Five Ways Writers Can Deal with Depression

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

A little bit back, the brother of one of my old friends committed suicide. He’d been depressed for a while; I’m uncertain if he’d expressed any dramatic intentions about ending his life before his death. Not long after that, the brother of a woman who works with my girlfriend Alice killed himself. Again, a man who struggled with depression. Most recently, one of Alice’s friends, a woman who has suffered depression and other anxiety issues, was found dead, under puzzling circumstances that are yet to be explained.

That’s a lot of death, and a lot of suffering that preceded it. The people I mention above weren’t writers, but I want to turn the discussion to writers and depression, because it’s a subject that’s been explored by medical professionals and by other writers. There’s some contention with the notion that writers and artists in general are more sensitive to depression and associated conditions, but the list of well-known authorial depressives is broad: Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, and my shining guide, Mark Twain—and lots more. The famous names suggest that there’s a wider carnival of sad writers, but their lack of fame hasn’t let us peer into their dank mental grottoes.

Writers have a peculiar set of traits that can lend themselves to dark thoughts. Stereotypes can often trip up facts, and exceptions are everywhere, but writers are often inward, reflective sorts. Many are introverted, and spend less time in jolly social engagement than other people. Many are frustrated and thwarted by the impossible demands of language—no piece of writing ever seems good enough. Many are frustrated by the demands and rejections—and right now, the everything-changes-everyday—of the publishing world.

Hey, Isn’t That My Face?
I have known a number of writers that had depressive tendencies, but the one I know best is me. My own mild (and less often, moderate) depression has followed me from adolescence into my adult life. Its face has morphed from “There is no meaning” to “I have no meaning” and back again, over and over. Sometimes the face is just an old photograph in one of my rooms, forgotten until I look, but sometimes it’s the only face I see in the mirror.

When you are depressed, the knowledge that “this will pass” means little. It’s like being softly smothered, or encased in a shell of dullness where sight, hearing and thinking are subdued. Contrarily for me, the state also carries a bit of a malevolent energy—I can feel it coming on, a tingle in the soul. And often it’s not precipitated by any event. However, when you’re in it, the key of “Hey, at a fundamental level, you are OK,” doesn’t fit into any slot of belief.

But I’m grateful that I don’t have full-blown depression, which renders some people near catatonic or incapable of action. I have dark thoughts indeed, and they go places they shouldn’t, but I’ve found that these foul possessions rarely last more than three or four days, a week at most, and then, blessedly, they lift.

There are so many people with tremendously more challenging lives than me, but the depressive state of mind remains a real and a serious thing. I’ve found a few helpful ways to fight it:

Five Anti-Depressants That Don’t Require a Doctor
1. Regular exercise. Even a half-hour walk a day is beneficial. The body moves, the blood circulates, the mind can look at the passing scenery and not fold in on itself.

2. Meditation: I’ve been meditating in the mornings, between 10-20 minutes, for more than a year now. It has been grounding for me; though my mediations can be fitful, because the brain is a spastic ping-pong ball, there is a calming solace in just sitting, breathing and watching the brain ponging.

3. St. John’s Wort: I don’t want to become another one of the pharmaceutical industry’s minions, so I’ve chosen an herbal supplement that many feel offers relief. And many people don’t. For severe depression, prescription anti-depressives can be life-saving, but that route doesn’t feel right to me. But placebo or not, I’ve taken St. John’s Wort on and off for years, and think there is a mild benefit: fewer episodes of depression and fewer episodes of longer-lasting depression. Your mileage may vary.

4. Writing: I often duck, sidestep or back away from my creative writing (hey, all you marketing-writing or editing clients: I always do the work, and with full attention, mopey or not) when I’m feeling low, and that seems to reinforce or exacerbate the soul-drain. Writing anything—essay, fiction, travel piece, haiku—gives the sad face more lift.

5. A person who believes in you: I’m grateful that Alice is around to tell me to stop moping. I don’t stop moping, but I appreciate her efforts. She has watched my struggles in these areas for years, and has stuck around to help. She is a dear creature, even if she has funny hair.

