Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in in the word cellar (31)


You Gotta Roller Derby That Shit! (Or, The Magic of Practice)

By the age of 36, I was used to doing things that I already knew I was fairly good at. It's not that I intentionally avoided new experiences or didn't want to learn new skills, but I had a pretty solid idea of where my natural talents and interests resided, and I tended to stick to those neighborhoods, which were populated with things like reading, writing, storytelling, teaching, and cooking.

Then I entered the world of Roller Derby and hot damn, this was a new part of town! I've written before about how I'd never played a sport, how I didn't like to sweat, and how I hadn't roller skated for two decades. Beyond the physical challenges, playing derby has meant some huge shifts in my mindset and perceptions of myself and what's possible.

One of those realizations has become my new mantra: You gotta roller derby that shit!

Let me explain.

Logic and experience tell me that the more I do something, the more I'll learn about it and the easier it will become. Although I knew this theory should apply to roller derby, I secretly doubted that it would hold. Every time I bemoaned my lack of skill and my slow progress, my husband, who grew up playing sports, told me that if I continued to go to practice and work at it, my skills would improve. My rational brain knew this made sense, but I just wasn't buying it. I worried that I was hopeless.

Still, I kept showing up. And then there was that one time near the end of last season when I finally had so much fun that I forgot to be afraid. This season started off better than I'd anticipated, and I could finally see that I was improving. Even my league mates commented on my progress. I felt proud, but I worried that it might be a fluke of some sort. But week after week I felt stronger, more in control, and more at home in this once-foreign neighborhood. Finally I had a realization...

Holy roller skates, it's true!

If you keep practicing -- even when you don't see immediate results, even after you've had to take time off for an injury, even when you have to leave practice and cry in the bathroom for a little while because your internal monologue won't shut the hell up with phrases like "You don't belong here!" -- if you keep showing up and doing the drills and trying the things you suck at until you suck less at them,  eventually you'll make progress.

We all practice. Pianists play scales. Actors rehearse lines. Writers string together a lot of words that don't end up in the final draft. Chefs perfect techniques and dishes through repetition and tweaking. And athletes do drills and go to practice.

Of course, innate talent can make the going easier. But it can also get in the way. I seem to have little innate athletic talent, so I know I have to work hard to be fair to middling. On the other hand, I know I have innate talent as a writer, which means I don't always work at it as diligently as I should. It's easy to let myself skate by on my "good enough" setting when it comes to writing, because my "good enough" comes easier than some other people's "fair to middling" setting.

But good enough isn't great. And I no longer believe that you have to be born with the most talent to become great. I think it helps, but only if you decide to keep showing up and working at it. In other words, you gotta roller derby that shit.

I don't really expect to ever be great at derby, and I'm okay with that. I just want to be as good as I can be , and if that's just "good enough," that'll be great.

But I do want to be great at writing. And in order to do that, I need to show up and put in more work more often. I need to roller derby that shit.

This means sitting down to write at set times even if I don't feel like it, just as I go to derby practice at specific times each week, whether or not I feel like it that day. This means writing the same essay again and again, the way I keep practicing my turnaround toestops over and over. This means acknowledging the inner voice that whispers "What if this is as good as you'll ever be?", and then turning away from that voice and trusting in the magic of practice.

I've worked as a freelance writer and editor for more than nine years now. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. I've seen my words in print online and on the page. And yet I know I have miles to go in deepening my craft and honing my skills. I go through serious bouts of worry that I'm as a good of a writer now as I can possibly be, even though logic and reason tell me that this isn't true. What if I'm never any better than this? What if this is as good as I get -- and it's not great?

Yeah, what if? But what else is there to do about it but to "roller derby" the hell out of it, and trust the process?


What to do When Your Own Writing Bores You

The whip-dash-sizzle of a new story idea. Don't you love it? You scribble down a note to yourself, tuck away an image or a few words to explore later. You practically buzz with the wonder and promise of this new thing you'll create, and you can't wait to get to the page to get it down in all its glory.

You write a paragraph or a page or five pages into it, and then the whip-dash-sizzle goes...fizzle.

You've lost the thread, lost the magic, lost the spark. You can't make sense of the story. The metaphor that was so poignant now seems ridiculous, or worse -- clichéd.

You reread what you wrote, hoping to find your way back to the excitement.

But the story -- your story -- feels stale. The writing is flat. Your own words bore you.

What now?

It's a good question, and one I've been thinking about it for about a month, ever since a student in the last session of Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing asked me this:

I was working on a piece and started having trouble staying engaged enough. Do you have any suggestions on finding topics that have more connection? Maybe it's just me lacking passion, or finding the best way to tell this story? It can't be a good sign: If the writer loses interest in the story, it will never make it to a reader.

