Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Works for Me: Writing Dates

Last week I wrote a short article that I'd been meaning to write since last summer. I had the title, the premise, and some fairly fleshed-out notes for it since June. I'd even pitched the idea to a website last fall, and the editor was interested in it. And then I sat on it for another three months. I'm not sure why, except that I worry about failing my own good ideas. This piece seemed like one of my better ideas, and I wanted to do it justice. 

In the end, I wrote and edited it in a few hours. Just a few hours of work after nine months of dilly-dallying and fretting. That's a lot of wasted time and psychic energy for a 1,000 word article. Goodness gracious, I could have had a baby in the same amount of time! (Thankfully, you don't have to change an article's diaper. Well, not after you get past the shitty first draft phase.) 

This kind of avoidance is not good for my creative process, my productivity, or my professional goals. I meet external deadlines for clients all the time. I'm a champ when it comes to other people's work. But when it comes to my own self-directed work, I can get waylaid by fear, procrastination, and the desire for perfection. This means that I have a long list of projects waiting for me to finish (or start) them: articles I want to pitch; a manuscript I want to finish; another manuscript I want to start; essays I want to submit; guest blog posts I want to write. 

So what happened last week that enabled me to start and finish this one piece in particular? I've started having weekly library dates with a local writer friend. Once or twice a week, depending on our personal schedules, we meet at the library and write. We don't work on anything together, and sometimes we don't even sit at the same table. But we're co-working: showing up and sharing the general space so we don't have to be alone with our writing. She often shows up earlier than me, and I usually stay later than her. We exchange a few words from time to time, but mostly, we just do our own thing.

This approach is turning out to be far more effective than I would have imagined. Knowing that my friend will be at the library encourages me to show up. Otherwise, I feel like I'm letting her down, even though she doesn't need me to be there. If I don't show up, I'm letting myself down—which is something I do far too often. It's easy to let myself down when no one else will know about it. But if I let myself down by not showing up at the library, my friend witnesses my absence. Something about her bearing witness helps to hold me accountable. 

It feels good to discover something that can enhance my writing process and help me overcome my natural sticking points. I already knew that I need a quiet space to write, so a library works better for me than a café. I have a quiet studio at home, but I'm finding that getting out of my house (where I live and work as a creative entrepreneur) helps me to hold the library time as special. I'm more focused when I'm there, less inclined to get sucked into social media, and more inclined to do my creative work rather than client work. 

I've only gone to the library for a handful of writing dates so far, and they haven't been perfect. I still give in to the temptation to check Facebook and my email. It takes me a while once I'm there to sink in to whatever I'm working on and really be alone with my writing. At first, I showed up each day not really knowing what I would write. Last week was so productive because I decided in advance what I was going to work on. This approach eliminated the need to faff about, fretting over which beloved project I should choose. I chose, I arrived, I wrote. It was pretty great. 

I'll keep showing up for my weekly writing dates as long as they support my process. At this point in my writing life, I know that persistent practice is what is going to make me a better—and more fulfilled—writer. 

Want to discover the writing process that works for you? Want to create a writing life you love? 

Register for The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices. This online class will help you to practice showing up for your writing. (It's all about the practice.)

When you understand your unique creative process, you'll be more relaxed, more prolific, and more consistent in your writing life. 

One former student declared this class "the best investment" he's made in his writing. The next session runs March 15-April 11. Details and registration are over here. I hope you'll join us!


Distillation (inspiration from Georgia O'Keeffe)


Whatever you're creating this week, be it with paint or words or stone or notes, may you distill your art into its truest essence. Let's get at the real meaning of things. 



Write into the Heart of Your Story (now open)

Class is now open, and the first lesson hits students' email inboxes Monday morning. (I'll keep registration open until Feb. 6 in case anyone decides to join us later this week.)

This 4-week online course gives you a treasure trove of proven techniques that you can use to improve your writing, deepen your stories, and connect with readers.

Why bother to find a story's "heart"?

Because writing the stories of our lives is about more than recording a series of events. It's about creating meaning and connection.

Whether you're writing essays, blog posts, a memoir, or in your journal, you can write beyond what happened and into what it means

This class teaches you some tried and true witing techniques that can transform your stories. 

  • Understanding the two essential building blocks of stories
  • Using imagery and metaphor to create meaning
  • Choosing and "slanting" details to create connection with readers
  • How to use (or bend) writing "rules" to create texture, depth, and emotion
  • Dealing with common writing fears and challenges that hold back your writing
  • Embracing your personal quirkiness to enhance your writing

More than 110 people have taken this class since 2013. Here are what a few of them have to say about it: 

"I took Jenna's Write Into the Heart of Your Story class and I'm still writing months later. I know now that the story I am telling is much longer than this course can encompass, but it's ok: I'm still using the same prompts and exercises to draw out each element of it into a cohesive whole. And just so breathtakingly astonished at how helpful it has been. (Poppy Lochridge)

"Jenna, thank you for your guidance. This is a life-changing experience for me. For the first time in my life I am allowing myself time to write. I am also accountable, which makes it harder for me to find excuses not to. I just feel so blessed to have found you." (past student)

"I'm learning a lot from the fantastic information. Thanks so much for this great immersion in the writing process, put in such a thoughtful and accessible way." (Lyn Hadley)

If you want to enliven your writing and to create deeper, richer, and more engaging stories, please join us for the February session of Write into the Heart of Your Story. Registration is just $49 and includes more than a dozen writing lessons, prompts and exercises, and an online community space for class members.

