Writing challenges for your life

I’m interrupting my series of posts on grammar to offer some writing challenges to readers and visitors of this blog. At any time, people need the comfort and challenge that writing can provide, but especially in this uncertain time of COVID-19 spread and pandemic worries and social distancing.

My original title for this post was “writing for your life,” since both writing and reading can be life-saving – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Of course a number of sources have used this title, from a 1992 book by Deena Metzger called Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey. There is also an interesting website called Writing for Your Life: Resources for Spiritual Writers, with all sorts of materials and information. Another resource that emerged is Write for Your Life: The Home Seminars for Writers, by the prolific author of mystery, as well as how-to-write, books, Lawrence Block. Based on seminars on “the inner game of writing,” this work (originally published in 1986, second edition 2013), may provide help to writers, already solitary creatures, if working from home and social isolation continues for an extended period.

An easy way to both write and deal with any situation is to start journaling, writing down and getting out “the junk” before you start a day or a work project. Junk can include any feelings of inertia, bad mood, uncertainty, or distractions. The process helps clear the air and the mind so that you can get down to the real work, whether writing or living or working. Many time management professional recommend this practice at the start of every day, in fact adding it to a wake-up routine.

If you’re looking for additional practices, I want to offer some more formal writing challenges for your life. I present these to my Writing Workshop participants as they discover what kind of writer they are and what kind of writing they want to pursue. These are all challenges that I have tried and practiced. (I put links to the authors, resources, and websites at the end of this post.)

First challenge: Identifying yourself as a writer. Try to figure out what kind of writer you are—do you have time to commit daily or are you a “weekend writer”? What works best for your writing goals and your schedule?

Try this suggested by Fred White in The Daily Writer: work out a writing regimen around your social obligations—job, family, friends. Go over it with your spouse/partner/housemates. Put it to the test for at least 2 weeks and then make whatever adjustments you deem necessary.

Second challenge: Think of your goals. Why are you writing? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? People come to my Writing Workshop wanting to record a family history for private publication, explore a personal essay or memoir, to tell a non-fiction account, to create a short story or novel. Some simply come to discover whether they have something to write or whether they can write it.

I talk about setting writing goals in my post “How Do I Become a Writer.” In particular, I share information from one of my favorite resources, Naomi Epel’s The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers, which consist of a deck of 52 cards with prompts and with chapters consisting of reflections by writers and exercises for exploring the prompt in various ways. To prevent getting discouraged, be sure to set a realistic goal for your writing and begin to meet it.

Here are ten options to consider for getting yourself writing.

  1. Keep a writing journal, 6 lines minimum daily.
  2. Scott Russell Sanders has this advice for writers: “Keep a journal — not a diary, unless you want to keep a record of your daily doings, but a journal, a place where you record images, ideas, favorite passages from your reading, insights, overheard bits of conversation, drafts and random notes. The journal is your practice room and root cellar.” Record something in your journal every day.
  3. Do a “Five Minute” Exercise from C. M. Mayo, who created and posted daily five minute exercises, from October 1, 2005 through September 30, 2006, that she calls Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More 5 Minute Exercises. She also briefly reviews the free-writing technique and discusses the benefits of writing 5 minutes daily, including breaking writer’s block and training the brain in habits and in imagining.
  4. 10 mins. Daily Exercise: Take ten minutes “to exercise” your descriptions. Describe a scene (something from your current project, your daily life, anywhere), using sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Adapted from The 6’ Ferret Writers’ Group, this is a good exercise to practice daily, taking time from your work or daily life “to exercise” your writing.
  5. Free-write 10-15-30 mins. every day on a question you have about your writing, or write a letter about some issue. (I discuss the research on writing daily and the increase in quality and quantity in the post “How Do I Become a Writer.”)
  6. Keep an Image Notebook, an idea adapted from Bernays & Painter, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. For a specific period (a month, a season, a semester), keep an image notebook. Everyday record at least one image. Date the entries. Use all your senses. Ask yourself, what’s the most striking thing I heard, touched, tasted, smelled, saw today? Images begin with precise sensual detail. The assignment is very open. Length is variable.

           Objective: To learn to pay attention to detail. To gather images for later use. To find           interesting juxtapositions to use in stories. To find threads of narrative that lead to stories. To become clearer about what’s interesting to you.

  1. Keep a Poetic Journal. Many poets keep a journal, a repository containing ideas, images, subjects for poems, drafts of poems, other people’s poetry, found objects (things you pick up that inspire you or that could become the basis for poems, such as someone else’s grocery list). You can keep a journal in anything that’s portable and easily accessible, such as a notebook, on a laptop, or on a micro recorder.

Many poets commit to writing in their journals each day. Their journals are, in a way, the “office” where the work of poetry takes place. Keeping a daily journal is a good idea. For instance, Williams Carlos Williams made a habit of recording something—anything—in his notebooks every night for a year. He followed these jottings with a comment.

  1. Write 100 words a day. For whatever project you are working on or want to start, write at least 100 words each day. You can write more, but not less. You cannot “bank” days; i.e., you cannot write 200 words one day and skip the next. You must write at least 100 words a day. (This challenge was shared by a colleague at a newspaper where we worked as website editors, and it came from a children’s book writers group she participated in.)
  2. Do Morning Pages if your Inner Critic is too loud. (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way). Cameron recommends doing 3 pages of free writing by hand, first thing in the morning, every day for 3 months. It helps to quiet the internal critical voices. She says the first page and a half are easy, but push through to the end, where real material comes out. She recommends that you not reread your writing until after the three months are completed. Cameron writes, “Morning pages do get us to the other side of out fear, of our negativity, of our moods. Above all, they get us beyond our Censor (inner critic or monitor). Beyond the reach of the Censor’s babble, we find our own quiet center, the still, small voice that is once our creator’s and our own.”
  3. Life Map from Cheryl Richardson’s book Life Makeovers.

Richardson believes that thought is very powerful. She uses this exercise to focus on the question:  What do you want to draw into your life?

For thirty days in a journal, answer the following questions in a free-write or non-judgmental journaling session:

  1. What do I really want in my life?
  2. What do I think I should want?
  3. What does my head want?
  4. What does my soul want?
  5. What am I afraid of?

        Objective:  getting quiet, checking in.

Only you can decide what you need as a writer for your writing. Although many sources recommend daily writing, you can figure out what that means to you and to your project and goals. Here are some writing challenges for your life so that you can pursue your writing dreams by writing down your dreams, by writing for your life.

(Sources mentioned or adapted for this post include Deena Metzger, Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey; Writing for Your Life: Resources for Spiritual Writers; Lawrence Block, Write for Your Life: The Home Seminars for Writers; Fred White, The Daily Writer; Naomi Epel’s The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers [See a preview of the prompt and chapter called “Set Realistic Goals”; Connect with Epel on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.]; Scott Russell Sanders; C. M. Mayo, Daily Five Minute Exercises/Giant Golden Buddha; The 6’ Ferret Writers’ Group; Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers; Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way; Cheryl Richardson, Life Makeovers.)

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