• April is National Poetry Month!

    Prose writers can click here to find one way to honor their poetry fellows. See what Pacific Northwest poets are doing in April here.
  • I’m a writer, too!

    On 12.01.09, I estimated that I had about 32,000 words left to write to complete my first draft of the opening book in my paranormal mystery series, THE LOST & FOUND.

    Here's my progress updated 2.12.10:

    33% of 32,000 (10,648 wds)
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Publishing’s electronic horizons: reality check for writers

2010 is definitely the year that electronic book readers force the questions, will books continue to exist, and if so, in what forms?

Writers have everything to gain by remaining on top of this debate and everything to lose if they deny the value of electronic publishing.

 So do readers, for that matter. What’s at stake for them is the future quality and diversity of all literature.

Here are a handful of links to get the earnest author-to-be  started.

Feb 8, 2010
from Joyful Thoughts
Ebooks and Ereaders
by Joy Collins
Most notably, Collins writes:

…if you are an author, now is your time. EBook lines are usually more open to new authors, giving you a better than average chance of being published. Your readers can get your book in seconds which means the chances of them making their purchase increases since they don’t have to get in their car and go to your book signing, or go to a bookstore, or order online and then wait for the book to arrive in the mail.

Feb 8, 2010
from GalleyCat
Penguin CEO Compares eBooks and Paperbacks
by Jason Boog
Most notably, Boog writes:

The op-ed makes no mention of the fact that the paperback evolved in the middle of the Great Depression. The model “collapsed” after the economic turmoil had passed. The eBook’s rapid growth came during another crippling recession, and $9.99 may reflect an economic reality until our own crisis has passed.

Feb 5, 2010
from Norwich Bulletin
On Writers & Writing: E-books devalue the difficult writing process of authors
by AS Maulucci
Most notably, Maulucci writes:

…when authors start giving away e-book copies of their books just to get people to read them with the hope it will generate word-of-mouth promotion, I believe they are only hurting themselves in the long run.

Feb 3, 2010
from TidBITS
Zombie Authors Threaten Fiction Ebook Market, from the Grave!
by Chris Pepper
Most notably, Pepper writes:

…it’s clear to writers like science-fiction author Charlie Stross that the old model of delivering a large chunk of words to a publisher, and then moving on to the next book, is in trouble. Over the long term, we need to figure this out to keep people writing the books we want to read, but the answer might not be comfortable – or look much like today’s fiction marketplace. One way or another, change is coming, and without taking their fate into their own hands, writers might find themselves spending more time behind the counter at Starbucks than sipping lattes with their publishers.

Feb 2, 2010
from Publicola:  Seattle’s News Elixir
How Many E-Books, Ultimately?
by Glenn Fleishman:
Most notably, Fleishman writes:

Small press doesn’t mean small sales. The statistical design genius Edward Tufte’s Graphics Press, for instance, has produced exactly seven unique titles, but has sold many millions of copies. (Tufte started his own press when he couldn’t find a mainstream publisher that could produce his first book in the way he wanted. Good move.)

Jan 29, 2010
from BoingBoing
Amazon and Macmillan go to war: readers and writers are the civilian casualties
by Cory Doctorow
Most notably, Doctorow writes:

…this is a case of two corporate giants illustrating neatly exactly why market concentration is bad for the arts.


One response to the Author’s Guild regarding Macmillan v Amazon

from the Author’s Guild
The Right Battle at the Right Time
“Macmillan’s current fight with Amazon over e-book business models is a necessary one for the industry. The stakes are high, particularly for Macmillan authors. In a squabble over e-books, Amazon quickly and pre-emptively escalated matters by…” <more>

Writer’s Rainbow’s response:
This battle is necessary because paper publishers have to *prove* they’re in the service of authors and literature and, frankly, they *aren’t,* not in 2010. They’re in the service of bottom lines, from which they extract a lot of money and from which very few authors (especially new ones) can expect to make more than a pittance, if they can break into the pearly gates at all.

I take issue with this part of Macmillan’s statement:

“Without a healthy ecosystem in publishing, one in which authors and publishers are fairly compensated for their work, the quality and variety of books available to readers will inevitably suffer.”

