Dear Writer: Keep Learning

I was recently in an online discussion concerning a new presenter in the MasterClass series. There were several people who were excited about the new presenter, but wondered if the curriculum they would have access too would be too fundamental for their current level. It’s a valid question, in particular when it comes to a class that will require a $90.00 commitment.

About the same time, I attended a training where a psychology professor talked about progression, improvement and learning. He discussed three areas that have to work in harmony with each other for learning to really have an impact: cognitive, behavioral, and affective. While I could try and explain what each of those mean, it is easier to simply ask the questions he asked us:

  • What do I know about ________?
  • What do I do about ________?
  • How do I feel about ________?

As this is a post about writing, let’s break it down with some writing ideas. Ask the same three questions and substitute one of the following:

  • Character development
  • A particular character (especially if feedback indicates that character is weak)
  • Pacing
  • Sentence structure
  • Setting/World Building
  • Internal Arcs
  • Emotional Arcs
  • Fill in the blank with the ominous part of writing that you love to hate.

Doing this practice will give us a baseline of things to consider. I don’t recommend focusing on this too deeply while in the midst of drafting – deep analysis and intentional creation can make a brain go nuts. But, if you are an outliner, this kind of practice could work well before starting. If you lean more in the write as I go, figure it out later camp, this is the kind of consideration that works well before launching into an edit.

And in the interim? Well, ask the next series of questions.

  • What do I want to know about ________?
  • What do I want to do about ________?
  • How do I want to feel about _______?

The nature of some of these questions may also take you into the authorial parts of being a writer accompanying the ideas about craft. In addition to the writing ideas listed above, consider the following:

  • Book swag
  • Marketing
  • Building an author website
  • Pitching a conference class/panel
  • Entering contests
  • Writing a synopsis/pitch/query letter/blurb
  • Guest posting
  • Book events

At this point, most writers are able to break down where they are strong and where they need some help. Essentially, we are able to place our knowledge and awareness on various places within the four stages of developing a skill.

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(Image credit: Noel Burch & GWS Media graphic redesign.)

And this brings me back to the original paragraph in this post. Are we ever at the point where taking a class wherein basic writing skills are taught wouldn’t be beneficial? Well, that depends on individual answers to the following questions:

  • Relative to what I knew about ________, what do I know now?
  • Relative to what I was doing, how do I do/create/engage with ______________ now?
  • Relative to what I felt about __________, how do I feel now?

Sometimes, the value of taking a class that might be basic presents a new way to think about something that has alluded us for a while. And sometimes, the value of taking a class that might be basic is that we get to really see how we have grown. Words on the page is great for lots of things, but taking time to reflect and understand what we have learned needs to have it’s place as well.

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There are several ways that writers can continue to learn, whether through reading blogs like this one, books about craft and creativity, online courses like MasterClass, or workshops. The key is to keep learning and to continue reaching.

Because, as we have heard, just because a writer figures out how to write one book doesn’t mean the knowledge transfers seamlessly to subsequent efforts.

What have you done to continue to grow as a writer? How do you like to recognize your growth? 

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Tasha Headshot Color

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Exploring Your Writing Identity

Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I define myself as a writer?

We all ask ourselves these questions from time to time. Self-reflection is inevitable when we face frequent rejections and pour so much of our hearts onto the page for the sake of art. Our personal and creative identities are irrevocably linked.

Your voice is unique. Think of the countless influences and experiences that have shaped you. You are a complex, glorious being made up of every hardship, heartbreak, disappointment, desire, joy, and triumph you’ve ever known.

Your distinct writing identity stems from an endless list of factors: where you grew up, your socioeconomic status, family dynamics, belief system, schools, friends, jobs, favorite books–even the TV shows and movies you enjoy.

Are you writing the kind of books you want to write? How about the ones you have to write? Perhaps there is a certain type of book you longed for growing up, one you wished someone had written that spoke to your dearest hopes, your deepest fears.

Writing Identity TToF

If you find yourself examining where you are in your writing journey and where you want to go from here, try these five simple questions:

  1. What are your strengths as a writer?
  2. What genre do you enjoy writing (and reading) the most?
  3. What do you want to say to potential readers?
  4. What are your long-term writing goals?
  5. How would you like to grow or change as a writer?

My Happy Place is writing for middle grade readers, preferably with healthy doses of adventure, humor, and the paranormal. Moving backward through time I can clearly pinpoint several touchstones on the path that led to this point: the children’s lit class in college; the bleak novels we were force-fed in high school English; the stacks of ghost stories I devoured as a young teen; the steady diet of earnest, cheesy 1980s TV shows I adored as a kid.

