How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

by Andy Ross |

Andy Ross

Andy Ross

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wuss. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get plenty of rejection letters from editors in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school. 

Many of my pitches are for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are, in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir.

Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them.

Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off. Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attend the conferences, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people will reach the end and receive the gold cup. More likely though, you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process. Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

Practice the techniques suggested by Andy Ross and register for Pitch-O-Rama, March 28th. Just click HERE!

About the author: Andy Ross represents authors who write books in a wide range of subjects including: narrative non-fiction, science, journalism, history, current affairs, contemporary culture, religion, children’s books and commercial and literary fiction. He is eager to work with projects in most genres as long as the subject or its treatment is smart, original, and will appeal to a wide readership. In narrative non-fiction he looks for writing with a strong voice and robust narrative arc. He likes books that tell a big story about culture and society by authors with the authority to write about their subject. For literary, commercial, and children’s fiction, he has only one requirement–a simple one–that the writing reveal the terrain of that vast and unexplored country, the human heart. 

Tweet Success – I

Written By Cathy Turney 
with significant input from Cynthia Rubin, BestEditorEver

Cathy Turney, Tweet successIf you think Twitter is basically for the birds, I was once like you. Actually, as a child I had a succession of blue parakeets I faithfully nurtured that then mysteriously dropped dead—a portent of things to come? Recently, though, after spending countless dollars to promote my real estate tell-all humor book (with so-so results), my social media guru said: “You need 10,000 Twitter followers.”

Speaking as a right-brain creative technophobe, I was…speechless. I had collected 200 followers, and that had been a struggle. But if I couldn’t do better on Twitter, the alternative was to sign every paycheck from my day job over to marketing companies. Well, I sweated bullets and found workarounds—strategies that made me able to navigate Twitter and draw a big flock. Easy strategies that other right-brain Luddites, as well as the technologically gifted, can also use to make their writing soar into the Twittersphere.

And I think you might want to hear about those methods, if Brenda Knight, WNBA-SF’s MostExaltedPresident, is any barometer, which she is! At an WNBA meet-and-greet event at the Hotsy Totsy Club (“best happy hour in the East Bay!”), as I started to float another new book idea, she said, “Tell us about how you got 10,000 Twitter followers—that’s what we really want to hear about!” And just like that, my next book took flight.

Here are a few tips to show how you too can capitalize on Twitter. You don’t even have to buy my Get 10,000+ Twitter Followers—Easily, Quickly, Ethically! But if you do, of course, you’ll have my undying love and free technical support (right-brain version) forever.

Tip #1: Banner Content
Twitter success begins with amassing a large flock. People infer your “relevance” by the size of your following. To get followers, we need to engage and follow, follow, follow others. But how do you do that? The first step is to create an appealing banner, aka header, for your Twitter page with images that make it look like it would be interesting and uplifting to follow you.

Unruffle those feathers! You do not need to create the banner yourself. There are several services (I used Fiverr.com) that will do it for you for about $25, and the result will fit Twitter’s size parameters. If you’ve authored a book, include a picture of it. Don’t worry if you don’t have a book—it won’t be conspicuous by its absence; just tell the designer you want some graphics indicating that you write.

In my instructions to Fiverr I said I needed a colorful, upbeat Twitter banner that would attract book lovers, business people, and those wanting positive, inspiring quotes. The more avocations or interests you display in your banner, the more diverse a follower base you’ll attract. If you need ideas, look up other authors’ Twitter pages and see what they did.

Tip #2: Easily Target Those Who Want to Hear What You Have to Say
Many people will follow you back simply because they like your banner. But the key to exponentially bettering those odds is to target people who share your interests. If I want to promote my real estate book, I simply do a hashtag search for “real estate,” and Twitter shows me recent tweets from thousands of people about real estate. I follow the first several hundred people, and in a matter of minutes I’ve essentially invited them to follow me back. On a typical day, this step yields 30 to 100 follow-backs.

[Come back next week for the second part of Cathy’s post]


Cathy Turney is a member of WNBA-SF. Her book Laugh Your Way to Real Estate Sales Success won the American Business Association Stevie Award for Best Business Book of the Year 2015. Get 10,000+ Twitter Followers—Easily, Quickly, Ethically was published in 2017. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, tweets at @CathyTurneyLafs and blogs at www.CathyTurneyWrites.com

Tweet Success – II

Written By Cathy Turney 
with significant input from Cynthia Rubin, BestEditorEver

Cathy Turney, Tweet success[This is the second part of Cathy’s post. Read the first part here.]

Tip #3: Choose a Memorable Handle
By memorable, I mean easy to remember and identify (vs. too clever). On Twitter you have two names. First is your real name—the one your parents gave you (or you changed to your own liking). Twitter asks for that when you set up your account. But! They limit you to 20 characters. (I’m sure future parents will keep that in mind when they give birth.) So if your real name is longer than 20 characters you’ll need to shorten it without disguising it so much that people can’t find you.

Your other name is your “handle” which begins with an @ and is also known as your username. Your handle can be up to 15 characters, not including the @ sign. Here’s where you can be creative, but I caution you to still try to make yourself easy to identify. You are searchable by either of these two names, but the @ name is yours and yours alone so that, for instance, there’s no confusion if someone searches for Mary Jones, of whom there are dozens.

If you want to change your handle or account name later, you can do it at any time and still keep all your followers.

Tip #4: Incentivize Yourself!
Twitter is a quick way to stay up-to-the-minute on world events. Something exciting at the United Nations? Just search #United Nations, and you’ll hear about it firsthand. Want to know what’s going on at WNBA-SF? Just search “#WNBASF.” And do click “follow” once you get there because WNBA-SF is so follow-worthy!

Tip #5: Stumped About What to Say?
To be deemed follow-worthy by large numbers, you also need to tweet regularly—to inspire, support, and engage. Yikes! Who has time to do that, plus write the great American novel or go-to nonfiction book? I use a program called Social Jukebox, which only costs a few dollars a month. It automatically posts quotes and images that are so wonderful they even inspire me! I’ve actually had babies following me, it’s so great!