And one I didn’t list as my own, because I’ve yet to try it, but I’m considering it: a SAD therapy lamp. Winters do seem harder for me than other seasons.

And if none of those help, there’s always dropping a little acid. I saw that Tim Ferriss is underwriting (and crowdfunding) a Johns Hopkins study on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD. The initial research is very promising. And the mushrooms might be good in pasta.

Seriously though, the pain of the families that I mentioned above is unimaginable. If you are habitually down, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, get help. There is a way out, and it’s not by taking your life. There’s a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255, and here’s their associated website.

Better days ahead.

Hate Yourself (and Your Writing) Later—This Is Time for Congratulations

This thumb's for you (give yourself a hand)

This thumb’s for you (give yourself a hand)


Writers, being creative types, have some very creative means of disliking themselves. “Nah, I really didn’t nail the end of that story.” “Why should I bother to write today—everything I write is crap.” “He/she is so much better of a writer than me. What’s the use?”

I can say with authority that those are the kinds of things that writers think, though they don’t always express them so bluntly. I see varying slices of those self-souring comments on many of the writing blogs I frequent, in biographies I’ve read (of very successful writers, mind you), in conversations I’ve had at conferences and in person. Writers have acrobatic means of torquing their writing temperaments into cowering self-reproach.

What they don’t have is much talent at giving themselves a round of applause.

Of course it’s good to keep yourself honest, review your materials with a critical eye (even two eyes), probe for weaknesses with the intent to strengthen. And there are times when that “hmm, this isn’t what it could be” review of your work is credible, and even motivational. But at some steps on your writing trek, it’s time to drop the stick and go completely carrot: praise yourself.

C’mon, you can do it.

Self-Praise? How Novel

My motivation in writing this is to tell you to eat more tasty carrots (I like mine frosted) and ditch more self-reproach sticks. My trigger in writing this is that last week I finished a novel I’ve been working on (and often not working on) for eight years. I have to swallow when I say this, because my reflex so often when discussing my writing is to declare that it’s poop, but I had an anti-reflex this time: I think it’s pretty good. [I see you suspiciously eyeing that “pretty”—yes, still I must qualify, but hey, it’s progress.]

There’s no predicting the publishing route I’ll take with this book, but right now, I don’t want to look at the road back or the road ahead. I simply want to take satisfaction with finishing something, and given myself a clap on the back. (And in about 15 minutes, a martini.)

Writers, give yourself a break. There’s plenty of time to give your writing the gimlet eye. But pledge to yourself: the next time you finish a book, a story, a paragraph, even a cussedly fine sentence, tell yourself you done good. After a while, you may even start to believe it. That good feeling might even prompt you to write another good sentence, and yet another.

Congratulations!

Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc


Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.

I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.

Those had to be thwarted.

The Thwartings
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.

In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.

Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.

He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.

Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.

But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.

And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.

No—yuck!

Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?

Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?

I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …

Content Writer? Goodness No—I’m a Storyteller

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and ...

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and …

Grasshopper, it’s an interesting time to be a writer. Journalists have fled (or been dismissed from) newsrooms in droves, and many of them have morphed into “content writers,” a phrase that doesn’t have the panache of “investigative reporter,” or “columnist” or even “scribe.”

Fifteen years ago, or maybe even ten, if you told most people you were a content writer, they’d have probably given you the same squinch-eyed expression supplied if you’d told them you were a tangerine. But now in many quarters the term gets a sage nod. Content writer, yes. Enterprising fellow.

When I was an undergrad (some time before the spoon was invented), I was on the staff of the college newspaper, for all four years. I envisioned the reporter’s life to be one of glitz and grit, and I wanted to be a glitzy-gritty one. Then, lacking today’s “choose yourself” perspective, two successive years of rejected applications at Berkeley’s journalism grad school managed to chasten my quest. But I did end up becoming a corporate editor, then a copywriter, then an editor, then a copywriter and then some conglomerations of the two. But I always kept a hand in journalism, writing freelance pieces (profiles, features, reviews) for newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Call Me No Damn Marketer
Circles, being the roundish things they are, curve things back yet again: now it’s hip for marketers to dub themselves “storytellers.” Telling stories, once the province of liars and impoverished fiction writers (bet you can’t cleave those two without a claw hammer) now has business-writing currency. Use your journalism skills to tell good stories with your content marketing, and you’ll get engaged. Whoops, I meant, get engagement. From your customers—who are now your peeps. Or something like that.

