Inner critic. What is the inner critic anyway?
Every writer knows that the most difficult thing about writing (after, say, actually applying butt to seat in front of his or her computer), is staring at that blank screen with its accusatory blinking cursor. What comes next? I dunno. For you it might be different than it is for me, the totally undisciplined, unscheduled writer, but here are the main problems most of us face when we sit down to write, and they all occur in our heads:
1. Fear. What to say? How to say it? What will other people think?
The easiest way I have found to conquer this, our main problem, is to go through rather than around it.
How? Exercise that writing muscle by freewriting. Try it the old school way, by putting pen to paper and just writing whatever comes into your head for ten minutes. Anything. Could all be junk, but get it out there without thinking about it. Don’t think at all. Just write, and keep that pen moving, for ten whole minutes. No judgment. Judgment at this stage of the game is deadly. Your inner critic is just itching to take over and gum up the works, saying things like, “You call yourself a writer? You couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag!” (That’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s really old, besides. Maybe breathing in a paper bag is a good idea at this point.)
2. Fear. For the writer of memoir, there are two unique fears. A: What will my family think (say), and B: How do I avoid getting sued by the real people I’m writing about?
What to do? The first problem may be tackled head-on by asking for permission (and getting it in writing), and showing family members what you wrote before publishing anything. Not sure I like that solution, but there it is. The second is a little more complicated. One solution to the problem of getting sued when you are writing memoir is to blend one or two characters together to make a composite. To me, this seems like stretching the truth too far. My best practice is to consult a good lawyer who is familiar with the intricacies of the law as it pertains to authors. One book I really like is Helen Sedwick’s, Self-Publlisher’s Legal Handbook.
3. Fear. Did I mention fear? Join a writer’s club and hang out with some kindred souls for a while. You’ll learn you are not alone after all, and you’ll get wonderful support.
Well, little did my husband and I know we were trendsetters. I thought we were getting too old for that, but apparently not. Anyway, it seems that moving to the country in search of a simpler way of life has caught fire amongst the Baby Boomer set, and is all of a sudden trendy. I’m even old enough to remember when it was trendy the last time around. Country living and/or the rural lifestyle has achieved such cult status that it now has its own term: “ruralpolitan.” What follows was first published as an op-ed a few years ago in AOL News, yet it seems current today:
What, Me Ruralpolitan?
Well, that does it. Now Baby Boomers are embracing the idea of heading back to the land in search of a simpler way of life. They seem to think this idea is one they thought up all by themselves. As usual. As if “Baby Boomer” isn’t a silly enough term, now the American lexicon has to deal with “ruralpolitans,” and the “rural rebound,” such as: “After a decade of decline, many rural counties are growing again.” —Sharon O’Malley, “The Rural Rebound,” American Demographics, May, 1994 And it’s still goin’ on. Here’s the latest definition from Paul McFedries’ WORD SPY: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words http://www.wordspy.com/words “ruralpolitan n. An urban dweller who moves to a rural area. Also: rural-politan. [Blend of rural and metropolitan.] —adj.—ruralpolitanism n.
Example Citations: In days of yore, a ruralpolitan might have been called a “gentleman farmer” — think of Eddie Albert’s character Oliver Wendell Douglas on the 1960s show Green Acres. But in modern parlance, a ruralpolitan is a professional who has abandoned the urban dwelling for a rural lifestyle and lives on three acres or more, typically within 40 miles of a city.”
The times they are a’changin,’ and the trend toward rural living and working is being fueled by—you guessed it—the Baby Boomers. The same folks that gave us the personal computer are now able to take those machines pretty much anywhere they can find an Internet connection. Wireless computing and the Recession have combined to cause many Boomers to become more entrepreneurial. Americans who couldn’t find jobs decided to start their own businesses, and soon realized that a virtual business can be run from anywhere. Quality of life became more important than owning a lot of stuff, and words like “sustainability” “voluntary simplicity” and “eco-friendly” crept into the collective consciousness. Now creativity is the norm. There is apparently no reference in the media to ruralpolitanism before 1994, but we were ruralpolitans long before that, and we didn’t even know it. Unfortunately we were a little ahead of the times (no Internet connection), and in our mid-fifties, a bit older than the Boomers. We weren’t within 40 miles of a city, either. More like 150 miles. We’re talkin’ rural.