This is an issue I struggle with a lot. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'll avoid writing. I hate not being able to translate the awesome story in my head into words that retain heat. It's frustrating and baffling when it happens, but it's happened often enough now that I have a list of techniques to use to face it.

(A practical note: I mostly write essays, which fall into the genre of creative nonfiction. I tend to use the terms "story" and "essay" interchangeably, even though fiction writers might want to cut out my tongue for doing so. My essays aren't always even all that narrative in form since I write a lot of meditative and lyrical stuff, which further disqualifies them for the technical term "story," but I don't care. I'm using the term in a broad sense to encompass all kinds of creative writing -- nonfiction, fiction, and poetry alike.)

Here are some things I do when my own writing is boring me to tears.

Write something else. If one story is giving me fits, and another catches my fancy, I'll follow that energy. The path of least resistance isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I truly care about the first story, I'll come back to it later. (If-you-love-something-set-it-free and all that.) There's a time for perseverece (see below). But there's also a time to jump ship for awhile.

Gorge the page with details. Sometimes when I'm writing about a personal experience, all the details of that experience clamor to be told. I can't filter out what's important and what's not. I end up getting in my own way by trying to pin every single bloody detail onto the page. I get so bogged down in details, chronology, and the facts of what happened that I can't see past all this to story's shape or meaning. A personal essay or memoir isn't a journalistic report; not all of the details belong in the narrative. But sometimes I need to get a journalistic account down on paper so the details can live somewhere outside of my head. So I gorge the page with all those details, which eventually frees me up to think artistically about what's essential to the story I want to tell.

Purge the details. If I've done the step above and gorged the page with details, it's time to purge. If I've already tried to trim the fat and the writing still feels boring and flabby, I may have kept too many (or the wrong) details. I'm always tempted to put everything into my stories. Even thought I know better, I'm convinced I can make them all work. But I often find that I have to strip out juicy bits that were fun/cool/interesting to me, because they just don't work with the core of the story on the page.

Binge on details. Three points in a row about details? Well, you know they say that the devil's in them, and it's true. Sometimes my problem isn't that my mind or the page are too cluttered with details. Sometimes my writing lacks vivacity because there are no concrete, sensuous details to hold anyone's attention. My first drafts are often full of cerebral ideas and philosophies that need to be enlivened with the physical world and the five senses. I look for places where I can incorporate colors, textures, sounds, scents, and tastes. Instead of "flowers" I need to say "purple crocus." Instead of vague statements I need to drill down to specific examples and inventive metaphors. If the writing feels sterile, I pile on descriptions and details. I can always go back and purge later. 

Write fast and sloppy. Another thing I try when I'm feeling stuck in the boring muck of an event is to write really fast and without much context. This is kind of the opposite of gorging the page with journalistic details and facts. Instead of trying to capture every last bit of "what happened," I say "explanation be damned!" and let my mind make as many weird leaps and bounds from one thing to the next as it wants. The power of essays (stories, poems, etc.) often comes from these interesting leaps and unexpected connections. My goal with doing this fast and sloppy free-writing is to bypass mental blocks  and common sense to get my pure internal experience onto the page. The initial outcome usually won't make a lot of sense to another reader, but it can help me to find the more interesting bits to explore.

Prompt yourself toward meaning. Sometimes my stories fall flat because I have no imagination or sense of mystery about what happened. The result is a shallow essay that lacks meaning. One way to go spelunking for meaning and mystery is to use the prompt "I wonder..." or "What I don't know is..." I can use those phrases as starting points and let my mind roam freely. This can help me to identify rabbit holes of potential meaning.

Accept the fact of shitty first drafts. A lot of my first drafts are painfully boring. A lot of my second drafts aren't much better. Hell, the third draft might still be fair-to-middling. That's fine. No worries! First (and second, etc.) drafts aren't meant to be finished works. They are works in progress, and even really good writers start slow and clunky a lot of the time. I remind myself to accept this as part of the process. Acknowledge, move on.

Don't despair. Persevere. It's best to combine this technique with accepting the fact of shitty first drafts. I accept it and I keep on keepin' on. Sometimes I have to write and rewrite something many times before it goes somewhere as interesting as I knew it could. Sometimes I have to start something and step away from it for a few days (or weeks, months, even years!) before I'm ready to come back and find the heart of it. I'm working on an essay right now that I've been trying to write since last year. It's giving me a really hard time, but I know that the elements are interesting, and I know there's a good story in it. I just haven't figured out how to put it together in a worthy way yet. But I keep coming back to it every few months.

