Bee-ing the Writer

Do you have trouble concentrating on writing in the summer like I do? There’s a lot going on, no question. For me, summertime means spending a lot of time in the garden. Growing fruits and vegetables and flowers.

And along with all that growing goes pollination: bees, beetles, all kinds of other insects, birds and sometimes even mammals.

Bee on Oregano flower
This week I started watching the pollinators—especially the bees—and it occurred to me I could learn a thing or two from them about beeing buzzzy (sorry can’t resist). They are industrious all day long, buzzing from flower to flower, feeding on nectar and collecting pollen.
As a writer, I wish I spent as much energy on my writing as those bees do on pollination. Buzzing around my WIP as though it were a garden, honing in on each individual idea like a new flower—and collecting as much from one before moving on to the next. Then cross-pollinating my ideas with new thoughts picked up at my last stop. Working all the time, industrious and focused.

Wasp on Dill flower
Next time I’m having trouble concentrating, I think I’ll try to “bee the bee.”

Do you have trouble concentrating on writing in the summertime, like I do? What are your distractions? And what can you learn from them that you can apply to your writing process?


Cheers,
Julia

WIP Dream Critique: What Would You Do?

Tour Eiffel (Paris, 2007)

If you could pick just one great writer….

Last night I saw Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris. (If you haven’t seen this movie yet but you plan to, you might want to stop reading now. Although this is not a movie review, I may reveal more about the movie than you want to know.)
The basics of the movie are that a writer (Gil, played by Owen Wilson) goes to Paris and ends up being transported back in time. He meets many writers and artists from the 1920s—what he considers the Golden Age—including Hemingway and Picasso. When Gil meets Hemingway, he asks him if he’ll read his Work in Progress. Hemingway refuses, telling Gil that writers are a competitive bunch…. Hemingway knows he’ll hate the book: if it’s well written he’ll envy Gil; if it’s badly written he’ll hate it for its writing. Instead, Hemingway points Gil to his good friend Gertrude Stein.

Gil is overjoyed at the prospect of Gertrude Stein critiquing his WIP, but he’s not at all intimidated! I’m not sure I could be so casual as he in letting a great writer read my work. Would I have the confidence? If I did, and I had a choice, who would I pick? Gertrude Stein? Woody Allen? Shakespeare? Hemingway?

Right now, because my primary WIP is a mystery, I’d probably pick Agatha Christie or maybe Daphne du Maurier. But if Hemingway or Gertrude Stein wanted to read my WIP, how could I possibly say no?

If you could pick one great writer to read your WIP, who would it be? And why? Would you be intimidated or just excited to have the opportunity? 


Cheers,
Julia

p.s. Interesting aside: Gil never once mentions writers’ social networking! So although we never see him on Twitter or blogging, we do see him hanging out in bars and cafes with writers….which arguably could be the social networking of writers in 1920s Paris!

….and Meanwhile in the Writing….

Beautiful, anomalous purple pea flowers

This year, in the garden, we were the most organized we’ve been in years. We cleared the debris left from last year’s garden, we tilled the soil, we added compost. We planted seeds, soon after the last frost, as advised on the packet. And then we waited.

Powdery mildew on the squash plant
The seeds came up, but they were less than enthusiastic. It was a cold spring, so we never got the arugula we’d been waiting and hoping for. It bolted too early. Same with the bok choy. Then too much rain. And so some seeds were washed away. Other places, mushrooms and mildew grew where they shouldn’t have.

Then there were the flat-out anomalies: purple and pink pea flowers where there should only be white, a viola flower among the carrots, “volunteer” cilantro and morning glories everywhere.

Viola among the carrots
And meanwhile in the writing…as with the garden, it hasn’t gone as planned. (Although I’m very organized, with lots of plans and ideas.) Distracted and distractible. Dribs and drabs. At times untouched. At times missed. Sometimes loathed and resented. It sits on my desk, in the computer, mildewing and growing mushrooms.

Mushrooms in the potted peppers
How does your writing grow? Are you, like me, distracted and distractible, by life’s ups and downs? Or are you on course: steady and dependable, no matter what?


