s an integral part of who I am, a natural extension of thinking. It’s also become intertwined with how I speak. Writing has made me a better speaker and a more capable communicator. It’s interesting to see just how impactful writing has been on my life. It’s made me a better thinker, improved my ability to reason, helped me develop as a problem solver, assisted in my growth as a leader, changed how I communicate, helped me process emotions both good and bad, and become so present in all of my life that it’s hard to think of life without it.

This is just one part of the puzzle of Why I Write. Hopefully, my musings help you in your own journey to put “pen to paper”. Until next time, keep writing.


Monday, February 1, 2021

On Writing Pt. 3: Why I Write


Three years have passed since I started this topic. The first two posts in this series were posted in January and March 2018, and while I wrote two other posts for this series they never got uploaded. I'm returning to this series specifically because I think it's an important topic. Not just for me but for many people that write. I think there is great benefit about thinking about why one writes. While I may end up posting the two posts that were written in 2018, I've changed enough over the years that I decided to start with Part 3 from where I'm at now. It's fitting since that post is less a "Why I Write" and more about the "where" parts of writing. I'm hoping to wrap up this series in 2021 with this new Part 3 and four more posts that I've already outlined. To keep some momentum going, the next couple blogs will be On Writing pieces. You've been warned. Here is Part 3.