[Special Guest Post!] Find Your Theme, Fix Your Life: Another Great Reason to Write

Find your theme, fix your life: Another great reason to write! (Special guest post with Jessica Lourey!) on Lucyflint.com

Hello, my lionhearted friends! And welcome to June!!

I don't know about you, but I am READY for a chilled-out summer and a slower pace.

Here on the blog, that translates to a broader focus. We're going to take this month to kinda zoom out from the day-to-day of a writer's life. And instead, we'll take a look at the big picture.

Because lately, I've caught myself pawing through my writing years, trying to get a grip on my own trajectory. And I've been asking myself: what happens to a writer across many projects? What kinds of seasons happen in a writer's creative life? 

And how do all my crazy projects and ideas mesh together, anyway? 

Lucky me: To look more at that last question, we have a special guest post today with Jessica Lourey.

Jessica Lourey

I am SO excited to introduce her to you: she's published fifteen books and she has something pretty awesome to say about the themes that show up in our work. I'm so glad we get to hear from her!

So check out her post below, and be sure to hit the comments to say hi to Jessica in person!

Then you'll definitely want check out her TEDx Talk (it blew me away), as well as her latest book.

(And whaaaaat, she also has a coloring book for writers? I know I won't be the only one scrambling to get my hands on that!)

Are you excited? Let's dive in. Here's Jessica:


My 15th book released a few weeks ago. It's called Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, and it walks readers through the lucrative and life-changing process of transforming life experiences into powerful fiction. 

I stumbled across this fact-to-fiction process by accident. The year was 2001. I had a three-year-old daughter and another on the way. I was teaching full-time and loving life.

Unexpectedly, inexplicably, I lost my husband.

I go into more detail in my TEDx Talk, but in general, here's what happened after his death:

I had to write to survive. I needed to transform my fear and pain into something coherent.

I wrote one book, then another. I'd written three whole novels and received 423 rejections before I landed my first agent. Fifteen books later, I'd give up wine, bread, cheese, and my left foot before I'd quit writing.

But even after all that passion and practice, if I'm honest with myself (and you), it's not exactly ancient history that the idea of drafting a novel felt like being dropped into central Africa's Congo Basin with a compass and a paperclip.

Naked. 

Rolled in honey.

With everyone whom I've ever wanted to impress watching via a live feed, gathered together in a room, eating popcorn and laughing so hard that they spewed schadenfreude all over the television. 

In fact, after I began my first novel I spent much of my writing time feeling overwhelmed at the scope of what I'd taken on and like a ridiculous fraud for even pretending I could write a book. I grew up in rural Minnesota, for crying in the night. Not only did I not know any writers, I hardly knew anyone who liked to read.

But there was personal treasure to be mined in the writing of a novel, I sensed it even then, rubies of resilience and emeralds of hope, and so I read what I could on the art of writing, sought out mentors, and read fiction like a chef trying to puzzle out the recipe by tasting the meal.

After five years of trial and error, I finally arrived at a method to reduce the time and stress of writing an experience-based novel while increasing the joy in the writing and the quality of the story.

More importantly, I discovered that writing fiction allows me to process much of my personal garbage so I can live healthier and happier.

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, by Jessica Lourey

You'll find that most if not all your best novel ideas are already growing, ready to be plucked, in the compost pile of your mind. (Your compost pile is that fertile, loamy, crap-filled place where you tossed your baggage in the hopes that it would decompose on its own. It doesn't. You have to stir it up and spread it out. It's just the way it works.)

All writers end up with a unifying theme across the books that they write, and that theme is the most indigestible nugget in their mental compost pile, the personal challenge they were put on this earth to overcome.

For example, I write about the poison and power of secrets. In every. Single. Book. (It took me eight novels to realize my recurring theme.)

I come by this meta theme honestly. I grew up in a house built on fear and secrets, liberally sprinkled with alcoholism, psychedelic drugs, swingers, and naked volleyball parties. I packed my first bong before I was ten and mixed a mean whiskey water by age twelve. To this day, I think my parents' worst fear was that I'd rebel and grow up to be a right-winger.

(My parents would be mortified if they knew I was writing about them or my childhood. This, along with an instilled allegiance to secrets, has kept me from writing nonfiction up until this moment. How am I finally breaking free of this, you ask? The advice to write as if your parents are dead seems too harsh. I'm instead writing as if they're illiterate.)