Cheers,
Julia

The Stories a Picture Can’t Tell

This post is inspired by Amanda who blogs at Amanda’s Wrinkled Pages—yesterday she participated in “school photo day” and wrote about What Secrets Can a Picture Tell?

Who is that girl in the senior picture?

The month I finished ninth grade, I went with my family to Kenya, Africa, for 18 months. When I left California I was 14 and my life revolved around football games, high school dances, and other typical teenage girl things. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I was in love with the captain of the football team.

But it was a life-changing trip for me. When I returned to California, that wannabe cheerleader girl was gone. In her place was a “Third Culture Kid”—by the time I was 17 I had spent over four years of my life living outside the United States. As much as I may have wanted to feel a part of the U.S. culture, that wasn’t what I felt. I never went to a prom or a football game again. I stopped participating in all high school activities; I almost stopped going to school—the skipped-school cards piled up in the mailbox. I became a champion for everything different. In short, I searched for where I fit in.

This could have been my sixth grade picture
By definition, a Third Culture Kid (a phrase coined 40 years ago by Ruth Hill Useem) is a child who has spent part of their growing-up years in a foreign country. These kids—according to the U.S. State Department’s page on Third Culture Kids—“often experience a sense of not belonging to their passport country when they return to it.” In fact, we often feel like we have more in common with other Third Culture Kids than with our American peers.

Our family trips to other cultures almost always entailed living in remote places—Africa, Belize—surrounded not by other Americans or expats from other countries, but surrounded by people whose lives I could never truly be a part of. Different language was only the tip of the iceberg: different culture, beliefs, way of life. I looked completely different, too. Often an oddity, I never could truly fit in wherever we lived. And yet, here’s the thing: I wanted to. And I did not ever again fit or want to fit in the place I returned—to my supposed-home in California.

This was the view out my bedroom window;
I wanted so much to be a part of this life that
I often dreamed I lived in this house.
 How has being a Third Culture Kid changed me as a writer? Perhaps I’ll never truly know or understand. But as I’ve thought about it over the years (a lot) I would say it has made me more keenly aware of everything I experience, it has tuned me into the most minute differences in life, it has caused a lifelong searching of where I fit in or whether I fit in—where do I belong?
Somewhere in all this, in every place I lived, my mind—the mind of this writer—collected information. Just as my parents (cross-cultural psychological anthropologists) observed the cultures we lived among, I observed life—my life.

With my friends in Vihiga, Kenya
The truth is, all of us as writers collect information as we go through our lives. And in that way I’m not so different: we are all composites (or even strangers to) the pictures from our childhoods. I’m guessing that many of you are like me, with a senior picture that doesn’t represent who you are. But as writers, we draw on these snapshots in time; we cull through the images and memories—in our minds and in our photo albums—to discern who we are and how we fit and what we know about the world. Whatever these images are—real or conjured—they ultimately help us to create richer and more interesting stories.

Still, the question remains: who is that girl in the senior picture? Is it really one more image of me or is it a girl dreamed up in a photographer’s studio? When I slipped off my old t-shirt and slipped on that black drape, I became the girl I might have been: the cheerleader, the prom queen, a California girl.

But when I left the photographer’s studio, back in my jeans and t-shirt, did I turn back into the girl longing to go home—wherever in the world that is?

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Because whatever the answers, it’s more for me to draw on as a writer.

Do you think your childhood pictures, specifically your senior photo, represent who you are? How have these snapshots and the images in your mind influenced you as a writer?

Cheers,

Julia

Fav 5 Writing Spots

Today for the 2011 Blogathon, participants (like me!) are blogging
about their five favorite places to write. My number one place
(as predictable as it is): MY DESK!!
As a writer who works at home (predictable and boring as it may be) my number one favorite place to write and the place I spend the bulk of my writing day is: my desk. In fact, I spend so much time there that I once wrote a blog about it—with photos. That blog received more comments than any other blog I’ve posted. I’m sitting at that very same desk right now!

