Fail at Writing

Press On, No Matter What

Recently, a family member sent me a text that stated she had come across a book I was published in back in 2002.  I haven’t seen or thought about that book in quite some time, but her text prompted me to go dig it out. I found my publication and reread it for the first time in at least 10 years. At the time of publication, I was just 16 years old. I had written this insightful poem threaded with fancy words and laced with extended metaphor. I found myself in a slight state of shock. How did I come up with this? How in the world did I have so much insight about this subject at 16 years old? 

The truth is, I’ve been doubting myself (as a creative writer) for quite some time. In recent years, I haven’t been able to write creatively without struggle or frustration. It’s become more of a chore than a joy. It has become hard. Much harder than it once was. Because of this, I’ve focused my energies on writing cheesy “How to’s” and simple articles for online outlets. These are easy for me. They come without much effort and without much thought. These articles will suck the creativity out of my soul if I don’t begin challenging myself a little more. I had convinced myself that if I just wrote something, anything,  everyday that I would be the writer that I want to be. I was wrong.

That text from my aunt reawakened my curiosity in my creativity. I had shoved it away in a box surrounded by steel walls in the back of my mind. Life happened. I have a full-time job and a child. I’m dealing with an illness. I was in school. I thought I didn’t have time to write creatively anymore, yet I pursued a degree in creative writing (ha). The truth is, I have and will always be a creative writer.

The brilliant and articulate Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.” I’m finding the opposite true as well. The less you use it, the harder it is to come by. Poem verses, character descriptions, articulate sentences used to pop up in my brain all the time. They’d wake me up in the middle of the night, flash through my brain while I was riding in the car or sitting in a math class. I now realize this happened because I was constantly writing. Constantly using my creativity.

I may not have the luxury of ample free time. I may be tired. I, can still write. I carry a notebook and pen in my purse at all times. I have lunch breaks and apps and time after my son goes to bed. I spend too much time on Facebook or Twitter or thinking about what I need to do next week or wondering if my husband folded the pile of laundry I’d left on the couch.

I did not choose writing. It chose me long ago, when I sat at a small writer’s desk in front of my window, crafting words into sloppy sentences and verses and then re-crafting them into works of art. I know the process. I always have. The creativity lives within me. It just needs a little reawakening. Today, I will press on. I will knock down the walls and burn the box where my creativity has been stowed away so that it can come forth again. I encourage you to do the same. Life, does indeed happen. And it is that life that gives us the fuel and the material we need to keep on– to keep writing.

Photo credit: flickr.com user Ilena Gecan

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My BookRiot Quarterly Book Box is Here!

To my fellow book lovers who haven’t discovered the BookRiot blog: now is the time. They have a slew of postings on everything “bookish” as they call it. Links to great information like writers that have published before they were 25 years old, fantastic libraries, book reviews, general bookish news, best books of the week, what their writers are reading, podcasts, etc., etc., etc is at your disposal. It is basically the blog to end all blogs for book lovers. If you want to completely distract yourself for hours, make sure to check it out soon.

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Another wonderful gem that BookRiot offers is a quarterly mailing. The mailing is usually themed and includes an array of items all related to reading. My sports loving, science spewing, athletic training major of a sister purchased this quarterly book box for me as a birthday gift. It arrived on my doorstep yesterday, and I am here to tell you that it is everything a book nerd could ask for.

From the “READ” bumper sticker (should it go on my car or my iPad cover? Decsions…) to the beautifully illustrated cards with quotes from famous authors to the free eBook, this box is amazing. One of the books, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, even came tagged with sticky notes in the handwriting of the author. I know, I was almost brought to tears by the wondrous sight myself. I was immediately drawn to this item and, once I got over the general excitement, I sat down on my couch devouring the contents of this fully illustrated, beautiful piece of literature.

And you better believe I’ve got water in my “Read Harder” water bottle right now.

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What’s more, the folks at BookRiot take the time to include a letter discussing how each item relates to the theme (this time the theme was how books illuminate our lives). They also select a percentage of subscribers that will receive an extra little something in their box. I’m happy to say, I was one of the 20% of subscribers selected to receive an extra book. (!!)