I used to believe that my Happy Place was static and unchanging. But as I grow older, as I read more widely and interact with other writers, as we as a nation wrestle with our values and face our shortcomings in the struggle for social justice, I realize that my writing identity is still evolving.

As writers we owe it to ourselves and our readers to learn, to soul search, to expand our minds and hearts.

Consider writing something outside of your usual comfort zone. Read something completely new and unfamiliar. Seek out news from a wide range of reliable sources. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Plan a trip or a simple change of scenery. Wander through a new neighborhood. Observe people in new places. Engage with them. Hear what they have to say.

You will become not only a better writer but a better person, more qualified to explore, understand, and represent the human condition. You will learn to write from a place not just of sympathy but of empathy. You will speak not from secondhand knowledge but from firsthand experience.

I firmly believe that you should embrace what you feel called to write—compelled to write—without fear of judgment that your work isn’t important. When you write from a place of authenticity and a well-examined life, there will always be an audience for what you have to say.

_______________________________

 

Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Why Writers Should Embrace Struggles

I was recently engaged in an online conversation where writers were talking about their editing process. The initial poster said something along the lines of, “The way I edited my previous book isn’t working for this one.”  An author in this group whose 3rd book comes out later this year said, “I’m editing my fourth book right now, and none of them have been the same.”

I’ve heard more than one writer mention that they thought they knew what they were doing until they started the next book. And I’ve heard many people in response to such statements express how disheartening that is.

But I bet, if we are willing to really take a look at why we are writing and what we want to write, it is exactly the thing that needs to happen.

Let me explain.

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When I was growing up, there was an author whose work I loved. I discovered this writer after several works had been released, so I was able for some time to jump from book to book, marveling at character development and plot and twists and setting. For a long LONG time, the work of this author made me consider working in a career similar to what many of the characters did.

Then, the author started becoming affiliated with lots of books.

LOTS.

Like too many for one person to possibly write and write well.

At first, I decided to just stop buying the books that featured this author with someone else, to only read new solo creations, but they’d all become formulaic. Instead of clinging to every word and wondering what was going to happen next to the characters, I skimmed pages, predicting what would happen next and then nodding with dissatisfaction when I was right.

That author stopped struggling through new ideas, new characters, new plots and, as far as I was concerned, had started writing for a paycheck. Now, of course all of us would like to make money from our writing, but it felt overwhelmingly like the author had checked out, was interested only in the money, and, I suspected, didn’t even read what was being associated with their name.

Essentially, this author stopped learning.

When it comes to writing, there are more things to learn than mechanical and grammatical nuances. There is a necessity to look at what people are experiencing and to hone in on what made them experience that. And there is a necessity for us to push beyond the formulaic in order to really learn about ourselves, our characters, our craft, our readers.

I recently had the chance to engage with and then listen to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience as USC where she currently conducts research at the Brain and Creativity Institute. In our smaller discussion, she said,

“Our beliefs and our habits are both emotional and cognitive. To rework, you have to relive, to be willing to experience again in a different way. The onus is on the person to be willing to engage again, but differently, acknowledging that evidence will be filtered through emotional filters.”

If we don’t struggle, if we can simply crank out story after story without a range of emotions from our process, we essentially stop progressing. We absolutely need to have the cognitive awareness of fundamentals of communication, but to convey what I suspect many of us are trying to convey, we DO have to experience it again and again BUT DIFFERENT. The characters, the setting, the plot are all unique to their particular book – even in a series – and will feel and act and need to be sculpted in a way that is unique to them. But by doing this, we as the creators, and our prospective readers, all have the opportunity to eventually feel satisfied.

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

 

On Learning

I recently had the opportunity to become acquainted with the work of physicist Marcelo Gleisler. Last year, he released the book The Island of Knowledge. Though I haven’t read the book yet, I was introduced some of the concepts lately, one that even three weeks after hearing it, I can’t stop thinking about.

This quote from his interview with NPR gives a little bit of an insight as to why:

“Naively, we would expect that the more we know of the world,  the closer we come to some sort of final destination, which some call a theory of everything and others the ultimate nature of reality. However holding on to our metaphor, we see that as the island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance — the boundary between the known and the unknown.”

I have been actively engaged in learning all that I can about writing for about five years now. When I go to writer’s conferences, I packed myself into intensives, classes on craft, read lots of books about artist’s life and craft, and read blogs and blogs and blogs. And I have to admit, that there are times when I automatically dismiss a class because I have thought I knew everything that could be taught in that particular session.