Now that I’ve trod back and forth over these words without a discernible direction, I’ll circle back: it’s an interesting time to be a writer, because sometimes you can get hired by companies to write materials whose content seems quite a stretch from their direct business interests. Companies want copy (that stuff, “content”) on their sites that pulls in readers, who after the reading might just check out the company’s goods. Take this example: I recently wrote a piece for an IT integration company on how bitters can complement the booze in a good cocktail.

Here’s another one of mine, again planted in the tech domain, written for a Forbes partner. The piece profiles a photographer who’s been doing good work for 40 years. The company wanted articles that demonstrated deep expertise in a subject, complementing—perhaps—the deep expertise they have in IT issues.

What, You Didn’t Know About Blue’s Secret Power?
Right now I’m doing a series of articles for a global company that supplies eyeglass lenses. Here, the articles are all slanted to the vision field, but still, the subjects—like “The Secret Power of the Color Blue” and “Children Should Play Outside for Eye Health”—can seem tangential. But behold the power of content writing—the wizard of Oz, known as G. Oogle, might just direct 30,000 drooling aficionados of the color blue to the site, and maybe some need glasses, to more clearly ogle their blue walls.

It isn’t journalism, and to this fiction writer it doesn’t quite seem storytelling. Also, the words “content marketing” have as much charm as a two-thirds full spittoon. But it’s still working with words, trying to weave them into something that beckons the imagination. Being a hired gun firing commercial bullets seems a fair hike from my gossamer proto-reporter’s dreams of decades ago, but still, it ain’t bad.

Book Launching (Saggy Springs or Not)

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on morgueFile

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on MorgueFile


I’ve been bustling around (can’t you hear it?) this past week, trying to get my “how to find your writing voice” book together for publication next week, and it does make me wonder if most self-pub book launches—though mine might be more of a wayward toss—are as scattered and haphazard for other writers.

For instance, I’ve yet to fix my title, in my mind or on the page. It’s gone through a paddlewheel of possibilities, but my mind’s oar has cracked its handle here toward the end. Right now, it’s “Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See.” That’s all fine and good, and does capture some essentials of the book. But like any wavering candle, I’m subject to title-insecurity winds.

No, Can’t Be—ANOTHER Typo?
And my goodness, I’m a professional editor, and have the gall to charge people for things like proofreading. And yet, even though I’ve proofed this dang thing on the screen, proofed it in hard copy, and proofed sections on the screen again (I’m trying to sound Churchillian here: “we will fight them on the beaches …”) I’m STILL finding some typos and glitches. Gack!

There are umpty-trillion and one things you’re “supposed” to do to get ready for a book launch, but there’s not enough coffee in Kona for me to do them all (or even do most well). What I’ve done is:

  • sent out advanced copies to readers willing (I hope) to write a review
  • written sales copy for the Kindle description page
  • set up some guest posts on some relevant writing sites (which will appear after publication)
  • asked for a few blurbs from some writerly darlings I know (or know at least well enough to ask)
  • designed a landing page that still needs some guiding lights
  • and prepared cocktails on Fri/Sat/Sun eves for weeks on end

Oh wait, I always do the cocktail thing. But why break a good rhythm?

The Truth (and Good Help) Is Out There
There’s a bunch of other minor things I’m doing (eating more toast), and a number of things I’ll do post launch (eat less toast), but I won’t list them here now. What I do want to list is a few of the writers and their sites that I think give good guidance on book marketing and book launches.

Tim Grahl has a series of great (free) book launch posts and marketing lessons (like setting up an effective mailing list). And check out his good Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book

Joanna Penn always has great publishing industry/book marketing/book launching advice (in text, podcasts and video), much of it free.

