Writing Personal Essays…

I just came across this page on a website that publishes women’s stories. The editor shares some thoughts about what makes a kicking personal essay and some examples to look at.

http://www.herstoriesproject.com/2014/06/write-personal-essay-will-dazzle-editor/

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Writing and Mindfulness–and Some Thoughts about Journaling

Mindfulness is an awareness of our mental states that is often cultivated with a meditation practice. Many writers are also meditators. What might you gain from cultivating a practice of mindfulness that will help you with writing?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is more than just tuning into mental states and emotional awareness; it is cultivating the habits of mind that keep us detached and objective so that we don’t get so swept up in our thoughts and feelings that we act on them, instead of acting deliberately. Mindfulness helps us to control impulses because we learn to simply watch desires and not act on them immediately. Mindfulness is a way of creating space in our lives so that we can stop and take stock. It helps to keep us grounded, which means we stay true to who we are—meaning true to our integrity, true to our vision, true to our core self.

Depiction of the Buddha meditating. Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY, Feb 2016.  Photo copyright Alyssa Colton

Depiction of the Buddha meditating. Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY.

The potential pitfalls of journaling

In some ways, writing is a form of mindfulness, especially when journaling. Journaling is often touted as having therapeutic value, and it can do this work, but I think we also have be aware of how we are using journaling and be careful that it is not having the opposite effect of what’s intended. Are we using journaling as a way of getting obsessed with a specific story we are telling? Are we using it simply to vent? And if so, by writing it down, are we giving it *more* power because it then seems more legitimate? Are we actually taking a step back and creating that space when we journal? I know that at one time I used journaling a lot to vent, but rarely felt better afterwards. Often I felt worse and found myself getting even more caught up in the story I was telling. Journaling does not necessarily give us a step back—in fact, it may do the opposite, because it is a way of becoming *attached* to our thoughts. The purpose of mindfulness, on the other hand, is to become detached from our thoughts.

So if we journal in order to feel better, we must be sure that we are using it as a way of letting go and not hanging on. We also must use it as a way of moving forward and giving voice to other perspectives that might help us shift into new knowledge and understanding. Journals can be great, non-judgmental listeners—but if we are judging ourselves as we write, we totally negate this effect.

For me, writing fiction is often more therapeutic than journaling, mostly because it gives me a way to become detached from the stories I’m telling. It’s an escape, yes, but it’s a way of distracting my mind, of becoming totally absorbed in something that’s not about my ego. I enter that “zone” which is inherently grounding, because I’m giving myself over to something higher, to something powerful, something almost mysterious. This does not mean that I don’t journal—though I journal a lot less than I used to. I still use my journal to take notes, to document, to explore, to process and to sift. However, I’ve stopped journaling when I’m in the heat of the moment, because I find that it counteracts the process of detachment. Writing things down makes it even more real, more legitimate–more permanent. Instead, as much as I can, I try to remind myself that the heat of feeling is temporary, and that I  just need to breathe and allow my feelings to flow through. Once I’ve gotten over those peaks and valleys, I can use writing as a way of making sense of my reactions and exploring what’s underlying them.

Of course, I can see journaling as venting could be helpful as a way of “getting out” those more powerful feelings—as long as you don’t become attached to them. You might want to burn or otherwise destroy any writing like this you do to prevent those feelings from becoming a story you tell that’s not serving you. Just be careful of becoming too attached to what you’ve written. All good writers know that you have to be able to let go of your words.

Using journaling to process and understand

Journaling can be a powerful way of uncovering *why* things bother you the way that they do. Asking questions of yourself can help you dialogue and uncover some of that difficult, messy stuff that can help you understand and see things more clearly. So, for example, when a friend makes an offhand, condescending comment that leaves you feeling angry or upset, you might start interrogating why and realize that it brings up feelings of inadequacy that are actually rooted in memories of being called stupid by your older brother. Or you might try to imagine what your friend may have been experiencing at the time in order to encourage yourself to have more empathy. Writing, then, can help you peel off layers of thoughts and memories and figure out how they are affecting you unconsciously.
Mindfulness to cultivate sensory awareness (and enrich your writing)

Cultivating mindfulness can also directly enrich your writing skills and technique. Writing requires awareness and observation, skills that  meditation can help us hone. When I teach writing classes, I often lead students on a meditation where I ask them to imagine a place and to bring the place alive as much as possible through imagining its visual details, its smells, its sounds, the way it feels and even the way it tastes. So, for example, the place might be a grassy knoll by a stream. The meditator would then summon up the babbling of the stream, the coolness of water on her fingers, the taste of the water, and the feeling of the breeze on his face. If the weather allows, I take students outside and ask them to notice things they’d never noticed before on the campus as well as something for each of the senses. Students always– *always*– notice something they’d never noticed before, whether it’s a small garden, a statue, a smell they might not have tuned in to before, or the sounds of cars on the street.

