One Quick Way to Refine Your Writing Voice

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

Describe yourself in three (or four, tops) adjectives. Now, make sure those qualities are coming through in what you write. If you’re funny, your writing should be (at times, at least) funny. If you’re erudite, that should be there. If you love pop culture, that should be apparent.

If those qualities are not coming through in what you write, start working to make sure they do. Use what makes you special and weird. Be you. As Dolly Parton said, “Figure out who you are, then do it on purpose.”

Workouts for Writers

You can totally do this 7-minute workout in the middle of your writing day.

You can totally do this 7-minute workout (from the New York Timesin the middle of your writing day.

Yes, I mean actual physical workouts for writers, not writing exercises. Some physical movement almost always comes up when writers discuss their daily routines, and for good reason: Otherwise, writing involves sitting your ass in a chair for hours on end. We all know this basically means we’re going to die of over-sedentary-ness. That’s why everyone’s getting treadmill desks. On the other hand, there are plenty of ways for writers to take a break for some physical activity — while still, in some ways, also contributing to their writing work:

Walking: If you read the great book Daily Rituals, you’ll see that many, many creative people have worked walks into their routines throughout the ages. You’ll almost always come back from a walk inspired, either because you solved a specific writing problem — everyone knows that doing something other than writing is often just the thing for solving problems — or because you saw something interesting on your walk.

Yoga: Many writers I know do yoga. Myself included. It helps calm down the kind of overactive mind writers tend to have; it also has meditative qualities that can help when writing. I’ve written before about how meditation can help your writing as well.

Playing music: Yes, I’m including this in “exercise,” because it has similar benefits — some musical instruments, like the drums, really are quite physically demanding, and all music engages different parts of your brain that can help your writing. Here’s a great piece about how playing the drums can help writers. Listening to music while doing a real workout can help, too; it implants rhythms into your head and allows you to listen to lyrics.

Running, strength, etc.: Really any kind of workout can wake your brain up, either in the morning as a signal that it’s time to work, or in the afternoon when you’re slumping.

Writing Is Almost Never Fun

58251_7227I’m going to continue linking to my friends over at Vocal Articles, this time to the insight that you must “Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable.”  Again, they’re talking about singing, and again, I’m saying: They might as well be talking about writing.

Many people give up too early on their writing or become frozen by fear because writing isn’t nearly as fun as they thought it would be. Maybe they enjoyed it as a kid or have always liked writing in journals, but once they turn it into a more serious pursuit, they figure they’re not cut out for it because it feels hard sometimes. A lot of the time. Most of the time.

I have news: Professional writers struggle, too. We hate writing. Seriously. I mean, we must like something about it. I know I like having written. But the process can be torturous, at least until you realize that a lot of it will suck. It’s like any other practice or training: Running long distances can hurt. Practicing scales can be boring or frustrating. But we do these things because we crave the end results, and because we get better by doing them. The same is true for writing.

Try new things, even if that means promising yourself you don’t have to show these writing experiments to anyone. If they turn out well, maybe you’ll change your mind; maybe you’ll even publish them. Or you’ll use the lessons learned in some other way. The mistakes you make in writing can feel like “wasted” time, but they usually lead you to the right ideas, the better ideas.

On the other hand, I also encourage you—just like my singing friends at Vocal Articles—to get your work out there at some point, in some way. You don’t have to read to a room full of total strangers; maybe just taking a writing class where you share work or trading work with friends will do. You’ll most likely get some good feedback at some point—laughs, nods of recognition—that will show you’re onto something. If nothing else, you’ll learn to let go of your work a bit, and you’ll learn that sharing your work won’t kill you. It only makes you stronger.