Check out Sean Platt, Johnny Truant’s and David Wright’s Self-Publishing Podcast for info on how they’ve pretty much created a self-publishing empire, from tech tools to marketing to the ethos behind it all.

Naomi Dunford’s Itty Biz has all kind of juicy bits about marketing and product launching, and she’s quite funny too.

And my old pal, Joel D Canfield, has been there whenever I’ve asked some puzzler on publishing.

So, thanks to those folks for doing me solids. I’m rounding the corner on this launch stuff, and glad of it. I will probably continue with the cocktails though.

By the way, lately I’ve been making a real beauty: the Vieux Carré, an old New Orleans song of spirits that’s heady and just durn good. Note, this recipe shows it over rocks, but it’s great up as well, shaken or stirred. Maybe it will head the list at the book-launching party. Cheers!

Calling My Bookies

WritersEyes small

Good souls: I’ve been working on the contents of the book pictured above for a while, and am finishing up the final edits. I’m going to self-publish it on Amazon in mid-to-late May. The book is about how to see the world as a writer and how to take that vision to the page. It has chapters on how to cultivate your writing voice, working in various writing genres, and looking at how writing works at the word, sentence (and even punctuation) level. (Oh, there’s funny stuff in there too—I couldn’t help it.)

There are also chapters on getting the writing blues (and how to paint them a different color), how to cope with writing distractions, and a resource section directing you to who and what I think are the brightest eyes in the writing world right now, from idea sparking to freelance contracting to self publishing. Writer’s Eyes will end up around 56,000 words. Many of them are juicy.

Get Your Hot Hands on the Pulsing Pages
If you’d like to get an advance digital copy of the book, write to me at bentguy@charter.net and specify whether you’d like a PDF, .ePub (Nook/iBooks) or .mobi (Kindle) version. What I ask is that you consider writing a review of the book and posting it on Amazon on the day I launch the book. Having a substantive number of reviews on launch day can be a big boost for a book’s early momentum, which can be a boost for its later momentum. (Right now there are multiple spots in the book that say “PHOTO?”—I’m still debating if I’m going to insert images.)

Of course you can say in your review you were given an advance copy of the book, and of course you can also say in your review something along the lines of what Dorothy Parker (who as a critic dubbed herself the Constant Reader) said on the use of “hummy” for “honey” in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner:

“It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

I always caution my readers to have a hankie at hand, should they frow up.

Let me know if you’d like to see the book; I’ll remind you when the day draws nigh when I’m going to launch this puppy on Amazon.

Words Are Sleeping in Your Keyboard—Wake Them!

Writing by Candle

I begin every working morning with a pre-dawn ritual involving ear-searing animal cries and a hobbled, bleary-eyed march through darkness. Yeah, before six am, I get up to feed the cat. And thus the day—and all days are writing days, aren’t they?—begins. Think of Gustave Flaubert’s approach: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What Gustave was getting at is that some orderly routines and habits built around a writing practice can give you a sturdy bourgeois frame upon which to hang your original compositions: metaphorical puce feather boas and thigh-high disco boots. Flaubert’s frame is: first there’s breakfast, then the revolution. And no doubt I can be violent in my work: on many occasions, I’ve slashed a worthless “very” or a “just” modifier out of something I’m editing without considering if that errant adverb or adjective has any feelings at all. Take that, unnecessary word!

In that light of bringing the writing mind from sleep to wake, let’s take a candle into the darkened room of my own daily writing world, so that you can compare your animal screams with mine.

The Morning Harkens
Once that cat has done its rooster act in my ear, there has to be stimulants down the throat: coffee. But for me, caffeine’s sweet song is best heard right back in sleep’s chamber: I always bring the warm cups (one for my sweetheart too) back to bed, where we read for a half-hour or so, and dazedly converse.

By six thirty, I’m up just to get down: sitting down to a 20-minute or so morning meditation. I’ve written about this before—the months I’ve been doing this have really made a difference in my days, and in my peace of mind, which can be elusive. That window-washing of the mind is either followed by a quick run through email, answering those things that can be answered in less than two minutes (and sending to the black hole of deletion those mails most deserving).