Cathy Turney is a member of WNBA-SF. Her book Laugh Your Way to Real Estate Sales Success won the American Business Association Stevie Award for Best Business Book of the Year 2015. For more tips and lots of screenshots, read Get 10,000+ Twitter Followers—Easily, Quickly, Ethically, published in 2017. A contributor to Huffington Post, Turner tweets at @CathyTurneyLafs and blogs at www.CathyTurneyWrites.com

How to Stay Sane When Your Book is Published

How to Stay Sane When Your Book is Published

by Nita Sweeney

The hotel carpet itched the back of my neck as I lay on the floor with my eyes closed. To persuade my back muscles to relax, I’d folded my legs in the Egoscue Method “static back press” across the seat of the stiff armchair and noticed my breath go in and out.

The morning before, our Dead Runners Society (DRS) group ran four miles through the Amish countryside of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. We dodged buggies and horse manure while enjoying views of white board fences, white-washed barns, bearded men, and dress-clad women toting tidy children.

That afternoon, twenty people gathered at a Lancaster, Pennsylvania bookstore to hear me talk about my running and mental health memoir. A few minutes into my presentation, a friend appeared. She had driven an hour and a half—one way—and I had to stop reading to clear the tears from my throat before I could continue. I signed book after book. My face hurt from smiling. After the audience dispersed, the store asked me to autograph ten more books. I thanked them profusely. I would have gladly stayed all day.

The next morning, our DRS clan ambled through the rolling hills across several covered bridges. I stopped to snap an Instagram photo of an immaculate farm in the open countryside and let my insides expand with warm sensations.

When I was a little girl, I loved books so much that I dreamed of writing my own. In May 2019, Mango Publishing made that dream come true by releasing my first book, the memoir Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. The months since had been filled with book tour joy. Interviews. Blue skies. Packed readings. Emerald green fields. Expo and workshop appearances. Two or three puffy clouds. Podcasts. Good friends.

Standing in the Pennsylvania countryside, I savored this rare bit of calm amid the book promotion frenzy—my new “normal.”

Then I turned to rejoin the group, and my back went out.

Hours later, as I sprawled on the hotel floor, my spine now a sideways “s-curve,” I stifled a giggle (between curses) since laughter would surely send my back into another excruciating spasm.

“Welcome to the glamorous life of the published author!” I thought.

In Thunder and Lightning, best-selling author, Natalie Goldberg issues a “Warning.” She says, “I have not seen writing lead to happiness in my friends’ lives.” If I were to warn writers, I would simply ask them to expect the reality to be a bit different from the dream.

At times, being published is such a high (seeing 31 holds on 16 copies of my book in the local library). Other times, the low is stunning (writhing on the floor of that hotel room). While bipolar disorder mood swings always punctuate my life, the ups and downs of book promotion required me to add tools to my already brimming tool kit. That’s how I wound up lying on the floor with my legs on a chair. I needed more tools.

Exactly how does a compulsive person who desperately seeks outside affirmation stay sane after her book is published? Here are my suggestions, in no particular order: 

Cultivate Your Inner Cheerleader:

Talking to oneself is a hallmark of the writing profession. It helps to develop a sense of humor and an inner cheerleader capable of shaking pom poms at every tiny victory. Said pom poms may also work as magic wands to ward off painful moments.

Expect Happiness to be Stressful:

A friend reminded me that too much of a good thing can also cause stress. She didn’t go so far as to say I had brought this on myself by pursuing every possible promotion avenue all at the same time. She didn’t need to. I’d been thinking it for weeks.

Don’t Drown:

“What’s it like?” a friend asked, referring to my teensy bit of new-found, low-level fame. “Like drinking tasty liquid from a fire hose,” I quipped. Imagine your wildest dream coming at you at 175 gallons per minute. Lovely. Fabulous. Nearly enough to drown in. My back knew I wouldn’t stop on my own. It stopped for me. I recommend you stopping yourself.

Stop Raising the Bar:

Stop moving the goal. In racing, a coach will tell you to “run through the line.” A runner looks beyond the goal while she finishes. But if you suffer from chronic depression and have compulsive tendencies, it’s best to stay focused on the thing at hand. Right here. Right now. We’ve all heard the saying. But that is what needs to be done. Trying to get on a podcast? Contact the podcast host before you start thinking about which book should be next.

Invest in Self-Care and Other-Care:

That husband? He needs a kiss. That dog? She needs a walk. You? You might need to go for a run or take a nap or eat a vegetable or go to bed earlier or log off social media or leave your phone at home. If you let it (and have compulsive tendencies) your book promotion ambitions will suck you dry and pull you away from everyone you love. Push back. Take care of yourself. No one will force you to rest.

Expect to be Tired:

This is hard work. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. You really don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll have to learn as you go and ask for help. If you find yourself whining, remind yourself that a million other authors would give anything to be in your shoes. Then, go find a trusted friend to whine to (or scream with) in private.

Embrace Confusion:

Ask stupid questions. Don’t apologize. If you screw up, thank your publisher, editor, friends, family, and everyone else for their patience. This IS your first rodeo. You can’t learn to cope with something until you’re actually going through it. If you’re not already in therapy or on medication, this might be a good time to consider it.

Stop Checking Your Book’s Rank:

Stop grasping. It causes suffering. Sit still. Be with it. Be where you are. But wait, you ask. Don’t I have to go after what I want? Don’t I need to grab and grip and push and pull? No. Do the work. Follow all the leads. Ask for the opportunities. Meanwhile, develop a quiet place inside yourself where none of it matters. Meditate. Chant. Light candles. Trust the process. Trust YOUR process. You will find the right way. Compulsive checking of your book’s ranking gives you the illusion of control. Sorry, but you can only do the work; you can’t predict the outcome.

Push your edges, but not too hard:

This may seem to contradict my earlier advice, but you have to try scary things. Push your edges, just not to the point that you burn out. You don’t know how to make a PowerPoint since you haven’t had a day job since 1994? Find someone (your husband perhaps) to teach you. Then make one and practice (or, as in my case, wing it) and knock it out of the park. Do your best.

Embrace Your Audience:

Not everyone will love your book. Friends you thought would adore your book will not, while random strangers will fawn over it and say you climbed into their minds. Love them all.

Expect Questions:

Now that you’ve written a book, you’re an expert—in everything—in things completely unrelated to your book! People will flock to you for advice. People will ask you questions you can’t answer. People will not want to pay for these answers. Or, they would love to pay you, but you will not have the time to let them. Admit your uncertainty. Authenticity is contagious.