The kitchen table: my new fiction venue

A few weeks ago, I started sitting at my kitchen table to write fiction. The kitchen is a mere two rooms away from where my desk is—but this slight change of venue seems to put me in a slightly different frame of mind. I’ve also written a blog about moving my fiction writing to the kitchen table!

My third “most-favoritist” place to write is on the couch (thanks to my laptop). It’s my relaxed writing venue, where I prefer to write when I’m brainstorming, searching the web, commenting on others’ blogs, and tweeting on Twitter. 

My fourth favorite place to
write is on my iPhone!
My fourth and fifth fav places to write are less conventional. Place four is my car. I often come up with some of my best ideas when I’m in the car. If I’m a passenger, this is easy: I always have a notebook or a piece of paper with me. If I’m driving, it’s not so easy—but now, with my new iPhone, I can use the Voice Memo app to record ideas and thoughts. If I have longer things to “write” while I’m driving, I use an app called Dragon Dictation. With this app, I can dictate and then the app creates a text file that I can email to myself.

The Town Library
Finally, there are the incidental places I go to write on a rarer basis, the RWS (“Random Writing Spots”): the occasional coffee shop (although—truth be told—I often get distracted by listening to other peoples’ conversations, which is, by the way, a great way to get writing fodder); the town library (especially if I need to research something or check out a book); and every once in a while, if it’s a nice day, I’ll write outside—although I’m not a fan of the glare on my computer screen so I usually only do this when I’m jotting down notes or writing on paper.
What are your 5 fav places to write?

Cheers,

Julia

From Julius with Love

I’ve learned a lot since I started blogging, most of it good, but one thing I’ve learned stands out as a man among men. Not figuratively but literally. Because—wait for it—I write like a man.



For some reason I seem to have the old Frankie Valli song “Walk like a man” running through my head when I write about this, but anyway, in one of my recent blogs, I mentioned that in a future blog I would explain “why and how I know I write like a man.” In a response to that, I got one of the sweetest comments ever from Cynthia Robertson, a blogging tweeting friend, when she said:

“…What do you mean you write like a man? You write like Julia. One of a kind Maine girl. Perfect.”


I know, sweet, right? (In this case, especially the part about me being a girl!)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you, however, that I only write fiction like a man. Blogging? Like a woman. (So maybe I better send Cynthia a sample of my fiction so she can comment on that….)

Anyway, it doesn’t completely take away the sting of the reality. For one thing, even admitting I write like a man—doesn’t that make you wonder who I really am? I mean there’s always the fear in the back of all our minds that we don’t really know who’s on the other end of the Internet connection we’ve gotten to know.

Am I really “Julia, one of a kind Maine girl,” or am I perhaps “Julius, one of a kind 16-year-old-kid hammering away at his laptop in the dark basement of his parent’s home”? I assure you it’s the former….but I’m just saying…we never do really know.

I know what you’re thinking—this wacky babe still hasn’t explained how she even knows that she writes like a man. What is this kooky chick talking about? When I first started on Twitter, way back about what feels like a hundred years ago (but is in actuality only a little over 3 months), I saw a link to a website that would tell me if I wrote like a man or a woman.

At that site, you paste in at least 500 words of your writing, and voila, you find out if you write like a man or a woman. Now on the surface, this may sound like an arbitrary ruling…man vs. woman. How do “they” know?

Well apparently a team of Israeli scientists wrote a computer software program that predicts an author’s sex (with 80% accuracy). According to the developers, women are more comfortable and more likely to be “involved” in their talking, thinking and writing, like about relationships (using more pronouns). Men like to be “informational” in the way they write—about things (using more words that identify nouns, like a, the, that or one, two, more).

Kind of the whole Mars-Venus thing again.

But why does it really bother me? It’s one more way for me to question my writing. If I write like a man, will others—for example publishers and agents—not look twice at me? Will they start to read and think: “This woman writes like a man, feh to her!” Then fling my manuscript to the dark corner of her (or his!) office?

Maybe I’m “too straightforward and informational” as a writer? For years I wrote technical manuals and user guides, writing informational information for informative purposes. Is this the reason? Is it something I can be trained to not do? Maybe go to a de-programming school somewhere to figure out how to get in touch with my female-writing-brain?