Add to Cart

>Write into the Heart of Your Story: $49.

You can register using the "add to cart" button above, or click here for more details and to register. It's going to be a great month. I hope you'll join us! 


5 Ways to Find Your Story's Heart

Writing true stories is about more than reporting the facts, it's about creating art from real life.

And art isn't just about capturing what happened. It's about making sense of what happened. It's about asking the big (and small) questions, looking for meaning, making connections, and digging deep.

Here are five ways you can write beyond the facts and into the heart of a story. 

1) Create meaning, not morals. 

Give your readers enough meat of the story and its implications to help them understand why the story matters. But don't turn a story into a Sunday School lesson. Nobody likes a moralizing know-it-all. (Trust me, I know; I've been one.) Trust your readers to figure things out, but don't make them do the creative equivalent of quantum physics to understand what the story means. 

2) Use details.

Great stories include details. But not too many. Or too few. And only the important ones. All presented in the best way. Yikes. So how do you tell how many and which details to include? It's different for every writer and for every piece of writing, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Details should create texture and interest within a story.
  • Details should focus the readers' attention on what matters.
  • Details should add to the artfulness of what you're writing. 
  • Think about frame your paragraphs as you would frame a photograph. 
  • Use spectacular and specific details to draw in readers and immerse them in the world you're recreating.
  • Be selective: Don't try to capture the whole world at once, not even when you're writing true life stories. 

3) Cross the personal-universal bridge.

Even when you're telling an intimate story about a unique experience, readers should find something in it to relate to as fellow humans. But again, beware of moralizing here! Don't build a literal bridge that points out the obvious or talks down to the reader. Oddly enough, the more specific your details, the more universal your story can become.

4) Stay focused.

The focus of a story determines the meaning, the details, and the bridge. I usually don't know a story's focus until I've written a large chunk of it. Only after sketching out and connecting ideas do I find a story's heart. I've rewritten essays many times before I found their real essence. A story can contain a lot of seemingly disparate elements, but you need to know how they fit together. If you don't know -- at least on some intuitive level -- your readers won't know either. Keep writing until you find that focus and fit.

5) Be True.

That's "True" with a capital "T." This may be the most important point of all. Your story needs to feel True on the page, in your mind, and in the eyes of your readers. I've written stories that are technically true by dutifully capturing my thoughts or the true-to-life details of a scene. But the scene fell flat and veered outside the heart of the story. Annie Dillard says it best in her essay "Notes for Young Writers":

"The work's unity is more important than anything else about it. Those digressions that were so much fun to write must go."

This is another one of those things that you learn by doing. The more you write, the easier it will be to decipher what's True -- and to sacrifice anything that doesn't serve the story. (Try to get your hands on Dillard's short essay. It's some of my favorite writing advice. You can find it in Issue 15 of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction.)

Want to learn more about writing into the heart of your story? We'll explore each of these points in more depth and learn others in Write into the Heart of Your Story. The next session starts Saturday (February 1). 

This online class gives you a treasure trove of proven techniques to help you become a better writer. You'll learn how to write with more depth, more clarity, and more power, so that your stories connect with readers.

Course topics include: 

  • Understanding the two essential building blocks of stories
  • Using imagery and metaphor to create meaning
  • Choosing and "slanting" details to create connection with readers
  • How to use (or bend) writing "rules" to capture emotions in words
  • Dealing with common writing fears and challenges that hold you back
  • Embracing your personal quirkiness to enhance your writing

Registration for this 4-week class is $49 and includes 12 writing lessons, inspiration, resources, and an online community. Please join me for a month of learning and writing into the heart of your stories. 


Letters to My Muse

Tucked in a cubby on my desk, I keep a small envelope, just big enough to hold index cards. Inside that envelope are handwritten letters to my muse.

A few years ago, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert on this Radio Lab show explaining how she talks to her muse as though it's a real, live entity. I latched on to this idea and have been writing little pleas, prayers, and thank-you notes to my muse ever since.

Whenever I hit a rough patch in a piece of writing, I write a short letter asking for help. I remember to mention with gratitude any special creative moments or favors the muse has recently bestowed upon me.

Even as I write these little letters, I feel strange and silly.

And every single time, I almost immediately find a way through my creative roadblock.

In grad school, I struggled to write a certain paper for months. When I finally wrote to my muse for help, I saw the way forward a few days later. What had been a blind, jumbled mess of half-assed ideas came together into a beautiful whole.

I wrote my most recent letter a few days ago when I had a contest deadline and  had almost no idea what I was going to write just a few hours beforehand. Not the most ideal way to enter a contest, I know, but something clicked and I eeked out an essay that I like just before the entry window closed.

Call it coincidence. Call it a personal mind game. Call it voodoo. I don't care what you call it. For me, it works. Every time. And every time, I'm amazed by it. Amazed, and so thankful.

I really should remember to do it more often.

Learn & Write: Online Classes

I share more tips for tapping into your creativity in The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Processes. The next session of this online class runs March 15 - April 11. When you understand your unique creative process, you'll be more relaxed, more prolific, and more consistent in your writing practice. Join me for this 4-week experience of fun and experimentation to create a writing life you love.


Before The Writing Life, join me for Write into the Heart of the Story (Feb. 1-28). This class gives you a treasure trove of writing techniques and skills to improve your writing, enrich your stories, and connect with readers. Writing the stories of your life is about more than recording what happened. Join me to learn how to create meaning and connection with words.