Let’s get something straight… do the research and you’ll find that authors do NOT receive fair compensation for their work UNLESS they’re bestsellers. And who decides bestsellers? Not readers, but publishers. Books with bestseller status arrive that way not through genuine sales but through financial arrangements made before those books are even published.

Yes, it’s a scam and it’s been going on forever.

Bestselling authors comprise a very small percentage of the total authors being published, and yet the lion’s share of revenues for book authors go primarily to the bestsellers. This is because big house publishers bank of the bestsellers to keep them afloat (by investing in their shelf positioning and bestseller status). Newer authors can only get in through the gates of traditional publishing as long as their publishers have bestsellers to draw income from.

Let’s not forget: *publishers* are making a heap big more wampum on books than authors are. So really, Macmillan’s statement, in a more accurate sense, might be one that says:

“A healthy ecosystem in publishing fairly compensates publishers for their products irregardless of the quality and variety of books available.”

This is not to say that bestsellers are not diverse or of high quality; it’s to say that there are huge numbers of excellent new authors turned away from the gates because they simply aren’t a known quantity. They aren’t “branded.”

Even poorly done books, when branded effectively, can be bestsellers.

I’ve tired of publishers claiming they care about literature and books when that’s the last thing on their minds at the end of the day. Theirs is a crappy business model from the 20th century that they’re still trying to pass off as a legitimate strategy in this century. It’s been failing since the 1970s; this is not an issue of “the economy” in 2010. The industry will keep on spiraling downward until publishers start thinking of their authors as something more than toilet paper to be sold at Costco.

Though, to be honest, that scenario makes them sound shrewd… like Amazon. Which is to point out that they really aren’t all that different from Amazon, just a vulture with a different kind of pattern to their feathers.

Who’s the big loser here? Readers. They don’t even know what they’re missing.

New writers at least have a fighting alternative to this closed process with POD and Amazon etc. The stats are out there: self-publishing is actually a better money maker for new voices in 2010. You *will* make more money off your book if you go this route. And if new writers can do well in that way, using Amazon as a vehicle, then Macmillan & Co need to rethink their business model or they’ll be missing out on all that literary landscape they believe they’re somehow advocating for.

Conquering Procrastination: Part Four of Four

Things you can do to conquer procrastination


This short blog series is designed to help you identify habits that lend to procrastination, to help you understand why you have fallen into these habits, and to offer you an action agenda for dealing with it. I know it’s only November, but now’s a great time to be thinking about New Year’s resolutions for your writing life. Certainly, procrastination is high on the list of many creative people. Why not prepare to cast off bad habits and begin new ones today?


