Tag Archive: writing

Gather Your Inspiration Before You Write



One of the scariest things about writing is staring at a blank page. I don’t know what to write, I think. Or, Where do I start?

I was feeling that way when I sat down to write this blog post. I knew that I’d had a mental list of topics that I wanted to blog about, but suddenly I couldn’t call up a single one of them.

Then I remembered the strategy that I’d used to help my students get past writer’s block when I was teaching an after-school creative writing class. Some of my seventh- and eighth-graders found it easy to put pen to paper, but several others would consistently struggle with what to write.

A veteran Language Arts teacher had given me a copy of If You Want to Teach Kids How to Write…You’ve Gotta Have This Book! The author, Marjorie Frank, said that the mistake that well-meaning teachers often make is asking kids to sit at their desks and respond to a prompt like, “Write a poem about fall.” They’re puzzled when the kids just sit there.

The missing piece, says Frank, is giving kids the sensory experience of fall. She recommends taking students outside the classroom to smell the crisp autumn air, watch the yellow and red leaves dance on the breeze, and snap fallen branches in their hands.

After I did this with my students, we sat on the grass with a large sheet of butcher paper and a marker, brainstorming fall words. Cool. Crackling. Bare. Damp earth. Afternoon shadows. We jotted them all down. Then we wrote our fall poems, surrounded by nature instead of classroom walls, and not one of us had trouble doing it.

Writing comes more easily once you’ve gathered inspiration. It’s like running hot water over the seal of a tightly closed jar to loosen the lid. Instead of jumping into the work of writing without being properly inspired first, we can actively do something to inspire ourselves, so we have something to say and the desire to say it.

For me, gathering inspiration starts with reading work so good that I wish I’d written it myself, like this:

“Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose the murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet on fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed.” – Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle

“Know your weaknesses. For example, I have what can be described as ‘dead shark eyes.’ But if I try too hard to look alert, I look batshit crazy, like the runaway bride. If a bout of ‘creepy face’ sets in, the trick is to look away from the camera between shots and turn back only when necessary. This also limits how much of your soul the camera can steal.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants, on posing for portraits

I love Liz Gilbert’s playful use of language, Jeanette Walls’ rich imagery, and Tina Fey’s ability to make me laugh out loud in a bookstore with her self-deprecating descriptions (“dead shark eyes” just kills me).

The only thing more motivating than reading a delightful passage by the writers I admire most is reading one that I am proud to have written myself. When I feel blocked, I have to remind myself that I, too, am capable of good writing. I go back to some of the pieces on the blog where I’ve been able to say exactly what I want to, and I say to myself, Look, right here. See? You’ve done it before — you can do it again!

When I’m writing about the Reschool Yourself project, reading my own work also gets me back into the sensory experience of reliving my school days: the lively sounds of children playing at recess, the smell of cooked vegetables in the cafeteria, and the smooth feeling of a tetherball against my fingertips. Once I immerse myself in the vivid details again, I feel energized and ready to put them into words.

My last step is laying the groundwork for Future Melia to avoid writer’s block. When I’ve put myself into a creative mindset, I take a few moments to transfer my long-running mental list of blog post topics into a physical one, and I bullet out a few scenes in the Reschool Yourself book that I want to write. That way, the next time I find myself paralyzed by that blank page, I can look at the bits of inspiration that I’ve already gathered and get fired up write once again.

Leave a comment: How do you gather inspiration to write?

Flickr image by Stanly Zimny

Becoming a Real Writer


During my late twenties, I earned my living for two years as a freelance writer. For the next two years, I supplemented my modest nonprofit salary with copywriting, blogging, and writing for social media. Throughout this period, I was also starting to draft the manuscript for the Reschool Yourself book. And still, although I spent most of my waking hours writing and was being paid for my work, I felt a little pretentious telling people that I was a writer.