I’m trying to develop the habit of not burying myself in mail right off the bat, but rather getting whatever writing projects are on for that day in position, whether that’s reviewing where I left off yesterday, or writing article notes, or even putting a bit of concerted writing time in. Then a decent breakfast. (I rarely add bourbon to my corn flakes any more.)

Getting Out of First Gear
Between 8:30 and 11:30 are probably my most productive hours, either delivering words by the count or harnessing ideas to spur that delivery. My work is always eclectic: this week I’m editing two books, one a children’s book and one a book on the history of our financial system (and how it’s bent us into an unbecoming position). We won’t let the children read that one yet. With my broad experience with weddings (more champagne, any one?), I’m working on a long magazine article on how Airstreams were incorporated into five different weddings. The process right now is assembling the interviewees’ answers into something that won’t prompt any divorces.

Pre-lunch Launch
Unless there’s a deadly deadline, I break at 11:30 for some kind of exercise. That could be a nice walk around our semi-rural neighborhood, a walk around one of the many pretty slough trails close by, a walk at the beach, a bike ride, shooting baskets in the driveway, riding the recumbent indoors bike if the weather is unweatherable—anything to move, man!

The freedom to get out and move is one of the greatest things about freelancing. It clears the mind, gets the body breathing, sings lullabies to the soul. And makes lunch taste all the better. What’s almost as good as the freedom to get out and move? The freedom to nap after. For me, twenty minutes in some kind of hypnagogic state after lunch returns me to this world in fine fettle. I really recommend it.

No Swoon in the Afternoon
Back at the keyboard at 1:30 or so, bolstered by another cup o’ joe. If I have a main project, I’ll put a couple of hours in there. When I have two fairly big projects at once, like the two books I’m editing, I’ll often split the time between, so that each work feels fresh. When the later afternoon hours roll in, say between 3:30 and 5, I’m usually all about the housekeeping: check/answer emails, send out article queries, check my calendar for upcoming projects, deal with money matters (where does it all go?), set up any existing projects that need a push for the next day. It’s also when I will work on my own personal writing projects.

But at 5, I’m done. Shut the Mac down, go in and do some stretches, maybe lift some light free weights. (I only want to stay toned enough to easily lift an Old Fashioned or two.) Of course, if I have a heavy deadline, or some project is really flowing, I won’t staunch that river. But I rarely work into the evening hours, because my productivity declines. There’s dinner, there’s PBS, old movies, an occasional inane show, reading—and there is feeling the world breathe and breathing with it.

I do get the iPad out at a couple of points in the evening to check if any client or potential client has asked me for anything, and I might answer a few emails or look at a video of cats teaching French to kindergarteners, but I don’t do heavy screen time after dinner. My life isn’t in startup mode, so I figure 8 or 9 hours of the electron bath is enough.

Do Weeks Ever Really End?
I do work on the weekends, but as a writer, I don’t look at that as work. I’ll usually put in some hours working on personal projects: articles, or fiction, or essays, or like this very Sunday minute, this blog post—but none of those projects pursued with any brain-banging sense of pressure and anxiety. (Well, maybe never is too strong a word.) Weekend writing is an expression of my life. Except for those weekends—and there are many—where we get out of town to see some sights. San Francisco beckons, as does Big Sur, and myriad other places to play. And don’t forget the travel articles that can come of that.

So, how about you? When you night owls are hooting, I’m snoozing. Are you a burner of midnight oil? And some writers I know will only work some prescribed hours, say 10am to 2pm. And then there are those folks out in the corporate wastelands who can only work on their writing after they return home from the cubicle.

That takes some dedication, and I admire that effort. Gustave would be proud.

My Year of Sneezing, Chipotle, and Fake Jon Stewarts

Old calendar

I’m not that big on end-of-year summation or highlight posts. When I read others, I’m reminded of how much I’ve forgotten over the year, or how much I missed. Or worse, who died, and how that makes me feel bad all over again.