Here’s a pretty self-explanatory rural excerpt of my own: “In 1990 we heard the wilderness call to us, and God help us, we answered.” So begins the memoir, Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue, and so began our rural adventure. It changed our lives for the better in ways we still cannot speak of without crying. We raised beef cattle that all became pets, with names like Buttercup and Pansy and Big Mama and Hamburger (please don’t ask about his fate), and I tried to grow organic herbs—the legal kind. It was a hell of a lot of work. It was cheap, though. We had a half-acre vegetable garden, spring water and sunshine, and more wildflowers than I’d ever seen in one place. And peace; peacefulness. We hung in there for twelve years, and fell in love with the land, the animals, the people, and the all-pervading quiet.
I’m sure our neighbors—the real ranchers—had many a hearty belly laugh as they watched us doing everything (and we did everything) wrong, and then graciously stepped in to help us out. Finally, though, the lifestyle wore us down, and sick of our own cooking, we headed back to the suburbs where we could enjoy fine dining once again. I’m still not sure that tradeoff was worth it, but there you are. Lots of people are still moving to the boonies. My advice to Baby Boomers: hold a garage sale, and get rid of your Stairclimber, your Blackberry and your Rolex before you strike out for the hinterlands. You won’t need them there, as to most country folks time is a somewhat foreign concept, and is mostly reckoned by the sun. Trade in the Beemer sedan for a four-wheel drive pickup you won’t mind getting muddy. And do it while you’re young and can still bend over, can peaches and shoot straight, because here in the Wild West, at least, these are a few of the skills you’ll need. —Mary Lynn Archibald, © 2010 ###
[References: The North American Rural Futures Institute http://narfi.org
Faith Popcorn: The Popcorn Report, © 1991, 1992: “For the first time ever in the history of mankind, the wilderness is safer than civilization.”
Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words
High Plains Midwest Ag Journal: Doug Rich article on changing rural demographics:
“From Versace to Chainsaws,” article by Gwendolyn Bounds: Wall Street Journal online, December 5th, 2009:
SoHoDoJo (current): “Our focus is serving the needs of solo and family-based entrepreneurs in rural and distressed urban communities. Our goal is to help our constituents create sustainable independent livings without the need for full-time, career-oriented jobs that are disappearing from our communities.”
Yes, I know I’m supposed to write out “5,” but I wanted to get your attention first. Okay, so here are the secrets as I know them and use them:
1. Revise what you wrote—This is the toughest, but most important part of writing anything, be it memoir, novel, short story, play or poetry.
2. Read, reread and reread again, adding missing details, correcting typos and grammatical errors. Nobody does it right the first time. And rewrite, rewrite!
3. Read your writing aloud, to yourself or to your long-suffering friends or relatives. You’ll catch many errors that way that you can’t see otherwise.
4. Don’t be afraid to “kill your children,” as one writer famously said—not literally, of course. Just don’t get too precious about any one turn of phrase.
5. Simplify. You don’t have to be Hemingway, but you do have to be clear, and not have a manuscript full of extraneous detail. Make words count, or remove them.
If you follow these few simple rules, tighten your work where tightening is needed but elaborate where necessary, and listen to yourself read aloud as you imagine your audience’s reactions, you may be stunned by your own brilliance, although there are no guarantees.
You’ve heard that practice makes perfect, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the craft of writing. Read excellent authors, and try to observe how they do what they do, whether it is inventing dazzling plots, settings and characters in fiction, or writing emotional scenes in your memoir that pull the reader in and let him feel what you or your subject felt in very real situations.
And always write from the heart. Your reader will be able to tell if you don’t, and will lose interest. And so will you. To gain readers’ trust you must be authentic. If not, you cheat your reader, and you cheat yourself.