Things you can do to avoid procrastination

  • Break down your manuscript into smaller components and tackle each component individually, one at a time. (This is the “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” approach.) You can write anything to completion in just 15 minutes a day by doing this.
  • Give yourself rewards for completion of unpleasant tasks. In example: “If I write 10,000 words toward my novel, I will take myself shopping for ___________.”
  • Make a blueprint of all the tasks you need to undertake to finish your manuscript. Rank them in order of importance to you (sometimes they rank themselves naturally because some need to be done before others can be done). Then set some completion goals (with dates and times, if possible) for each of these tasks. Be reasonable with the amount of time you expect each will take and forgive yourself if you take longer than expected. Being flexible will keep you on course until you can master a strong sense of how long things take to complete. As long as you’re working, you’re not procrastinating, and that is the ultimate goal: the get things done.
  • Allow yourself some time every day to weigh and make decisions. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough time to consider our options and then, when we are pressed to make decisions, we flail. Even 10 minutes a day spent looking at your To Do List and making decisions for that day alone can help tremendously.
  • Creative visualization really does work. Regularly daydream about succeeding at your project. Enjoy the positive feelings that come with visualizing success. Then imagine what it will take to accomplish your project. Check in on your visualizations at any time, and especially when you feel yourself faltering. (This is the “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” approach.)
  • Remember that setting out to write (and to publish) anything is a courageous act of faith. Don’t forget to consciously assign real value to your work. Do you know anyone who can do what you are doing? Probably not. Reminding yourself that what you do has unique value and durable meaning can go a long way to motivating you to your work’s completion.
  • Set up your working and/or creating environment in such a way as to minimize distractions. Don’t answer the phone (land line or cell) when you write. Don’t answer email all day long; choose specific times of the day just for these sorts of tasks, then get in, get out and let it collect offline. Turn off IM. Log off the web. Eliminate unnecessary noise and/or encounters with other people as much as possible. This may mean scheduling work time with a sign on your door that says “writer at work” so that others around you know to leave you alone. Be protective of your writing time, space and energy; if you aren’t protective of it, who will be?
  • Delegate certain tasks to others whenever possible. Sometimes we all just have too many things on our plate. Set loose those optional tasks you do out of obligation but  which only consume your time and don’t feed you. This is especially important for women, as we tend to take on unpaid, unrewarded roles out of a need to satisfy social expectations. You don’t have to be part of the PTO to be a good mom, for instance. Share your tasks with others who are better able to do it or who are more available. It is never a sign of weakness to ask for help.
  • Ask a friend to check up on you as a way to keep you accountable to your tasks. Taking a class that demands weekly homework is another way to do this. Meet with a friend to write, and then stick to that schedule.
  • Schedule periods of time that are strictly for writing and all its related tasks, if you are able. This is how Toni Morrison wrote her novels when she was a single working mother raising young children.
  • Also, just as important: schedule downtime. The working brain, like working muscles, needs quality rest. For downtime, choose activities that are relaxing and invite laughter and stress relief, such as exercise and socializing. Meditate, garden, bake, make other kinds of art, read, build jigsaw puzzles, play Sudoku.
  • Sandbag your schedule. If you’re most productive at the beginning of the week, schedule more writing time then. If you are most productive in evenings or on weekends, choose those times for scheduled writing. Figure out when you are most energetic and productive as a writer and shape your schedule to maximize this.
  • Visualize what happens if you don’t do the work of writing the book. That’s actually a way to assign positive reinforcement to your goals: if you can see what the price is you’ll be paying for not doing the work, you’ll be more likely to get the work done to avoid unpleasant consequences.
  • Sometimes writers get bogged down in lots of small tasks that still need completion. Take one day every couple of weeks and tend to these nagging details. Do them, one after the other. Completing them will make you feel like you’re accomplishing something (because you are) and alleviate some of the weight that comes with the task of writing. There’s evidence that striking things off the To Do List generates a sense of chemical well-being in the brain; treat yourself when you can!
  • Remind yourself that if you can talk, if you can think… then you can write.
  • If you panic at the presence of a blank page, sit inside that panic for a few minutes. Recognize how it comes on. Understand that fear is self-limiting. It comes on, it lingers, and then it fades. Knowing this makes it possible for you to own the fear. Say, “This is my fear. It happens to me sometimes. It’s all mine and of my own creation. But it has not destroyed me, it has just delayed me because I have allowed it to.” And then tell it to go away, you have work to do. Literally. Once you own your fear, you can tell it what to do. Try it.
  • Take notice of other places in your life where you procrastinate. Awareness is the first step to combating all sorts of personal bad habits, including procrastination.
  • Remember this: You’ll never know what you can do if you don’t do it. The lesson here is this: Living in regret is far more damaging than the wounds of other people’s judgments or a failed writing project (which is still a step toward something better).

Feel free to share your solutions to the pervasive problems that procrastination presents in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what other ways you’ve been able to keep your manuscripts on target!

See Also:
Conquering Procrastination─Part One of Four:
“Indicators that you’re procrastinating”

Conquering Procrastination─Part Two of Four:
“Reasons why you might be procrastinating”

Conquering Procrastination─Part Three of Four:
“Lies we tell ourselves”

Public Domain Image: “Three Little Pigs: Third Pig Builds a House” by L. Leslie Brooke, from The Golden Goose Book, 1905. Courtesy Project Gutenberg.

Interview with author Jennifer Culkin

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I am more fascinated than ever with creative nonfiction. Whether it’s memoir, a collection of personal essays, or creative journalism, the narratives of people’s lives inspire and inform me in ways that straightforward biography simply doesn’t.

