Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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The "Beautiful Giveaway" Winner (plus a special offer for all)

Thank you to everyone who commented on the last post with a Verbal Snapshot! I loved reading your little moments and snippets as they rolled it.

Congratulations to Dolly of From My Cherry Heart, the winner of the "Beautiful Giveaway"!

Bella Grace is such a beautiful publication that I wish I could send a copy of it to each of you. Since that's not possible, I hope you'll pick up a copy for yourself. (Also, remember that the Bella Grace blog hop goes on for another month.)

A Beautiful Weekend Sale: 

To add a bit of beauty to your weekend, I'm offering 20% off titles in The Word Cellar bookshop through Monday (Aug. 18).

If you had fun writing your Verbal Snapshots and want some inspiration to keep writing, download Alchemy Daily: 30 days of writing prompts, inspiration & magic. (This weekend the price is just $11.20.)

The prompts and inspiration in the Alchemy Daily ebook are bite-sized, like daily doses of tasty creative juju. Think of it as your invitation (and good excuse!) to take time for yourself and your creativity every day.


If you'd like a beautiful book of prose, poetry, and photography to hold in your hands, order a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories. This collection features work by seven women writers and artists, all celebrating the power and beauty of creative community. (This weekend, the price is just $14.40.)

This 50-page book features work by Darlene J Kreutzer, Liz Lamoreux, Jen Lee, Rachelle Mee Chapman, Lisa Ottman, Jena Strong, and me.


Here's wishing you a beautiful weekend!

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Verbal Snapshots: Capturing Beauty, Adventure, & Life (plus a giveaway)

{Update 8/15/14: The giveaway winner announcement -- plus a special "have a beautiful weekend" sale for everyone -- is posted over here.}

I'm delighted to have an essay in the premier issue of Bella Grace, a new magazine from Stampington & Co., and to be giving away a copy of it to one of you.

The tagline of this gorgeous publication reads, "Life's a Beautiful Adventure."

And isn't that what so many of us writers, artists, and dreamers are after: The beauty and adventure of our days?

Of course, not every moment is infused with joy and wonder. There are chores to be done, bills to be paid, troubles to be navigated. But in the midst of it all, we're looking for the sparks, the slivers, the shimmery moments of magic and connectedness. 

Many of us capture these glimpses of life's beauty and adventure in images that we share on social media or tuck away for our own eyes.

She sat on the ferry and ate cherries from the market. That seemed like a good life to her.But sometimes there's no time to snap a picture. Sometimes the scope of what you want to capture is too big, too small, or too fleeting for any camera lens.

This is the time for Verbal Snapshots.

Verbal Snapshots are those tiny moments of time when the day takes you by the hand and whispers in your ear, "Pay attention to this. To this world. To this life. To this moment."

And so you do.

As a writer, language is how I make sense of the world, and so much of what I write blooms from simple moments of beauty, joy, wonder, or oddity. The scribe in my head is always taking notes, jotting down bits and bobs that catch my eye. Through words I strive to capture and convey the glints of beauty and adventure tucked in-between the folds of everyday moments.

I wrote my first Verbal Snapshot on Twitter a few years ago when I spied an elderly man in a suit riding a red and silver bicycle. I didn't get a photo of him, but I wanted to capture the image, so I described it in the verbal equivalent of an Instagram:

"Grey-haired gent in tan sport coat and slacks, riding a shiny red & silver bicycle past the post office on Good Friday."

Since then, I've made an ongoing practice of describing the moments in time that catch my eye, my heart, or my fancy. These little "language-grams" are my reminders to pay attention to the world around me and to look for the stories waiting to be told.

The Beautiful Giveaway:

At the bottom of this post, I share a few of my favorite Verbal Snapshots. But first, I want to invite you to share a snapshot of your own. To celebrate the publication of Bella Grace and the beautiful adventure that is this life, I'm giving away a copy of the magazine. And to sweeten this already sweet pot, I'll also include a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a 50-page chapbook of words and images by me and six other amazing women writers and photographers.

To enter for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns, please leave a comment below with your own Verbal Snapshot -- or simply one word describing how you feel in this moment. (It doesn't have to be poetic or clever or perfect. Any description of a moment or image will do!) I'll leave comments open until 11:59pm (ET) on Thursday, Aug. 14, and I'll announce the winner on Friday the 15th. >>I'll choose a winner using a random number generator, so don't worry about making your snapshot the "best," just have fun with it!<<

A few of my favorite verbal snapshots:

Vintage cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle trundling along with a dark green Christmas tree strapped to the roof.

Two trains on parallel tracks pass each other in opposite directions. For a split second, the engines look ready to kiss.

Tiny parade route: Dozens of flags festoon neighborhood lawns, marking utility lines in red, blue, green, orange, yellow, white.

Candlelight glow through white paper wrapper. Empty mason jar. Broken grey seashell. Small black stone with white stripe.

White petal confetti on wet spring green grass.

For more of my Verbal Snapshots click here, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook to see these snippets as I publish them. You can also play along with the hastag #VerbalSnapshot.

