“Hi, I’m Caitlin, and I’m a writer…”

This is your cue to chorus back, “Hi Caitlin.”


David H. from strobist.blogspot.com, "Book Club"

Again, I am being facetious (and if you don’t know what that word means, you should go look it up). While this post is about support for you and your writing, I don’t really think that every writer should be part of a twelve step program. While Anton Chekhov said “If you can not write, don’t,” (well, it has been attributed to many different people, but I heard it was Checkov), I don’t really see it as something we need to recover from in that way.

What I am talking about is support for you so you can write. If you have to take care of a day job, a night job, full time schooling, children, parents, a spouse, a house, a roommate… or any  combination of these things, you probably find it difficult to find time to write. While we have all heard about the people who have all or most of those things and still manage to eke out the best novel of the year that wins a dozen awards before it’s even published, it is much easier to write if you have help with the rest of your life.

This occurs to me this week as I celebrate my wonderful family for many different reasons. My daughter turned one, my grandfather is turning 89, my brother is turning 34, my dog and cat are both turning two, and it’s mother’s day, so we’re just partying as often as humanly possible. I am planning or helping to facilitate many of these parties. I stole time away while I’m baking a birthday cake to write this (hooray mutlitasking).

Obviously every parent needs some sort of support just for life, and if you can use that support to help you write, then you don’t really need this post. If it’s never occurred to you to use that support to help you write, then maybe you should start there and figure out if maybe grandma and grandpa can take the little ones for a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday or something like that. I see it as a blessing and a necessity for every writer to have someone who supports and validates their work.

And to that end, I would say that if you don’t have a very supportive family, you should seek out other like minded individuals. When I was in college, I had a group of friends who were all English-ly inclined, and we decided that we were interested in reading each others’ work and getting feedback on our own in a less formal setting. We started Girl’s Write Out, and we had a great time getting together, reading and commenting, generally kibitzing, and drinking too much coffee. It is pretty likely that someone in your area already had this idea, and there is some sort of writer’s group around that you can investigate joining.

It is important to be careful about the writer’s group that you join because some groups are far too critical of everyone’s work and some far too little. You really need to sit in on a few sessions, maybe ask them a little bit about your own work, and feel out if they are a good fit. While it’s a huge benefit to be in a group that you work well with, a bad writer’s group is much worse than not having a writer’s group at all.

Writing can be too solitary an exercise, and a writer’s group can not only help you move out of your shell and improve your writing, but often it helps you network and meet people who can help you with editing, publishing, and maybe even some day, cover art.


A misery shared…

Just kidding. Writing isn’t a misery… most of the time.

image Porter and Menolly, working hard at the “Learning Farm”

What I am laughingly trying to say is that if you’re having a hard time writing, you might consider a different approach: collaboration. It is amazing how much I can get hashed out just talking to a trusted friend or loved one about a story, and if the person you’re talking to has a vested interest in what you are writing, as in it’s their writing too, so much the better.

One of the tenants of first year English at the college level is workshop and collaborative writing. It always gets mixed results, and there hasn’t been any project structure that can account for all of the potential problems with group projects, but when it works, it is one of the greatest learning and writing experiences that you can get.

Now, most students have had a very bad group experience in school, and very few have had great ones. There is often one person in the group that is a leader and does most of the work, one who is a follower and will basically do the least amount of work to get a decent grade, and one person in the group who simply doesn’t show up. There are ways for individuals in groups to try and keep the work load and participation balanced, but so few students know these tactics or how to employ them, so they just go through the project as quickly as they can and keep their head down hoping for a passing mark.

This, of course, is not why teachers assign group work. If nothing else, seeing how other people view your work and getting their feedback on it is one of the best things to happen to any writer. While you might be writing for yourself, if you ever intend to be published, you are writing for an audience, too. If you don’t have any idea what the audience thinks about your work, you don’t know how to give the audience what they want.

On the collaboration front, if you have more than one mind working on a project, you’re guaranteed to get something more creative and more interesting to more people. You simply can’t get away from the fact that someone else will look at your writing with another perspective and other ideas will come to them that wouldn’t have necessarily come to you. If you’re actively trying to put your individual spin on a piece, you’ll get something even better because your separate perspectives are focused in one direction.

There are a couple of different ways that you can collaborate that are advantageous, and I’m sure you can come up with new ways, as well. You can write the entire story together, each pick a character or a couple of characters, switch off chapters, even one of you come up with character development and another work on plot while a third is creating the world. There are all kinds of ways for writers and creative minds to inspire each other and come up with great work.

So you might groan when a teacher assigns you group work, but there are a lot of great reasons to complete it, not the least of which is that you will probably have to do group work in the ‘real’ world, as well. And you never know, maybe this will be the group that changes your mind about group work?

And yes, this post was inspired by watching two one-year-olds (see the picture!).

Write what you know?

One of the most commonly asked questions of any writer is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I cannot imagine how tired Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and Nora Roberts are of this question. I’m not even published yet, and I have gotten pretty close to tired of it.

Because it is asked so often, most of us have a standard answer that suits us and our writing style. Mine is that my stories are largely character driven, and usually start with a conversation in my head. When voices start talking to me in my head I talk back, and I’ve chosen to see that as inspiration, no matter what my brother says.