The next question that people would ask, out of genuine curiosity, was usually, “Oh! What do you write?” I’m sure it would have been more interesting for them to hear that I’d written a New York Times bestseller and was just about to embark on a nationwide book tour. Instead, I told them what it was that I really did: write feature stories for a few local magazines and newspapers, and marketing copy for small businesses. Although I may have let them down a little, at least I could chip away at the gilded mystique of The Writer.

One day I was struggling with a long-form narrative feature that I was writing for the Jackson Free Press. My husband was a freelance graphic designer at the time, and we both worked from home. I came over to his desk and said, “I don’t know why people think writing is so glamorous. It’s really hard.”

He said, “That’s why writers drink a lot.” Touché.

I’ve felt that I can’t call myself a “real” writer until my book has been picked up by a mainstream publisher and I become a household name. Well, that’s a bunch of nonsense.

I think you’re a real writer when you lift the romantic veil from writing and experience the real work of it. Most of us can’t retreat to wood-paneled studies or lakeside cabins to write for days at a time, for example. I’m lucky if I can squeeze in a couple of hours at night after my toddler goes to bed. I sit cross-legged on my living room couch with my laptop, drowning out the FX show my husband is watching by blaring Latin music through my headphones. It’s surely not what people picture when they think of a writer at work, but there it is.

Writing is a solitary and often tedious task. It takes discipline and persistence if you want to get anywhere with it. One of my favorite pieces of advice on writing comes from Richard Rhodes, in his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections:

I worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. … He said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” I call that solid-gold advice the Knickerbocker Rule.

I think you become a real writer when you receive your first rejection notice — or when someone invites you to write a piece for publication, and you put every effort into writing it, and it never sees the light of day. This has happened to me twice, and both times I have been confounded by how editors can get a writer’s hopes up, have her do the work, and then reward her with radio silence. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she knew she was a real writer when her e-book received its first bad review on Amazon.

A quick Google search brings up dozens of examples of famous writers who were rejected before they found success, some of whom were told that they had no talent for writing. James Joyce. Louisa May Alcott. William Faulkner. Twelve publishing houses rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter before one accepted it. Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing, “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” I will bet that all of these people were writers before anyone knew their names.

I once interviewed an artist who was beginning to garner a lot of attention for his work. He had been touring graduate schools and had recently visited one of the most renowned in the country. He told me, “A lot of those art school kids are caught up in being artists. They think that an artist is something you are, instead of art being something you do.”

In the same way, becoming a real writer is less about being a writer than about actually doing the writing.

These days, I don’t tell people that I’m a writer because I don’t need to; I have another full-time job. But I’m still doing the writing. Right now I’m reworking the second part of my book, because unlike the first part, it didn’t have a cohesive thread pulling the reader forward. I’m taking out the boring and irrelevant parts and replacing them with new scenes. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not romantic, but it’s real, and I’m pretty sure it makes me a real writer.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by davidturnbull.

Taking Heart from Reader Feedback


For me, one of the most rewarding parts of writing is getting feedback from readers. I remember catching the bug for this when I took a creative writing elective in high school. My classmates and I would move our desks into a circle and take turns reading our work aloud. When I got a laugh or a knowing nod in the places where I’d intended them, it meant more to me than any letter grade ever could.

I didn’t do much creative writing in the ten years between high school and the time that I started blogging about Reschool Yourself. When I began posting to the blog, it took me awhile to get comfortable with sharing my work again. I wanted to wordsmith every sentence to death, but I soon realized that this just isn’t the nature of blogging. Blogging is fast, it’s conversational, and it’s often raw.

What helped motivate me to ship my work quickly was receiving comments from readers right away. There was nothing better than knowing that what I wrote resonated with or inspired someone, or that I’d captured in words something that they’d experienced but hadn’t known exactly how to describe.

While I was doing the project, I remember writing a post called “Growing Pains” at one of my lowest points, when I was truly struggling. It was one of the most vulnerable pieces that I’d ever written, and I was a little worried that it would depress people. I was surprised when this post in particular seemed to strike a chord. Here are a few excerpts from comments that people left:

Oh, how I feel your pain. Hang in there, love.

Dear Heart! Take courage! You are doing a beautiful job.

