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Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.

Writer. Editor. Storyteller. Teacher. Roller Derby Girl.

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jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com
724-787-1288

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Thursday
Apr172014

Spring: I believe.

haystack rock, cannon beach, oregon (march 2010) If you live in many parts of the northern U.S., you've probably been saying to your friends, "Winter was hard this year, wasn't it?" And your friends have been nodding their heads, squinting their eyes, and pulling their sweaters closer around them. Those of us in the northeastern states still look pale and shellshocked from all the snow, the ice, the darkness, the Polar Vortex, the fear that maybe this time spring really wouldn't come. Starting a few weeks ago, we began to see photos from our friends down south and in more moderate climes -- all those soft, bright blooms! It was too much to bear. Yes, April: that cruellest month, mixing memory and desire, hyacinths, hope, and apprehension. But quick now, here now, always: the daffodils are beginning to peek out. The buds on the pear tree are undeniably about to pop into petals. And despite the snow that dusted us here in Pennsylvania just two days ago (it always snows in April), despite it all: I believe. I believe in spring, in the return of the light, in warmth, in love, in second chances. Some days I'm tempted to sit down and list out exactly what I do believe, side-by-side with all of the beliefs that I've lost along the way, just to see which list is longer. Where, I wonder, is the Life we have lost in living? But to tell you the truth, I'm not sure I want -- or need -- to know, becuase what we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.**

So in honor of endings and beginnings, in honor of spring, here's a little blessing that I wrote a few years ago. (When I read it, I like to imagine that I'm standing at the sea, which is the land's edge.)

A Springtime Blessing

May you be rooted like rock
That reaches down beneath the constant tide
And pushes tall into the air.
May you shimmer like sun-skimmed sand
Along white, white waves.
May a line of footprints lead you
To adventure and home and back again.
May your perspective be one of compassion and beauty.
May you ruffle your wings in the water
And flutter them dry on the breeze,
Plump with the knowledge that you are as permanent
And as temporary
As this land.

 

**Italicized words, plus references to April as the cruellest month and hyacinths, from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Four Quartets, and The Rock. (It seems I can't go a spring season without quoting at least one of these.)


Friday
Apr042014

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

This is what I'm going to practice doing this weekend (and always), on the page and off.

Sunday
Mar232014

Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices: The Writing Life

If you've been paying really close attention, you might have noticed that I changed the name of my upcoming online writing course. The main title stayed the same ("The Writing Life"), but the subtitle morphed from "Illuminate Your Creative Process" to "Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices."

Why the change?

A bit of market testing (and by "market testing" I mean input from trusted colleagues and my own gut instinct) showed that the original subtitle was a goat rodeo of a name. It was all over the place. It was confusing and hard to say, and not really representative of what this class is about. 

So what is this class about?

Well, I hope it's there in the name now: This class is about the rituals, rhythms, and practices that go into your writing life.

It's about understanding your routines, preferences, and schedules so that you can write more often and with more ease.

It's about learning how a wide variety of factors can influence the way you write.

Whether you realize it or not, you make a lot of decisions when you choose to write (or choose to not write). Sometimes subtle shifts in these choices can make a big difference in your writing.

This class will help you to answer these kinds of questions, which will empower your writing life:

  • Do you think before you write, or do you write in order to think?
  • Do you write best to music or in silence?
  • Are you a linear or an associative thinker? And what does that mean for how you write?
  • Do you write best with pen and paper or on a keyboard?
  • Can you sit and write for hours on end, or do you work better in shorter bursts?
  • Do you really have to write every day in order to be a writer?
  • How can outlines, index cards, and mindmaps support (or hinder) your writing?
  • Which of these words motivates you more: discipline or enthusiasm?
  • How can the physical objects around you make you feel more inspired and focused?
  • How can you stoke your creativity when you're not writing?

I created this class because the process and practice of writing comes up all the time with writers at all levels of experience. I've had similar conversations with brand new writers and with published authors. All of us writerly types are looking for ways to make our writing lives easier and more prolific. 