The Quarterly box is aptly priced at $50, but the feeling you’ll get when you open it and unveil the contents is priceless. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to dive back into Peter Mendelsund’s world.

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Consider Writing Your Story

I had always fancied myself a creator of characters so naturally, I chose fiction as my genre for my thesis in college. I had a story idea in my head. I had a fully fleshed out main character and a believable setting- or so I thought. I sat down to write a story about a character I’d created, and I lamented over every move. My pen got stuck when it should have been effortlessly (ha!) floating across the page, articulating scenes of great triumph and emotional connection and maybe even great pain. Instead, I stumbled over the smallest of details. My scenes were missing vital elements. My characters were flat. I couldn’t understand why. I felt defeated and started questioning my decision on being a writer.

I sat at a wobbly round table in a dingy coffee shop, lamenting to my writing mentor while I shoved the ice cubes in my green tea down with my straw. She listened quietly while I rambled. A half smile crossed her lips as I continued. When I finished my rant she said, “Maybe you should write your story.”

I balked.

“What? Why?” I said flatly.

I purposely avoided my story. I wanted nothing to do with the me in memoir, because I thought it was a little egotistical and unnecessary to write about myself. I wanted to write about other people. Tell their stories. I relayed these thoughts to my mentor. The dreaded memoir she said (that I had no intention of writing), might be my only way out.

The characters we create, regardless of their sex or attitude, each have a shred of the writer within them. Sometimes the similarity between writer and character is obvious. Sometimes it lay under the surface where only the author knows about it. Whether it’s apparent or not, these fictional characters encompass some part of the writer. For that reason, the writer must know herself to the core. She must know where she came from and how her life experiences have shaped her. She needs to understand where she was a victim of circumstance and where her choices directly shaped. The writer must know what she likes, dislikes, and stands for. And the only way to know such things is to truly understand her story. For a writer the examination of her story usually comes from writing it down (or therapy, but we’ll go with writing).

When my mentor explained this to me, a little piece of me understood. I thought about the events of my life, chose a timeframe to start with, and grudgingly sat down to write my story. Though I can’t write on how it felt to complete this piece as I’m still writing it, I can tell you that my experience thus far has not been what I anticipated. Through the writing,  I discovered when and why many of my little quirks were formed. I began to understand many of my likes and dislikes, why I react to certain situations the way that I do, and how my environment informed my decisions and how I view myself. There wasn’t any ego involved. Reading what I had written was very much like reading any other novel or story- I was discovering something new.

The process has been extremely helpful. When I look back at the character I created for that work of fiction, I can see why I was getting stuck. I couldn’t make the character do what I wanted her to do, because I didn’t understand where her actions were coming from.

I can say (to my mentor’s delight) that I now understand why for some authors, writing our own story needs to happen before we can push ourselves out of the way in order to let the characters we create flourish.

Have you considered writing your story?

 

Photo credit: Flickr.com user MugeSoydan

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Quit Writing Crap: A Few Tips to Help You Hone Your Craft

Writing–like riding a bike or drawing– requires constant practice. The only way a writer gets better at his or her craft is through dedication. Here are 5 tips to help you hone your craft:

1. Passive Voice

When I started writing, I constantly heard about the “passive voice” issue, but honestly, I had no idea what it meant or how to fix it. So first to define the problem: The writing center at University of North Carolina states that passive voice “occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence”. For instance, the sentence, “We were invited by the company to a holiday party” is in passive voice. To change this sentence to active voice, consider rewording, “Our company invited us to a holiday party.” This takes out the passive verb, “were”, and makes “invited” the active verb. As a general (emphasis on general) rule, if the sentence contains form of the verb “to be”  

2. Stop Summarizing

Summary rather than a detailed scene is especially problematic in creative writing. Your reader wants the ability to be in your story. Your reader doesn’t want to have a general idea of what’s happening; he or she wants to feel like a character in the story. They want to feel like they are in that room or on that subway. When you plan a scene, take time to evoke the 5 senses before writing it out. What does the scene look like? What smells take over? What can you touch? What can you hear? Your reader wants to do the same, so use the 5 sense to your advantage when writing.