If I’d thought of it, I would have kept track of something more arbitrary or offbeat, like “How many times over the year I sneezed more than twice in a row,” or “Which days at lunch I reached for the chipotle pepper and then thought better of it,” or “Day I once again was sure that I saw Jon Stewart at the airport, but it really wasn’t him.” Because sometimes those little forgettables are as much a notable moment as having published something in the NY Times.

Mostly I’m simply grateful for having made it through the year, without major losses. Many people didn’t.

However, in reading some of the advice given by Michael Hyatt on attaining goals, I did decide to put a few in writing for the coming year. He convincingly says that putting an intent down on paper (well, in this case electrons) solidifies it in your consciousness: it clarifies what you want and motivates you to take action, among other things.

In that spirit:

  • I will finish the content of my nonfiction “how to see through a writer’s eyes” book by the end of January [preparing it for epub will take a bit longer]
  • I will publish my second novel by the middle of the year [again, going to be a self-pubbed masterpiece—after I do some master-piecing on it.]
  • I will get an article/essay in a national publication by the end of the year [shooting for NY Times. The travel pieces I’ve had in the LA Times and my work in The American Scholar don’t count.]

And a couple of “soft” goals, which doesn’t mean they aren’t hard:

I’m going to try to be more of service to others this coming year. I can too often get in a crabbed, selfish state, which is fear based. As I recently wrote in a comment on a Jeff Goins post, “I spent too much time working from the poverty mindset last year: too much grasping and the hearing of repeated refrains of the tired song of “me.” This coming year I intend to be of more service to people and to stretch the kinds of writing I do.”

So, yes, giving and stretching—not playing it so safe. But still playing: I’m going to drink more unusual cocktails this coming year, because my sweetheart was given an eclectic collection of bitters—what’s better than adding bitters to make all of life seem a bit more sweet?

Hope you guys had a good year, and that this next is going to be a humdinger. And if you want to write a few of your goals in the comments, who am I to stop you?

Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

Thesaurus Lopper

Trimming Words Is More Dangerous Than You Might Imagine

Yesterday, I snapped the handle on this lovely old set of loppers by cranking too hard on a branch bigger than what the tool was intended for. That’s not my first inappropriate use of tools—once I tried to boot-bust a board angled on some steps and it snapped up and sliced my face like a cold cut. A colorful reminder that genius doesn’t run in the Bentley handyperson’s gene. But mangling the loppers made me think of twisting tools from their intended use, and being the metaphorical sort, the thesaurus came to mind.

Relying on a thesaurus to write an article or story can be like using a bazooka to clean a bit of dust from your cabinets—instead of blowing away the dust, you’ve blown out the wall. Here’s the trouble: You may have crafted a sentence with perfectly good words, but then writer’s anxiety sets in. Couldn’t this sentence have more kick? Doesn’t it need an alligator belt and lizard-skin shoes to really speak its piece? How can anyone sense the weight of my words if a few of them aren’t blacksmith’s anvils?

When a Crossbow Becomes a Crash of Syllables
Thus, the unwary writer might fall into a quagmire along these lines: She writes a fine sentence for an article on crossbow collecting:

The shrewd crossbow collector will seek multiple opinions before buying a 4th-century Greek crossbow.

But then she fidgets and thinks, Hmm, couldn’t I give that sentence a little more oomph by substituting a few synonyms? After all, I did say “crossbow” twice.

The transmogrified results go like this:

The perspicacious crossbow accumulator will solicit manifold perspectives before procuring an antiquarian armament.

Add Seltzer, Not a Grenade
Beautiful, eh? Now, inject a little embalming fluid in that sentence, and you can consign it to its rightful grave. But that’s just a brute force example of how to kill a sentence with good intentions (and bad language). For me, the occasional, judicious use of the thesaurus is not only useful, but fun. Using one can be like adding some seltzer to a piece, not a grenade. Take this sentence:

When she heard the rustle in the grass, she jumped to the other side of the path.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but what if it’s not what you, the writer, is hearing in that grass, the thing that makes you and the character jump? What if “rustle” doesn’t have the sense of threat or menace that you seek, but another word doesn’t surface? Then you can go to the candy store of the thesaurus, because when you want a Kit Kat, and you only have a Snickers, you won’t be satisfied.

