Craft Quote #8 – Overcoming Writer’s Doubt

In keeping with receiving criticism and the writer’s super power of growing several layers of dragon scales for skin, is a quote that I read in On Writing by Stephen King. I highly recommend it to all writers, especially those in the early stages of writing and discovering their voice. Although this quote doesn’t necessarily relate to the writing process, it’s a regular occurrence for artists and can lead to self doubt and impostor syndrome – both of which negatively effect the ways we write.

A lot of us keep our writing in the closet (or our blogs) because of the reaction we get when we reveal to someone that you’re a writer and gasp plan to write full time for real money and no you’re not delusional. The general misconception that the only way to make money as a writer is by being a novelist with an absurd amount of luck, doesn’t help either.

Prior to saying this, King mentions a teacher scolding him for wasting his talents writing junk. I’m sure she went on to face palm herself into oblivion, but it goes to show how even someone who is now The Stephen King got more than a few sideways looks for spending his time writing short stories for fun and then for money. It takes confidence to be a writer and this doesn’t come quickly, especially when there can be a lot of having to justify why you’re doing it. I’m a nurse’s assistant and just recently started telling my co-workers that I stopped taking courses for nursing to pursue freelance writing instead, many of my co-workers are very supportive and want to read my blog, while others tell me to go back to nursing school because there’s no way to make a living as a writer. I used to run through a list of ways writers can make a living, but came to the realization that that was a real waste of my time.

Getting involved in the blogging community and indie writer community has been a great way for me to build confidence and “meet” other writers who are either exploring their voice or doing what I aim to do, which is a constant inspiration. Seeing writers do what so many consider impossible is motivation to carry on in your own work, and learn how to just (as the vernacularly challenged say) do you.

How do you cope with nay-sayers? Do you keep your writing online or are you vocal about it with people you know? Why do you think everyone and their mother has an opinion about you being a writer?

Craft Quote #7 – Why Perfectionism Killed Your Story

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. – Margaret Atwood

The first draft of anything is shit. – Ernest Hemingway

These quotes come at a time when I’m making several revisions to a short story from four or five months ago. Last week I was eager to edit. I got the story out of my desk, edited the first paragraph thirty-odd times, then stuffed the papers back in the drawer deciding my time would be best spent job hunting – I’d worked five months and produced excrement, and worst of all, at one point I’d actually thought it was good. I was suffering from two things all writers go through at one point or another; a disconnect from my work because so much time had passed since the last edit, and feeling stagnated because I was editing my story with the aim of perfecting it.

As writers, we’re all guilty of trying to make our stories perfect because we have a particular message we want to convey, but what is perfection anyway? When does refining become a vice?

Writing is art; personal and an expression of self, so is constantly evolving and is impossible to perfect, so why are so many of us aiming for the impossible? The idea of what makes a flawless story changes as often as our minds do. Constantly judging your writing in pursuit of perfection ends in frustration and chasing your creativity down a hole to writer’s block.

Perfectionism puts a wrench in your writing mojo so, why do we spend so many weeks, months, and years editing and re-editing, in pursuit of it? I think the greatest reason is fear. Writing is incredibly personal, even when you’re not writing about something personal. You write, edit, pour hours into a story and wonder what people will say when they read your work. What will my friends/family think? Will my editor like it? What if no one gets what I’m trying to do? All of these questions rise up and choke the life out of creativity.

Aiming to write a well though-out, clear, soul-filled story is a good thing, but writing for perfection is a hindrance on creativity and productivity, because you’ll be editing with no end in sight.

Some ways I deal with my occasionally overcritical eye are to

  • Try not judging work while in the middle of writing it. Save judgement for later drafts, the first one is just a place to get your ideas onto paper (or screen). Think of creating your story like painting; start with broader strokes and then go back to refine, not perfect.
  • Write first and foremost for you, not any potential readers you think may be out there.
  • Set realistic deadlines to complete work. If you like to keep track of projects in stages; set a deadline to complete your outline, then a first draft, and so on. Having a set time to finish leaves no space for endless edits.

Chasing perfection hurts the creative process, but is something all writers (even the ones you admire and can do no wrong) struggle with. Next time you find you’ve micro-edited a paragraph for the umpteenth time, take a break then come back to the work with a mindset of writing without judgement, and free of the worry that someone is looking over your shoulder.

Do you find yourself struggling for perfection, or leaning on any other vices that stop you from writing? How are some ways you combat the need to aim for perfect writing? How long do you work on a project before deciding enough is enough? Let me know in the comments!

Craft Quote #5 – Why Do We Write?


Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
—George Orwell

George Orwell authored dystopian masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984, which are now required reading in many high-school English classes around the world, and still considered the process of novel writing to be a dire one.