Here's a broad outline of the course content, to give a flavor of the topics we'll cover:

  • Writing as a Process of Discovery: Cultivating a writer's mindset, clearing the mental clutter, and practicing the practice

  • The Inner World of Your Writing Life: Understanding the different phases of your process, knowing how your mind works, and embracing your natural writing "breath"

  • The Outer World of Your Writing Life: Understanding how your surroundings impact your work, finding inspiration in tangible objects, creating rituals and routines, and leveraging your natural rhythms and schedules

  • Living the Writing Life: Setting livable writing goals and dreams, discovering what motivates you, and choosing to live the writing life

By taking this class, you'll unravel the misconceptions and myths of what being a "Real Writer" looks like. (That pesky myth of the real writer is a persistent little guy!) You'll tap into your creative energy and unleash it in a sustainable way. You'll learn techniques for transforming your perceived weaknesses into the strengths of your writing life. You'll figure out what it will take for you to write more. And you'll probably start to have a lot more fun while writing!  

I hope you'll join me for The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices. Class runs from March 31 to April 27. The course is just $47, which gives you a full month of lessons, prompts, exercises, and inspiration, plus access to a private online community with your fellow students.

Full details and registration are available over here. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below or contact me. I'm happy to help. 

 p.s. If you're interested in reading more about my own writing process, I wrote about it over here.

Sunday
Mar232014

Springloaded

It happens to me every spring, and yet every year I forget it's coming: restlessness, wanderlust, cabin fever, spring fever, soul fever. A desire for change so strong that it masquerades as an undeniable feeling that change is coming. Big change, momentous change, cobweb-sweeping change. But change of what? Scenery? Employment? Location? Beliefs? Vocation? Yes, all of the above. Or no, maybe something else. I don't know. It's just the headstrong feeling that something (good or bad) is barreling down on me, and I'm practically holding my breath waiting for it.

The feeling lasts until I remember that it's just the month of March, and despite what T. S. Eliot said about April, this is the cruelest month, mixing memory with deisre. March in Pennsylvania, with its half-assed promises of spring. The air warms to 55 degrees once or twice before mid-month, and we all throw off our coats and pull on pastel hope. Then it snows and the wind cuts us up again. Meanwhile, my Instagram feed fills up with photos of soft, bright flowers in the South and Pacific Northwest. I remind myself that bitterness on behalf of others' good fortune is an unattractive quality. I know that come April, when I'm posting my own photos of fresh shoots of green, folks in New England and Canada may still be shoveling out their driveways and cursing the lower latitudes.

But it's till March here and everywhere, the lion and the lamb, the memory and the desire, the liminal space space between seasons. And me, longing for change, convinced it's coming. I look at travel websites, real estate listings, job openings, new haircuts. I binge on TV drama and movie romances. I take long drives alone, down country roads I've never seen. I alternate between pots of hot tea and tall, clear glasses of water infused with lemon. I vow to rearrange my bookshelves, to scrub the floors, to dust my desk. I feel springloaded, waiting to unspool at rocket speed, like one of those trick cans with a snake that pops out when you open it.

Change is coming: I keep saying it. And I'm not wrong. Change is always coming. Wait long enough and everything changes in some way. But waiting for change and making a change are different things. I don't know what I'm waiting for, but maybe it's time to stop waiting.

Monday
Mar172014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I've been thinking and writing a lot about the creative process lately, partly in relation to the newest online class that I'll be teaching in a few weeks, and partly because I'm always trying to hone in on my own best process. It's a topic that comes up often with my mentoring clients and students. It comes up equally often with my writer friends and colleagues. And it comes up with well-known published authors. The creative process is endlessly fascinating, and creating a sustainable writing practice is something that interests (or plagues) writers at all levels.

All of this has been on my mind, so it was especially groovy that Jeanne Gassman, a writer colleague of mine, asked me to be part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour. The tour was started by author Diane Lefer on her blog. Diane invited several writers to answer a series of questions about their process, and those writers then invited several more, and so on. (update 3/19: Turns out that Diane isn't the originator of the tour. That was my mistake. But you should still check her out!) I'm glad that Jeanne invited me. I met Jeanne during graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she was in my very first workshop there. Jeanne is a wonderful fiction and nonfiction writer who lives in Arizona, and her historical novel, Blood of a Stone, is forthcoming from Tuscany Press in the summer of 2014. She's a dedicated writer and friendly, supportive presence in my extended writing circle. Be sure to check out her Writing Process answers on her blog, Jeanne's Writing Desk, where she regularly posts writing opportunities and calls for submissions.