Don't forget to leave your Verbal Snapshot or single word of the moment in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns.

(Other Bella Grace contributors will be hosting giveaways over the next month, so be sure to check out the full Bella Grace Blog Hop schedule here.)

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Thoughts on Creativity & Quiet

In this post about creativity and time, I claimed that "Creative work needs time and space to breathe."

For me, silence is an integral part of that creative breathing space.

Creativity craves quiet. Creativity craves a chapel.

{click to Tweet}

"A chapel," writes Pico Iyer, "is where you can hear something beating below your heart."

I like to write in silence: no music, no background chatter, not even a clock ticking too loudly. I need to be able to hear the words trying to come through me. I need the quiet so I can hear the melody of the language.

This isn't to say that one can only write in literal silence. I could, if given the chance, write to the sound of the ocean surf. Birdsong and trees rustling in the wind suite me fine. And I know writers who do some of their best work in cafés with the hustle and bustle of the room as background, or listening to music through headphones.

For each of us, there are sounds that allow us to tap into the chapels of our creativity, sounds that enable us to hear the rhythm of our hearts and something beating below that.  

We need whatever version of sound or silence permits us entrance to the stories waiting for us to tell them.

Eudora Welty said it beautifully. In her book One Writer's Beginnings, she wrote that she hears a literal voice when she reads and when she writes.

It is the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers ― to read as listeners ― and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

Welty is also known for saying that she listened for stories. 

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.....

I don't know how Welty listened for her stories when she was on her own. I don't know if she sat in silence, but I know that she didn't have the same temptations I face when I sit down to write on my laptop. She may have been distracted or tempted away from the page by many things, but she never had to fend off the siren songs of the Internet.

Oh Lord, this little white box on my lap and its magical, invisible companion, WiFi. Was there ever anything so marvelous and so terrible? I love this white keyboard (and my high school typing teacher) for the gift of being able to capture my thoughts in nearly real-time. I love the connection this device gives me to the world, real connections that break the bounds of anything virtual. It is ease and comfort and connection, all wrapped up in silicone and hard drive. And yet...

I know that when I hop around the Web, watch YouTube videos, surf the TV set, I turn away and feel agitated. I go for a walk, enjoy a real conversation with a friend, turn off the lights and listen to Bach or Leonard Cohen, and I feel palpably richer, deeper, fuller, happier.

Happiness is absorption, being entirely yourself and entirely in one place. That is the chapel that we crave. ~Pico Iyer

I like the chatter. I like tweeting and updating and commenting and posting. I even believe them to be one way I feed my creative spirit. But too easily I can get caught up in the noise of it all, in the twitchy, buzzy, fuzziness that doesn't make me happy, that doesn't deepen my thoughts.

If I want to write more consistently, I know that I have to invite in the quiet that I crave. I could go for a walk, or sit in the dark listening to music, as Iyer describes. I could read. (I constantly have to remind myself that reading is part of my creative process. I think I'm still incredulous that something I love so much could be so good ― even necessary ― for my artform. But really, could it be any other way?)  I could stare out the window and daydream. All of these things restore me to myself, which, in turn, restores my creativity to me. 

It turns out that I need silence not only when I'm writing, but in the spaces in-between the acts of creation. The silence is part of the "time and space" that our ideas need to breathe.

What does your creativity need? What is your kind of silence? What is your creative chapel?

Source:"A Chapel Is Where You Can Hear Something Beating Below Your Heart" by Pico Iyer, originally published in Portland, Winter 2012, reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, Philip Zaleski, editor

(This post was originally published in a slightly different form in February 2012.)


My Complicated Relationship with Writing Prompts

"I don't give prompts. The world is your prompt!"

So said the accomplished poet leading a writing workshop I was in several years ago.

And I thought, "Yes, yes! Real writers don't need to be told what to write. I am an artiste! The world is my prompt!"

And then I realized that I've routinely found myself wondering what to write about, worrying that I'm not a real writer after all. Phooey.

Whatever shall I do if the world is not enough?

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I have writer friends who love prompts with pure, unadulterated hearts. They have always nudged me toward them, gently but firmly, trying to convince me that a good prompt is better than the whole wide world, because a good prompt gives you a focus and a way in.

But I thought that I hated prompts.

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You know what I really hate? The blank page. The blank, ever-so-white, mocking-me-with-its-clean-emptiness, no-words page.

When I was a teenager I wrote a poem called "A Bright White Room is Hell." I didn't intend it as a metaphor for the blank page, but I think I'd like to intend that now.

But give me a page with my own messy thoughts and I can breathe a little more easily. I have something to hang on to, something to swing around my head. Most days, words—any words—are better than a blank page.

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That same workshop leader who insisted that the world is our prompt eventually conceded and gave us just one little bit of direction. She told us we could choose a color and write about whatever came to mind when we thought of that color.

I chose brown.