So why did he do it? Why does any writer, famous, infamous, or aspiring, do it? Short stories and novellas are also a struggle to complete (in some aspects, even more so than a novel). Clearly there is some unknown entity that chases most of us writers. I, for one, have no idea why the strong urge to write has followed me through childhood and well into my twenties, even when I stifled art in pursuit of other careers it was only a temporary distraction and attempt at not being my mother’s worst nightmare. I may not understand what initially sparked my desire to write, write, write, but I have some idea of why I am doing it now; I love the empathetic perspective writing requires; there are endless cultures and lifestyles waiting to be explored and recreated; the rhythm and clarity of a well structured sentence is something truly wonderful; I’m a nerd for the emotions words create, and a sympathetic person that I also hate; there’s a story in me that needs to be written.

Why do you write? Do you remember the first time you picked up a book and thought I could do this!? Do you also remember how wrong you were about how easy it would be?

Craft Quote #4 – Good Writers Read [All] Books


Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

– William Faulkner

Almost every writer can be quoted as saying something similar, but it does not quite hit home until a Nobel Prize winning novelist, short story author, and most influential American writer of the twentieth century marks it as good advice (especially for us aspiring writers). Read often, read outside of your comfort zone, read the unexpected.

What are you reading? What are the most influential books you’ve read? Who are some of your go-to authors for inspiration or just a good old lit fix?

Craft Quote #3 – To Outline Or Not To Outline?


When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. – Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is the author of international bestsellers, Norwegian WoodKafka on the Shore, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle known for experimental writing and narrators who deal with love, isolation, and fantastical experiences.

Murakami is not the only proclaimed writer to prefer little to no story planning, George R R Martin (author of A Song of Snow and Ice, later on released by HBO as series Game of Thrones) calls himself a writer of the gardener variety; one who has a general idea of the seed of the story, what genre it is, but let’s it grow mostly untamed and explored during growth. Architect writers are their opposites. They build a story knowing the blueprints of the plot, the family tree, flaws of each character, and a likely ending. Writers can typically be divided into two categories; those who outline and those who do not. I am in the latter group. For me, creativity flows more fluidly when it is not in the constraints of an outline and needing to know how the story is going to end. Multiple outlines for dystopian science fiction stories sit in my writing desk  drawer, and although they are great in theory, they have amounted to nothing more than hours spent note taking rather than writing the story. Opening a blank page of a word doc or notebook can be daunting, but writing without a plan or desired ending takes a lot of that pressure off and can end in much more productive writing sessions.

Do you write outlines or no? Why does this practice work for you?

Craft Quote #2 – Can Writing Talent Be Taught?


Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just like painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. – Truman Capote

Since reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood I thought I’d stick with his wonderful way with words for this week’s craft quote. Seeing this quote, I wondered whether Capote considered himself one of the writers born with a natural talent, or whether he had to read, write, and rewrite his way to perfection.

Is writing craft mostly talent or practice? Personally, I think an innate seedling of writing should be present – but just a seedling, an “ear” for words. But the bulk of craft is practice, work-shopping, having your work read by infinite writers and friends, multiple drafts, criticism, being up to your eyes in books, et cetera. How do you play with writing rules? I play it relatively safe in terms of structure. I have yet to learn all of the rules of creative writing so have not figured out how to break them, but it is always great to read stories from those who have reached this point and seeing how it works for them.

Craft Quote #1 – Place and Emotion


“I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page- articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details- if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious- then I’m a little frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.” – Dorothy Allison, Craft Essays from Tin House

I’ve had a hard time writing and keeping up with my summer reading list (though I just finished a second book, watching everyone else’s progress has cemented my determination to finish all ten books by September!) after getting held up with a cold for one week, then camping in Monterey the following week, with my husband for our first year wedding anniversary. To combat this stunted period I thought I’d garner some inspiration for myself (and maybe some other writers slipping away from their work), by doing a brief weekly post called Craft Quotes – simply quotes I find helpful in explaining the writing craft, advice from talented authors and writers that expand new or seasoned minds in the creative writing process.

Dorothy Allison’s writing on ‘place’ is an entire chapter of lessons particularly useful for writers trying to give their work more substance and authenticity. When hitting a wall in your story’s plot try pulling back and focus on where the story is taking place. Why is this story taking place here? How does your character feel about this place? Why does he or she feel this way? Jotting down notes to questions like these help flesh out setting and a character’s connection to it, their motives and emotions. Even if none of this note taking ends up in the body of the story you gain greater understanding of realistic characters. Attaching real emotions to place allows the scene to grow from words on a page to tangible images and logic in a reader’s mind.

There are numerous layers needed to build a good story, and the fact that place is more than just where a story is happening goes largely ignored by writers and readers. I’m curious how other writers and readers deal with place. Do you incorporate setting into your writing or focus more on dialogue, characters, and/or plot? Do you feel that a lack of place sacrifices realism in a story? When reading, is a considerable understanding of place and how it relates to a character welcomed or a nuisance?