My answers to the "blog tour" questions are below, and at the end of this post I'll introduce you to two other writers who will be joining the My Writing Process Blog Tour with their answers next week.

1) What are you working on?

A few months ago I realized that I have five books waiting for me to write them. Five! I fear that I sound hoity-toity when I admit this, but please understand that I say it with a dizzying blend of excitement and fear. I've been working on one of these books for the last several years, and it's slow going. Knowing that there are four more waiting for me to get to them makes me feel frantic. This book that I've been working on is a collection of meditative and lyric essays called For All We Learned, The Sea. The collection explores spirituality, landscape, and the longing for home in all its many (internal and external) forms.

I'm also toying with two book-length narrative memoirs, including one about the year I spent living and working in a London YMCA. Several years ago, a novel idea came to me just as I'd started my graduate program for nonfiction. What timing! I sat that book on a mental shelf and promised I'd be back for it. Every so often I look at it and wink. It's been patient, but lately it's been eyeing me up, and I know that the time to pay attention to it is coming soon. In addition to all that, I also have the characters for a story for either kids or young adults banging around in my head. It's getting rather busy in there, but I prefer that racket to the alternative: the chilling silence of having no ideas.

In my "spare" time, I write other random essays, plus the occasional poem that I squirrel away and don't show anyone.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

To answer this question, I'll stick with how I approach writing essays and literary nonfiction.

First off, the subject matter of my essays is different than a lot of what you might find in mainstream essays. A few months ago, I gave a reading from one of the essays in For All We Learned, The Sea. In that essay --  indeed, throughout the whole collection -- I question the nature of God and the nature of belief. After my reading, another writer told me that he enjoyed the piece. And then he said, "You don't find many people writing about God these days." I wasn't sure how to respond, but he had a point. What he didn't say, but what I think he also meant, was that you don't find a lot of people writing about God in a non-judgemental, non-proselytizing, or non-saccharine way. A lot of "God writing" is angry or vague or schlocky or naive. I don't write about God in order to convert anyone to anything. I'm simply trying to make sense of a spiritual worldview that has changed drastically several times throughout my life. It's not that this is never done, but I guess it's less common than some other subject matter.

Second, my writing style is different than a lot of personal writing (essays, memoir, etc.). Most of the essays in my collection are not straight narrative. I joke that I write essays in which nothing happens. These pieces are often non-chronological and non-narrative. I think of them as the written equivalents of Polaroids, snippets or vignettes that capture a moment in time, a mood, a thought, a feeling, a question. I also love to braid together disparate elements, to play with structure and form, and to make unexpected connections.

Third, I think my attention to language is a bit unusual compared to some other literary nonfiction writers. Since I write in a more meditative or lyric style, I'm more concerned with the rhythm and sound of the language than some (though not all) narrative nonfiction writers are. Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually a poet who writes paragraphs. I'm as interested in how words sound and taste as I am in what they mean.

3) Why do you write what you do?

The existential answer:

I write what I write because that's what comes to me. What else can I do?

The practical answer:

I write what I write because that's what comes to me. What else can I do?

 

 

4) What is your writing process?

I have terrible writing habits. There, I've said it. I'm not nearly as consistent as I'd like to be, so this is something that I'm working on. Always. Even though I know that I'm not going to produce a masterpiece every time I sit down to write, my fear of writing badly (a.k.a. perfectionism, a.k.a. caring deeply about the work) too often intimidates me and keeps me from writing. I've written before about how I've had to learn to write badly. In other words, I have to practice staying committed to the writing even when it's going poorly.

