Category Archives: Writing related

On Writer’s Block and Morning Pages

Writing

A friend of mine and I were recently chatting about writing, online writing courses, and our favorite writing books. Then she asked me a question: “How did you overcome your writer’s block?”

I tried to keep down that bitter laugh building up inside me. I could have answered her with one of my blog posts on writer’s freeze, but when I thought about it some more, I realized: I have never gotten past writer’s block, and it’s not really something you get through once and then you’re done with it.

Let me explain. Writer’s block, or the inability to get past one form of what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” in The War of Art, is something we writers are always complaining about. It’s debilitating, crippling, and a death sentence for a writer’s career. But it’s not a disease with a cure. It’s more of a condition. What I have found is that it is something you just have to grit your teeth and bear, and write through.

Easier said than done. If it’s a block, how can we write through it? One tool I’ve fallen in love with and have found to be indispensable is what Julia Cameron dubbed “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way. Every day, as soon as you get up in the morning, just sit down and write three or more pages. It will take you about 15 minutes maximum, maybe less, maybe more, but the effect on your writing and even your mind is almost magical.

But first, I have to admit something. The longest I’ve been able to stick to a morning pages routine is a couple of weeks. It’s not because they are difficult, they aren’t. It’s not because I didn’t see any effect on my writing, I did. It’s simply a case of lack of self-discipline, and a load of other mental baggage.

And when I did stick to the morning pages routine? I soared. All my mental loops, those trains of thought that go nowhere in my mind, were silenced. The cycle of being preoccupied in our minds is broken when we allow our minds free reign on paper.  The rules are: no editing, no stopping to think about what you are writing, and these pages are for your eyes only. Whether you decide to share any of them with the world later on (as I once did here) is your decision, but you should feel utterly safe writing them, no censors, no taboos.

And once those words start flowing onto your screen, or paper (Cameron encourages writing them longhand), your mind begins to adjust yourself to its new task: writing. The more you do it, the more you are able to do it. And the more excuses you give yourself, the more obstacles and “what ifs” you put in your own way, the more difficult it becomes to break through that Resistance.

So if you want to break through your writers’ block, or any other form of Resistance, start with morning pages. Advice I should take. Thank you for reminding me, Rahma, with your question.

Two excellent posts and a video about morning pages:

Have you ever written morning pages? I’d love to hear about your experience with morning pages, and if you have any tips about sticking to the routine.

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Confessions

  1. The Magic of Turquoise, written by Mai Khaled, translated by Marwa Elnaggar

    The Book I Translated. Refer to confession 5.

    I haven’t written a single blog post since December 2010.

  2. I haven’t written a single word in my work-in-progress since December 2010.
  3. I’m using the revolution that happened in Egypt in January 2011 as an excuse for not writing.
  4. I’ve considered using the hundreds/thousands of tweets I’ve tweeted during the revolution as my “See? I have been writing.”
  5. I did translate a novella, though. And it’s been published. And I’m proud of this achievement. So I’m officially a published literary translator as well as a writer.
  6. Sometimes I’m just too lazy and lack the self-discipline to write regularly.
  7. I regret writing that last confession because I’m ashamed of it.
  8. Sometimes I’m just too afraid of writing to write. What if what I write is garbage?
  9. I regret writing that last confession as well.
  10. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say good things about my writing. You guys are just being nice, right?
  11. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say bad things about my writing. You guys are just nitpicking, right? This is always true when you don’t tell me what’s wrong with the writing.
  12. I’ve started a morning pages routine about a dozen times or so. I’ve even converted other people to this ritual. Despite seeing and feeling a real difference in my writing when I stick to the routine, I still end up quitting after a few days or weeks. Is this deliberate self-sabotage? Should I get therapy? Am I a danger to society?
  13. Sometimes when I see a beautiful work of art, I get jealous, so I go paint or sketch. I feel the same when I read a good story, or even just a well-written sentence or phrase. Do successful writers and artists feel the same when they see or read someone else’s work? I want to know because I’m trying to diagnose myself (am I petty, or does everyone else feel the same way?).
  14. I’m writing this blog post while I’m at work. My job description does not include blog-post writing.
  15. I’m writing this while I’m at work because I’m pretty confident no one at the office reads my blog.
  16. I regret writing those last two confessions. I think they qualify as “stupid”.
  17. If you’ve read this far, let me tell you that I’ve missed your comments and would love to hear one or two of your own confessions (they don’t have to be embarrassing). Or you could berate me for not writing regularly. Or just send me a cookie.