Expect Jealousy:

When the books of friends, acquaintances, and strangers receive reviews, awards, placement on high profile lists, mentions, and other successes, notice if you feel envy. You might feel a sinking in your stomach and a burning in your throat. If you know the author, congratulate her. She did the work; she deserves the glory. And be prepared for the opposite—others might envy your book’s success. Allow yourself to savor your glory even when others don’t.

Remember Your Purpose:

What was your original goal? Why did you want this in the first place? What did you think would happen? Chances are, in the midst of being blasted by loveliness, you have forgotten. 

Reclaim the Joy:

This may have sounded like an ungrateful rant. But it’s my truth. To counter the days when I forget why I’m here, I have developed a delicious practice. I spend five minutes, every day, holding my book. I take her in my hands and clutch her to my chest. I stare at her lovely cover. I read each blurb out loud. And I run my finger over my name. MY NAME. Then I croon, “Aren’t you just the loveliest thing ever?” I like to think she enjoys it as much as I do.

I’m home now and my back has almost returned to normal. While I would have preferred not to limp like a hunchback for two weeks, I took the experience as a wake-up call to rein in my stress, amp up the self-care, and refocus my efforts. 

I hope you don’t wind up lying on the itchy carpet of a hotel room far from home. But if you do, call me. We can laugh (and cry) together.


Nita Sweeney is the author of the memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, which was short-listed for the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award. Her articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in magazines, journals, books, and blogs including Buddhist America, Dog World, Dog Fancy, Writer’s Journal, Country Living, Pitkin Review, The Taos News, Spring Street, Pencil Storm, WNBA-SF, It’s Not Your Journey, and in several newspapers and newsletters. She writes the blog, Bum Glue, publishes the monthly e-newsletter, Write Now Columbus, and coaches writers in Natalie Goldberg style “writing practice.” Nita has been featured widely across media outlets about writing, running, meditation, mental health, and pet care. She was nominated for an Ohio Arts Council Governor’s Award and her poem, “Memorial,” won the Dublin Arts Council Poet’s Choice Award. When she’s not writing or coaching, Nita runs and races. She has completed three full marathons, twenty-seven half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than eighty shorter races. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and their yellow Labrador running partner, Scarlet (aka #ninetyninepercentgooddog).

How Personal is Too Personal?

An extract from Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness By by Greta Solomon

The lowdown on online sharing 

Whether you resonate with the term or not, the fact is that we’re living in the age of authenticity. And personal sharing, in some form or another, has become a prerequisite for writers and authors. However, it can be a minefield when it comes to sharing personal stories online. 

It can be difficult to know how much to share. And many of us end up in a push-pull dance of being seen and unseen – we can alternately share too much and too little. My philosophy is that we need to resist the temptation to overshare. We can connect without putting all the pieces of ourselves OUT THERE. And in doing so, we prevent ourselves from becoming addicted to trading fear, pain and suffering for likes, comments, shares and follows. 

If a story makes you cry while you’re telling it, then I believe it’s too soon to tell it publicly. This is quite different from feeling all the feelings while writing and releasing tears through catharsis. And it’s also different from feeling nervous to hit publish because you feel vulnerable. ONLY YOU truly know what’s right for you and your wellbeing. 

Once a client came to me for a mini writing coaching session, where we explored her personal story. She wanted to use it in a talk she was giving to an organisation the following week. She told me an incredibly personal story, that moved her to tears. And then she admitted that she hadn’t told it to anyone before – not even her husband. But yet, she was willing to share it with a group of strangers. I explained to her that I thought the story was too raw to be shared publicly, and that she needed to properly process it. And if, in the future, she did decide to share it publicly, she needed to first tell her husband and those closest to her, as it was so sensitive and personal. 

And that’s the thing with intimacy. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to a stranger than the people closest to us. Usually a (non-therapist) stranger who won’t hold you accountable. They won’t really unpick the issues, and there’s virtually no chance of them now viewing you in a different light.  A stranger doesn’t know you anyway, and so judgement is often suspended. 

Once, at a blogging conference, I saw two women read out blog posts that made them cry. Their emotions were incredibly powerful, and they filled the room. But afterwards, I felt sad for them. I worried for their mental health, and what kind of support they had then and there, when they had just unpicked the scabs that were over their temporary healing. Their reading session was the last item on the agenda before everyone departed for a boat party. And I wondered how safe-footed they would feel, literally floating the night away when they were so ungrounded in their own personal power. 

This freeing feeling can become addictive. But it’s not real, and I don’t believe that it’s the true purpose of creative self-expression. We’ve got more work to do than that. Our stories need to be grounded in our lives, because we want to use them to make changes in our lives, not as an escape mechanism before we return to the same humdrum existence. 

The criteria for sharing isn’t just about the topic; or how personal it is; or who it involves. It’s also about whether you are sufficiently healed to tell it without wincing–so that you don’t have to pull off the plaster at all because the skin is healed. There may be a scar, maybe even an angry, red, raw one. But a scar indicates healing and for me that’s a great barometer for protecting yourself online.

So, what should you write about? 

The first thing to remember is that personal stories can be both light and dark. And don’t over-think or fall into analysis paralysis over what to write. You can and ought to write about anything and everything. It’s not an exam, and you don’t have to pick a niche, or make a business case for what you post. Just write. And make it as trivial or as serious as you like. Can’t think of anything? What was the last conversation you had with your hairdresser, best friend, or the lady on the checkout at the supermarket? Write about that. The things you think and talk about are the things you need to write about. 

When should you write? 

The key thing to know here is that you don’t need to be ‘in the mood’, and you don’t have to always rely on creative inspiration. Writing can be true and heartfelt, even when it’s carefully crafted and not divined from the skies. 

Creative inspiration is just one way to write a blog, or social media post. This is about getting yourself into an inspired state by walking, showering, chopping vegetables and doing other activities to switch off your conscious brain and activate your artist’s brain. 

For instance, a couple of years ago, I went to Vogue House in London to meet the new editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful. He had agreed to meet 100 people to do a meet-and-greet and sign special hardback copies of his inaugural issue of Vogue. For a magazine junkie like me, it was an incredibly exciting experience. That night, buoyed by the amazing day I’d had, a blog post, which I later published in the Huffington Post just flowed out of me. I was in the right ‘state’ to write an entire piece, which I only edited for typos and minor style later. 

