Do your own writing first: Motivation and productivity

Vintage postcard: Golden Temple of Jehol, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.

“Pay yourself first.” This is common advice in employer 401K sign-up meetings and other financial planning-type sessions. They say: Save money for your future, your education, your first house, your retirement. Use automatic deductions so you never see the money as income. Watch your savings grow.

Similar advice is useful for writers. In other words, “Do your own writing first.” Instead of jumping onto social media or the daily news alerts or the work your employer has assigned you, do a bit of your own writing. Your benchmark here doesn’t need to be big.

You’ll be in good company. The American Masters documentary “Flannery,” which aired recently on PBS, noted Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s slow, meticulous writing and editing that led to the publication of two novels, 32 short stories, and more. Comparisons were made to Gustave Flaubert of Madame Bovary fame who wrote a paragraph a day, as well as to Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who wrote a line a day or three lines, depending on your source.

When writing for yourself first, your daily time investment doesn’t need to be big. To start, maybe 20 minutes a day will do. Or even 200 words. Others might set their bar at hours of writing or thousands of words, but the key here is to make the process automatic. Regular daily attention to writing projects—even 20 minutes, a sentence, a paragraph, or more—may not seem like much, but it adds up.

When you don’t attend to your writing in a sustained manner, you may be shocked by how much time passes between writing sessions:

  • How did 10 days pass? I swore I did something on this last week. Well, I guess that would be 10 days.
  • How can it be a month, six months, a year, two years, four years, since I worked on this? I’ve been thinking about it forever.

That “thinking about it” can be the problem. In our minds our projects come together smoothly. They make sense. It’s only when you put in time with the actual words that the beautiful piece of writing you had in your mind betrays you. Writing is messy work that requires deep thought. Once you write about what you thought, there are deeper, murkier levels that need your attention. They need your attention in writing.

Maybe that’s another bit of advice we can use: “Get it in writing.” Get your ideas, your thoughts, your inspirations in writing. Work with them on a concrete level—word by word, line by line.

I encourage you to start your day with a bit of writing, even if it is only a few minutes before you log on to daily life. If your mornings are hectic, maybe you can find time at lunch or dinner or just before you go to sleep.

A daily writing practice will keep projects moving forward. They’ll grow. You won’t have to refresh your memory each time you start to work on them. That “thinking about it” will move forward to more advanced elements. For me, daily practice means I can keep several projects going at a time: before starting my day job, after lunch, after dinner, and more, if needed.

Daily practice can include editing, research, and marketing—whatever you need to move toward your goals. That’s why I work with a time goal instead of a words-per-day or pages-per-day goal.

I remember when wearing seatbelts regularly was a novel idea in my family. Then, my mother started having us put on seatbelts every time we got into the car. She said that after a month, it would seem natural. Few of us can imagine not buckling on a seatbelt these days, and that same habit-forming aspect is what we’re going for with daily writing.

If you write a sentence, if you write a paragraph, if you write 10 pages a day like Stephen King (see Stephen King’s On Writing), the feeling you’re going for is this: When you haven’t written for yourself first, something feels off about your day.

Stop thinking about those projects and start writing. Start with a reasonable goal. You can always build, but write for yourself first. Make the process automatic. Put it in writing. Watch your projects develop and grow.

Note: The 20th anniversary edition of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was published in June 2020. Even if you’ve read his book before, including King’s 10-page/2,000-word daily writing goal referenced above, the book is worth re-reading.

Literary magazines offer free access via websites and Project Muse during pandemic

Vintage postcard: United States-Mexico boundary line near Tijuana, Mexico.

At least two print-based literary magazines have opened up their recent issues for online reading during the pandemic:

  • Ecotone issues 25, 26, 27, and 28 (their most recent issue) are free to read online “throughout the pandemic.” To start reading, go to: https://ecotonemagazine.org/magazine/ 
  • The Missouri Review’s content is available online through the Project Muse database until the end of March. (See the tech note below, to help you navigate Project Muse.)

Print-based literary magazines don’t seem to share much of their content online, so these opportunities are worth checking out. 