My experience of working through and spreading my mental compost pile via novel writing is not unique.

At a recent writing conference, a successful noir author confessed to me that all her books are about that pivotal, cathartic moment when a person tests his/her limits. John Irving's recurring theme seems to be younger men who are seduced or abused by older women. Parental abandonment appears in every one of Charles Dickens' books. Amy Tan tackles mother/daughter relationships in her writing.

You will find some version of your own experience-based theme in all the novels you write.

Don't worry if you don't know your life theme right now; discovering it is one of the many gifts of novel writing. 

Just know that wherever you are at in the writing process, you are doing the right thing. The good work. 

Write on, with love,

Jessica Lourey
www.jessicalourey.com


The above is partially excerpted from Jessica Lourey's Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, available May 1, 2017, wherever books are sold.

Jessica is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She also writes sword and sorcery fantasy, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, a coloring book for writers, and magical realism, literary fiction, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk.

Three Simple Steps Toward a Yummier, Happier, and Much More Sustainable Writing Life

Let's stop burning out. Let's stop running dry. Let's stop straining to hear our imaginations. You on board with all that? Perfect. It's all within reach. | lucyflint.com

One of the reasons why I blew off The Artist's Way ten years ago was because I was a college senior. And I was used to doing writing assignments. 

I could crank them out, no problem. 

The reason for doing all that writing came from outside of me. Sure, I'd decide the direction that I would take each assignment.

But let's face it: the words I wrote for my English major and writing minor weren't coming from a place of listening deeply to the quiet murmurings of my inner artist self.

Haha. Nope.

It was a lot more like me roaring through one paper after another. Taking my best option for a topic and running with it.

Which is probably why some of Julia Cameron's suggestions seemed pointless to me at the time.

But I've changed a lot since then. I've had enough time to run into problems. To realize that I can't always hear or see my imagination clearly. (Yikes.) 

And to burn out, wipe out, and fall flat on my face often enough that I had to ask: isn't there a better way to do this? With a bit less bruising, perhaps?

Which is why her suggestions now make total sense.

And actually, why they seem like the only sane option for those of us who want a healthy, sustainable, and even happy writing life.

Here are three of her strategies, each of which is fundamental in her book. They're simple, straightforward, and extremely rewarding.

Bonus: each of these are things that you can do right now. Today. They don't take a lot of prep, just a little thought and a little time. 

And they're so worth it. 

So let's dive in.

1. Write your three morning pages.

If you've been a writer for a while, you've probably heard this bit of advice again and again.

Julia Cameron stresses that all creatives (and not just writers!) should begin their day by writing three pages, longhand. She says that this is key to unlocking creativity.

So when I first read her book ten years ago, I took her up on it. More creativity? Sounds great. I found a gorgeous leather journal and a fountain pen. Darn it, I was going to do it right

I wrote three pages every morning for two weeks. I waited and waited for a sense of uplifted creativity, for brilliance, for my three pages to blossom into beautiful poems and metaphors.

Instead, I was disgusted. And deeply disappointed.

Because nothing "happened," nothing changed. 

And when I went back to reread my pages? YIKES. My words were all teeny tiny with the worst possible penmanship. And all I did was whine:

It's too early, what was I thinking, why did I stay up so late, I'm really dreading that thing that's happening tomorrow, why haven't I done this or that or the next thing, oh my gosh my eyes are so tired that they're actually crossing, why do three pages take so long to write ...

So I gave it up. And every time after that when I heard people saying we should all write three pages in the morning, I rolled my eyes. Or I'd say, "that just doesn't work for me."

So when I picked up her book again this spring, I laughed when I saw the three-morning-pages advice. Pfft. Sheesh. 

Then I read her explanations very carefully. ... And I kept laughing. But now I was laughing at myself. At how totally, completely, and hideously I had misunderstood the entire point of these pages before.

They are MEANT to be a whine. A rant.

They're meant to sound complainy, if complaints are what you wake up with.

They're meant to exorcise every ridiculous, self-centered, nit-picky thought from your head when you wake up.

Why?

So that you don't have to keep carrying that garbage around.

You get your whining done on paper. You do the pages, she says, to get them done. 

