Tag Archives: creative writing

Reading Helps Us Empathize

As writers, we must also be avid readers.  (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think.  It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar.  It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.

Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels.  When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst.  I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones.  I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.

One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction.  Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here.  When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree.  Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing.  Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience.  Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.

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A Writer’s Journey: Freelancing – How To Get Started?

I got it into my head quite a while ago that I might like to try freelancing, but figuring out how to get started has been a challenge.  Of course, there is the usual advice, “If you want to be a writer, write”, but just sitting and writing hasn’t been very financially lucrative.  Apparently, having a client to pay you is important to creating an income.  That’s where I struggled; figuring out a way to build a portfolio that was professional, accessible, and substantial.

Then, I got the idea to begin volunteering.  Granted, the motivation for this was altruistic and career-oriented, but most organizations will allow volunteers to dictate (to some extent) their roles based on their interests.  Let’s face it, they know you’re there for free and they want you to enjoy it, so why not have you doing something you enjoy.

Once I told the volunteer coordinator about my interest in writing and proofreading, I started getting more projects based on that interest.  I’m still volunteering, but in the process I’m building a body of work to reference to potential clients, and building relationships with professionals who can refer me to others.

Volunteering is a great way to improve skills, learn new skills, explore career paths, and of course give back to the community.  So volunteer with an organization you believe in.  You never know where an opportunity can lead.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

“Write Write more. Write even more than that. Write when you don’t want to. Write when you do. Write when you have something to say. Write when you don’t. Write every day. Keep writing.” -Brian Clark, playwright

In the case of any activity – be it playing an instrument to performing surgery – practice makes perfect. We, as writers, know that writing is no different. Many of you may have a schedule or goal – a number of words per day, pages per week, or simply sitting down to write every day for a certain amount of time. You may choose to spend that time working on your novel, your dissertation, or journaling, but once you’ve finished one project, and you’re searching for your next one, it can be easy to let the daily habit slide. But why do you have to have a specific project? There are so many reasons to write and so many different types of writing, it should be easy to find a good practice format that can also be productive for building your skills.

Description – write an email or letter to a friend or relative describing in detail an interesting event that happened recently. Focus on using imagery to create a clear picture for someone who has never been in that setting or seen the people involved. Help your reader experience the event as you did.

Research – Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or magazine. Reading is another important part of being a good writer, and reading about the news of the day helps inform you as a good citizen. So why not take citizenship and writing to their next step. Say something about an article you read. Whether you find a mistake or want to expand, or point out another way of looking at the issue being discussed, newspapers are more likely to publish well researched letters to the editor as opposed to purely opinion pieces with no evidence to back claims.

Persuasion – How do you feel about the abortion debate? healthcare? defense spending? campaign finance? or any number of other hot button political issues? What do you know about your local and federal representatives? If you’d like to see changes in local, state, or federal government you have to let the policymakers know it. Letters to your representatives are a great way to tell them what you think. Your position is to convince them that you have a stake in the issue, know something of what you say, and would like to see the vote or policy development that you are arguing or proposing.

There are any number of other ways to practice writing in various styles and formats.  How do you step outside your usual writing box?

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A Writer’s Journey: Submissions – Part 3

A lack of work, and the daunting task of forcing yourself to write new pieces, or to edit old pieces, for submission can be a terrible deterrent to even trying.  In truth, it has been the main thing that has stopped me from trying to submit over the past couple of years, and even the last few months.  But there are several ways to combat this.

1. Write everyday!  No matter what you’re writing, even if it’s just complaining about not having anything to say, spend three pages (or 750 words or so) bitching about it.  Whatever is going on in your head, your life, at work, around the country, around the world; spend a few minutes putting it down on paper.  If you make this effort everyday, you will be shocked what can eventually come out.  Whether it’s a humorous memory of something that happened in your childhood, or a poignant observation relating to your industry or current events, something is bound to pop out.  Perhaps you will notice a trend in what you’re writing and realize you have a series of little essays that could turn into something.  That’s how I got started with this blog.  So make the effort to sit, and let it all out – dump the contents of your brain for 20 to 30 minutes, and see what happens.

2. Go back to old work with fresh eyes, no matter how old it is!  That poem you wrote in college for the creative writing class you took as a fun but throw-away elective might turn out to have some weight to it, especially after so many years.  Now you are older, wiser, more experienced, improved as a writer, and distanced from the critical young adult that wrote that piece.  You don’t have to worry about how bad the kid that wrote it thought it was.  You, as his/her adult counterpart, may see something that s/he didn’t know was there.  A few small changes, and that poem could turn into something worthy of publication, if it isn’t already.

3. Look for prompts, and read, read, read!  Read the newspaper, visit the library, pick up trade magazines that are meaningful to you, go to book clubs, book fairs, author events, movies, concerts, anything!  There are so many topics out there to write about, and so many publications and websites devoted to each one. We tend not to think of our everyday experiences as something that warrants documentation, but you never know what might come of arguing with the campaign ad for your district’s incumbent representative, or experimenting with a new recipe or workout.  Writing prompts are everywhere. They can be found at your child’s PTA meeting, the jazz club you were dragged to on Friday night, or the display of NY Times best sellers at your local bookstore.  If something riles you, write it down.  Don’t ignore it!

 

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P – Poetry: My Personal Everest

Poetry

Here is a format with which I struggle deeply. Like any preteen girl, especially in the early 90s, I started my writing career with poetry. Most of it was lyrical, romantic in nature, and rhymed. Everything rhymed. Like most young girls, I thought that’s what poetry was – rhyming verse. It wasn’t until I took my first creative writing class my freshman year in high school, that I realized poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. As a matter of fact, some of my favorite poets abandon the rhyming concept all together – bless them! And when I too chose to abandon trying to find a word that was approximate enough to match with purple (which I never did, by the way), I found that poetry came so much more easily. It still wasn’t good mind you. Just easier.

I maintain that the important qualities of good poetry – a discernible message, brevity, clear imagery – are not my strongest qualities. However, following a painful admission to family, I wrote a poem, which I still believe is my best. Really, no matter what you think of this one, feel confident in my assertion that I plateaued and don’t ask for anymore.

 

If I were to say it would I yell it

out loud from the top of a hill

letting it bounce amongst the trees

and hit the ears of whoever got in its way?

 

Or would I whisper it quietly,

so only those closest could hear,

drawing in their heads to absorb

every word and feeling?

 

Would I speak plainly in words

so simple, so concise –

laying out the truth like a bridge

between me and the rest?

 

Or would I enigmatize it;

lay a stone here and another there

while the rapids of emotion and stoicism

smooth them into a treacherous path?

 

Or would I sit quietly

and look into your eyes

hear you say what I cannot and nod,

confirming what you already know.

 

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