Singing Voice, Writing Voice

My band, No Ambition. (photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis)

My band, No Ambition. (photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis)

Whenever I teach lessons about “writing voice” in my classes, I end up talking about singing. I love to sing and have learned a ton about it since I became the lead singer in my very amateur band, No Ambition. We are very amateur, but we do like to practice, and we’re always getting better. (I think the magic of our shows isn’t necessarily that we are good, but that we are way, way better each time we play. We have a narrative arc, like Dancing With the Stars.) My partner in the band, Melissa, also happens to be a professional opera singer and sometime voice coach, so she always has great advice for me. (Yes, our professional singer is our drummer, and our non-professional singer is our singer; I told you we were amateur.) Little adjustments make big differences, especially when you’re first learning a craft.

We call it writing voice for a reason. It really is about how writing “sounds,” even though it’s printed on a page and only “sounds” in the writer’s, and then the reader’s, head. Lots of what works for singing voice works for writing voice; I also find that because singing is a physical act we’ve all tried at least once in our lives, sometimes thinking about voice first from a singing perspective can help us all understand adjustments we can make in our writing voice.

Because of my interest in both kinds of voice, I’ve gotten really into reading this blog, Vocal Articles, an offshoot of New York Vocal Coaching. The post that caught my eye today was “Don’t Park and Bark,” which addresses the phenomenon of “those that just stand and sing, paying no attention whatsoever to the words they are singing, but instead just trying to impress with vocal acrobatics.” Well, writers, we are just as guilty of this in our own way. Many of my students do this thing where they look up normal words in the thesaurus and cram the fancier versions of these words into their writing, thinking this makes it better. Great words are great; totally sign up for word-a-day emails and get comfortable with them. But they need to come out of you in a natural, authentic way, not as a means of distracting readers from your writing — with your writing.

It’s a pet peeve of mine when I see teenagers with great voices on American Idol or The Voice, trying to sing deep, dark lyrics clearly out of their range of life experience. They can nail the notes, but they can’t connect to the words. I’d rather watch and listen to an expressive singer with an okay voice than a dead-inside one with a great voice. I think the same is true in writing; if they come from a real place, the most ordinary words can reach inside you. And the fanciest writing can leave you bored and cold. Of course you want to be taken seriously. Of course you want to sound smart. But focus on presenting serious, smart ideas then; and do it in your own, authentic words.

#NaNoWriMo and Awakening the Tiger

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegYesterday I had lunch with one of my good friends, Andrea, who’s also a top editor at two national magazines. She’s currently the top editor, in fact, because her boss is on maternity leave and she’s filling in, making all of the major decisions for three months. At the moment, I am eight days away from turning in a non-fiction book manuscript that I’ve been working on for about 18 months.

But we barely talked about any of this major stuff going on in our professional lives. We spent almost all of our 90-minute lunch talking about National Novel Writing Month, or #NaNoWriMo to the blogosphere.

Every November for the past several years, writers across the country have made this idea more and more popular. The idea is that anyone who wants to participate pledges to write 50,000 words towards a novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. You can officially sign up at the website to track your progress and see others’. Or you can just do it on your own. I am such a huge fan of this because it speaks to something many people ask me about, and I have written about a lot lately: how to get over “writer’s block,” or how to finish what you start, or how to start writing to begin with. The answer is, you just do. #NaNoWriMo is one of the few popular approaches to writing that I’ve liked. Many books and seminars are all about getting in touch with your feelings and journaling or whatever, which is fine. But the fact is that at some point you have to put down the books, and even get out of the journal, if you want to be a published writer.

Andrea is doing #NaNoWriMo despite the extra demands of her job right now. She reports that it has led to such strange behaviors as skipping out on drinks with friends to go home and write. She also reports that most of the writing she’s done is pretty crappy, but she’s doing it. (First drafts are always crappy. The crappiness is a good sign; it means you’re doing a lot of writing that you can fix later.) She also reports that seeing her friends’ progress and feeling friendly-competitive with them is incredibly motivating. The discussion over lunch led us to both talk about our novel ideas, which was fun and invigorating. It reminded me of a time when I hadn’t published any books, and neither had my friends, and we just talked about writing because we loved it. We all need this in our creative lives.