But if you go back to that quote, you will see the flaw in my thinking. A more common idiom might be, “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.”

It is easy, when we are first working into a new field, to know that we need to keep learning, to know that we need to keep studying. But there is a tendency to, if I may be so bold to say, to develop a sense of arrogance regarding our knowledge. I know there are times when I will skip over reading a certain blog or book because I’m not sure I can learn anything new. And I think that I can disregard reading about how to write certain elements because those particular plot points probably won’t end up in my story.

Then there are the other kind of people, those who hear this comparison and respond with the tendency to decrease their knowledge so that they can prevent the growth of ignorance. But that isn’t the way to success: success can only come from the growth of our island, and from understanding that we will still, and always, need to continue learning. If we don’t, we risk allowing stubbornness to leave us stagnant.

So the next time you see someone recommend a craft book, at least take a look inside. Stretch your island a little bit into the ocean of the unknown.
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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and lives in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Mindful Writing: A Lesson from the Art of Mindful Learning

As part of my academic life, I recently attended a wonderful presentation about “Mindful Learning.” My initial expectation was that this would be another talk about how to teach, primarily centered on pedagogy and research methods. But as the speaker began his discussion, I was delighted. What he spoke about had great significance to teaching, but also on how to live your life. And yes, on how to write.

In writing, mindfulness is key.

If you’re interested in a full discourse on mindful learning, the presenter gave us some great resources about the topic, including the highly recommended book called Mindful Learning by Drs. Craig Hassed and Richard Chambers. As a sampling, here are three of the bigger points that I took away from his presentation on mindful learning:

Mindful learning is a way to increase attention to and engagement with our surroundings.  Maybe it’s simply by paying attention to the scenery during your drive into work or to the feel of the steam on your face when you take that first sip of tea in the morning. By using our full senses to engage with our surroundings, we immerse ourselves in the experience, and those experiences become much more memorable.

Mindful learning can greatly reduce stress by blocking out stimuli that competes for our attention. In today’s socialized structure, our attentions are drawn to many competing activities that draw from our focus. Developing personal strategies for managing those stimuli and potential sources of distraction is essential.

Mindful learning is a way to get past surface understanding and ultimately achieve deep understanding. True mindfulness means going beyond what you “need to know.” Being able to make connections and apply what you know to real-world situations requires experience, exposure, and practice. Above all, keep practicing!

As the presenter went on, he asked us whether anyone could think of ways in which we already apply mindfulness in our lives. Ooh, Me Me! I immediately thought of all of the connections to writing, but I did not actually raise my hand and jump up and down in my seat, as I wanted to sit and reflect upon these things some more. I did approach the presenter after his talk to share my thoughts, and he enthusiastically agreed that writing allows for an excellent chance to be mindful.

My thoughts about mindfulness and writing.

Mindful writing is a way to increase awareness and engagement with your storyWriting mindfully means allowing yourself to sink deeply into a character’s mind so that you truly understand their needs, hopes, fears, and motivations. To do your characters justice, you must tap into their voices and tell their story in a way that makes your reader care. I’ve personally found that meditation exercises or engaging in a directed visualization exercise for writers can help access various aspects of my story, whether it be for world-building, characterization, dialogue, or plotting. 

Mindful writing can greatly reduce pressure by blocking out stimuli that competes for our attention.   Mindfulness requires focus. What’s that, you say? Avoiding distraction is impossible due to the many demands which may or may not involve writing with children underfoot or writing while on-the-go? Take baby steps, my friends. Maybe blocking out stimuli may start turning off your Wi-fi or stepping away from social media. Or if that’s too frightening of a prospect, limiting yourself to a time period at the end of the day to catch up on your social networks. Or making sure you have your headphones to connect to your characters via a writing playlist. Or escaping to a cabin in the mountains. (Hey, anything is possible, right? Writing retreats are wonderful. Here’s a post on how to plan a dreamy one.)

Mindful writing is a way to get past surface understanding and ultimately achieve deep understanding with your craft. Gaining a deeper understanding of the writing process means seeking new ways to immerse yourself in the craft. A good critique group can teach you how to critically and constructively evaluate writing (and I have learned much about writing by reading the stories produced by my talented group). Reading just the right book about craft can light the fire under you if you happen to be low in motivation or inspiration. Attending writing conferences can expose you to new techniques, experiences, and opportunities to interact with other writers. ABOVE ALL, KEEP WRITING!

What are the ways that you have been mindful with your writing?
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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her at www.helenboswell.com.