Or maybe there’s a support group for gals like me: “Hi, my name is Julia, and I write like a man…”

Or maybe it’s just the way I write, my style, my voice, okay man? When I blog: woman. When I write fiction: man. It’s just how this wacky babe, chick, gal, girl, woman rolls.

How about you? Man or Woman? Do you have the conjones (or is it ovaries?) do find out? Here’s a link to the Gender Genie…let me know!




Cheers,

Julia

Lasagna and Other Creative Endeavors

Yesterday I made lasagna.


Most of the ingredients sat in the refrigerator for almost two weeks: the homemade tomato sauce from the last of last summer’s tomatoes, the ricotta cheese, the eggs, the parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and the Italian sausage.


Except, then—when I spent so much time on blogging that I never got around to making the lasagna—we had pasta with Italian sausage and tomato sauce a few days ago. So, last weekend, I had to go to the store and buy: more tomato sauce (the garden sauce was almost gone) and spinach (this time the lasagna would be all veggie).


As I mixed all the cheeses together in a large aluminum bowl, I thought about how much I love cooking. Aside from the obvious reason: that I love to create delicious, healthy food for my family, I also like to cook because, for me, it is a highly creative endeavor. I usually don’t cook from recipes, but even when I do, I take liberties based on my own experience and sensibilities.

After I put the lasagna in the oven, I went back to my computer to continue writing. I felt energized and more creative, and I was incredibly productive! As blogging becomes more-and-more incorporated into my daily schedule, I can start re-incorporating the other creative things I like to do, like: photography, knitting, sewing, gardening, and cooking, too. And this will only help make me even more creative in my writing.


What are some other non-writing creative things do you like to do? Do you find that doing these activities make you more productive in your writing? Or does it just cut down on the writing time you have?

Cheers,
Julia

"Dear Betsy, Your thoughtfulness meant so much…"


“Does anyone write hand-written notes anymore?”

This was the lament I heard from a friend over lunch the other day. She is almost a generation older than I am, and we had been talking about blogging and tweeting and email and such. We agreed that things have really changed—certainly in her lifetime and even in mine.

Before my mother died prematurely almost-fifteen years ago, she had just gotten her first laptop, at the advent of email. Before her illness, she was an outgoing college professor and research social scientist, virtually bedridden by emphysema for her last year of life, cut off from many of her colleagues and students. I can’t help but wonder how the last year of her life might have been different if she had been connected via social networking.

In those days, lo those only-fifteen-years-ago, snail mail letters were still king. And my mother could really write a letter—with the cleanest, crispest handwriting you would ever want to see—that could bring you to tears, out of fear or laughter. And although these days I think she would be a blogger, I have no doubt she would also miss the feel of a pen and crisp linen paper in her hands and the finality of licking and sealing an envelope and dropping it in the box.

The fact is that some schools don’t even teach cursive handwriting anymore; one in Colorado now has a Cursive Writing Club assumedly to keep up a dying art. The US Postal Service is in debt to the tune of $12 billion, and it’s shutting down 2000 branches. The way we communicate is definitely changing.

For Christmas, one of my best friends, sent me some cute ornaments for my tree. Tucked into her handwritten card was a photo of her kids, and I kept putting off emailing her, knowing that she would prefer a handwritten note of thanks. Her card and photo sat on my desk for almost six weeks, until finally I logged onto Hallmark.com, found a cute electronic thank you card, and I sent it to her. Then I sent her an email apologizing for the electronic card.

I wasn’t about to do the same thing with Betsy’s. So, this morning, I rifled through my envelope and card drawer for something to use; I found a thank you card and way-too-large envelope (I couldn’t even find a match!). I picked up a pen and started to write: “Dear Betsy, Your thoughtfulness meant so much…” I know Betsy will be happy to get the card, but I was doing it as much for myself. Suddenly all the old familiar feelings of brain connecting with pen connecting with paper reminded me of why I miss the old ways a whole lot more than I realized.