This brings me to my other favorite motivator of the day, this blog post I came across about getting in touch with “the tiger.”  It’s on a blog about vocal coaching, but it applies to any kind of creative project. The author, voice teacher David McCall, talks about how important motivation is as an ingredient in inspiration—his metaphor is “waking the tiger.” He illuminates the difference in his motivation levels depending on why he’s really doing something:

The statement “help others” is simple and unembellished, but the best motivating desires generally are. You’ll find that what you want isn’t that sophisticated when it’s boiled down. It’s a clean, active verb. It’s a verb I can be engaged in one hundred percent of my work day since my job is to help singers. Bingo! Cue the music–the Tiger is in the building!

I become a grade A procrastinator when I complicate my Tiger’s motivating action. I do it more often than I care to admit. I’m not always conscious of it. Instead of “to help people,” my subconscious mind will add “to help people see me as a great vocal coach ” or “to help people recognize my new haircut .” The Tiger goes beddy-bye. I’ve suddenly shifted my action to be a selfish goal, diffusing my eagerness.

I love this. If you find yourself unable to get yourself to start or finish a writing project, it’s a great idea to ask yourself: Why do I want to do this particular project? It’s okay if your answer is that you need to make money to pay your bills or that you need to finish an assignment for class. If those are your answers, often you’re motivated enough that you never have to ask the question. But if you’re really stuck, maybe you’re not doing it for the right reasons. Maybe it’s actually not worth doing. Start something else instead, and see if your tiger wakes up.


Dorothy Parker Was a Really Good Writer

220px-Young_Dorothy_ParkerAt the risk of sounding like some 12-year-old who keeps telling everyone how awesome the Sex Pistols are as if she is the first person to discover this: You guys, Dorothy Parker was so fucking awesome. I have, of course, long known about her and admired her, mainly for those pithy quotes we all see attributed to her from time to time. When former President Calvin Coolidge died, she said, “How could they tell?” Her suggested epitaph for herself: “Excuse my dust.” Again, contemplating her death: “That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.

But now I am reading the entirety of The Portable Dorothy Parker, and I am blown away by her true literary talent. I knew she was witty and could write a scathing review. But her short stories are divine; I have read no one else who chooses words more carefully. She suggests lifetimes in a few pages. Later in her life, she played down her own contributions to culture, as well as those of her fellow Algonquin Roundtable regulars:

These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them… There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth…

I think, however, that she deserved to be remembered at least as much for her literary writing as for her wisecracks. I suspect she wasn’t for two reasons: One is, naturally, sexism; the other is that short stories often get short shrift. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway aren’t remembered for their short stories. They’re remembered for their Great American Novels. I personally find poems and short stories the hardest to write—such economical forms leave little room for error. But she nailed them consistently. She also rendered the female experience of the time in heartbreaking detail: the emotional roller-coaster of waiting for a husband to return from war, the absurdity of wedding-night sex, the terror of being stuck dancing with some dolt you can’t stand. One suspects this didn’t work in her favor during her era, either.

Of course, feel free to keep quoting Mrs. Parker; her bon mots are hard to resist. But do read her literature, too. You won’t be sorry.

I’ve found a few of her best stories in full versions online, but you’ll get all of these and much more in The Portable Dorothy Parker:

“Arrangement in Black and White”

“The Waltz”

“Here We Are”

“Mrs. Hofstadter on Josephine Street”

On Just Doing It — That Is, the Writing

girl with bookI often get lovely readers here (thank you for reading, readers!) who ask me wonderful questions. I love this! I love giving advice! I love telling people what to do and solving other people’s problems! They always seem so much easier than my own!

One thing people ask a lot is a variation on: I have so much trouble getting started with my writing. Or I have so much trouble finishing the pieces I write. Or I have so much trouble getting my writing out into the world. … Do you have any tips for dealing with this?

I usually write some vague words of encouragement — give yourself deadlines! believe in yourself! — but the fact is that there is only one answer to all of these problems, and it does not sound very inspirational or empathetic. The answer is: Just F-ing do it. How do you start? Sit down, open a file on your computer, and type. How do you finish? Sit down again, re-open the file, and keep writing until it’s done. How do you put it out? Put it out. Start a blog. Give it to your friends. Read at public readings. Find a place that will publish you. What do you do next? Do it again.