Checking out my electronic candy store (the thesaurus that accompanies the Mac OS dictionary), I see swish, whoosh, swoosh, whisper, sigh. Leaning my ear to that secret in the grass, I sense that “whisper” is the winner. Now you might think that’s adding artificial flavors to your writing, but not when you use the flavoring in this way: you are using the promptings of the synonym suggestions to season the sentence how you most accurately sense it. And like I said, this isn’t something you’d do to torture all of your sentences. Just the ones where you know there’s a better word, the word that makes your sentence intention glow. The thesaurus is just a light source—you direct it.

Tickled by Thesauri
So, a few ways that thesauri (gotta love the plural, something that sounds like it frolics in the ancient swamp with the diplodocus) can poke some quiescent writing:

  • Scanning synonyms for a single word change can often stimulate your thinking about a setting, character, conflict. Perhaps a full new paragraph, contributive to the work, might emerge.
  • The new word can refine a sentence, rather than burden it, or refine your thinking about how the sentence works in its larger setting.
  • And if you plain-out like words, it’s good fun to muck about in them. Take a word like “bungle.” Traipse around its synonyms and you play footsie with things like “botch,” “muff,” “fluff,” “flub,” and “make a hash of.” Tasty hash indeed.

Of course, you shouldn’t do much thesaurus trolling when you’re in the flow of your draft—let the words roll, and edit later. And don’t ever go into synonym rapture, where your sentences are so larded with fifty-cent words that they move like soggy dough. That ain’t writing—that’s bad architecture, where a story collapses of its own weak weight.

From my view, you’re no loser if you try to selectively fine-tune your writing by dipping into the thesaurus. Done with care, you’re still writing in your own voice; you’re listening to yourself with both ears pricked.

By the way, I’m going to see if I can get those loppers fixed. Good tools deserve a good long life.

Packing a Travel Writer’s Suitcase

'you can take it with you' photo © 2008, kelly taylor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The best thing to relieve the daily drumbeat of deadlines, projects, and pressures is travel. Bust out of your current coma conjured by daily tasks like these: replace the pepper grinder, check on the termite inspection guarantee, and because an evil editor refuses to respond, send a follow-up to your follow-up on your query follow-up.

Instead, flip your flip-flops into a bag and head for balmy climes where your biggest decision is the choice of an over-hopped IPA or a gentlemanly session beer.

If only it were that easy.

Travel is a happy habanero for me, but my no-account bank account often demands that I mix a little biz with my pleasure. Thus, I’ll be going to the Florida Keys for 5 days at week’s end, and not long after that, to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for 3 weeks. But I’ll be packing my tokens of the writer’s trade along with me: The Florida trip is all about the writing, since the trip is paid for by a Keys PR bureau looking to have a travel writer pen some lyrical lines about the loveliness of the Keys. The Mexico jaunt is a house-sitting gig, where my girlfriend Alice and I will be basically working our regular hours—and I do keep regular working hours, despite the roguish look of my soul patch—while trying to catch the flavorful San Miguel sights.

Less Wool, More Woolgathering

When Alice and I packed for a year in Micronesia, I made some colorful mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is the wool blanket I packed. Now I knew that the temperature on that island rarely went below 85, and the humidity usually hovered at 90 percent or so. But what if an asteroid hit the planet and plunged us into the next Ice Age? The flannel pajamas I brought would surely help with that too. Uh, no. The blanket and pajamas slept untouched in the closet until we returned.

But, even if I think I don’t really need a defibrillator in my carry-on, I do want to make sure I have the fundamentals for fun and get my writing done. So, for these upcoming trips, some essentials come to mind:

Suitcase
For the Florida trip, I can get away with a carry-on. It’s six days/five nights, and I don’t want to have to do any laundry, but I can still get six shirts in there, and mostly short-sleeved casual ones at that. It’s going to be around 90 in the daytime, so shorts are essential, and a bathing suit (with bow-tie) as well—one of the venues will require some snorkeling to properly write about. (See how demanding these trips are?). But Tevas and flip-flops will do the heavy leg lifting, with one pair of all-purpose shoes and decent Levis, plus a light windbreaker for the rain, which can happen this time of year. No black-tie events scheduled.