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Useful criticism: 3 tips & 3 things to remember

Useful criticism: 3 tips and 3 things to rememberI’ve written before about how destructive negative criticism can be here and here, and why writers need to be aware of the various reactions and factors that can determine how they evaluate criticism here.

Today I want to suggest 3 tips on how to elicit useful criticism, and 3 things to remember.

3 Tips

1. Always make sure you choose critique partners who are either professional editors/agents or serious writers. “Serious writer” does not necessarily mean a writer who is published, but rather a writer who is working hard, studying the craft, and writing.

2. Ask specific questions and explanation of comments. For example, if you receive a critique and find the comment “This part is boring”, ask your critique partner: “Why? What makes it boring?”

3. Ask questions beforehand, when you submit your writing to a critique partner. Tell them, “I’m looking for comments on my characterization”, rather than just leaving it up to them. If you are more worried about plot development, then by all means, ask your editor to concentrate on that. If you want a detailed line-by-line edit, then ask for it. If you don’t, then specify that.

3 Things to Remember

1. Good critique partners will offer reasons for their reactions to your writing. They will also offer suggestions, alternatives, details, and examples.

2. People will react differently to any piece of writing. What one person finds uninteresting, contrived, or flat, another will find brilliant and inspired. This is another reason you should ask more than one person.

3. Know who you are, and what you want. After you receive all the critiques you asked for, it’s you and your story or poem or article or novel. When it’s published, the words on that page will be attributed to you, so make sure you believe in every single one of them. Don’t ever allow anyone into bullying you to change something you don’t want to change.

For a great resource on critiquing and critique groups, read Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other tips on how to elicit more useful criticism?

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An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk

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Denying your creativity can kill you

The War of Art - book coverI’m reading Steven Pressfield‘s excellent little book about writing, how to be a professional writer, what that means, what makes you stop writing (or doing any creative work) and how you can overcome it. I’m almost finished reading The War of Art, but from the very fist chapter, I knew this was a winner. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you have to underline every single sentence.

Let me give you an example. Last night, I read a chapter titled “Life and Death”. This is a chapter I wanted to underline, quote, print out and frame, and shout out from the rooftops. In “Life and Death”, Pressfield discusses how a profound shift takes place in the awareness of a person who finds out that he/she has a terminal illness.

“Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.”

How many times have we heard stories of people who, after being told by their doctors that they have just six months to live, quit their jobs to spend time with their families and do something that takes everyone by surprise?

Tom Laughlin, an actor, lecturer, author, and psychologist who works with the terminally ill, says that this “deadline” makes people start to think about what they’ve always wanted to do in their lives. They start thinking about how they’ve always wanted to play music, or paint, or write, or travel around the world.

The reason this happens, Laughlin says, is that consciousness shifts from the Ego to the Self. As Pressfield puts it, “The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly grounded perspective.”

So what’s new about that? We all know that, right? Who would continue working in their 9-5 jobs or prefer to spend time in their cubicles or in office meetings when they find out they have six months left? So what’s so amazing that I’m dedicating an entire blog post to this?

According to Pressfield, once people make this mental shift and start pursuing their dreams, they recover from their illnesses.

And Laughlin, as well as Pressfield, ask some crucial questions:

“Is it possible… that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?”

How much negativity exists in our lives when we aren’t doing what we aren’t pursuing our dreams? And how many diseases baffle doctors and researchers, who end up explaining them as being a result of “negative stress”, among other things?

Call me deluded, but this makes a whole lot of sense to me.

What do you think?

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 2

Negative criticism can destroy a writing career.

Negative criticism can either improve a writer's skills, or destroy her forever.

In my previous post about negative criticism, I outlined the six stages of reaction I went through when I received the most biting criticism in my life. In this post I want to explore the different possible reactions and factors that writers need to be aware of in order to make the most out of any negative criticism they come across.

There are basically two main reactions to negative criticism, with many variations and degrees:

1. Rejection

2. Acceptance (It can either take a healthy form of a learning experience, or a deadly form of destroying a writer’s confidence so completely that she never writes another word again.)

Before getting into the various factors a writer needs to consider when evaluating negative criticism, let’s first consider this: what would happen to you as a writer if you never received any negative criticism?

I, for one, don’t believe that there is any writer in the world who doesn’t need to improve their writing. And any writer who believes otherwise is seriously deluded. No matter how great a writer is, no matter how acclaimed or best-selling, every writer needs a good editor/agent/critique partner(s) who can tell him what’s working with a piece of writing, and what’s not working.

How else are you supposed to improve if all you hear is: ‘That’s great!”, “I loved it!”? The simple — and to me, obvious — answer is: you don’t.