A couple of weeks later, a friend asked me what I thought Meghan Markle’s then-engagement to Prince Harry meant for black people. She asked me this via email, and by answering her questions, I saw I had the germ of a blog post. 

This is another way you can write. By getting someone to ask you questions and by writing down your answers and then piecing them together. You don’t even need another person to question you, in fact. Write down the questions that spark your curiosity and then answer them. 

The third way of writing is to piece together all the information, thoughts and ideas you have–a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle. In this method, you write down everything you can think of, in any order and then get a pair of scissors and cut up all the sections. And then you piece them together based on how you think they best fit. Get some sticky tape and play around with this. You can also colour code all the similar sections. So that you find it easier to find which bits need to go where. So, if you were writing about leadership at work, you could colour code all the facts in orange and all the examples in green and then the quotes in blue–and, so on.  

The act of putting your personal words out there is amazingly transformative. Each time you share, you grow just a little bit more. And if you’re a professional writer, having a personal blog can support your career.

For me, a blog is a boat that a writer can rest in as they charter the choppy seas. Magazine pieces may be killed, or that amazing start-up you wrote for may suddenly go under, leaving your invoice unpaid. But if you have a personal creative blog–essentially, it’ll be for you. Sure, people will read it but it’s your agenda, free from editorial guidelines or style guidelines. You are the editor-in-chief, the publisher and content creator. And as a writer it’s liberating to have a vehicle that puts you in charge of your creative destiny. 

If you liked this extract, you’ll love Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness. It’s full of writing exercises, tips, techniques and food for thought to inspire you to fully express yourself in writing, and in life.


Greta Solomon is a British journalist turned writing coach and the author of two books about writing. Her latest book is Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness. In 2006, she discovered a talent for helping people overcome the blocks, fears and shame that stops them from fully expressing themselves. Through talks, workshops and online programs, she teaches real-world writing techniques and inspires others to live rich, full lives. Her work has been featured in Forbes.com, Writers Digest, Kindred Spirit and The Numinous. She is a published poet and songwriter, a psychology graduate, certified life coach, trained lifelong learning teacher and holds a specialist certificate in lyric writing from Berklee College of Music. She lives in London with her husband and their daughter. Visit www.gretasolomon.com to find out more.

The Practice and Potential of Journaling

By Bridgitte Jackson-Buckley, author of The Gift of Crisis​ (October 2018)

I have been writing in journals since I was in the fourth grade. 

Now years later, every once in a while, I re-read entries from my elementary, middle and high school years. It is nothing less than comical to read about the petty trivialities which consumed my thoughts. However, it is also refreshing to know that writing was (and continues to be) the invaluable practice through which I cultivated a rich inner world of self-reflection and inquiry through the simple act of writing down my observations, concerns and aspirations in journals.

From childhood journals, travel, pregnancy, gratitude, meditation and daily thought journals, I have gained tremendous insight into my beliefs and emotional patterns — good and not so good.

Journaling has been instrumental in my life. 

Here are a few ways the benefits of journaling can be instrumental in your life and possibly lead to unexpected an outcome:

1. Clarify intentions

When you use your journal to write down your goals, you can revisit your intentions — your why’s: 

  • Why do you want something? 
  • Why are you doing what you’re doing? 
  • Why is this the thing you must do beyond other things?

2. Witness progress and personal growth

If you make journaling a regular habit, you can see how much progress or growth you’ve made by revisiting previous entries. You can see patterns — behavioral, mental and emotional — to glean insight.

Reading through journal entries provides valuable insight into your thought process and emotional life. You can look back and see how you’ve dealt with important decisions and challenging situations to feel more confident in your ability to do so again.

3. Gain self-confidence

You can feel proud looking back at the challenges you faced and seeing how far you’ve come.

4. Improve writing and communication skills

“Writing, like anything, improves with practice. When you journal every day, you’re practicing the art of writing. And if you use a journal to express your thoughts and ideas, it’ll help improve your overall communication skills.”

5. Reduce negative rumination

When things happens that we don’t like, there is a tendency to constantly replay or obsess over negative situations. Even when things go well, we tend to ruminate on the one negative thing that happened. 

Rumination rarely offers new insights. It can even make the present situation feel worse. But if you take some time to write out how you’re feeling, it can help you relinquish the attachment to ruminating over what was said or done. Writing down how you feel provides an opportunity for you to be honest with yourself. It provides a safe and private space to reveal something to yourself that you may not be ready to reveal to someone else.

6. Mindfulness

In 2005, during a disturbing turn of events, my husband was hospitalized due to the onset of symptoms for a stroke. He was 33 years-old. In every way imaginable we were unprepared to deal with the long term effects of the challenges that lie ahead. The financial distress, parental responsibility, unexamined emotional wounds, blame, resentment, fear and anger unearthed elements of our psyche that nearly destroyed us and our marriage. 

The loss of his ability to work propelled us into the beginning stage of what became the most prolonged and difficult period of our lives. For the next several years, we experienced the devastating loss of our home through foreclosure, ruptured familial relationships, job loss and a steady decline of our marriage.
 
Throughout this period there were times when I believed myself to be the victim. It wasn’t until I turned to meditation, prayer and journaling to make it through each day and began sincere self-examination, that I was ready to understand the circumstances provided an invitation for growth.

For more than one year, I sat down in a meditative state to ask questions to help me mentally and emotionally navigate the difficult and uncertain times I faced. 
 
During meditation, in addition to periods of silence after prayer, I began to ask questions to solicit clarity and guidance into my awareness. The more I posed questions during a meditative state, I began to notice answers would indeed come into my awareness. However, as soon as the meditation session was over, I forgot the guidance which came into my awareness. The only way to remember was to write it down. It was at that time I decided to bring a journal to my meditation sessions. 

In the midst of this silent struggle, I turned within to for at least 20 minutes per day to be able to make it through each day. I continued to meditate and write in my journal. Meditation grew to become the most practical, accessible and effective way I found to calm myself of the anxiety-ridden thoughts that propelled me.

At the time, I had no idea the journals I kept would become a book almost seven years later. 

7. Strengthen memory

Even the simple act of writing something down lets your brain know you want to remember it. That’s why note-taking is such an effective practice when learning something new.