Write someone a letter. Instead of thinking, "Now I'm writing an essay," sometimes I pretend I'm just writing a letter to someone, telling them this interesting story. This eases some of the pressure to be "creative" and helps to infuse some life into the words. An alternate version of this is to use the prompt "What I really want to say is...." Filling in that blank often leads me to the heart of the story.

** ** **
I've never given up completely on one of my stories, no matter how surly it's being. I figure that even if I'm not able to make it come alilve now, eventually, with practice, I'll be able to do it justice. I think sometimes we uncover story ideas that we're just not ready to write. But I believe that if we're loyal to them and diligent about pursuing our craft, they'll wait for us to catch up.


Epiphany, A Literary Journal (review) 

cover image from Epiphany's websiteAs I mentioned in the last post, I've started a new series about literary journals. I'll offer some tips on submitting to journals and review some of the many I have stacked around my house.

Earlier this week I had a guest post over on The Artist's Road, Patrick Ross's blog. Patrick is doing a series of Lit Journal Nuggets, and we'll be linking back and forth every so often so you can get a feel for a variety of journals. (So far he's reviewed AGNI and Fugue.)

If you have questions about journals or would like to see me review a particular publication, please let me know.

Here's the beginning of my review of Ep;phany:

Epiphanies get a bad rap in the world of literature. Writers bemoan how overused and trite this literary device has become. Need a tidy way to tie-up the loose ends of your short story? Give your protagonist an epiphany! Need to impart some existential meaning to bridge the personal-universal gap in your memoir? Epiphany! [Keep reading this review....]


Intro to Literary Journals

Awhile back I mentioned literary journals in my post about alternatives to getting an MFA in writing. I included them in my list of things to seek out and pay attention to.

Literary journals! Read them, subscribe to them, and send your work to them. Volunteer with them. If you don't know much about lit journals (I didn't just a few years ago), check out NewPages.com to get the lay of the land.

What are lit journals? Basically they're periodically published collections of writing, often supported by a university, though not always. Think of them as magazines of well-written prose and poetry, sometimes with photography and art. They may contain essays, short stories, poems, and interviews. You can probably find at least a few of them lurking in the magazine racks of your local mega-bookstore. I've spotted The Paris Review and Granta at mine, but there are hundreds more! (If you have a well-curated local bookstore you may have a better selection available.) Magazines such as The Sun and Orion feel a bit more magaziney than lit-journaly to me, but they are definitely closer to lit journal status than a magazine such as Good Housekeeping. (These aren't judgement calls, just comparisons to help give you an idea of what a lit journal is.)

Lit journals are perhaps the best-kept secret of the publishing world. This is a shame, because it means that the general public has no idea they even exist. If I told my brother that I was published in The Iowa Review, he would probably congratulate me and then (secretly) think, "Iowa? What the hell's in Iowa? What did she write about? Corn and cows? That doesn't sound very impressive." But if I told my friends from grad school I'd been published there, they would probably congratulate me and then (secretly) think, "The Iowa Review! Bitch! I wanna be in The Iowa Review!"

(For the record, I have not [yet] been published in The Iowa Review. And my friends probably wouldn't really call me a bitch.)

The point is this: What is impressive to other writers may be absolutely meaningless to the general public. But then, this is the way in most fields. I'm sure carpenters and chefs have their own personal milestones, the names of which would impress others in their profession while I'd be clueless as to their importance and clout.

Before grad school I really knew almost nothing about literary journals. I had heard of their existence, but I didn't know what a big part of a writer's life they could (probably should) be. I had no idea I'd end up with lists of them to check out and a spreadsheet to track my submissions to them. Long before authors have a book published (and long after, actually), they usually submit their work to lit journals, and if they're persistent and lucky, they get published in one and then another and then another. If you look at a published collection of essays or short stories, you will probably see that the author has acknowledged the journals that first published some of the pieces. Even excerpts of memoirs and novels can be first published in journals.

In an effort to help spread the gospel of literary journals, I'm starting a new series about them here in The Word Cellar. I'll offer some tips on submitting to journals and review some of the many I have stacked around my house.

Tomorrow I'll link to my first review, which I did as a guest post for Patrick over at The Artist's Road. Patrick is doing a series of journal reviews as well, and we'll be linking back and forth every so often so you can get a feel for a variety of journals.

If you have questions about journals or would like to see me review a particular publication, please let me know.