Recently I read an amazing collection of personal essays by local author, Jennifer Culkin. Her book, A Final Arc of Sky, recounts her experiences as a critical care nurse and life-flight medic within the framework of her life as a working mother with multiple sclerosis. I found the depth of her narrative astounding and truly appreciated the intimacy of her essays because they illuminated a lifestyle I’ll never be privy to myself.

Today I offer an interview I recently conducted with Jennifer; we chatted quite a bit about the writing life in general, and what follows are insights into her world that readers of the Writer’s Rainbow blog are sure to glean something from.


An Interview with author Jennifer Culkin, author of the memoir, A Final Arc of Sky

Writer’s Rainbow: What is the greatest pleasure you take from writing?

Jennifer Culkin: It feels like a form of wrestling to me—muscular, up-close engagement with feelings, ideas and language.  When I sit down, I usually have something sitting in my gut that has arrested my attention in some way, but I don’t know exactly what there is to say about it.  I write in part to discover—with as much precision and specificity as I can—what there is to say about it.  Tremendously satisfying.  It hits any number of sweet spots.

WR: Do you have a particular weakness in your skill set or process that continues to hound you as a writer?

JC: Oh, there are a lot of things.  The worst is that when a deadline is coming up I’m a horrible procrastinator, and ultimately that’s as painful as ripping out fingernails.  But I don’t know how to change that about myself.  I’ve tried all sorts of schedules and mind-games but the writer in me seems to be a balky teenager who wants to sleep late.  Sigh. And I’m a slow writer.  That’ll never change. 

I’d also like to write a novel, but I’m not a great plotter.  I do think I have potential to improve in that area—it could be fun to make the effort to improve in that area.  And I’m sick of my own tics as a writer.  If I’m boring myself, I’m boring the reader.

WR: You’re a busy working mom. Are you an everyday writer, or do you just write when you can fit it into your schedule?

JC: When I work at the hospital, my day starts at 4:30 AM and I don’t get home until about 9:15 PM; work is a fast trot/total immersion for twelve hours and there generally isn’t a minute available on those days, unless I were to try to jam something into a notebook at lunch. 

Usually I do a desultory crossword puzzle at lunch and luxuriate in the sensation of sitting down.  But those long days enable me to work 2-3 days per week instead of 4-5.  I do write something every day I don’t work—whatever I feel like writing unless I’m under a deadline.  When no deadline is looming, I amuse myself.

WR: What’s your favorite writing “situation”—where and when do you like to work best, and with what tools?

JC: I’m a computer girl.  I love the glowing blue-blank page, the tactile click of the keys, and my process is completely dependent on the ability to edit as I go.  I don’t know what will happen if the end of the world comes and the lights go out permanently.  Or if MS worsens to the point I can’t type.  I dread that day.  But I suppose I’d adapt, like people do.  

I have an office-loft that overlooks the living room in my home, and because of the office chair and adjustable computer screen it’s physically the most comfortable place to write for hours—my neck and shoulders thank me.  But the informality of the laptop in other locales also has its little siren call.  Once I’m engaged with what I’m writing—once I’ve achieved escape velocity—I can do it anywhere with any amount of background noise.  Right now I’m sort of half watching the Tour de France.  Boys on bikes!

WR: Describe any writing rituals you might have.

JC: I always feel like writing first thing in the morning, so most days I do, right after I make the killer cup of coffee.  When I’m working on something serious, I put on these old black corduroy pants that have an elastic waistband and I sit down in my loft.  If I’m stuck or feeling particularly procrastinatory, I either journal about it so I can bitch to myself or I deal myself out three Tarot cards and divine my future.

WR: Do you ever play music while you write?

JC: I did it once—listened to Green Day’s American Idiot on my MP3 player while I worked on the “Night Vision” chapter of the book.  It was fun—almost addictive fun—but the voice in the chapter took on punk overtones.

WR: You’re an avid cyclist. Do you ever lose yourself in thoughts about writing while trekking around on your bike?

JC: I love riding because I can think about everything in the universe while my legs are busy.  The feel-good neurotransmitters start to flow and take the edge off everyday anxiety. 

I’ve also noticed that my physical abilities transiently improve when I engage in vigorous exercise.  The physical and biochemical changes that occur during exercise must make nerve impulse transmission more efficient across those damaged areas in my brain and spinal cord.  