Here are a few different types of journaling options to consider:

Stream of consciousness: 

Write down your thoughts as they happen. The words and thoughts don’t need to make sense, you’re simply writing them down to “empty them out.” 

I used this with my son when he had difficulty writing a poem for homework. He was so worried about writing the poem that I suggested first writing down everything that was in his mind at the time. He didn’t know what to do with my suggestion as it felt foreign to him. I repeated it at least three times until it was clear — no grammar, spelling or concerns about ideas, just get the words onto the paper and out of your head to release what’s inside.

Afterwards he threw the paper away without letting me looking at it, which was perfectly fine. Then, he was able to relax around the idea of writing the poem.

This is similar to Julia Cameron’s exercise The Morning Pages as outlined in The Artists Way.

“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”

Dream journal: 

This is one of my favorite journaling practices because the dream state offers incredible insight into the subconscious. 

“Dreams are one of the few ways we have to see into our unconscious, to understand what is beneath the surface of our limited outer consciousness. The subconscious mind is like a bird high above the road we are traveling, it can see more than our outer mind. The more we learn to recall and understand dreams, the better we understand our deeper motivations, fears, desires, and unconscious knowing. Edgar Cayce once said that nothing occurs in our lives that is not first foreshadowed in our dreams!”

Gratitude journal: 

Before going to sleep, make a list of everything you were thankful for that day, week, or month. 

In Wishes Fulfilled the late Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote about the importance of the last five minutes of the day, just prior to going into a long restful sleep. 

“These precious pre-sleep moments can be utilized by either reviewing all of the things in your life which make you unhappy, frustrated and anxious, or they can be used to program your subconscious mind with thoughts of joy, kindness, gratitude and anticipation of having your wishes fulfilled.”

Sketch journal: 

Express your feelings, thoughts, and ideas through illustrations, doodles, or sketches. Michel Rae Varisco’s artwork is a wonderful example of the power of sketch journaling. 

Here is an excerpt of Michel’s story:

“In 2011, my husband, Steve Gleason, was diagnosed with ALS. We were both 34. It’s a paralyzing, terminal illness with 2–5 year life expectancy. Yet, with the choice of ventilation (a trache), a person can continue living for years, with 24 hour care.

The months surrounding the ‘trache’ surgery began a period in my life I call ‘the dark ages.’ The grief was relentless. Fear, anxiety, confusion all consumed me. The idea of tomorrow frightened and depressed me. I felt such sadness for the loss of a life that was supposed to be. I felt mental and physical exhaustion, heartbreak, guilt, shame, resentment. 

At one point during this time I came across an old sketch pad with a single drawing on it (called One). I brought it along with some pencils to the hospital during one of the surgeries. 

There it began. 

Drawing provided an escape for the pain. It enabled me to sit in one place for hours and feel contentment and peace for the first time in a long time. And it was exciting that I liked what I was drawing. It felt so good to feel proud of something again. The momentary relief of the crazy mind was exhilarating. My drawings started changing into things I didn’t understand. Like a different language. I feel like what I couldn’t express verbally was coming out of me in these little forms.”

No matter which type of journal you decide to keep, there is no right or wrong approach.

The simple act of taking the time to get in touch with your mind, body, and spirit is what’s truly important.


Bridgitte Jackson Buckley is a freelance writer, author and ghostwriter whose focus includes spirituality, transformational documentaries, and in-depth interviews. She is a former contributor to General Religion on the National circuit of Examiner.com as the National Spirituality Examiner. She’s interviewed many New Thought luminaries including Eckhart Tolle, Iyanla Vanzant, Deepak Chopra, and Elizabeth Gilbert. As a freelance writer, she has written online articles for Examiner, Tiny Buddha, Recreate Your Life Story, Thrive Global, Medium, Gaia and Patheos’ Spirituality Itself. She is a fluent Spanish speaker and has traveled extensively throughout Central America including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Additional travels also include Hong Kong, Malaysia and (her favorite adventure) Thailand. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, three children and Miniature Schnauzer.

Proud to Be Diverse

Written by Kathleen Archambeau

Kathleen Archambeau, proud diverse

Monoculture is like monosyllable – okay on occasion, but woefully inadequate in most situations. It is well known that diversity leads to better stock performance by more than 30% and that diverse government agencies serve the public better. By 2050, 54% of the US population will be “minority” and more than 30% Hispanic (Office of Personnel Management, 2017). In an era of rampant nationalism, protectionism, racism, sexism and homophobia, diversity in a country founded on its principle has never been more vital to the very survival of democracy. In just a little over 100 days, Trump has dismantled protections for LGBTQ citizens. The Justice and Education Departments have quit protecting transgender kids in public school. North Carolina has been allowed to enact a bill that discriminates against its transgender citizens. This administration made Mike Pence, a signer of a bill allowing discrimination against LGBTQ citizens of Indiana, its vice president. The message is clear: “It’s okay to discriminate against queers.”

The next time you’re inclined to stereotype, stop, take a breath and use your rational mind to properly assess the person before you. Or, as the nuns used to say, “Put on your thinking caps.”

rainbow flag in the Castro Rather than lump us all in the same bucket – buzzed-out, black leather, makeup-less lesbians — educate yourself as to the rainbow of people that make up the queer community. The rainbow is a fitting symbol as queer folks are all ages, all genders, all sexual orientations, all races, all roles, all nationalities, all religions and all abilities – all in. Never before have the stakes been so high. Deny diverse opinions at democracy’s peril. Deny the panoply of talents at your own business risk.

If you’re straight and seeking to understand, or you’re queer and wishing to broaden your vision, 30 LGBTQ luminaries find a central place in my book Pride and Joy: LGBTQ Artists, Icons and Everyday Heroes, including the African-American California Obama political director; the Mexican-American founder of The Last Drag, a smoking cessation program; the first openly lesbian United Methodist Church bishop, an Argentinian baker, the founder of Ballroom Basix in Harlem’s public schools, the Hungarian activist on a neo-Nazi hit list, the New Zealand Maori Member of Parliament, an Uruguayan award-winning author, the Cuban inaugural poet, a blind mezzo soprano.

