Sunday, October 26, 2008

Present Influences on Our Writing/Writers Block

"The future influences the present just as much as the past." When this quote by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche came up in my cryptoquote for the day, it seemed fitting. Like most working class Americans, my present decisions are being influenced by the forecasts of a future financial recession. I don't know if that is what he meant or whether I agree with him. It seems to me that the future, not having occurred yet, could not possibly affect the present as much as the past does. I guess he means our fear (which may be influenced by the past), our hope, goals, and plans for the future influence what we do now.

An interesting question raised in our writers group last week related this quote to the dreaded writer's block. We were discussing why some authors of one successful book stop writing. "Does success overwhelm the author to the point she is afraid to try again?" Afraid of what? Afraid that she cannot duplicate the former success? Or afraid he won't live up to his fans' expectations? Afraid of the publicity she must face as a successful author? We may never know all the reasons. Even the author may not know why, for the underlying cause may be deeply subconscious.

We wonder why Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) quit writing. I know only what I read in a biography. "Although her first novel gained a huge success, Lee did not continue her career as a writer. She returned from New York to Monroeville, where she has lived avoiding interviews." Other very talented authors I know seem to experience a writer's block after a first very well written and much loved novel. Why? I'd have to ask them, but for this discussion, I'll just surmise the possible reasons, dividing them into influences from the past, the future, and the present.

The fears I spoke of in the preceding paragraph belong to the future. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of the unknown that has us busy with self-preservation. Another future-related reason for not writing may be simply moving on to new interests and goals to fill ones' days and satisfy the soul.

Writer's block that relates to the past include those demons of doubt I talk about in my workshops. Voices instilled by authority figures and peers when we were very young. "You are never going to amount to anything," we may have heard, and when we are very young, we believe everything we hear. "You can't do that." "No one is interested in what you have to say." and my favorite, "Who do you think you are?" with all it's negative implications. Lies all, but somehow they get stuck in our heads, and when we least expect it, whisper their ominous warnings. The voice that says, "It has all been said before. You can't write anything original, so don't waste your time," makes it hard to write anything. Another voice, "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all," creates a perfectionism that keeps us from trying, or causes us to scrap our efforts in frustration, when they don't meet our very high standard of what "should" be.

The present, however, may hold as many blocks to our writing as those related to the past or the future. One may be simply that we have run out of things to say. We've used up our ideas and need to put down the pen to replenish the supply with fresh experiences. A current crisis such as an acute health problem, an accident, a relationship problem, a loved one in trouble, may absorb us completely. When the latter is the case, we may find release in writing about it, or it may be too close to us for writing to be possible at the present time.

If you are experiencing writer's block for any of the present, past, or future reasons, the worst thing you can do is to flagellate yourself. Be kind, give yourself some slack, or you are just exacerbating the problem. Approach the keyboard or the pen with gratitude, the anticipation of pleasure, and the permission to write badly, briefly, and just for your own fulfillment. Remove the censor and the taskmaster. And let yourself know. "If I don't write, it doesn't mean I'm a bad person. If I write, I have the choice of allowing it to be read or not."

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."– C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The season to write is now, but don't give up on promotion

I have the perfect antidote for the prevailing fear and uncertainty that plagues most of us as a result of the falling stock markets reacting to the mismanagement of our country's financial institutions, the failure of the imprudent government bailout attempt to fix the problem, and the recession in which we find ourselves. The average American is cutting back spending to cover basic needs. Businesses that offer the amenities of life are feeling the crunch. Even publishing guru, Dan Poynter, commented in a recent lecture at the Colorado Independent Publisher's association that this is not the best time to publish new books, but a better time to write in preparation for the next upswing in the economy. It will come, Poynter declared. In the meantime, WRITE!

I welcomed this call to write from Dan Poynter, but I also took to heart his advice about promoting what we have published. His talk on book promotion was an encouragement to the introvert writer who is by nature a reluctant marketer. As I have commented before, the idea of promoting one's self seems counter to the average fiction writer, especially to the author who prefers a pen in private seclusion to a podium before a public audience; especially those whose elders told us, "don't ask for favors" and "don't blow your own horn;" especially to those to whom rejection and criticism is a knife piercing a tender ego.

We don't have to go on the radio or TV if we don't feel like it. We don't have to get out and set up autographing parties in book stores (something that might be hard to arrange today, anyway.) But there is much we can do in the privacy of our homes. The internet offers a wealth of opportunity. John Kremer (1001 Ways to Market Your Book) suggests that you do five promotional projects for you book each day; and, as Poynter said, you can do them from your own home. My suggestion is that you do at least one more each day than you have been doing. It's a good place to start. In my Newsletter to fellow writers, I will make frequent suggestions for doing so. If you'd like to receive my newsletter via e-mail, please request it at

Once I have done my "promoting from home," for my latest published work, Kyleah's Tree, today, I will write more on the third book of my trilogy (working title: Kendall and Kyleah or Twins Again or various other titles I'm toying with.) as well as continuing to edit and polish the second book, Kendall's Storm

When I think of writing and giving myself permission to write daily, there is no end to the possibilities, and I get excited. Please, give yourself permission to write today and everyday. It's a good time to create and perfect our stories.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Battles of Will

"It is a great mistake to command when you are not sure you will be obeyed," said Honere, Compte de Mirabeau

This morning's quote for the day reminded me of Jenny's story. Jenny was a precocious two-year-old, eagerly exploring her world to learn for herself how everything worked. With typical two-year-old zeal, she explored her own independence, as well. Wrapped in love by her parents and two adoring older siblings, and with a gregarious personality spurred by curiosity, she developed a quick wit and larger than usual vocabulary. She had been a sickly baby, and was used to being doted upon; her needs met with anxious concern by her mother.