It’s also my chance to listen to music as much as I want.  Mudhoney, anyone?  The straight life baby/has taken its toll/confined your mind and/stolen your souuullll…yup, it’ll get you up a hill.

WR: Your book, A Final Arc of Sky, is a memoir about your life as a critical care and life-flight nurse. However, you also interweave in the narrative your discovery of what would be the eventual diagnosis of MS.

I’m interested in the intersection where nursing, writing and multiple sclerosis meet: how does encountering each of these facets of your life inform the others in this trinity? Does nursing inform writing, does writing inform self-care for the MS, does the MS inform you as a nurse?

JC: Hmm, a complicated question.

Physically, for me at this stage, MS is like carrying around a 20-pound backpack all the time.  I’m not so severely impacted that I can’t do things I want to do, but my energy is extremely finite.  It goes, it goes!  It always goes before I’m ready for it to go.  My energy is like the caboose of the train I ran to catch, disappearing into the distance.  And once it goes my neurologic symptoms—dizziness, balance issues, tremor/fine-motor impairment, spasticity, deficits in memory and information processing—get worse, sometimes a lot worse.  Too tired for too long and I’m setting myself up for a flare—that happens about twice a year at present.  

So I have to husband my energy.  I can push myself—I’m the sort who will push herself—but sometimes that backfires.  It’s not always the right answer.  Critical-care nursing in my current setting is demanding physically, intellectually and emotionally, so I know two days a week I’m going to have to go all out for 12 hours, 17 if you count the commute. 

On one hand, I think it improves my endurance in the big picture, like cycling does.  My natural inclination as a person is to put out a huge, focused effort followed by sloth.  This is why 12-hour shifts in an intense specialty appeals to me.  In college and grad school, I was the type who wrote 30-page papers the day before they were due.  But now that sort of effort is often too much for me. 

I manage by working part-time.  I manage by having low domestic standards and expectations of myself.  We’re talking cracked paint and weeds.  I manage by living in the now.  I don’t know what my abilities will be later in the day, next week or next year.  I judge minute to minute what I can do and screw the rest, frankly.  When I truly CAN’T throw my leg over my bike or start an IV anymore, when it’s an absolute, then I will at least know I did it when I could.

Artistically, nursing uses a whole different area of my brain as opposed to writing.  It’s immediate, scientific-analytical, highly social, and cracks along at record speed.  Writing is both a physical and an emotional release from that.  It’s sedentary, solitary, ruminative and painstaking—I can give myself all the time in the world to sort it out and get it right. 

The way they balance each other is almost exquisite.  When I write I’m sitting down, physically resting, and I get a chance to think about what I’ve done.  A chance to think about all the little things that I noticed while I was taking care of patients, and while I was living life, but had no time to dwell on.  And writing is a safe place to explore my feelings about MS. 

My circle of family and friends is supportive, very supportive, but they have their own problems and in my estimation they shouldn’t have to worry about mine any more than I can help.  I don’t want to whine to them.  So I can have my unadulterated say about MS in a journal and it bothers nobody.

WR: You like to journal and it was your journaling that helped bring this book into existence. What piece of advice would you give to the would-be author who is considering a practice of journaling?

JC: You only have to please yourself when you’re journaling.  That’s the beauty of it.  Whatever your practice is, it should feel good—organic–to you. 

 If you have to force yourself to journal, then it might not be the right thing for you, or so says my sulky inner teenager.  Your journal should be a place of release and rest.  I have a lot of writer friends, and everyone’s idea of journaling seems to be different, which is great.  Some people only journal by hand, some people draw in their journals, some people collect tactile bits of life and stick them in their journals.  Some jot down cryptic phrases and ideas for development later.

My own journal is a place of focused play.  Extensive focused play, all in Word documents with weird little titles that clue me in to what I wrote about.  I zero in on something that intrigues me, bothers me, sticks with me in some way, and I tend to explore and develop the theme. 

I love tinkering with the craft of writing, with the language, punctuation and construction—it feels satisfying to do that, and in fact, that is how I become engaged each day in whatever I’m writing, I start by tinkering with what I’ve already written.  So my journal tends to be dense, to read like a piece I might publish, but I can be no-holds-barred honest and the pressure is completely off. 