I remembered the journals of my teenage and college years when the feel of a fountain pen on the paper was almost as important as the words I wrote. I thought about all the handwritten love letters my husband and I have exchanged over the years—that my children may send instead through email, SMS, or Facebook. And I thought about the handwritten letters I got from my mother when I was in college, letters that my children may only get from me in a care package of cookies.

I thought about everything I do online: check accounts and pay bills, keep up on the news and weather, look for employment, find information about…everything, keep up with old and make new friends, write, and now blog. And while it’s true that my note to Betsy probably won’t be the last snail mail letter I ever write, the way we communicate is definitely changing.

What do you think? Have you changed the way you communicate or write? Do you miss writing with pen and paper or welcome the electronics way?

Interesting postscript….while researching this blog, I searched on google for “is mail dying” and the entire first page of results were hits about email dying! Anyone ready to take the challenge to write a book on SMS (already a growing phenomenon in Japan) or Twitter (it’s been done)? Get ready for more changes ahead!

The 2% Club

Are you an Extrovert or Introvert? iNtuitive or Sensor? Thinker or Feeler? Judger or Perceiver?

Have you ever taken the Myers & Briggs personality test? Are you like me, someone who wants to know: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? How do I find out? How does my personality type help me know? As writers, I’m guessing we all want to know this….in fact, I would suggest we all should know this.

I’m an INFJ (Introvert, iNtuitive, Feeler, Judger), making up a measly 2% of the population…more about that later.

Our personality types influence not just what we choose to write about but also how we write and how we get our jobs done. What do you write about? Fiction or nonfiction? Do you meet your deadlines? Are you well focused or are you all over the place? These and other questions may be answered by knowing your personality type—or at least help lead you to greater understanding.

On top of our own personality types, we may need to consider the personality types of our readers—especially if we write nonfiction, especially if we are writing for business or technical audiences. For example, in my experience, I would be better off assuming that more Thinkers are in the audience of a troubleshooting guide for computer professionals; and that there would be more Feelers in the readership of a personal essay about my grandmother’s garden. These assumptions will certainly help me in at least my choice of voice and style.

There’s no question that in every way my INFJ temperament deeply affects my writing and how I choose to do it. By the same token, I also know that as an INFJ, I definitely think about things way too much. According to Communication Consultants, LLC: INFJs are “careful decision makers, often needing plenty of time to reflect…before taking action.”

Recognizing this helps me understand—among other things—why it takes me so long to share anything I write, and why it took me so long to start blogging. Of course, as a lifetime member of the 2% Club, I’m all too aware that I need to be 100% sure.

So what are you waiting for? What’s your type? Check out these two free tests online based on Myers & Briggs: at Humanetrics and Kisa. Or if you want to take the real thing (for a fee) check out Myers & Briggs. And if you’ve taken the test before, but you’re anything like me (especially if you’re an INFJ), you’ll probably want to check it again!

Then come back and tell me: are you part of the 2% Club?

Cheers, Julia

* As promised, more about INFJ (one of the sixteen Myers & Briggs personality types)—described by Otto Kroeger Associates as “the most contemplative” of the personality traits: “reflective/introspective, quietly caring, creative, linguistically gifted.” Labeled the “Counselor” by Myers & Briggs. Sometimes we’re even described as psychic by those who know us because of our keen observation skills and our sensitivity to the environment around us. Potential weakness: we can be stubborn and single-minded.

Lessons from an Artist

Last night I went to an art show at a small library in a nearby town. One of my friends had two paintings in the show, and although I primarily went to see her paintings, I also went to support her creative goals. I knew it had not been an easy decision for her to put herself out there.

It struck me this morning that me blogging is exactly like my friend displaying paintings in the show. Writing is a peculiar profession; we write things that may never be read by anyone. Or, if you’re a writer for hire like I am, you may work anonymously or even have another person’s name attached to your work.

The writing for hire part is still fine with me—so far it’s how my bread stays buttered. But for some reason, I am no longer okay thinking that no one will ever see any of the fiction or creative non-fiction I write. Which brings me to my goals for blogging.

1. Get my writing out there! Specifically, blog at least five times a week, preferably every day.

2. Help me to reinforce my goal of writing every day.

3. Promote my writing. Specifically, figure out how what still feels like a giant swarm of craziness (blogging and Twitter and Facebook and all other online social networking) works together to support my writing goals.