For Mexico, a checked bag, because more time = more packing room needed, and more time out in venues where it could possibly be dressy (and dressy for me is just a buttoned-down shirt and clean pants.) Plus, we might throw in a couple of pounds of our favorite coffee, which isn’t available there, though it’s a fairly big city, so most things are available. No wool blankets or flannel pajamas needed on either of these trips.

Computer backpack
I have a decent but aging computer backpack that has a padded compartment for the computer, and plenty of compartments for charging cables, chargers, a mouse, cell phone and other accessories. It’s not the type that screams “computer inside!” though an educated guess would pin that down, so I am careful in airports and the general surroundings where I put it down. It easily and securely slips over the handle of the carry-on or regular suitcase, so I can move easily when my luggage is my load.

Computer
I’ll take my Macbook Pro on both trips. I try and type up notes for travel writing or blogs on the day that I took them, and my handwriting is execrable, so I have to translate it as soon as possible. I also need to keep tabs on email, because I usually have some article queries circulating and works in progress, and I want to be able to answer swiftly. I’ll be uploading some stuff to Dropbox or iCloud beforehand and during these trips, to ensure that I have backups of current projects if I do drop my computer into the Atlantic.

Keyboard/Monitor
I won’t take an external keyboard or external monitor on the Florida trip, though I always use both at home: they make for better ergonomics and multi-window computing convenience. Too bulky for a carry-on though. I may be able to use the external that’s at the Mexico house. I did take a 22” external monitor to a two-month stint in the Bahamas, and I’m glad I did, but it was a hassle in transit, and I sold it there before I left. I might take an external keyboard to Mexico—I’m a much more efficient typist with one, and they don’t take up much space in a checked bag.

Mouse
Even though my Mac’s trackpad works fine, I’ll still take an external mouse, the wireless kind that work with a USB transceiver. Again, my writing flows more freely (fewer mouse droppings) when I use a mouse.

Camera
Even if you’re only a middlin’ photographer, sometimes the images you take while traveling are the ones that best accompany a trip, iStock be damned. Your shots might specifically illustrate the points or places you describe in your article, and your editor will want them (or at least want to take a look at them). Any decent digital snapshot camera of today can take quality photos if you have a adequate eye for interest and composition. I’m no National Geographic photographer, but I’ve had lots of my photos published with my articles. And the camera has to fit easily in a pants (or in this case, shorts) pocket.

iPad
I might be tweeting from some of the venues in Florida, so I will bring my mini-iPad with me. I don’t use a smartphone because I’m on the ding-dang computer 10 hours or more a day anyway, and I don’t want to be lured by the siren of incessant email and text and Net by a phone—ever. But the iPad is a good compromise, and a good way to check email on the go if necessary (more likely back in the hotel room if I’m too weary to boot a computer). I’m a doddering fool on its virtual keyboard, but can make do.

Digital recorder
I’m bringing a tiny digital recorder with me in case I want to speak notes into it rather than write them while I’m on the move. This might alarm some of my fellow travelers, but these are the days when people talk aloud into space while on the move—some of them are even speaking to human beings; others are communing with the cosmos.

Notepad
I’ll bring a pocket-sized notepad on each trip. I often scribble (mostly unintelligible) notes while I travel that can come in handy later, and you don’t have to rely on not fully reliable technology. You will have to rely on the technology of the pencil or pen, however. But sometimes even a single word—macaw!—can bring back the full import of a scene you want to write about later, and notepads are great for that.

Of course there are a number of other incidentals a travel writer’s suitcase could contain (a world globe with a six-foot stand, maybe a javelin), but listed are some core things a writer might think about (and possibly forget) when they are planning a trip. If you need a wool blanket, let me know.

PS I am bringing toothpaste, so feel comfortable sitting next to me if you see me.