I don’t journal with the idea that I’ll use any of it, but then I’ll find myself working on something and I’ll realize oh, I’ve already written about that.  I tell a story to myself in my journal, and sometimes I can then tell others the same story, or modify some of it for use.  

Writing is art, and art is not linear.  A journal isn’t linear, either.  So if your natural tendencies as a writer are anything like mine, this style of journaling might be useful to you.  It is time-consuming, though, without any certainty of payoff in the real world.

And a word about e-mails: I have some lovely, talented writer friends who are generous with their ears and their time, and I sometimes exchange pretty extensive e-mails with them.  This is one way I procrastinate, true, but sometimes there is good stuff in these e-mails and I can use it later.  Maybe you’re like me, and you can, too.

And one more thing. I talk myself through stuck places with journaling.  When I write, I have three documents open: the piece I’m working on, a document called “Outtakes” for phrases and paragraphs that need to come out in the short-term but that sometimes find a place later on, and a document called “Notes”.  “Notes” is for talking to myself and figuring out why I’m stuck.  Sometimes I’ll get on a jag in “Notes” and realize I’m not stuck anymore; I can cut and paste a whole section back into the piece and keep going.

WR: You won the Rona Jaffe prize last August for your memoir. Describe that experience.

JC: I was at work, having a busy day in the Emergency Department Observation Unit.  I checked my voicemail at lunch on June 30th last year and there was a message from Beth McCabe of the Rona Jaffe Foundation asking me to return her call.  It was 3pm here, and they’re on the East Coast, so it was too late to call her back, but I figured then I had won.  They never call if you lose; they send a thin letter. 

That was a moment of pure elation.  And over the next several months the Rona Jaffe Foundation was so good to the six of us who won.  They did their utmost to publicize and showcase us and our work, and I’m still using the $25,000 to supplement my income so I can work part-time instead of full-time.  The money is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

WR: What are you working on now?

JC: At this point, I’m a little fatigued, and I’m trying to figure out what might cohere into a second book.  I write most days as I always have, but I’m in a phase where nothing is linear and nothing seems to be adding up. There’s good compost, but no garden yet!

Registration open! “Silencing the Critic” Online Class

WRAIN 500: Silencing the Critic (group strategies for dealing with the inner critic)  Sign up here
Duration: Three sessions of live interaction supplemented by handouts from instructor
Format: Online/Interactive
Dates:September 13 through 27 (Sundays, time windows: TBD)
Description: In this three-week interactive workshop, you’ll use your time to discuss the inner critic: how it manifests in your life and what to do about it. Participants are expected to join in all 3 live private chats, which I will moderate and direct, and will be given “homework” which essentially assists with behavior modification and awareness of negative self-talk issues. During these chats, you will be expected to answer specific questions related to your inner critic and offer brief responses to your “homework” assignments. My aim is to use the very small and focused live group discussion to show participants that they are not alone, that they all have good solutions to share, and that together we, as writers, can help each other through the pitfalls of the creative life.
                This class is appropriate for all creative people at all levels of ability. My specific focus will reflect creativity coaching training I’ve received from the Eric Maisel program. Handouts will cover different aspects of the inner critic. This class is limited to 6 members and will meet with me through a private platform online initially, then again in the live forum. There is an orientation period so that participants can familiarize themselves with both the platform (which is pretty easy to use) and the live forum feature. Participants are encouraged to be honest and open-minded about their problems with the inner critic in this safe, private, and nurturing environment.
               Live chats will occur on Sundays; chat meeting time will be determined after class fills. Homework and handouts discussed at live chat. This workshop will be offered again in January 2010.
Texts/materials: Announced once class is filled
Price/Payment Form:$75; PayPal
Registration Deadline: August 30 Sign up here
Class Min/Max: 3/6
Platform orientation: September 6

Writing with a beginner’s mind, or: What you know could hurt you

Despite my recent disappointment with Write To Done (in which Leo’s list of big-time writers and their processes completely lacked any mother writers), I still faithfully read Leo’s other blog, ZenHabits (where I originally uncovered the aforementioned list) and continue to find many useful things to cull from it.