Alvin, her father, a proud, hard-working man, who loved his children, took his job as head of the household very seriously. He had learned all he knew about parenting from his own mom and dad and the general "wisdom" of the day that said things like, "Children should be seen and not heard." "Parents, train up a child in the way it should go." "Children, obey your parents." "If you spare the rod, you'll spoil the child." "It is the parent's responsibility to break the will of a strong-willed child." What he didn't know is that in a battle of wills between a parent and a child there is no winner. It is a lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

It was dinner time on the ranch, dinner being the noontime meal and the biggest meal of the day for a family that rose early to milk the cows before beginning work in the fields. The family sat around the kitchen table enjoying the pleasant repast—until jenny, in her high chair—said, "I want more milk." Mom replied, "What do you say, Jenny?"
"I want more milk," the two year old repeated. "No, Jenny, I meant you need to say please." A flash of understanding radiated Jenny's face for a split second before it reddened slightly. It was as if she thought. "Oh, yeah. They shouldn't have had to tell me that." But that expression quickly changed to a look of determination as she thought again. "Why should I have to say please to get my milk? I never had to before."

"Jenny, your mother told you to say please, now say it." Alvin ordered, resting his hand on his wife's arm as she reached for the pitcher of milk. He couldn't let this little girl disobey her mother. He'd have a rebellious child on his hand if he didn't nip this problem in the bud.

Jenny shook her head, stubbornly. "Jenny, say please right now, or I will have to spank you," Alvin commanded.
"No!" Jenny said, alarmed at the way her simple request for milk was turning out, but determined not to back down. Didn't they owe her the milk? Wasn't it hers for the asking? She was not going to beg for it.

Alvin rose from his chair, hoping that the motion would be all it would take to put fear into the toddler and evoke the desired response. It didn't. Neither did lifting her from her highchair. "Are you going to say please, or am I going to have to spank you?"
Jenny, wide eyed, refused. Surely her daddy wouldn't hurt her. He never had before. A simple swat didn't elicit the desired, "please." Jenny only cried out in alarm. Alvin was determined. He had gone this far. How could he possibly back down without appearing weak in front of his children; without giving them the upper hand? Letting her win would teach her and her watchful siblings that they didn't have to obey. The blows got harder until Jenny was crying so convulsively that she couldn't have spoken a word if she had wanted to. Defeated and angry, Alvin put her to bed and closed the bedroom door with the futile command to Jenny to "Quit crying!"

"Don't go in there or let her come out until she quits crying and says she's sorry," he told his family as he went outdoors. Back at work, he felt worse about himself and his job as a parent than he ever had before.

Jenny was left to sob convulsively until she fell asleep in exhaustion. When she awoke, she was changed. Her mother would tell her in later years that the difference was night and day. Jenny was no longer outgoing and happy, but subdued, shy, withdrawn and even functionally mute much of the time. "It's as if your spirit was broken that day," her mother said. And indeed, it was; broken beyond repair.

The best lesson we can glean from this true story is to carefully and completely avoid battles of will. There are better ways. Whenever possible, give the child choices. Let her be the one to make the decision. When my grandson refuses to brush his teeth, I ask, do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want me to brush them for you? He will choose one or the other, and either way the result is that his teeth get brushed. The same with washing his face and hands, picking out his clothes for the day. When he refuses to dress himself, his mom might say, "Do you want to get dressed now and eat breakfast with us, or do you want to sit in time out first?" It's his choice, and he usually chooses to dress right away. If not, and his breakfast is late, the consequence is the result of his own choosing. He learns that it is he who controls the outcome, for better or worse.

As adults, we often underestimate our children's ability to understand. If we take the time to explain to them why we are asking them to do something, or why we are refusing a request, they will find it easier to accept. They might tell you, if you listen, where they are coming from on the issue, and at times, you may see that they are right. Communication beats "Because I said so!" at least 95% if not all of the time.

A parent should carefully consider whether an issue is worth a confrontation. In the case of Jenny and the milk, I don't think it was. If the parents had said, "Of course you may have milk, Jenny. But you know what? Big people always say, please, when they ask for something. It's called being polite. You may want to try it next time." Or, better yet, just give her the milk and say nothing. I have observed that children adopt the polite words on their own by observing and imitating the adults around them. It's what kids naturally do.

"With a strong willed child it's more about communication than control. We are all given free will- a strong willed child just seems to have discovered it a bit sooner than we would have liked. When a strong willed child is presented with commands, rather than choices, his default behavior will be to buck authority because he feels like his choices have been taken away. Giving a strong willed child two choices you can live with, works better than a command. 'We need to go, do you want to wear shoes or sandals?' works better than 'Put on your shoes,'" author and America's Nanny, Michelle LaRowe suggests at where you'll find more expert advice on parenting the strong-willed child.