Eerily, I know *exactly* how you’re feeling.

Knowing that people understood what I was going through and were there to support me through it all was incredibly therapeutic.

Other times, my stories about school prompted people to share their own in the comments. They talked about how awful P.E. classes were, and about the lasting impact their favorite teachers had left on them. They shared deeply personal memories, and I learned things that I hadn’t known about even my closest family and friends. When I wrote about returning to my middle school, my cousin Lynn wrote:

I. HATED. MIDDLE SCHOOL…I think I should do a reschool experience too just to feel loved in 7th grade and erase the bad memories.

It was especially rewarding when strangers came across my writing and felt that it spoke to them. A young woman named Bonnie from Smith College in Massachusetts wrote:

I just stumbled upon this site tonight, and let me tell you: it is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I am about to enter my last year of undergrad, am feeling entirely stressed and misdirected and not connected to my work. And I feel like I’m missing something in my childhood and in my education – that playful creativity, as you mentioned. But do I still have to finish this year? I want to reschool myself!

All of the difficult moments of the project felt worthwhile when I read and responded to these comments. It filled me with happiness to have added something positive to people’s lives. I loved feeling connected to my fellow humans through our shared experiences.

Of course, reader feedback isn’t always warm and fuzzy (oh, how I wish it were!). I’m still a bit terrified to publish a book because of the inevitable negative reviews that any real writer receives. I’m scared that some people will dismiss the project as a silly stunt, and that they won’t think my writing is any good.

But when I look back at the sincere and thoughtful comments that people have left on my posts, I feel more confident that I can ignore the naysayers and focus on the people who find value in what I write.

It’s scary to put something so dear and personal to you as a piece of writing out into the world. But I’ve found that the potential reward, for both you and for the people that you can affect with your words, is well worth the risk.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by dskley.

Recommitting to the Goal, Again and Again


Right now, I’m in the midst of the two biggest challenges that I’ve ever chosen to undertake. What they have in common is that there is no linear path to the destination. Instead, there is a roundabout route with detours, roadblocks, and occasional dead ends. And, of course, there’s no road map.

My first challenge is parenting my toddler son with patience and compassion.

For me, taking care of a newborn was a piece of cake compared with parenting a toddler. I would take the spit-up and dozens of diaper changes and feedings every two hours around the clock in a heartbeat if I could trade the irrational tantrums, the constant demands and interruptions, and the times that my toddler bites me on the leg repeatedly and laughs about it. To him, it’s a fun game.

The last item has me at the end of my rope. I’ve read that toddlers bite for a number of reasons: to relieve teething pain, to get a reaction, to seek attention, or even to show affection — not because they will grow up to be a Dexter Morgan-class psychopath one day. But still, when I am trying to cook dinner and have to ward off his little fangs in my leg again and again, I find myself getting furious and exasperated instead of giving him a firm but loving course correction.

A major reason that I handled a newborn with relative ease was that I was on maternity leave then; the only thing I was doing was parenting, and I could recoup any lost sleep during the day. Now I am working a full-time job outside of the house, then I start my second shift as a mom, and after that, my third shift as a writer. Every day, I am exhausted.

I’ve found that parenting is a series of daily victories and failures. Among today’s victories were making my son giggle by playing peekaboo, and reading him the same books several times in a row. Among today’s failures were handing him to his father when he was screaming for no discernible reason, and saying, “You deal with him. I just can’t right now.”

I hope to do better tomorrow. I fail, I learn, and I recommit to being a loving parent. I focus on the goal of teaching my son to be a kind, resilient, curious person, and doing whatever it takes to get there.

My second challenge is writing the Reschool Yourself book.

As incredibly difficult as I’m finding it to be the parent of a toddler, it’s been even more difficult for me to write a book. I wish that reading a whole lot of inspirational, female-protagonist memoirs translated neatly to producing one myself, but unfortunately that has not been the case. I wish that writing countless blog posts added up to writing a book, but it turns out that they’re completely different beasts. Blog posts are short and make a single point. Books have a plot and structure, characters and dialogue, and a narrative arc that keeps readers turning the pages. Their sheer word count is daunting.