4. Meet more writers/creators and build relationships and readership.

5. Encourage writers of all kinds in their writing endeavors, whatever those might be.

Closely tied to these blogging goals, are my personal writing goals (I wasn’t blogging first thing in 2011, so I missed having a new year’s resolution blog):

1. Finish the rough draft of one novel-in-progress.

2. To help meet Goal #1, write at least 900 words a day (this does not count the blogging or writer-for-hire words I write).

3. Submit at least two queries in the year.

4. Build writing/editing clients (for writing for hire).

I’m interested to know…. has blogging helped you achieve your writing goals? What, if anything, would you do differently? What advice do you have as I’m starting out?

Cheers, Julia

Solitude

It’s quiet this week, too quiet.

Yesterday, after 95 days of unemployment, My Engineer Husband (MEH) started a new job. No question, a writer’s life can be pretty solitary, and I miss the companionship and conversation. As I sit and write, an empty chair by my side, my only distraction is the new hangman game on fReado.

It might sound strange, but one of the things I miss most about having MEH around is his animated enthusiasm for new technology and the random science facts he reads about on the Internet….things like:

  • His obsession with gmail and google calendar and apparently all things google—how you can “slice and dice” items in your inbox, the danger yet advantage of cloud storage, and how cool it would be to write an app for google.
  • The funny story about the tree octopus. A literacy researcher at the University of Connecticut conducted an experiment to see if students would believe in the tree octopus, created for a hoax science website, just because it was on the Internet. Apparently they did, leading to the conclusion that students doing research on the Internet have difficulty discerning fact from fiction.
  • The “Mastering Workflow|Processing & Organizing Flowchart” from the David Allen Company, that we now have framed and sitting on the desk. This diagram, using software symbols, is the path to help you get things done or at least slice and dice your way through your gmail inbox.
  • A Madagascar spider—“caught on film, how cool is that???!!”—that lives in abandoned snail shells suspended from bushes. I refused to watch the movie because, even though I started out as a zoology major before switching to journalism, spiders scare me.

All this to say that writing ideas and inspiration come from places you might least expect, like engineering flowcharts and spiders hanging from bushes in shells—and even from the solitude that is the most basic fact of life we writers face.

Postscript: I don’t want to leave this day’s blog without adding that (probably needless to say) we met the end of unemployment with great joy and relief. As with many other individuals and families who are still dealing with unemployment, we faced serious, potentially devastating consequences when we lost MEH’s salary. My heart and thoughts go out to all of you who are coping as we are with this overwhelming, life-changing struggle.

Alike

(adj) Having close resemblance; similar.

Under construction: these placeholder words sat on my blog for nearly a week before I could bring myself to post anything.

I’ve read—it seems—hundreds of blogs, articles, and tweets. I’ve consulted a zillion websites, received countless en-(and dis-) couraging emails, and talked my husband’s ear off about blogging and tweeting. As a “lurker,” if that word is still used, I am afraid, very afraid, to put my toe in the proverbial water. What could I possibly add?

The truth is, just like me, my blog is under construction, so are my words and my writing. So is my house, an old Maine antique with water leaking through the walls from ice dams; so is my life, as a perpetual searcher.

As a long-time technical writer, by training and profession, I’ve often been told “you’re not a real writer.” I remember the first time someone said that to me, I’d just finished writing a 400-page technical manual. Let me tell you, I certainly felt like a writer. Still, even as I branch out to business, creative non-fiction, fiction, those words ring in my ears.

But, when I really think about it, I come back to this: words are words, writers are writers. As a cross-over writer, going back and forth from technical and business to fiction and creative nonfiction—I’m blurring the lines. This blog examines those writing lines and the people and pieces that blur them. Writers are writers, regardless of genre or specialty, we’re all putting words together. As Maya Angelou wrote: “We are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike.”

So here I go, diving in. And I’m hoping that maybe (if you’ll pardon the paint) this blog will entertain and inform you along the way. I hope you’ll let me know!