Have you ever said something like this to yourself? “It’s a lovely day outside, and the fish hawk is checking out the fish in the lake. I can’t miss this,” or, “Gee, I really ought to do the laundry,” or, “I hadn’t noticed how dusty the house is. Maybe I should just do a little dusting before I settle down to write my memoir.”
We’ve all got lots of excuses NOT to write. I know. I am a Grade A procrastinator. You’d think that writing is hell for me, if I’d really rather do the dishes than write. The funny thing is, once I finally get down to it, there’s nothing I enjoy more. So why the excuses?
I think there are two factors that inhibit our creative expression: Inertia, and fear. At least for me, the lack-of-discipline queen, every time that messy circumstance called life interferes with my process, everything comes to a screeching halt, and it’s like Sisyphus rolling his stone uphill for me to get started again.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the interruptions; the birthday parties, the lunches, the dinners, the visits from friends. But still, when I return to my writing cave and close the door, and go back to work on my memoir (or whatever writing project I’m working on), I’m the happiest little clam you could imagine.
Unless I let fear intrude on my private idyll. Fear of failure to communicate the best way I know how: on the printed page. Fear of success, too (what if I get really well-known, What then? Will I like it? Will people peer in my windows while I’m eating breakfast, like they did with the author of “The Egg and I?”) If I let in the dreaded inner critic, then I’m in trouble, and I’m all alone.
Wait. Where did everybody go? Seems they got tired of waiting for me.
Damn! I guess I’ll just have to keep writing my memoir. Or maybe I should do the dishes first.
Hilarious. Jen Lancaster has done it again. She is a master (mistress?) at exposing her own foibles in funny yet factual ways though methinks she doth protest too much (there’s my Shakespearean quote for Shakespeare week).
She’s unique, irrepressible and uncensored. You’ll love her! You might also enjoy another books of hers: Bitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending Egomaniacal Self-centered Smartass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office. Enjoy!
Why I’m not writing today… It’s SPRING!
Who’s with me on this?
I find it very difficult to think about writing (at least about anything not relating to growing things), when it’s a beautiful day outside, don’t you? Took lots of pictures of my garden, which I will share in later posts. Looked at my manuscript, and thought about going back to bed, but the dang garden is blooming and my manuscript is not. Lot of digging and planting of seeds going on, and here I am, stuck inside. Could take my laptop outside, but then I am sure husband will expect me to join in the bracing outdoor activity, when I should be digging into polishing my next memoir. I am in the rewrite stage, and as you probably know, writing is solitary, whereas, rewriting usually involves other people and their harebrained ideas about my writing. I’d much rather be digging in my garden—anything to avoid writing. Or for that matter, I’d much rather be cleaning house. Much. Problem: I already did my exercises for today, which is why I’m thinking about going back to bed. Or at the very least, planting seeds, which doesn’t require too much exertion. Time to do a little freewrite to get the old creative juices flowing, go back to writing, finish my manuscript before May. What kind of incentives to write do you use when nature calls? I need help here!
“Never stop learning.” Who said that? Could’ve been me, but I doubt it. Let’s face it, we all get a bit rusty now and then, and need some outside influences to get us out of that writing rut, blast us out of our solitary writer’s existence and get us out there to meet other writers.
I was reminded of the quote above when I attended this year’s San Francisco Writers Conference at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on the eponymous city’s Nob Hill. And learn I did.
There were lots of experts to learn from, and entertaining and enlightening keynote speakers such as T. Jefferson Parker (whose latest novel, Full Measure, I now own and plan to read next—autographed, of course), and Annie Barrows (Ivy and Bean, a children’s lit phenomenon that looks likely to sell almost as many series books as Harry Potter). I soaked up knowledge of the writer’s craft, blogging and marketing from such luminaries as Joel Friedlander (The Book Designer http://www.thebookdesigner.com), Penny Sansevieri (Author Marketing Expert http://www.amarketingexpert.com), and travel writer and new media queen Carla King (Self-Publishing Boot Camp http://www.carlaking.com.)