One standard answer that is often very dissatisfying for a starting writer is the title of this blog post. One of the reasons that it is so dissatisfying to hear, “write what you know,” is that many of us read and write to get away from what we know. We read to explore our world and other worlds that were created by great minds. We write to explore new ideas and spaces that we can’t explore any other way.

House wives are famous for watching soap operas and reading romance novels because their own lives are not nearly so seedy and interesting. Half of the people I know have a two syllable answer to the question, “What’s new with you?” So why would we want to be so boring as to write what we already know?

Largely, this is even a saying because of psychology. Humans are inclined to mirror themselves in their creations, whether it’s adding their own nose (or most of his face) to the Mona Lisa, or just putting their own favorite phrase into a piece of dialogue. We connect with our creations to a degree that we put ourselves into those characters and situations whether we intend to or not. For some, it is a purposeful exercise in self reflection and some it’s just a way to get a walk-on in a blockbuster movie.

Also, one of the reasons why reading is so very interesting to people is because we like to try to get into other peoples’ heads. This might be more of a result than a cause, but it might cause readers who become writers to understand on some level that we need to put something in there that shows our readers a glimpse of our own twisted pathways and dusty corridors.

That’s not even touching the concrete reasons of reliability, originality, good details, authenticity, and accuracy to name a few. And it’s not to say that you have to be a complete expert on something before you can write about it, either. Some of the most interesting books to write are those of discovery, and research is half the fun for a lot of writers. But you should know something about the French Revolution before you write an entire plot and plop a character right in the middle of it.

So when writing teachers say, ‘write what you know,’ we don’t mean that you can only write about working mothers of two who are trying to finish their first novel, or college students who are trying desperately to graduate and finish a thesis, but it’s a good idea to work with ideas and concepts that are not completely out of your realm of expertise. After all, you’re the only you, and your take on something isn’t any one else’s.

Babies – grand, eh?

In case you were wondering about my daughter, here is my mother’s take on the subject!

Kathryn's Opinion

So have you seen the pictures of my grandbaby?

Grandpa and Menolly, the first week of the romance Grandpa and Menolly, the first week of the romance

It has amazed me, really, the amount of emotion generated by one small being. I love them all, in so many ways, and have been lucky enough to structure my life so it includes borrowed grandbabies and elders when I haven’t had any closer to hand. I recommend the practice. My sister, Martha, has dear babies, too, and she calls them her “grandlings”. Other grandparents-in-waiting might adopt that method as well. I suspect many of the shining elders remembered as inspiration were in that position.

Some things are hard to explain, and the rush of emotion that hits me when I walk into the Y preschool to sing for my babies and the rush of emotion engendered by Menolly’s face have become more noticeable at this stage in my life. I cry…

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Back to the Basics

It’s a good idea to revisit what we already know to be true. One of the things that I have been blessed to do in the last two years is take another look at the building blocks of English writing in academia, mostly from a ‘how do I help these students understand what I mean’ perspective. I do think that this closer look at something that I feel like I have known forever has made me a better writer and student myself, and I was surprised to see how often these ideas and techniques came up in my graduate level classes, too.

But now I’ve graduated and have yet to find a teaching job, so what am I doing?

Going back to the basics.

Basics in almost every way. In career ways, I am on a job search like I haven’t done since I was first in the job market. I do have more experience and I have more skills, but the availible jobs don’t seem to have changed much.

Also back to basics in the things I am doing to keep busy and maybe make some money in the meantime. At least basics for me. I am going back to my original idea that if I am going to make money in a creative way, I’d better have more than one creative endeavor. I’m revisiting my novel, for instance, and digging out the notes that I’ve gotten back on it. It’s time for that fourth draft (watch this space)!

I’m crafting again: beadwork, knitting, and crocheting. These were originally taken on as a hobby, but it made sense to try to add that to the list of things I could do to make money. Shameless plug #2: Check out my Etsy page!

We’re planning on doing music again, as well. The summer reading program is about science, which isn’t exactly spot on with our stuff, but we certainly don’t dislike science-y songs, we just need to learn some. And we can get back into songwriting in the schools, as well, with a little more official paper to back us up (as in, my MA, of course).

And then there’s the basics in my personal life: my family. I changed my verbiage just a couple weeks ago. Instead of “I’m unemployed since I graduated.” I switched to, “I’m a stay-at-home mom since I graduated.” I remembered that we were expecting me to have a little bit of a wait before a job opened up for me, and the complete gift that I am getting from this is getting to stay home with my daughter who is almost a year old. Anyone who is a parent says, “Enjoy it, this won’t last!” and I am very grateful to have the time with her while she is small.

And you want to talk about basics, there is nothing more basic than helping a child grow and learn. How do you help the child learn to talk if you aren’t sure how many words the child understands? Can you start a child learning to read before they can talk? How can you help them learn more than one language at once? I expect to get many great ideas and stories for my classroom from this kid.

So for now, I’m focused close to home and working out my building blocks for the next step. But don’t worry, I’ll still have stuff to say here, so you won’t miss out!

(not like you’ve been missing out for the last year while I was busy finishing my degree and having a baby.)

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