While I was away at a month-long writing retreat this winter, I had some pretty major epiphanies about how I write the kinds of essays in my book manuscript. It's a slow and languorous process that requires a lot of time and white space to let the essays' elements coalesce. This realization has helped me to see that I need to be working on several things in any given month, be that multiple essays or essays and something else entirely (like the novel). I don't know what will happen if (when?) I start to seriously write either a novel or narrative memoir. I wonder if the narrative nature of those works will become all-consuming in a different way than the meditative/lyric essays do. Perhaps more driving and more immediate with less downtime needed in-between chapters. We'll see.

Although I need a lot of mental white space and time to think (consciously or subconsciously) about the essays I write, I also tend to need to write a lot before I figure out where I'm going, what I'm trying to say, and how it all works together. I'm more of an associative than a linear thinker, which is probably why I so often tend toward non-chronological and non-narrative writing. This mode shows up in my writing process, too. I often have to go a long way out of my way to find the thing I'm trying to write. I've blogged about this before, about how writing is a process of discovery for me. Some writers figure out the whole story in their heads before they start to put words together on the page. For a long time I thought this was how "real writers" operated, and I was worried that I seemed to be much messier than that. I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to go about writing, and that I happen to be a "horizontal" or "extraverted" writer in that I have to put a lot out there on the page in order to find my way. (The opposite is the "vertical" or "introverted" writer who figures it out in her head first and then starts to physically write.)

When I'm stuck in the writing process, I tend to try free-writing about the topic, to make lists or associative mindmaps of ideas, or to put ideas on index cards so I can physically move them around. I'll also switch from the keyboard to pen and paper if I'm feeling stuck. Sometimes changing something about the physical act of writing helps to unlock things in my head.

Oh, and I revise a lot. I like revising and rewriting. That part of the process is often much more enjoyable (and less terrifying) to me than the blank page or the confusion of writing a first draft.

I tend to write best after dark. Sometimes way after dark. (It's 3:30 a.m. as I write this.) I like the quiet, darkness, and solitude of night time writing. The thought of getting up at dawn (to write or to do anything else for that matter) makes me whimper and cry. One big problem with this kind of writing schedule is that it pushes writing to be the last thing of the day, which often means that it's the thing that I skip when I'm too busy, too distracted, or too tired. While I was away in Vermont for my writing residency in January, my most productive time of day turned out to be late afternoon, which was unexpected. Since I've been back, I haven't kept much of a consistent schedule, so I'm not sure what time of day will end up working best for me when I settle into some sort of regular rhythm.

** ** **

Next up on the My Writing Process Blog Tour:

Next week, please check out the following writers on their blogs as they discuss their creative process.

Karen Dietrich is the author of a memoir, The Girl Factory (Globe Pequot, 2013), as well as three chapbooks: Understory (dancing girl press, 2013), Girl Years (Matter Press, 2012), and Anchor Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2011). Her writing has appeared in Specter, Bellingham Review, PANK, and elsewhere. You can read her blog here.

I met Karen a few years ago and am delighted to know another writer who lives in my town. She's been featured on this site before, as a guest contributor for the Loquacious series. I recommend her book The Girl Factory to just about everyone. It's a memoir written by a poet, which means it's subtle and beautiful and kind of kick-ass. Seriously, you should read it.

Ross McMeekin's fiction appears in Shenandoah, Passages North, Folio, PANK, Hobart, Tin House Flash Fiction Fridays, and elsewhere. He edits the literary journal Spartan. He’' the recipient of a 2013-14 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and lives in Seattle. You can find his blog at www.rossmcmeekin.com.

I met Ross during grad school, and in addition to being an amazing fiction writer, he's a jovial guy with a big heart. His flash fiction piece, "What Fills a Balloon" (published on Storyglossia), is one of my favorite short stories ever.

 

** ** **

Now you. Want to share anything about your writing process? Tell us in the comments.

And if you're interested in exploring your creative process, please consider joining me for The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices, March 31 - April 27.

In this online class you'll unravel the misconceptions and myths of what being a "Real Writer" looks like. You'll tap into your creative energy and unleash it in a sustainable way. You'll learn techniques for transforming your perceived weaknesses into the strengths of your writing life. You'll figure out what it will take for you to write more. And you'll probably start to have a lot more fun while writing!

Full details and registration are available here.