Annie Barrows’ fans were the most memorable. Billed as “Big Fun for Little People,” her presentation was pitched to girls from six to nine, who, closely trailed by their mothers, all trooped downstairs to the bookstore afterward to buy and have their books autographed by a real-live author. The line stretched out the door and into the Mark Hopkins lobby, as the children patiently waited for a one-on-one with Barrows, and then, awestruck, quietly carried their books home like the treasures they surely were.
The whole conference was a high-energy affair that may not have seen so much excitement since Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stayed there in 1961, during the Cold War, and his bodyguards had to keep sweeping his 17th floor Presidential Suite for radiation (I kid you not).
The point is…yes, I’m getting to it. The point is: it’s never too late to give your skills an upgrade. We all need to keep learning, now more than ever, as our world spins ever faster and radical changes in marketing and publishing spin with it.
So, take a class on writing, check out a panel discussion, attend a seminar, or even a webinar on writing—which you can attend in your pajamas, for pity’s sake—in your field (mine is memoir) and get those “little grey cells” dusted off and working for you now and then. I always learn something. You will, too.
Besides, you get to have good food, a little wine, meet the nicest people, and, of course, tell them about your book. Subtle hint: mine is Accidental Cowgirl, and I’d be happy to tell you about it anytime!
Let me try to talk you out of such a rash move. There is a lot to know before you start. We had no experience, and didn’t even realize we were going to have cattle when we bought Twin Creeks Ranch, so you can imagine our surprise when we inherited six Polled Herefords along with 120 acres of gorgeous property in Trinity County, California. We had intended to just relax and wander over the land, with its boulders, creeks, waterfalls, forests and meadows. Boy were we wrong about that!
A few thoughts about beginning ranching:
- Nobody Makes Money At Ranching
Well, not if they are small-timers like us. Some did, but raising cattle as a kind of sideline just didn’t work the way we were set up: we soon found that ranching is a full-time job, and not for commuters. The locals knew we were greenhorns, and had a good laugh at our expense. It was well-deserved, believe me, and led directly to the title of my book, Accidental Cowgirl.
- You Have to Have Numbers
You need a lot of cows, and more grazing land than we possessed, in order to make any money at all. The other advantage to having many cows was that you didn’t tend to get too attached—a dangerous thing, especially for softies like us who didn’t work with cattle all their lives, as we found out to our great sadness when we took poor Hamburger to be slaughtered. I even hated to see Cisco go after fattening him up for several months, although he had been acting particularly bullish and annoying for some time; bellowing petulantly at the cows and trying vainly to batter down the corral where he was confined. (They do find a special place in your heart. We discovered that old timers sometimes just couldn’t bear to go completely without livestock when they retired, and often tried to sandwich a cow or two onto their diminished, one-or-two acre spreads, because they found they missed the sound and even the smell of them—and if you can buy that, I’ve got a bridge for you.)
- Start With the Right Sort of Cow
Polled Herefords, we were assured in the expert opinion of our itinerant cowboy, had the sweetest dispositions of any cows. “Don’t bother yourself with none of them milk cows,” he warned, ominously. “They’re mean. But Herefords are as sweet as they can be.” Which was true, as long as you didn’t cross them, or accidentally miss a testicle when making a bull calf into a steer, something which we did with some frequency at first. (We found out later that was Cisco’s “problem.”)
- Don’t Be Squeamish Around Large Needles
…or very large animals; you usually have to do your own veterinary work in remote areas, because you may not see the vet for a year, and during the calving season, he’s so booked up with big ranches that he can’t be bothered with you and your motley assortment of critters. Try to partner with another small ranch operation, so that you can share big expenses like cattle trailers, which are often used only once a year and take up a lot of storage room in your barn.
- Never Name Beef Cattle
Cattle all have distinct personalities, but for Pete’s sake, that’s no reason to name them! We found that out the hard way, though everybody tried to tell us. You get too attached to them (at least we did), and eventually they will either leave you, or like us, you’ll end up with thirty or so very large pets.