Good news, though! I have forced myself to find a few more words of wisdom on this subject, mainly from others. I realized this morning that perhaps the worst person to ask for advice about how to motivate yourself to be a writer is a professional writer. How to motivate yourself, for me, comes down to this: I have set up my life such that if I don’t write, I don’t pay my bills, and I don’t eat. I like to eat, and I like to have my phone free of creditor calls. Therefore, I write. Do I start some side writing projects and leave them unfinished? Sure, but I don’t have time to fret over them or see them as failures or see them as evidence that I’m not a writer. The last time I was free of professional writing obligations, I was about 17 years old. If you count the school paper as a professional writing obligation, we can knock that back to about 11. Before that, I wrote plays to be performed in my garage by my friends. Even then, I was giving myself deadlines and obligations.

That said, I’ve been and continue to be plenty stuck in other areas of my life. Sometimes I get sick of practicing guitar. Even though I love running and working out, sometimes I get really lax about it. So I get it. Seth Godin, who writes the only blog I read every single day, tells us in today’s post that we can change our habits. This definitely includes disciplining your writing. He writes: “Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it’s not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.” Read the whole thing here.

Carol Tice, a super-successful freelance writer, has some other important advice: Stop reading about writing, and start writing. It’s fine if you read a little. It’s fine if you read, say, my blog, like you are right now. But I’ve seen many, many students get stuck in the pit of reading about writing — there are so many books, so many blogs! — without ever stringing one of their own sentences together. You know how to write. You’re not going to get better until you practice.

On Facebook last night, I posted a (slightly more expletive-filled, and shorter) version of this post, where a lot of my friends are writers and artists; they offered some good advice as well. “When you’re a writer, done is good,” AK Whitney said. “Probably ask the question, ‘Do you believe in the quality of your work…or not?'” Beau Mansfield added. (It’s okay if you aren’t feeling great about the work, by the way; maybe it’s just for practice then. That’s totally valid. Oh, the things I’ve written in my life that, thank goodness, remained for my private reading only. But the point is, maybe you’re stopping because your writing isn’t up to snuff yet. Just keep going until it is.) Jennifer Pozner said, “I have hated writing every single day since I started in high school, and I’m relatively certain that I’ll never finish during at least 65% of all my articles. Then I just keep on working, and do it again. Because it’s what I’m best at. And because that’s what you have to do to do — the work.”

So there you go. I don’t think any of this advice gets you out of the part you’re avoiding — the actual writing. Just know we’re all right here with you, trying to avoid our own writing, and then, finally, doing it anyway.

What Taylor Swift Can Teach Us About Writing

I’ve been a casual fan of Taylor Swift’s for a while now — first thinking she was a good role model for girls even if I didn’t care to listen to her music, then sort-of liking that one song about how “she’s cheer captain and I’m in the bleachers,” then really digging her dubstep/pop song “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Now I’m officially in — and looking for friends who will go with me to her next concert — with her new album, 1989. Because I’ve had it on repeat all this week, I’ve also started digging into her older stuff for variety and have found lots of little gem lyrics even in the songs that didn’t otherwise thrill me. (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”? You better come up with equally clever sentences on a regular basis before you dare not take this girl seriously.)