The six years that I’ve been working on the book have been comprised of a series of peaks and valleys. I’ll get some inspiration that will put fuel in the tank, and then it will run out and I’ll be stuck again.

Seth Godin describes this phenomenon as “The Dip,” or “the long slog between starting and mastery.” He describes the excitement that we all feel at the beginning of a new project, and the inevitable letdown once the novelty wears off and the hard work begins. All of a sudden, things get real. When they hit a low point, that’s the Dip. Godin says that if the goal is not worth the effort — that is, you don’t really want it, or your hard work won’t ever pay off — you should strategically quit, and quit fast. But if it is worth the effort, then you’ll be in the minority of winners if you keep going through the Dip and come out on the other side. A key to succeeding, he says, is knowing that the Dip is there, and that you’re currently in the middle of it.

I’ve let the Dip stop me from finishing the book many times, but what’s more important is that I’ve eventually picked myself back up and recommitted to my goal. Each time, it’s difficult to overcome the pure inertia — the habit of not working on the book — and the self-loathing I feel for having failed once again. But I do it anyway. I will keep pushing through Dip after Dip and recommitting to my goal as many times as it takes to get the book done.

I am also trying to keep in mind a vision of what it will feel like to achieve my goal, to run my hands over the cool, smooth covers of my book and to hear readers say that my words made a difference in their lives. The comments that people leave on my blog posts give me little glimpses of this feeling, and they refuel my tank when it’s running low.

To recap, what I’ve learned from being in the midst of these two tough challenges: Envision how you’ll feel once you achieve your goal. Know that you’ll hit peaks and valleys along the way, possibly more times than you can count. Celebrate your smallest of successes, forgive yourself for even your biggest failures, and recommit to your goal as many times as it takes. I’ll be right there with you.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by keltickleton.

Introducing the Reschool Yourself Book Cover


One of my great fortunes in life is to have married an enormously talented graphic and web designer. Darren and I started dating just as I was beginning the Reschool Yourself project, and he volunteered to do the logo, website, business cards, and all manner of other design-related tasks. His latest beautiful creation is a cover for the future Reschool Yourself book.

Seeing this cover makes my stomach do a happy flip-flop because I can actually picture my book on the bookstore shelf next to my favorite memoirs of transformation, such as Eat, Pray, Love, The Happiness Project, and Wild. I can imagine running my hands over the cool, smooth covers of my hardback and seeing my own words in black and white as I flip through the pages.

Little by little, I’m getting closer to realizing the dream. There are many more steps to take before I can publish the book — more writing and editing and finding an agent and building an audience — but the cover gives me fresh motivation to keep moving forward. This image will be the centerpiece of my vision collage for the coming year, which has a pretty good track record of keeping me focused on my goals and making them a reality.

Perhaps one day soon you’ll see this cover in a bookstore near you. A girl can dream!

Journaling for Life

I haven’t written too much on the Reschool Yourself blog yet about the key role journaling has played in my life, so I wanted to share this post. I was pleased to have it published on Create Write Now, a website by the journal therapist Mari McCarthy, who is healing her Multiple Sclerosis with the help of journaling. I’ve included an excerpt and linked to the complete post below.

Since I was around five years old, my journal has been my closest confidant. I was still getting used to holding a pencil at the time when someone gave me a little hardback journal with a metal lock and key. Even though my secrets weren’t any juicier than “I went to Disneyland. It was fun,” the important thing was that I had a place to keep them.

As I grew older, my journals changed along with me. In middle school and high school, I used thick 8 ½ by 11 college-ruled Mead notebooks. As a preteen, I filled them with boy gossip and inevitably ended entries with “I heart so-and-so forever.” Often, I listed two or three names of boys that I loved deeply. In high school, I documented my teenage emotional highs and lows, my severe school stress, and the rare fights with my best friend. My journal let me vent and cry, even when I had no one else to talk to.

Read the rest of this post.