I wrote about the first day of first grade when the tip of my big, fat Crayola snapped off and left with me a pointless tree stump of a crayon. My teacher was a kind lady, but she wouldn't give me a new one. I cried during the walk home with my mother, grieving my broken crayon, trying to make sense of this introduction to loss. Years later, that teacher, still a youngish woman, died of cancer. I began to think (while writing about "brown") how little things and big things can go wrong unexpectedly, and how there's not always a do-over or a replacement waiting in the wings, even if someone is kind.

All of that from brown.

Brown was my way in.

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So here's the thing: The world is enough. But the world is overwhelming. And sometimes we're tired. Sometimes our creative mojonators slow down and we need help to crank things back up.

I think of prompts this way: I know how to cook without a recipe. But sometimes I run out of ideas or get bored, and then I like to read cookbooks and websites for yummy ideas that I can follow verbatim or tweak to my liking.

There is no shame in wanting, needing, using creative prompts. I still resist them, but that's because

I'm stubborn and silly. Even so, I am now a prompt convert. I believe in them. If nothing else, they can get us unstuck, get us writing, get some messy words on that blank page so we can swing them around later. If nothing else, prompts can be practice. And when I say practice, I mean as a musician practices scales and as a Buddhist practices meditation.

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Some days the world is enough. Other days, I need a little help finding the right piece of the world to write about. And I'm cool with that.

I've discovered that I like a certain kind of prompt. I like ones that are open-ended enough to let me jump from the color brown to first grade to death (so to speak). I don't love the ones that are overly prescriptive and tell me to write a sci-fi story about robot toasters that come to life (for example). That's a bit too much of a way in, and I don't really want to go there anyway.

So I created a batch of writing prompts that I'd actually want to do, and packaged them up for you, in case you'd like to do them, too.

The Alchemy Daily ebook contains 30 days of  writing prompts, inspiration, and magic, available for immediate download.  The prompts are fun and accessible, with room for you to go as deep as you want. And there are no robot toasters, I promise. (Unless that's your thing, and then you can write all about them!)

(Why "alchemy"? Alchemy is the "power or process of transforming something common into something special." Something common = words. 
Something special = the way you put those words together.  stories
Alchemy Daily is about the magical transformations that happen within us and on the page when we allow ourselves to start stringing words together, delighting in language, and giving form to our stories)

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What about you? How do you feel about writing prompts?



Thoughts on Creativity & Time

Doing stuff takes time. Doing creative stuff can take a lot of time. It can also make time go all wonky, contracting and expanding it, making it refuse to play by the normal hourly rules.

Scenario #1: You sit down to write and the words won't come. You tell yourself: I'll sit here for one hour and do nothing else but focus on writing. Time limps, drags, scrapes by until you're begging for mercy, aching to stand up and do something more pleasurable, like wash dishes. 

Scenario #2: You set out to write (or paint or dance or take photos) and you shimmy into a sweet groove. You are in the zone. You look up and zip! You've "lost" an hour or two or five.

Scenario #3: This is the in-between scenario: You write something, say, a blog post. You think it will take about an hour to write it, edit it, proofread it, add a photo to it, and hit "publish." Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes it takes three. It's not that time zipped or dragged, it's just that the process was more involved and consuming than you thought it would be.

I was talking about creativity and time with one of my students who is frustrated because Scenario #3 happens to her a lot. It happens to me a lot, too. Things often take much longer than I think they will. (Except when they don't, of course. Sometimes I put off doing something because I'm sure it will be difficult and a major time-suck. And then it ends up being easy-peasy and taking five minutes, and I feel like a schmuck, albeit a productive schmuck.)

I've been thinking about the nature of creative work, and how it forces us to play by different rules than if we were just making widgets on an assembly line. Creative work isn't so regulated, so orderly, so perfectly timed.

Ideas don't come down the conveyor belt in perfect succession, spaced apart just so

Developing an idea doesn't happen in an orderly, assembly line fashion. It's messy. Things do not always proceed in a linear direction. There is much doubling back, doubling up, rearranging, redoing. I have to remember this every time I start writing a new essay or developing curriculum for a new course. Each time I do it I learn something new, but the learning never stops.

If I sit down to write, I want to be writing -- actively. I want to see words filling up the blank page. Letter after letter, word after word, line after line, punctuation mark after punctuation mark. Progress! I worry that if I'm not typing, I'm not doing anything. And if I'm not doing anything, then I must be lazy or stupid or creatively blocked. But no, this is not so. Idling is a good and necessary part of the creative process. Let your mind wander. Daydream. Doodle. Give yourself -- and your work -- time and space to breathe. I mean this literally (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking walks -- all good things), and more metaphorically. Let things steep and simmer for awhile. It adds flavor and depth, like a good soup.

(Not everything needs -- or can wait for -- a lot of marinating, of course. This blog post, for example, won't get a lot of breathing room. It's a bit more slapdash than that. But the essay I'm working on this week is getting a lot of breathing room. I've been noodling with it for months. This frustrates me, but I also know that it needed this long to come into being and to come into its own.)

This is what I know: Creative work needs time and space to breathe.

{click to Tweet}

What about you? How does time fit into your creative process?


(This post was originally published in a slightly different form in January 2012.)