Six practical (and slightly irreverent) writing life tips

It's been about two months since my last "In The Word Cellar" column on writing and creativity. Two months! This is not good, kids. I know I'm always declaring my desire to buckle down and write more (both in general and here on the blog), and I'm weary with my own inconsistency.

I can write a good game about what I need to stay committed to my writing: time and space and quiet, first of all. I've written about creating writing rituals and rhythms, how to keep creating, and the enthusiasm that must remain after inspiration. I probably need to go back and read those posts, take a dose of my own sweet medicine, essentially.

But in addition to all that, I'm thinking about some practical, kick-in-the-pants things I can do make my writing life a priority. Here's my list. Most of them are as much about living as they are about writing, but that's really not such a surprising distinction, methinks.

1. Admit that you're delusional. First of all, I need to admit that I'm delusional. I still think that what I value and desire will come easily and automatically. For example, I value and desire a clean, orderly home. I think better and feel better when I'm not surrounded by dust bunnies and chaos. But maintaining a clean, orderly space is not my strong suit. I want the calm, but I tend toward the chaos. In the same way, I desire to write regularly. I want the consistency, but I tend toward the sporadic. The delusion is that I think I'll work toward what I want (clean home, regular writing practice) without resistance.

I think that if I really wanted these things, I'd make them a priority no matter what. And I think that this no-matter-what should be my default mode. Nuh-uh. Not so. I don't know if it's this way for other people, but it's not true for me. I have to remind myself to work at things -- even if I really want them and love them. My gremlins try to tell me that this means I don't really love them, because if I loved them enough I'd just do them no matter what. So I have to remember this delusion and not fall under its self-esteem-eviscerating spell. I get distracted. I get tired. I get busy. Having to remind myself to write does not mean that I'm lazy or incompetent or that I don't really and truly want to be a writer. Resistance does not a failure make.

2. Take hostages. In other words, write things down. You think you'll remember that delightful new word/phrase/book/idea, and sometimes you will, but often you won't. Okay, so I mean that I won't. But this is a common stumbling block. Capture things when they come to you! I use the "notes" feature on my phone when I'm out and about or when something hits me when I'm in bed falling asleep at night. I also usually have at least half a dozen notebooks lounging about, making it easy for me to jot things down. But this creates another problem, which leads to the next point.

3. For the love of your sanity, corral your hostages. Electronic notes. Scraps of paper. Napkins. Eight different notebooks. The backs of grocery lists. I just know that idea is on one of these. Now where was it?.... This one is so basic it's almost embarrassing, especially since I've done some serious project management in the past and have kept all sorts of things organized for my clients and employers. Why is this so difficult when it comes to my own stuff? I don't know the answer to this, but I'm getting better at creating a system that works for me. It's still unwieldy, but I can mostly keep track of things now that I'm down to about three main notebooks, some with special sticky notes and tabs! (If you have tips on either why this is so hard, or how to overcome it, please tell me!)

4. Eat something, dammit! I rarely forget to eat, but I am known to get wrapped up in a project, put off eating for too long, let my blood sugar get all dippy, and then freak out because I can't think, I can't write, and I NEED TO EAT RIGHT NOW. This is not conducive to staying in (or returning to) the creative flow. The practical tip here is to be prepared with three levels of eating options. Level one we'll call Code Green: Schedule time into your day to cook something and take a break to do it. Level two, or Code Yellow: Have food in the house that's ready to eat, such as leftovers, sandwich fixin's, or a frozen meal option. Code Red: Have cash on hand to order an emergency pizza or take-out sushi.

5. Fight the power! Do not be taken hostage by Facebook, Twitter, Email, or Instagram! Those bastards will try to woo you and lull you into just a few more clicks and updates. Be strong.

6. Half-ass it. I'm a writer with a blog, which sometimes feels like an occupational hazard. Imagine being a chef and inviting a few friends over for dinner. That dinner better be foodgasmic, right? At least, that's what I'd be thinking if I were the chef. The dinner guests, on the other hand, are probably just happy to (a) be spending time with friends; (b) not have to cook; and (c) be eating yummy food no matter how simple it is. I already know that not everything I write will be amazing. I let myself write shitty first drafts (á la Anne Lamott) of my essays, knowing that I'll clean them up later. It's not quite so easy with a blog. I don't want to write a shitty blog post, but I have to give myself permission to half-ass it from time to time -- because sometimes half-assed is all I have. Not because I don't care, but because not every blog post will be brilliant. (This one certainly isn't.)

That's what I have to go on right now: debunking delusions, organizational challenges, meal planning, a call to arms, food analogies, and a handful of swear words. What you got?

Read other "In The Word Cellar" posts here.}