Other books to enrich your reading list are: 

Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States by Vicki L. Eaklor 
The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman
When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

Pride&Joy Book Cover WNBA-SF member Kathleen Archambeau is an award-winning nonfiction writer and journalist, She wrote a regular column profiling icons for one of the oldest queer newspapers in the country. Her first book,Climbing the Corporate Ladder in High Heels, was endorsed by Nancy Pelosi and Leslie Blodgett and featured twice in Forbes. A founding supporter of the LGBT wing of the SF Public Library and the Dance of America Foundation Board, VP and Co-Chair of Fundraising for one of the first mental health agencies dedicated to services for the LGBT community, Archambeau has worked tirelessly to extend equal access to all LGBTQ persons. See her website for additional information.

Tapping the creative current

An extract from Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness

by Greta Solomon

When I run workshops and online programmes, I always ask the participants why they’ve come and what they want to get out of the workshop or programme. The answers ALWAYS involve blocks or fears. Here are some of the responses I’ve heard:

  • “I work in communications for a management consultancy. I write articles and do a lot of ghostwriting for people in the company. I feel that my own voice is becoming lost. I’m trying to write a novel and want to start a blog. But I haven’t got a clue about what I would blog about.
  • “Most of my career has revolved around writing, but mostly other people’s writing–editing and translating their work so they can get published. I finally want to prioritise MY work.”
  • “I have been writing professionally for about 10 years, mostly journalism, plus two non-fiction books. I would love to explore a more creative way of writing. This is something I have wanted for a long time but simply haven’t ‘allowed’ myself the time to do.”
  • “When it comes to my writing, I feel like a washed-up actor, as though my best work behind me.”
  • “I’ve spent so much time and energy raising my kids that I need to do something for myself. I want to be the writer I know I can be–before it’s too late.”

Do you recognise any of these responses in yourself?
Knowing what you want and your intentions before you start writing is super powerful. It helps you to anchor your writing, because you’re clear on exactly which blocks, or behaviour patterns you want to break through.
For all my clients, writing is such an intricate part of their lives. Most have a longing to make their writing more formal. They feel a need to put a stake in the ground and accept that their thoughts and feelings deserve to be put in writing. Yet, their fears and negative emotions are getting in the way. There’s a push-and-pull between wanting to share and being scared to share.
Now, it’s time to put an end to that.

Begin by creating your joy list
A Joy List is a list of objects that spark joy in you. The idea is to curate this list, and then use it to tap into your self-expression. You’ll use your objects to master the tool of object writing. This is where you take an object and write about it using your seven senses. These senses are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling and moving. Object writing is a powerful tool by itself. But by using your joy list, you get a double-workout. You practise your writing skills and harness your joy.

My challenge to you: spend five days writing for joy
Why five days? Because five days feels joyful. It’s long enough to feel like a daily practice and short enough to commit to–even amidst our daily pressures and strains. Especially so, in fact. When there are too many demands on your time, your needs, wants, likes and desires can get ignored. Your inner voice can diminish daily, little-by-little. That’s why you need to write. It’s a quiet protest, a quiet power.

How to create your joy list
Now, this is simple – so don’t overthink it. Simply go through your house or apartment and collect the objects that spark joy within you. Start by choosing just five. Don’t simply choose ones that are fashionable, or expensive, or desirable to others. Choose the ones that mean something to you, even if they’re rusty, old and in need of some love. You’ll give them that through your object writing. This ‘spark joy’ process has been made popular by Marie Kondo, the famous face of the Japanese art of tidying up. You don’t have to tidy-up, you just need to feel, and trust your instincts.

To help inspire you, here is one of my joy lists (meaning that the list you create doesn’t have to be THE definitive one)

  1. Wedding picture
  2. Hard copy of the December 2017 issue of British Vogue
  3. ‘Woody’ piggy bank
  4. Miranda perfume from French perfumery, Fragonard
  5. Our turquoise sofa

So, what exactly is object writing?

Object writing was invented by Pat Pattison (a Professor at Berklee College of Music) to help songwriters get raw material for their songs. It’s likely that some of your favourite songwriters and recording artists rocked up to the studio one day and followed the steps that I’ll outline below. But this technique isn’t just for songwriters–it can completely transform anyone’s writing skills.

Object writing can:

  • Get you started (it kicks your writing muscles into gear)
  • Bring your writing to life
  • Increase your powers of description
  • Improve your ability to give quick stories, examples and analogies
  • Build your confidence to tackle more difficult pieces of writing

It’s easy to master, fun and gives fast results. When we do it in my workshops people often want more. They want to re-experience the freedom they felt while writing from the heart–not the mind.

How to do it

Take an object from your Joy List and write about it–with a pen and a piece of paper–using only your seven senses. So, you look at the object and focus on what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell, the movement of the object and how you feel about it. You do this in a short burst of either 10 minutes, five minutes or 90 seconds. Having a limited amount of time makes you laser-focused and stops your mind from jabbering and getting in the way.

It helps to think more about the seven senses before you get started. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the first five senses, but it can take a little extra practice to describe objects in terms of feeling and movement. Think about feeling as being more than your emotions. For example, does an object (or your associations with it) make your heart beat faster or your muscles tense up? When it comes to movement, don’t just think of the obvious movement an object makes. Instead, also think about your internal movement when interacting with an object. Think about the strange sensation when getting back on solid land after a boat trip. Is your body moving in response to the object?

Object writing in seven steps:

  1. Write the following headings at the top of the page to remind you of the senses you need to focus on: 
    See • Hear • Touch • Taste • Smell • Feel • Move
  2. Set a stopwatch for 10 minutes, 5 minutes or 90 seconds.
  3. Spontaneously write down whatever comes to mind about the object. Write with excitement and interest. Be as specific as possible with your descriptions and images.
  4. You don’t need to stay completely focused on the object, so don’t worry if random words and sentences tumble out. Just go wherever your seven senses lead you.
  5. Write in full sentences if you can, but don’t worry if it’s easier not to.
  6. Keep your hand moving across the page and don’t stop to cross out words or correct spelling mistakes.
  7. Only amend spellings, grammar errors or other mistakes when you’ve finished. Yep, this is hard. But resist the temptation to stop and judge. Keep your flow and don’t worry if what you write looks clunky or disorganised.

Here’s an example of a 10-minute object writing session on a bottle of perfume (Miranda by Fragonard)
Disclaimer: I wrote this freehand while in Starbucks one evening but did a few minor edits while typing it up (to make it publication ready!)