I could listen to this new album in its entirety all day, except for one song: “Welcome to New York.” It makes me squirm so much that I wish there were a separate version of the album available without it. (I know I can theoretically try to delete it from my iTunes, but the Cloud never forgets.) It’s killing me that on an album that includes the delicious “Out of the Woods,” “Style,” and “Blank Space,” she is running around performing this piece of fluff to promote the album. I am not the only one — this song has been universally eviscerated, not surprisingly, by those of us known as “the New York media elite,” who are not impressed by this very wealthy newcomer’s account of what New York life is like. (We’re “elite,” but most of our apartments and bank accounts are not.) A friend of mine called it “tone deaf,” and she didn’t mean it was literally not in tune — she meant the lyrics were lame, when Swift’s lyrics are usually impeccable. The Village Voice called the song “bullshit”: “‘Welcome to New York’ celebrates as generic, flat, and lifeless a New York as has ever existed in pop culture.” I cannot explain its shortcomings better than the Voice did, so I’ll quote this excellent rant here:

If you’re young and hungry, moving to New York takes a leap of faith and an acceptance that life will be difficult and finding your way won’t come easily. Swift’s New York is passive; it’s a city that’s “been waiting for you,” which is a completely unrecognizable aspect of a place that’s the Grave Digger of naive kids who come here to make it. New York waits for no one — that’s supposed to be why when you get here, you hustle or you die. Well, maybe not die, but you do wind up moving to St. Louis.

I can only think that NYCGo, which named her Global Welcome Ambassador for New York City, is either trolling us on purpose or trying to give Swift some kind of serious New York-style hazing.

I’m here to defend not the song, but Swift’s intelligence and talent, even in relation to this very song. I’m also here to make this misstep a teachable moment for us writers. (Full lyrics here, for reference.) Swift’s major talent is stringing together words, but it’s also wielding extraordinary insight. (In other words, she is a writer.) Part of the whole Taylor Swift thing is that even when she was still a teenager, and she was writing naive songs about waiting for her prince to come that stressed feminist commentators out all the time, she brought the kind of self-awareness that usually only comes with age. (And for many, never comes at all.) She has a specific obsession in her work, like so many of us do: Hers is with the moment you know a relationship will end. It’s not even necessarily with the actual end. It’s the moment you know it won’t work, and many times for her, it’s a moment when you keep trying anyway. She’s fascinated with this aspect of human experience, and she renders it beautifully, over and over. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” says it all in the title: “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago/You were in my sights, you got me alone … I guess you didn’t care, and I guess I liked that/And when I fell hard, you took a step back.” From “Out of the Woods”: “The night we couldn’t quite forget when we decided/To move the furniture so we could dance/Baby, like we stood a chance … And I remember thinking/Are we out of the woods yet?”

This compared with a New York that’s just sitting around waiting for you with bright lights and it’s “aglow” and the most interesting thing about it is that “everybody here was someone else before”? This encapsulates about the first 10-15 seconds I spent in this city. As someone who’s been battling this place for 13 years, this song makes me feel about a thousand years old, and it makes her sound like the least observant, least insightful person to ever come here. And if you’ve ever been in Times Square, you know we’re constantly crawling with people who aren’t so observant or insightful. (See? This is what New York does to you.) Here’s where my defense (of sorts) and my writing insight comes in: There is something endearingly naive about this, coming from a girl who seemed so world-weary of love by age 20. It’s cute to me that she could write such a bad song at such an otherwise fertile creative time in her life. I’m proud that my city could confuse her so much that she had feelings she couldn’t actually put into clever, interesting, insightful words.

It reminds me of the most important time in my own life, which also happened to be the earlier years of my time in New York. I was trying to leave a longterm relationship, an engagement, and I didn’t know how. I realized how dire the situation was when he, essentially, bought us a condo on the Upper West Side because I said I wanted to live in the city, not New Jersey; then it turned out it was the relationship, not the housing, that was a problem. I finally escaped to a tiny studio in the East Village with a shower in the kitchen, a foldout bed acquired on the street, and a mouse roommate. I cried a lot. I tried to write about all of this while it was happening, and that resulted in a few good, raw passages, but mostly it resulted in an entire “novel” I’m now glad never got published. But months and years later, I wrote about some of these events again; this time, some of the best writing of my life happened.

Most of the time, when we’re writing about our own lives, we need the perspective that, for most of us, only time brings. If we happen to write something and publish it before we have that kind of insight, those are the pieces we look back on and cringe for our naiveté. I think Taylor’s going to feel that way someday about “Welcome to New York.” Lucky for her, she has a few other hits to be proud of for decades to come. She says she might even write a book someday herself. I’m all for that.