Creative Havens for Writers


Los Angeles is often incorrectly identified as the creative land of milk and honey. Los Angeles, for many, is the place to be if you’re one of hundreds of thousands with hopes of “making it”. But if you actually reside here you know this is a myth created by people who do not live here, and upheld by those that do. And if you’re a writer you know that unless you’re in the business of writing screenplays, jobs, inspiration, and venues that offer workshops and community are limited.

In this list is you will find gems in Los Angeles that feature a variety of talented writers, celebrate the craft, and work to provide a great community. Whether you are a poet, fiction writer, essayist, or singer you will be inspired (and eventually be the one to inspire) for next to nothing. Don’t live in Los Angeles? Don’t fret, some of these havens are available to stream via podcast and their social media, here is a taste of what is waiting to be heard.

Da Poetry Lounge, every Tuesday at 9pm.

For the poetically inclined; expect finger snapping and spoken word on sexism, racism, sexual assault, sexuality, cultural issues, and current events.

Located in the auditorium of a middle school, Da Poetry Lounge is a humble spot where writers spill their souls. It is said that those who leave without a sense of inspiration probably weren’t paying attention – or are dead inside. This open mic night focuses on poetry and music but with that being said, stories are stories. Regardless of what kind of storytelling you specialize in, a lot can be gained from hearing someone tell theirs – and at $5 for a four hour long show it’s a steal. Da Poetry Lounge claims to be the largest open mic night in the nation, the auditorium (as well as any available stage space besides a slice for the speaker to stand) is filled to capacity every show. If you want to get a seat, arrive early. If you want to sign up to share your own work, arrive absurdly early.

Beyond Baroque, check calendar for events.

A mixed bowl of creativity; free, donation-based, and paid events for less than a movie ticket. Expect workshops, poetry readings, art exhibits, and author readings.

Beyond Baroque is one of the nation’s largest literary centers. There is a real community feel as readings take place in an intimate room and alcoholic beverages are available for a donation. Perfect to get those creative juices flowing. Numerous writers have spoken on this stage before hitting their stride and becoming well known such as Patti Smith, Dennis Cooper, and Tom Waits. And if you’re still yearning for inspiration there is a used bookstore inside with a huge selection to choose from.

ALOUD reading series, check calendar for events.

The literature lover’s TED talk, with most sessions offered for free (but RSVP quickly as they fill up fast).

ALOUD is a summer long literary series of readings, interviews, and conversations that take place in Downtown Central Library. Although this is a seasonal series the organizers make the most of the time available by packing the entire summer full of events. Some upcoming talks are PEN Emerging Voices: A Reading, Why We Write, and Homegoing: A Novel, a conversation with author Yaa Gyasi. I will be attending this one specifically, and just ordered her book. During this series you can be in a room full of writers and learn from published authors about their process of the craft, little else could be more inspiring.

The Moth Story, check calendar for events.

Expect a diverse crowd and stories you have never heard before, told to make you laugh, cry, and see the unification of the human experience through storytelling.

These stories range between 5 and 20 minutes long and although tickets for the live show cost upwards of $39, listening to these stories online is free (all the better for us starving writers) and just as gripping. The writers read on stage with no notes which gives a certain authenticity, and with each speaker raised in various cultural backgrounds and livelihoods you will not hear any repetition in style or tone.

Now go! Be inspired. It is true, the best thing a writer can do to improve their skill is write, but the magic that comes from hearing someone else’s story from a perspective completely separate from your own, and being in a room full of people who enjoy stories, can be the inspiration we need to approach our work with new eyes.

Do you have any literary centers you enjoy going to for inspiration? What other methods do you use to gain inspiration? Have you been to any of these venues? Let me know in the comments below!

Learning Curve

Neon lights in the desert. Joshua Tree, California.

My mum stood in the kitchen like she often did and asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. Being from a second generation Nigerian and Congolese household I knew this was a loaded question. Feet barely touching the ground, my seven year old self sat in a chair with a mouth lacking teeth but full of cheerios, my hair struggling to stay bound in a pony tail. “A farmer!” I said, the idea had been brewing in my mind for some time now and the words were enough to make me beam a toothless smile. But “farmer” was not the correct answer – who knew that when it came to choosing a career profit is more desirable than happiness. “Farmers have to clean up animal poop all day – think of something else.” she said. These harmlessly destructive words left me questioning what that “something else” might be.

I have been in school for years trying to find this out, and finally I have learned that my happiness does not look like large pay checks coupled with even larger student loans. It looks like pen to paper, writer to reader, joint to mouth.

That day in the kitchen was the last time I made a choice based purely out of love; all I knew was animals were great and that was enough. Today I make that choice again, to do what I love despite doubt and overwhelming fear.
So now when I’m asked what I want to be when I grow up I respond, this time with a mouth full of smoke, whatever the fuck I want to be.