Magazines offering full-text content through Project Muse

Here are seven lit-mags, including The Missouri Review for now, that continue to offer full-text content from their recent issues through Project Muse:


Publication

Available content

Most recent issue
The Missouri Review
(University of Missouri)
1978 to presentWinter 2020 (Vol. 21, No. 4)
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction
(Michigan State University)
1999 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 2)
Prairie Schooner
(University of Nebraska Press)
2003 to presentSummer 2020 (Vol. 94, No. 2)
Minnesota Review
(Duke University Press)
2010 to present
(plus many older issues)
2020 (Issue 95)
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative
(Ball State University)
2003 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 1)
Sewanee Review
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
2007 to presentWinter 2021 (Vol. 129, No. 1)
Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing
(University of Hawai’i Press)
1999 to present2020 (Vol. 32, No. 2)

Note that database content can change quickly. In other words, due to budgets, contract negotiations, and legal and financial wrangling, publications can pop into and out of Project Muse and other databases. What you were looking at yesterday, might not be there today.

For my students, I recommend they download any database document (including bibliographic information) if they even think it might be useful in their work. Note that these downloads are for personal use only.   

About Project Muse

Project Muse is an online database available through many college and university libraries. The database offers access to articles, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and other content published by a variety of journals, including select literary magazines.

In terms of market research, database access to full-text content is valuable because once you’ve read what a magazine is publishing, you can sense whether your writing might find a home there. Also, it never hurts to mention a memorable piece you read from the editor’s magazine when writing a cover letter.

TECH NOTE: How to search the Project Muse database

Databases offer multiple points of access, but the following is the quickest way I’ve found to search for and read content from the magazines listed above using Project Muse.

1.

Select “Project Muse” from the list of databases available on your college or university library’s website.

2.

Instead of using the search box at the top of the screen, scroll down to find the “Journal” filter on the left side of your screen. Enter “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter.

NOTE: Skip the “Content Type” filter, which starts a much broader search related to journals.

3.

After typing “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter in Step 2, an overwhelming 4,373 results were returned.

To narrow your results, click on the name of the publication (the link) within your Results list.

4.

After clicking on “The Missouri Review” in Step 3, you should get an “About this Journal” screen that provides some background about The Missouri Review.

Scroll down on the “About this Journal” page and you’ll see a list of the available volumes and issues of the magazine. If you’re doing market research, you’ll want to look at the most recent issue, which is currently “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020.” Click on the link to the issue you would like to search.

5.

After clicking on the link for the most current issue “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020” in Step 4, you should get an “In this Issue” and “Table of Contents” screen that offers links to the articles within the Winter 2020 issue.

From this Table of Contents screen, you can click on View (to read content online), Download, (to get the pdf file), or Save.

NOTE: Content isn’t often labeled as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but the page numbers offer useful clues. A one- or two-page article is more likely to be poetry, and a 10- or 20-page article is likely to be fiction or nonfiction.

Good news and a poetry writing prompt: Pantoum

My poem “The Choice” has been published in the spring 2020 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, an honor society magazine. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas:

                 “The Choice”
I would not wish you to pass.
I would press my hand into your palm
and hope my distress stirs you to choose.
Override the machines. Grab on or let go.

 

I would press my hand into your palm
and pray for a reflex, anything.
Override the ventilator. Grab on or let go.
Breathe or stop on your own.

 

The year after my father collapsed with respiratory failure I spent a lot of time, usually alone, in waiting rooms—surgery, ICU, radiology, and more. So many waiting rooms in three hospitals and five care facilities in two states.

PKP Forum 2020 springb

The high stakes, the uncertainties, the complications made fiction reading (my usual pastime) difficult. I turned to reading and writing poetry. One of the books I read was Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice, which introduced me to Indian poet Reetika Vazirani and her work.

Vazirani’s three-line poem “Lullaby” stuck with me. And I found myself using Vazirani’s poem as a model. I wrote of my father’s situation over and over, never finding the right words until I learned a poetry form called the pantoum.

The repetition and circling back of the pantoum’s form helped me synthesize the prayer poems I had drafted during my father’s eleven ventilator-dependent months. These months included three times when doctors recommended extubation—twice while my father was unconscious and once while he was awake and clearly not ready to die.

“The Choice,” in the form of a pantoum, helped me to work through this ultimate decision.

Writing exercise

I’ve been curious as to whether the writing process I used might work again with different subject matter (for example, the social isolation of sheltering in place).