A recent guest post at WTD from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen, “How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind,” targets anyone who finds their day-to-day life dull and uninspired. I found every aspect and tip Jaksch recommended for employing the Beginner’s Mind in daily life extremely relevant to the writing life.

I especially found resonance with aspect #3: “Use Don’t Know Mind” (and its corresponding tips, “A don’t know mind leaves room for intuition” and “Let go of knowing—that’s real wisdom.”).

Sometimes, as an editor, I spot this in competent writing from recent grad school grads. After all, they just earned an MFA; isn’t it obvious that they know something? Of course, they should know more coming out of school than they knew going in. Don’t get me wrong; their sentences and lines are technically strong and are usually (though not always) revised with precision. Even so, the narratives inside their writing, whether fictions, true stories or poems, don’t often move past the tricks they just learned in school.

Knowledge isn’t the cornerstone of great writing. It’s the uncharted journey toward knowing, when captured on the page, that gives great writing its elan. This is where the real writing life resides—inside the Venn diagram of things we don’t know but need to discover.

Readers find it pleasurable, sure, to read others’ accounts and interpretations of what they already understand about the world, if only to certify what they know. We speak of writers in this way as “preaching to the choir,” but let’s face it, the choir doesn’t mind singing along. Why should writers move beyond that expectation?

Really great writing comes as a risk to the writer. It’s the risk they take in admitting they don’t know something, then laying out the navigation for the voyage into understanding. It means calling into account all the things a writer thought they once knew, and questioning them, even correcting them or changing position. This is what makes writing compelling versus sentimental or nostalgic; this is what turns a writer into a human being on the page rather than a bullhorn (or, less subtly, but just as effectively, a bird call).

Writers, at certain points along their career time lines, can occasionally enjoy the spoils of achievement: comfort with success, pride in acquired knowledge, and confidence that they’ve earned their keep. Some call this “sitting in the catbird seat,” some call it “resting on laurels.” Writers should enjoy that feeling for a moment—it’s hard earned, after all—but only for a moment. Then it’s back to morning pages, or the salt mines, or the opening of veins or the dream journals or whatever it is that gets the words on the page.

Consider all the “know it alls” in your life. Aren’t they also the least willing to learn something new? Think about it. In their minds, why should they? They know everything they need to know. They have documents to prove it, right?

Not true for writers. If we spend our time rehashing what we already know (this is where the old writer’s proverb, “Write what you know,” gets us in trouble), we miss the point of our metier entirely.

The hard road to achieving our writing dreams resides not in all of our degrees and publication credits and requests for appearances and notoriety, but in pushing through all the hard knocks that come from getting words on the page (usually managed while handling the hard knocks of real life). It’s around these dark corners, when we allow ourselves to go there, that our success awaits us.

If you’re feeling comfortable in your writing life but haven’t quite hit the pinnacle that you envision as your ultimate career goal, then perhaps tuning back into the Beginner’s Mind is where you should begin, again. Forget what you know; it’s remembering what you don’t know that will pave the way.

Katherine Grace Bond takes adult writers where only teens went before

This sounds like a blast!

Writers’ Odyssey

August 6-8, 2008 (3 days, 2 nights), $250

Ages: Adults and nearly adults
You must be at least a senior in high school to participate in Writers’ Odyssey.

Location: Olympic Hostel, Fort Worden

What is Writers’ Odyssey?

  • You will spend 3 days and 2 nights at Fort Worden embarking on the hero’s journey.
  • You will become your character for the entire session (costumes welcome).
  • Teen Write is a role playing game. You’ll be given written instructions that tell you where to find hidden objects or other characters who will help you on your journey. Only this is live. This is not like any role playing you’ve ever done before!
  • You and the other writers will live in parallel universes. Perhaps for you, it’s 1587 in Scotland. For someone else, it may be 2526 on a planet similar to Earth. Perhaps someone kills you in their story; in yours, you may just beam up to your ship.
  • At each stage of your journey, you will write the next part of your story.
  • On the last day, you will hear how everyone’s journey went—and how you were a part of their stories.

For more information contact mailto:Katherine@KatherineGraceBond.com