Cool, silver, stainless steel containing such rich warmth and beauty. Burnt oak, sandalwood and cedar with the heady smell of freedom and summer days. The glug of champagne and flowers and life – a life on the precipice of earth, and air, and water, and rain. I hear the beat of bees, of rivers flowing and pulsing. So warm and inviting, enveloping me in a chocolate kiss. Beaconing to me like freshly baked cookies, warm with promise and crumbly with pleasure. And the stink, stink, stink of heady summer bliss.
The bottle feels cool and fresh to the touch. The juxtaposition of cold with the delicious drops inside. Each one like a bubble of soap that contains the whole rainbow in one drop. Knowing that I can be a different person when I step into this scent. One who eats croissants, no, not eats but nibbles them between delicate blood-red lips. And drinks red wine and coffee in the cafés of Paris, and cuddles by the fire in winter. While the noses are at work in the factory churning out scents of such pure delight.
The taste of vanilla, not ordinary, not normal, but rich and succulent on the tongue. I feel warm and bright, and earthy. I feel like I can plant my feet firmly on the ground and spin my mind to new dimensions like a kaleidoscope, or a maze in a secret garden. Like the key to the door of another world.
The bottle is a burgeoning promise, of a summer on the edge of reason when I didn’t know what to feel or think. When I had been betrayed.
Seeing the golden liquid slosh in a container that doesn’t belie its beauty, I see that truth and beauty isn’t always on show. That tin of temptation, makes me feel alive whenever I spray it. I am intoxicated and drunk with delight. I feel enlivened and bold as I carry around a secret. Like going to the cinema in the afternoon and seeing a film just for me. Like taking a bubble bath and spritzing on perfume just for me. For my ears and eyes only. I feel untouchable and touchable all at once and endorsed by love, and by happiness. By me and Fragonard and the secrets of my scent.

My challenge to you: spend five days writing for joy

Why five days? Because five days feels joyful. It’s long enough to feel like a daily practice and short enough to commit to – even amidst our daily pressures and strains. Especially so, in fact. When there are too many demands on your time, your needs, wants, likes and desires can get ignored. Your inner voice can diminish daily, little-by-little. That’s why you need to write. It’s a quiet protest, a quiet power.

If you liked this extract, you’ll love Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness. It’s full of writing exercises, tips, techniques and food for thought to inspire you to fully express yourself in writing, and in life.


Greta Solomon is a British journalist turned writing coach and the author of two books about writing. Her latest book is Heart, Sass & Soul: Journal Your Way to Inspiration and Happiness. In 2006, she discovered a talent for helping people overcome the blocks, fears and shame that stops them from fully expressing themselves. Through talks, workshops and online programs, she teaches real-world writing techniques and inspires others to live rich, full lives. Her work has been featured in Forbes.com, Writers Digest, Kindred Spirit and The Numinous. She is a published poet and songwriter, a psychology graduate, certified life coach, trained lifelong learning teacher and holds a specialist certificate in lyric writing from Berklee College of Music. She lives in London with her husband and their daughter. Visit www.gretasolomon.com to find out more.

Writing When It Hurts

4 Perspectives to Make the Process Easier

by Sara B. Hart

How do you write about a difficult thing you’re going through?  And why would anyone want to do that anyway? When I was going through a major downsizing of my home last year, I found I longed to write about it as it was happening.  I thought it might help me get through the stickiest parts. And at some point I decided I wanted to make the writing pubic because I thought it might help others going through the same thing.  The result was my book “The Upside of Downsizing: Getting to Enough.” All of this has happened, and it is gratifying, but it wasn’t always easy. Here are the 4 things I found most difficult, and how I dealt with them:

Some of the feelings involved extremely personal things.  

For example I realized that some of the fear I was feeling was very similar to the fear I felt while I was going through treatment for a life-threatening illness.  Did I really want to make that previous experience public? I had decided I wanted the book to be as authentic as possible, so I did include that experience, but with a broad description and few specific facts.

Did I really want to live through the current experience again by describing it?  

Some of my downsizing moments were painful enough without having to do it all over again. Although I anticipated these difficult writing moments, I actually found that writing about them helped make them less painful.  To my surprise what was painful was reading the description again after the writing was completed.

How could I write about those times and not offend someone if they read what I’d written? 

A few of the things I wanted to write about involved other people who were doing and saying things that were definitely not helpful, and in some cases were hurtful.  Again, I leaned toward authenticity while choosing my words carefully. I also said over and over how cranky I was during this time, trying to blunt the impact of my words by taking responsibility for how I was feeling and behaving at the time.  That said, I discovered later that at least one person was offended. I think you just need to know that may happen if you want an honest description of what you were going through.

Often there were so many difficult things going on at the same time, I wondered what I should write about.  

As many of us often do, I just sat down and started writing, and found that what most needed to be said, came out.  This worked for me. You will have your own way, but as a writing teacher often says to us when we feel overwhelmed or stuck, “What CAN you do?”  And that would be my suggestion to you for those times when you’re feeling overwhelmed with feelings and just don’t know where to start.

Writing about difficult things as you’re going through them can be hard.  It also can be therapeutic and liberating and helpful to others who may be experiencing similar situations.  A crucial decision up front is, “How honest do I want to be?” The answer to that will guide much of what you say and how you say it.


About Sara B. Hart

“How will I know when I have enough?”  That is the question Sara Hart asks audiences when talking about her special project called Sign of Enough.  She began her project in the mid 1990’s, and recently her passion has been refueled as the results of our over consumption and greed become more and more obvious.  The idea also became the watch word for her as she completed a major downsizing of her home.  Sara focuses on the emotional side of this process in her book The Upside of Downsizing: Getting to Enough. See her website www.signofenough.com  for more information.

Dr. Hart has been involved in helping to develop leaders and effective teams inside organizations for 30+ years.  Prior to founding her own management consulting company, Hartcom, Sara was in charge of Training and Development for the research division of Pfizer both in the US and the UK.  She has facilitated hundreds of groups and presented to scores of meetings.  Sara loves to go on bike rides, walks, and to attend concerts, opera, theatre, and especially to have dinner with friends.  She lives with her cat, Mr. Bu, in Los Altos, CA.