  1. Write about your own subject/topic using Reetika Vazirani’s poem as a model for phrasing, line breaks, and so on. Keep writing and writing until you have multiple versions and approaches and angles and voices. Here’s Vazirani’s poem:
                      “Lullaby”
     I would not sing you to sleep.
     I would press my lips to your ear
     and hope the terror in my heart stirs you. 
                     —by Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003)
  1. From among your drafts, highlight the line or lines that “say it best.” Consider which one might work as the first line of your pantoum. Note: This will also become the last line of your pantoum.
  1. Continue working with material from your drafts within the pantoum structure. One interesting aspect of using this structure is that as you write a stanza, you are also writing two of the lines for your next stanza.
        Here’s the pantoum structure of four-line stanzas, notice the repeats:
A
B
C
D
B (a repeat)
E
D (a repeat)
F
E (a repeat)
G
F (a repeat)
H
G (a repeat)
I
H (a repeat)
A (line 1 repeats)

Pantoums aren’t limited to four stanzas, as my outline shows. They can be any length.

Note: When I worked through this process, I titled my “Lullaby”-based drafts. Some of the drafts were “Prayer,” “Meditation,” “Hope,” “Will,” and “No Words.” Ultimately, these titles helped me organize the different approaches and points of view. I encourage you to title your “Lullaby”-based drafts.

  1. Then, edit, review/peer review, revise, and repeat.

When you need more information or inspiration, it helps to search for and read pantoums on the Academy of American Poets website poets.org or on the Poetry Foundation website poetryfoundation.org. You’ll notice how some poets make slight adjustments in the repeats, while others are to-the-letter faithful in their repetitions.

If you try this writing exercise, I’d be interested to hear about what does or doesn’t work, including your resulting work. If you feel comfortable, please post a comment.

Revision: Use text-to-speech in Word to hear what works (and what doesn’t) in your writing

Postcard Stephen Collins Foster garden 20_0126 copy - Copy

Vintage postcard: Where Stephen Collins Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” near Bardstown.

Before the daily 11 a.m. deadline, the loudest sounds in the newsroom came from reporters tapping out stories on their keyboards. There wasn’t much talking, but lips moved as the reporters tested out their words in whispers before filing their articles with the editors.

I tell my students about this. “It’s what professional writers do. Read your work aloud. You’ll hear the glitches and errors. I do it all the time.”

Some of the deepest editing I’ve done came while recording a short story for Superstition Review (both audio and text of “To Walk Chalk” appeared in Issue 21). I had trouble with the Audible sound editing application and background noises, so not only did I read the story aloud several times, but I also had to listen to it again and again. This aural scrutiny led me beyond fixing the usual sentence errors to more in-depth revisions regarding characterization and recurring elements that tightened the focus of the story. I continue to work toward this higher level of revision in my current projects.

One drawback of reading your work aloud is that part of you is performing, whether or not anyone is listening. If you’re preparing for a public appearance or recording an audio file, this practice is great. However, if revision is your goal, the performative aspects of reading aloud—whether to look up while reading, whether you’re reading too fast or too slow, and how your voice sounds—can be distracting.

This is where the “Speak” feature in Microsoft Word can help. (Thank you to my student, T.J., who mentioned this to me.) Unlike older “readers,” such as databases that provide an uninflected robot voice to read journal articles in either an American or British accent, Word’s text-to-speech feature usually seems smooth enough to let you focus on your words, not the tone of the software.

When I’m listening and not distracted by the physical act of reading, I catch more sentence-level glitches and repetitions along with larger issues that show up throughout the text. For example, do the descriptions of a particular character or setting provide a cohesive mindset or image? Are there unintended contradictions or missing bits of information?

I added the Speak feature to the Quick Access Toolbar at the top of my Word screen, and I’m able to pop into and out of hearing how my words are working. I just highlight the paragraphs I want to hear and click on the Speak icon (as I’ve done with this blog post).

To add the Speak feature to your Word screen you’ll need to follow the five steps explained at: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

No matter how you do it, the act of listening to your words, is a useful revision tactic. It’s time well spent, as is the time spent setting up the text-to-speech feature in Word.

Add Speak to the Quick Access Toolbar

In case the link to Microsoft’s Office Support site breaks, I’ll copy the steps here. Add the Speak command to your Quick Access Toolbar by doing the following while you’re in Word:

  1. Next to the Quick Access Toolbar, click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
    Quick access toolbar in Word
  2. Click “More Commands.”
  3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”
  4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”
  5. Click “OK.”

Again, here is the link: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c