Now on to the various factors that need to be taken into consideration when receiving negative criticism, and which can determine how you react:

1. How was the criticism given?

Was it supportive? That is, did the person giving the critique seem to want you to improve, or did it seem as if she was just out to cut you down? Were there any positive remarks?

I always make it a point to highlight any positive areas in a piece of writing before I say what I thought needed work, even if it means I just acknowledge the effort a writer has exerted, or the bravery she’s shown by submitting her work to be critiqued, or a phrase I liked, or an idea that has potential.

I also make the effort to be as sincere in my enthusiasm as I am in my criticism. One of the most depressing things is hearing an unenthusiastic “Yeah, it’s nice, but…” Hearing that makes me discredit everything that comes out of the person’s mouth. Make me feel good first. Make me feel safe. Give me a cushion to fall on before you punch me.

2. Who gave the criticism?

Is that person, in your opinion, qualified? That is, do you trust them to be objective and to want you to improve? When you consider this factor, you have to be careful not to allow your resistance to, or rejection of the criticism affect this opinion. This means that just because the person criticized your writing, don’t ignore it by saying to yourself, “What does he know anyway?”

Generally speaking, friends don’t make good critique partners. There’s simply too much history and emotions and stakes involved to allow for either a fair critique or a fair reception of that critique. The best thing to do is to search for a critique partner with whom you are not emotionally involved. You can always become friends with your critique partner (it’s almost inevitable), but when your friends become your critique partners, your friendship can suffer.

Leave the ego-boosting to your friends, instead. Make sure they’ll support you and encourage you to continue when you do get cut down.That’s what friends are for, after all.

3. What was your emotional state beforehand?

Were you in a foul mood before you opened that email that tore your writing to shreds? If you were, then you probably hit the roof. I hardly think that you swallowed your pride and tearfully started revising your work.

If you were depressed before you received the criticism, you’ll probably feel suicidal after reading it.

You have to be aware of your feelings before receiving the criticism so you can evaluate your reaction and the criticism fairly.

4. Does it make sense?

The validity of a critique can be relative and can’t be measured without an argument being made for it. How do you decide whether this makes sense or not? The best thing to do is try to distance yourself from both the critique as well as your own writing.

And if the criticism suggests removing a line or changing something, try it. Implement the change and reread your work. Does it sound better? Did removing that beautifully crafted sentence leave a gaping hole in your writing, or did it tighten it?

And now, over to you. What other factors do you believe affect the reception of negative criticism?

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 1

Why writers need negative criticismYes, you read that right. And no, I’m not a masochist. About a week ago, I received the most biting negative criticism that I have ever received about a piece of my writing. And I mean negative. Caustic. It burned. I’ll tell you exactly how. This is how I felt about it (more or less in chronological order):

1. Stunned: I’d never received such a crushing critique before.

2. In denial: The person who critiqued the work obviously doesn’t know anything. This isn’t happening to me. This person doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say or the aim of this piece of writing.

3. Crushed: I suck. I suck. I suck. I can’t believe I ever thought I can become a good writer. I suck. I should just go find some office job and forget about ever becoming a writer. Did I mention that I suck? Well, I do. I suck.

4. Acceptance of the criticism: OK, this person may have a point. Yes, I agree that this needs some revision. OK, it needs a major rewrite and has lots of problems.

5. Worried and paranoid: If I sucked so bad at this piece, therefore, I suck at everything related to writing. Anyone else who ever said anything good about any of my other writings must have been too polite or embarrassed to say anything. Anyone else who didn’t tear my writing to shreds before must have been too nice to say anything. They must have pitied me. I still suck.

6. Shaky acceptance of myself: This was the most difficult stage to arrive at. OK, so not everything I write is wonderful, or even good. Sometimes I write terribly, and sometimes I write very well. There’s no way that anyone writes well every single time. This shredding of my writing will make me more aware of the mistakes I make. It will make me improve my writing. There is hope. Maybe I don’t suck. At least not completely.

This was a rundown of my emotional and mental states as I dealt with the criticism. At the end, I did buckle up and fix that piece. But I’m no hero. I still feel that my previously dulled sense of self-doubt has been sharpened and stings. And now I’m trying to convince myself that a healthy dose of self-doubt is necessary for all writers. How else would they improve? But the key word here is: healthy.

In the next post in this two-part series, I’ll talk some more about negative critiques, and how writers can evaluate and deal with it.

But now, I’m interested in knowing about your experiences with negative criticism. How did it make you feel? What did you do?

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