3. Word Choice

“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

Writers spend much of their revising time in agony over word choice and with good reason. Word choice can make your writing stand out or completely skew your intended meaning. Not all synonyms are created equal either. I suggest getting a useful book on synonyms like Rodale’s Synonym FinderThese are often better than the thesaurus. Also, go with your gut. If the word doesn’t sound or feel right, it probably needs to be changed.

4. Clarity

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, WD

Clarity often means cutting unnecessary words and phrases. Reading my writing out loud, or better yet, having someone read it to me, helps me figure out where clarification is in order. Brevity is key with it comes to clear, concise writing.

5. Grammar and Punctuation

This might seem trite, but proper grammar and punctuation can make all the difference in your writing. Even though I’ve been writing since I was 11 years old, I found that I didn’t understand the rules of grammar and punctuation as well as I thought I did. When I started teaching writing, my level of understanding increased. Study the mechanics. Don’t fret over them in your first draft, but make sure grammar and punctuation are addressed when you revise.

I’ve presented just a few tips to help with writing, but what other tips can you suggest to improve your writing?

 

Photo credit flickr user .reid. 

What Should You Be Reading?

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It doesn’t matter. Just read. And read often.

I’ve spent the last  few years obtaining a degree in creative writing (and when I say few, I mean 9 precisely, but that story is for a different post). In these classes, I was assigned novels and non-fiction of a literary caliber rich in symbolism and allusion. We dissected novels into literary elements. We wrote extensive analysis on our findings. At the end of each class, my brain felt simultaneously fried and satisfied. While I thoroughly enjoyed the process, I sometimes wished I could just enjoy the plot and revel in the characters rather than figure out the underlying meaning of a certain tree that recurred throughout the story.

I vowed to give my mind a break and read chick-lit or mysteries when I graduated college. Though I did just that, I found myself attempting to dissect these works since that’s what I had been accustomed to doing for so long. It had been ingrained in me to find the underlying meaning or the hidden theme. I felt guilty for attempting to read something that I couldn’t analyze, and then I got angry when there was nothing I could wrap my brain around for further dissection.

And then I came to a conclusion: It doesn’t matter what I read, as long as I am reading. Literary analysis has its place, and so does chick-lit, and magazines, newspapers, articles, blog posts– whatever it is, just read it. NPR recently put out an article stating the amount of teenagers that read for pleasure isn’t nearly what it was 10 years ago. Even though they don’t give concrete reasons as to why this is the case, they elude to the immediate gratification the digital age has brought upon us as the culprit.

I can see the effects of the digital age in my 7 year old. They use apps in school, and much of their learning material is online. They do read the old-fashioned way, but not nearly enough. I vowed to instill my love of reading a book into my son at an early age. I began reading to him daily, but noticed that he got bored or distracted. I realized that he would rather have been playing a game on the iPad instead of engrossed in a Pete the Cat story. Reading just doesn’t have the luster for my son that it has for me. I used to fret about his disinterest, but it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t force my “archaic” ways onto my digital age son. I began searching for interactive apps where we could read and he could still engage his busy fingers. I stopped reading only books to him as well. I found that children’s magazines and articles worked well.

Now, my son asks nightly if we can sit in my room and read. I let him choose the material. I’ve learned through him that it doesn’t matter what I’m reading. Literary analysis will always have a place in my heart, but it isn’t the only kind of material that will stretch my mind or tease my imagination.

Reading, whether from prehistoric object called the book, or on a tablet or smartphone or magazine, is what’s important. So tell me, what are you reading?

 

Photo credit flickr user Jayel Aheram

 

Step Outside the Box: Books to Read from Around the World

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Literature from around the world opens our eyes to new styles, diverse cultures, and fresh perspective. These stories can make us feel uncomfortable as we delve into lives that do not resemble our own. On the contrary, literature from other parts of this earth can be a glaring testament to our similarities as human beings. Each protagonist struggles with the same life lessons we do– pride, familial relationships, fitting in, pain & suffering. Here are some thought-provoking, downright fantastic books to read from outside the American spectrum:

1. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

This book explores the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and how it permeates the lives of the characters. Don’t judge a book by its historical sapect though– this novel is jam-packed with the complicated thrill of a love triangle, and a few characters (can you say nosy house maid and flighty male protagonist?) we can definitely love to hate.

2. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie’s newest novel, Americanah, has been nominated for a host of awards including the National Book Critics award so you might ask yourself why you haven’t read her work yet. Purple Hibiscus explores the life of siblings Kambili and Jaja as they struggle to make sense of the abuse and privilege they grew up in. Set primarily in Adichie’s hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, Kambili and Jaja suffer through multiple abuses at the hand of their father. Luckily, they have a feisty, powerful aunt to help them through.

3. Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Protagonist and Vietnamese immigrant, Mai, discovers that the dichotomy of her Vietnamese heritage and her newfound home in America causes emotional turmoil both within herself and between she and her mother. Rich in language and ripe with deception, depression, suicide, and acceptance, Monkey Bridge shouldn’t be missed.

4. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

 Claire of the Sea Light, Danticat’s newest work, is also nominated for some award love, but her debut novel (which was her master’s thesis), Breath, Eyes, Memory is heart wrenching, raw, and beautiful. Sophie is ripped from Haiti by a mother that abandoned her to live in America. She discovers the dark secrets of her Haitian history and seeks to reconcile with her tumultuous past.

5. Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel is one of the great humanitarians of our time, and his harrowing tale of the Holocaust will force its way into your heart and mind. You will follow Eliezer as he is forced into Auschwitz and separated from his family. Though not a memoir, the emotional charge and detailed account of Eliezer almost completely mirrors Wiesel’s experience.

6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Rouault knew what love was supposed to be like– a romantic, intimate whirlwind of passion and bliss. (Ha!) What she got when she married Charles Bovary wasn’t exactly as she had expected. The beauty of this novel is the author’s ability to really channel the experience of a woman. Flaubert caused much controversy with this tale of deception, infidelity, and suicide. Some think Madame was a self-centered, selfish woman while others see her as a representation of oppression. Read this literary gem and decide for yourself.

These titles might span many miles (and timeframes) but they detail the human experience in a way that makes them relatable to all. Maybe the language is a little different. Maybe we don’t quite understand the rituals or traditions involved, but we can all relate to suffering, disparity, hope, and a sense of belonging.

 

 

5 Tips to Make Your Resume Stand Out Part 1: The Business Resume

 

In today’s ever changing and digitally powered job market, the resume you create might be the only tool you have to set yourself apart from the rest of the crowd. The face-to-face comes later standing out comes well before you ever reach the interview room. Though there is no handbook as to the right and wrong way to put together a resume, there are a few general standards to follow:

Nix the “objective”
The objective section might have been popular back in the stone ages, but today it is a waste of valuable space and completely unnecessary. If you are applying for multiple jobs at a time, failing to change the objective section to fit each individual job post might cost you the interview. Also, employers know your objective is to obtain the position applying for.  It is pretty much a given if they have your application in their hands. Better off to get rid of it all together.
Make sure you have a short profile 
And don’t call it profile. Also, make sure it is right after your heading. This is your opportunity to briefly touch on your qualifications for the position.  It is important to title your profile efficiently, but without being too specific.   Otherwise you might automatically eliminate yourself as a possible candidate for a position. For example, if you title your profile Administrative Assistant but are applying for a Billing Support posting, the hiring manager might automatically throw your resume to the side. You know you did billing as an admin in your last job, but the person looking at your resume has not idea. Instead, keep your profile open-ended. Market yourself as a Skilled Office Professional instead. This makes your resume a little more versatile, and you have a better chance of getting the call back.
Make sure the experience you relay is relevant 
Employers don’t care where you worked part-time when you were in high school or college unless it’s directly related to the position you are now trying to obtain. Make sure your job history is relevant to the position you are applying for. Tailor your resume so that the hiring manager can easily see why he/she should call you for an interview.
Post your education information 
Even if it is only a high school diploma. Most jobs require a high school diploma as a minimum qualification.  If you completed college or a certification program include that information in the last section of your resume.
Use key words 
Okay great, you are a “skilled” office professional, but how does the hiring manager know that? What makes you skilled? Make sure to explain exactly why you qualify as a person of skill, and then be prepared to explain yourself during your phone call or interview. Explain with key words, but remember to avoid getting too wordy.

Use these tips and you are sure to make your resume much more effective.

 

Photo credit: Flickr.com user woodleywonderworks