Tips for World Building Your Memoir

Tips for World Building Your Memoir

by Nita Sweeney

It might seem odd to see “world building” and “memoir” side-by-side. Many writers think of world building as a tool used only in science fiction and fantasy. The red scarves in The Night Circus or light sabers in Star Wars come to mind. But a compelling story, regardless of genre, should be set in a specific world, a world the writer must build.

Like the novelist, a memoir writer can shape and mold the world the reader experiences. The main difference between world building in memoir and fiction is that the memoirist builds the world from known things, details chosen from the memoirist’s life. Memoirists are limited by reality, but the options are still plentiful. The memoirist carves from reality what the reader sees, feels, hears, tastes, and smells using what already exists.

In nonfiction, world building is sometimes referred to as creating a sense of place. But thinking of it as world building reminds the writer that the process is a series of choices, the same decisions novelists make. A fictional world might include magic, space ships, or time travel, but even in those worlds, the writer chooses which elements to emphasize. No matter how far in love a writer falls with the world she creates, she can’t include every detail.

How shall the writer choose?

Phases of World Building in Memoir:

In Bird by Bird, Anne LaMott referred to an unnamed friend when she explained her process:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

World building follows the same phases.

The Down Draft:

Some writers outline and plan before attempting a first draft. As a “pantser,” someone who writes by the seat of her pants, outlining and planning equals stalling. I head right to the page.

Like LaMott, my first draft is the “down draft.” Using “writing practice,” a term coined by best-selling author Natalie Goldberg, I set a timer and “go” for a specific amount of time. The world that appears in early drafts arises from what Goldberg might call “first thoughts,” the initial detail I remember as I tell the story to myself. I don’t worry about setting the scene. I just get the story on paper. If I get caught up in describing the pattern of bark on the sycamore, the reader may never find out whether I finished that twenty-mile run. It’s more important to finish the initial draft.

As I write, I make notes in the text. I use two “at symbol” marks (@@) to note places where I have forgotten something or if the backdrop feels shallow. Later, I can search for “@@” and fill in the detail. I repeat the timed writing until I have a full first draft.

I trust this organic “down draft” process for three reasons. First, there’s science behind it. A brain structure called the reticular activating system (R.A.S.), filters out the details I don’t need and focuses on the ones that have meaning. The R.A.S. is at work when you buy a new car. You choose the power blue Pinto because it’s special and different. Then, when you pull out of the lot, you see powder blue Pintos on every street. Did they appear out of nowhere? Of course not. Your RAS had filtered them out. Not intentionally. You just didn’t need to see them yet. Our minds cannot handle the number of sensory stimuli we actually receive. When you are creating the world for your memoir, your R.A.S. is also at work. Start with what you automatically notice and easily remember. The result often surprises me. I didn’t know what I remembered until I wrote it down.

The second reason to trust this seemingly random process is because it taps into each writer’s unique take on the world. The lens through which she sees the story is what makes the book special. That writer’s filter will separate her book from the flood of similar works in the market. Head to the memoir section of your local bookstore. Scan the titles. How many books trace the author surviving childhood? The fact that Mary Karr wrote about harrowing family circumstance in The Liar’s Club didn’t stop ‎Jeannette Walls from penning The Glass Castle. While these two memoirs contain similar themes, each book describes a vastly different world, the world each author lived. These sensory images are ripe fruit just waiting for the writer to pluck them off the branches.

The third and most important reason to do a “down draft” is that you can’t edit a blank page. Before I discovered this process, my perfectionistic, anxious mind made writing nearly impossible.

The Up Draft

In the revision phase, I start by searching for the “@@s” and filling in what I thought was missing. Next, I read the entire work with an eye solely for building my world. I ask questions: Where am I? Who am I with? What am I eating, wearing, talking about, thinking about? Was I aware of any tastes, smells, sounds, or feelings? What matters to me? I also think about what else was going on in the world. This could be as complex as the international political scene or as simple as a neighbor child’s bake sale. I ask what is happening outside my world. If I don’t know the name of something, this is the time to look it up.

The following tools help bring memories to the surface:

  1. Eyes Closed: I put myself in the scene again and imagine walking or running or driving through.
  2. Eyes Open: Since I can’t remember everything, I open the laptop or head to the library and research. Again, I trust my gut. Skimming an article about the Olentangy River might remind me of a day the water was so high we couldn’t cross the trail.
  3. Go: If I can, I visit the place. When I was writing a memoir about the last year my father was alive, I couldn’t remember details about a raptor sanctuary I visited. Research gave me an excuse to make the pleasant drive to Yellow Springs where it is located.
  4. Perk Time: I let it percolate. I take the dog for a walk, go for a run, or go to a movie with my husband. If I can distract myself enough to let go of the scene, the best image will often pop into my head.

Using this new information, I weave and polish and add and subtract to transport the reader into my world.

The Dental Draft

Now it’s time to make sure the world serves the story. No matter how lovely, if my “darling” images do not convey meaning, show character, or move the plot forward, they must die. The world I’ve created must put the reader exactly where I want the reader to be.

For example, in one scene in an early draft of my running memoir, I wrote in great detail about the lush vegetation along the Olentangy Trail. I adore the trail, spend hours there, and practically breathe in the green. After many revisions, I mention only the poison ivy. Eighteen miles into a twenty-two-mile run, I could only see the scarlet leaves. When I pointed those out to my running partner, she reminded me not to touch them. I’d forgotten about the rash and itching that would result if I did. Narrowing the focus in this way shows the reader how fuzzy my mind gets on a long run. This choice creates the world I want the reader to experience.

We each have our own writing process and world building is no different. I’ve given you a glimpse of mine. It might sound inefficient, but I afford myself a lot of breathing room to do it the way that works for me. I hope you’ll allow yourself the same space to discover the best method for you.


About Nita Sweeney

Nita Sweeney’s articles and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and books including Buddhist America, Dog World, Dog Fancy, Writer’s Journal, Country Living, Pitkin Review and in several newspapers and newsletters. She writes the blog, BumGlue and publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Write Now Newsletter, which features a short essay, a schedule of the classes she teaches, and a list of central Ohio writing events. Her forth-coming memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, was short-listed for the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award. She was recently interviewed for the radio show and podcast Word Carver. When she’s not writing, Nita is running and racing. She has run three full marathons, twenty-six half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than sixty shorter races. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and her future running partner, the yellow Labrador puppy, Scarlet (aka #ninetyninepercentgooddog).