Calling Yourself a Writer

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

A while back, someone told me that someone told them this piece of advice that was apparently more memorable than any of the people who passed it on: Don’t call yourself an “aspiring writer.” Call yourself a writer.

I’ve begun passing it on to my students. Whenever they call themselves “aspiring,” I tell them they can and should call themselves writers. They’re in my class, which means they’re writing. Therefore they are writers.

It’s not just about semantics, but about a mindset. If you say you’re aspiring, you let yourself off the hook. You can more easily get out of the writing part. And this is the absolute most important part of this advice: You do not get to call yourself a writer if you do not write. I know some people add the “aspiring” because they don’t want to seem like posers. I appreciate the impulse. It makes me uneasy to call  myself a dancer just because I go to dance class, or a singer just because I sing in a very amateur band on occasion. But I guess I should embrace those if I want to keep at them.

There is nothing more annoying than people claiming to be writers, then not actually writing. (And don’t get me started on people who say they write but don’t read.) Don’t be one of those people. Instead, go ahead and call yourself a writer. Then get back to writing.

How Kim Kardashian West’s Social Media Tips Apply to Writers

1407504844000-KIM-KARDASHIANWe’ve finally figured out the specific skill Kim Kardashian West is so good at that we can invite her to business conferences as a speaker: rocking the social media. There’s no getting around the fact that she’s brilliant at marketing herself and has leveraged Twitter and Instagram to her advantage. Hell, she makes the selfie an artform (and a publishing deal). She offered some tips at this week’s Code/Mobile conference in California. Here are some of my translations for writers:

  • Social media can make your career. It’s dangerous, especially for us freelancers, to spend too much time on social media, but it’s easy to justify the time — I believe it’s a critical part of my career. First of all, it allows me to stay in touch with readers and former students in a pretty intimate, day-to-day way without having to write them all individual emails (which would be weird). They’re happy to then pitch in and spread the word when I have big, mercenary announcements, like a new book or class. If I also share thoughts with them and respond to their posts regularly, it doesn’t feel so grossly self-promotional to share my new articles and blog posts. And this is all not to mention the fact that I’ve made many genuine connections with fellow writers and editors who can actually pay me for my work, just by exchanging thoughts on Scandal or dinner or whatever with them via Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use Twitter and Facebook as sources. Kim crowd-sources restaurant choices; we can crowd-source opinions on the day’s issues or find great people to interview for our latest article. I don’t want to think about how hard this was before the Internet, calling around trying to find women who have gone through IVF or people who discovered they were gay after 40 or whatever unique little subset of people one might want to locate for a feature story. Now just type it into Facebook or Twitter, and you may end up with more people than you have time to talk to.
  • Facebook is the best social network. Kim prefers Instagram, for selfie-evident reasons. It does almost nothing for me, being a word person. I do love Twitter for real-time discussions of TV shows and such. But Facebook gives me this intimate feeling, allowing for fun, daily sharing with people I love but don’t necessarily need to hang out with or call regularly. It also allows for some soothing bitching with other freelancers I’d otherwise never talk to.
  • I have no idea why she’s talking about BlackBerrys.
  • Try to develop good instincts for what constitutes oversharing or excessive self-promotion within your arena. For Kim, that’s simple: Post no more than three photos from one location. For us, it’s more complicated. I must admit: Sometimes I see the way friends post about the celebrity they just met or the article they just wrote, and it rubs me the wrong way. I include much of the same content in my own feed — I do write articles, and many do involve celebrities — so I always worry that I seem equally annoying to others. I’ve tried to keep my shares reasonably humble (in that “I can’t believe they let me do this” or “this is a huge honor for me, so I wanted to share this with you” way). I hope I succeed most of the time. I’m sorry, everyone, if I don’t.
  • I really hope Kim changes her mind about wearable tech, because I would enjoy a selfie of her wearing Google Glass.