Since writing is built on sensory details to create images and worlds, cultivating an awareness of our environment and our senses is one of the primary jobs of the writer. Slowing down and paying attention—skills we often do not get enough opportunity to cultivate—are crucial activities for writers. It also puts us into a place where we can write more easily, and even want to write more. Distraction is one of the enemies of writing, or any artistic production, and cultivating mindfulness helps us resist all the distractions of our modern life.

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Suggested Activities for Cultivating Mindfulness

  • Start a meditation practice. I suggest starting with short, guided meditations. Know that nobody can be a perfect meditator. Your mind will wander. It’s okay—don’t judge—just gently pull it back when you notice it wandering. Some days it’s easier than others. I find it easier to meditate with gentle music and nature sounds, because it helps to block out distractions, but some people prefer quiet.

    *Some guided meditations to get you started (you might also search on YouTube for these or other meditations)

The Albany Peace Project

The Honest Guys (if you like British accents, you’ll love these)

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health

Meditation Relax Club

  •  Go for a walk and be present in your environment. Notice everything. Any time your mind wanders to something not in your immediate environment, gently pull it back.
  •  Go somewhere and write out everything you see, hear, smell, taste, feel.
  •  When you eat, tune into the taste and texture. Go slow.
  •  Stop judging. Let yourself just write. The suspension of judgment is an element of mindfulness that everyone can benefit from.
  •  Read writers who connect meditation, mindfulness, and writing. Natalie Goldberg has several books that are great for this—start with her classic Writing Down the Bones.

    Click here for more of my recommendations for books on writing.

Photos copyright 2016 Alyssa Colton. Permission is granted for their use as long as a link to this page is provided.

New Website Home

I have a new website! You can find it here. Please stop by and let me know what you think!

While this WordPress site will remain my blog, the website is my “home” profile. It is mainly there so people can find me in my professional capacity as a freelance writer and editor and find out a little bit more about me. I am available for new clients and projects, so if you or anyone you know is in need of a writer or editor for anything, please let me know!

I work with aspiring writers to help polish manuscripts; with students and scholars to edit and get manuscripts ready for degree submission or publication;  and with entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits for any writing, editing and social media needs.

Please also feel free to email me at alyssabcolton@gmail.com.

 

In defense of “they”

What is all the fuss about “they”?

The Washington Post reported recently that the American Dialect Society announced that “they” was the “Word of the Year” because of its growing acceptability as a pronoun to replace the cumbersome “he/she” (and, by extension, “their” replacing “his/her”). The Washington Post notes that it adopted the use of “they” in their style guide in 2015, though recommends generally trying to avoid it.

Grammar Girl also recently did a podcast about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in response and generally agrees with this stance. 

This is an issue I found myself discussing with my students from time to time in composition classes and this is what I tell them:

More and more, the use of “they” in this way is gaining ground and acceptability, though most experts recommend that you generally try to avoid it. In most cases, you can avoid the “pronoun problem” by rewriting the sentence.

What is the pronoun problem? It is the problem of how to navigate a situation where the gender is unknown, or he/she otherwise won’t fit (as in recent discourses around transgender people). A while ago, it was common to use “he” as a generic pronoun, as in the sentence:

Every student must bring his pencil.

With the rise of consciousness of how women and girls are erased in language, most writers avoid this. The above sentence is easily fixed by using “a” instead of his (and thus avoiding the awkward “his/her”).

Using “they” would look something like this: “Every student must bring their pencil.” Of course, again, this is easily corrected: “All students must bring their pencils.” Still, there are times when it may be awkward to reword sentences to avoid his/her or he/she, and this is where the plural pronoun really comes in handy.

I generally find “they” acceptable in my writing classes, explaining that it has become widely used *and* that the meaning is usually clear. That is my golden rule: is it clear? Because good writing is supposed to be clear, not opaque. And as Zinsser reminds us, more clutter=less clear. To my mind, “they,” when used as a singular pronoun, is almost always clear. Since we are talking generics, the singular/plural issue is often irrelevant.

There are still people who will pooh-pooh the use of “they” in this way. Grammar Girl says to use it if you are feeling “reckless and bold”– and if your style guide and editor allows it! (So much for reckless and bold.) As for me, I say, Is it clear? Yes? Then go for it.

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On the passing of a rock and roll legend

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On the evening of the day that I—and the world—learned the news of David Bowie’s death, my 15-year-old daughter put on her earbuds, plugged herself into her IPhone, and proceeded to wash the dishes. She was off into her own world, as I was off in mine at that age, surrounding myself with music, creating an invisible shield around me. Of all the musicians I listened to in that self-imposed bubble, it is David Bowie’s that comes most readily to mind. I can recall so clearly his music—over anyone else’s—as that which filled my head at those times when I wanted to draw inward, to shut out everything around me, and enter my very own world.

I started listening to him as a teenager. At first, I didn’t really care for him—I think this was about the time of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance”—but then I was exposed to his older stuff, and became an unabashed fan. Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Heroes. Young Americans. Changes. These are the songs I listened to either on stereo or on headphones attached to a Walkman, the ‘80s precursor to the IPod. The rich combination of story, lyrics, and sound that characterizes Bowie songs is rarely found in other artists—or at least not ones that I liked–and when I listened to his music, I entered a world that completely engrossed me.

I loved how Bowie’s songs painted pictures and told stories, yet were imbued with feeling that only music can bring to them, like in “Changes” when Bowie croons “they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” This line is exactly the kind of moment in his music that describes the “crackpot compassion” that Rob Sheffield wrote of in a recent tribute. This line took on even more meaning as it was used as an epigraph to one of the prime movies of my generation, “The Breakfast Club.” And then there’s “Ground control to Major Tom…. And may God’s love be with you….”   And you hear the voice fade out and can see the rocket just taking off. I can hear those lines so clearly in my head, precisely the way they are sung in that arching epiphany of voice…who doesn’t get chills from that?

Bowie may have been of my parents’ generation (having been born just a few years later than them), but he remained through his music like an older brother who was looking out for those of us who felt so lost and confused in the world, trying desperately to find our bearings. This comes through no clearer than in “Rock and Roll Suicide” when he belts out, “You’re not alone, and you’re wonderful.”

And I suppose the brilliance of his music is not, cannot, be all of him, as no album can be, but his unfailing dedication to his own self-reinvention speaks volumes to who he was as an artist. It is significant, at least to me, that he’s the only musician whose biography I’ve read. As I came to know Bowie, I came to know myself and my place in the world and I’m sure this was just another layer that built on my passion and dedication to being a storyteller, for creating my own worlds of what I hope might also exemplify a kind of “crackpot compassion.”

Thank you, David Bowie.

 

Proofreading the Resume

When it comes to resumes and other job-search materials, perfection is your goal. This article provides some great tips for catching errors on your portfolio materials. This advice also works well for proofing any work you do.

editor

Remember that a professional editor/writer can help you, too! Please contact me if you or anyone you know would like expert assistance in writing or editing. alyssabcolton@gmail.com

Writing and Finishing a Novel: Getting through NaNoWriMo (or any big project)

novels

Someone asked me recently about my novel and then asked how I actually finished it. “I just kept working at it,” I said. It sounds glib but, yes, it’s as simple as that. “Bird by bird,” Anne Lamott says. Like anything else that you want to get done, you’ve just got to keep doing it.

I love the idea of National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), though I have not actually done it. I have, however, completed drafts of three novels on my own, one of which has been revised extensively. The one time I attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo I stopped, mostly because I realized I needed to do a lot more research for the historical novel I was preparing to write and wasn’t really ready to sit down and write out a draft of it. I had happened upon the concept by chance too late in the game; it is something that at least in this case, needed some pre-planning.

I do like the idea of giving focused, concentrated energy and attention to a project. I think to some extent, it’s what one needs to do, and there’s good reason why one of the guidelines of NaNoWriMo is to use this time to write an initial draft of the novel. Many writers report that their first drafts are written quickly, in passion and heat. The best way to keep going is to not let yourself get tripped up by your own internal editor (see my previous post on this) or stop and give in to misgivings and doubts. Just put all that aside. Dedicating a certain amount of time every day for a month can be very productive…and can also be the good foundation for a habit of writing, which for a long-term project, is a necessity.

Here’s some advice for getting through this month.

  1. Give yourself permission. Claim your time and space to write, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day.
  2. Make that time a priority, but also find a time where there won’t be other claims on your time. This is why so many writers who have other obligations (family, teaching, etc) write first thing in the morning or late at night.
  3. Don’t censor or edit yourself. Just keep going. If you get stuck, use freewriting, or perhaps do some research. Even if you have misgivings about where the writing is taking you, it might illuminate something for you about your story, characters, or themes. At the very least, it’s practice. You also might read something that somehow feeds your mind in your non-writing time to be helpful.
  4. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is the opportunity for accountability—sharing how many words you’ve written and your struggles. The idea is not to be a struggle but to have motivation. Knowing you have to share what you’ve done can, for many people, be a powerful motivating force.
  5. Turn off the noise. Don’t get too wrapped up in conversations, discussions, news, gossip, etc. Don’t open social media. Personally, I find music that isn’t too distracting (usually classical) is a way of shutting out the rest of the world and putting me into the mindset for *working.*
  6. Keep a writing journal. This can be just a way to note down what you did (how many words or pages), where you stopped, and any ideas you have about what you need to do in your next writing session. For example, I might note down an idea I have for a conversation or event, something I want to remember to research, or something I want to go back over again. That way, when you sit down to write, you’ll have something to do. This can be another way to impose accountability when a more public process isn’t available or if that isn’t attractive to you. There is something satisfying about writing down what you accomplished.
  7. Live in the moment. Writers enjoy the process of writing. It puts us in touch with those things that are most precious to us, helps us to explore our minds and indulge in the creative. For many—like myself—writing is as necessary as regular exercise, healthy meals, or a good night’s sleep. It is nourishment; it is getting in touch with our child-self; it is expressing hope and engaging in the creative process of bringing something new to life. Enjoy it.

For more information about NaNoWriMo, including “pep talks,” forums, and inspirational tweets, check out nanowrimo.org.