This isn't meant to be unfiltered brilliance. It's meant to be sheer brain dump.

So I tried them again. All through this crazy summer, whenever I could, I'd start my day with three pages. And if I couldn't do it first thing, I'd do it whenever I got to my desk. 

I ranted, I threw tantrums on paper, I complained. I tried to figure out my motivations behind things, and other people's motivations too. I got as nitpicky as I felt like I wanted to be. I let loose. 

And you know what?

I felt lighter. I left some of that stuff on the page and didn't keep thinking about it. The other stuff, well, I was at least a bit closer to processing it.

I didn't use a fancy-pants journal this time, either. I got a bunch of cheap little Greenroom journals from Target. Bright and fun and lightweight, they reminded me that this isn't meant to be a serious writing endeavor.  

I took to heart Cameron's caution that we writers will have the hardest time doing these pages. Because, she says, we'll try to write them. We'll try to make them pretty. We'll think too hard about what we say and how we say it.

Don't do that.

My pages went best when I reminded myself, this is a dump. That's all it is. A total thought dump. Stream of consciousness.

Keep your hand moving, keep the words coming. Don't think about it. Just let loose.

It's now become a key part of my writing day. And if I've missed it for a few days, I can feel all those thoughts running around and chittering in my head. I need to grab that notebook and just get all the clutter out.

Think of it like that: It's decluttering. Don't try to write them.

Just haul your thoughts and complaints and worries out of your head, and by doing that, make room for your writing.

2. Establish a practice of filling the well.

When my writing is going smoothly, this is a practice that I'm doing without even thinking about it, without really noticing. 

But when my writing is off the tracks, this practice has usually gone by the wayside, and, again, without my noticing. Or, if I do notice, I don't understand how important it is. How vital.

That's why, even though this can sound reeeeeally basic, really obvious, I'm still gonna explain it.

When Cameron talks about our need to fill the well (and restock the pond—the other metaphor she uses), she's talking about a way of nourishing our imaginations. 

As we do our work, we're drawing from this internal source, right? The imagery, character ideas, ways of interpreting our own memories, all that good stuff we talked about in Idea Camp

What she's pointing out is, if we don't take the precaution of pouring back into ourselves, we'll run out. We'll run dry. We'll get blocked.

As Cameron puts it:

Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain for the images we require. Our work dries up and we wonder why, "just when it was going so well." The truth is that work can dry up because it was going so well.

I don't know about you, but that perfectly describes something I've run into over, and over, and over again. 

Cameron describes two ways of restocking our imaginations. 

First, there's mystery. Play. Curiosity. Little changes in routine. Little sensory adventures of music and exploration and image. 

It doesn't have to be big and dramatic, she says. But we absolutely need to make time for it.

The other way to restock is by doing simple tasks. Even somewhat mindless things that don't require much from us.

And in those spaces, those tasks, our imaginations start to stretch a bit. Cameron says, "Filling the well needn't be all novelty. ... Any regular, repetitive action primes the well."

She includes tasks like driving. Going for a walk. Taking a shower. Cooking. Doing needlepoint. Gardening.

If you've ever scribbled away in a coloring book: That's perfect for this.

I think the real key is, these are the small little things that can feel like we're wasting time.

And it's crucial to realize: we're not wasting anything. We're making space and refilling essential parts of ourselves, in ways we might not totally understand.

Turns out, these little simple activities might be the very stuff that we can't afford to neglect.

3. Shower yourself in authentic luxuries. 

One of the essays that most amazed me in The Artist's Way comes right at the center of the program. It's simply titled "Luxury."

Ha, I thought. I don't do well with the idea of luxury. I'm basically broke, all the time, and while I'll pin all the pretty things on Pinterest, that doesn't mean I can afford any of them. 

So I basically thought this wouldn't apply to me, until I read the first sentence of the essay:

For those of us who have become artistically anorecticyearning to be creative and refusing to feed that hunger in ourselves so that we become more and more focused on our deprivationa little authentic luxury can go a long way. 

Artistically anorectic. That phrase and her definition of it just stopped me in my tracks. 

Does that describe me? I wrestled with it for a while, but then thought of all the times when I say no to play, to pleasure, to curiosity, to fun, to frivolity, all of which are apparently connected to a healthy artist life...

And okay. Yeah. Yes. The phrase applies.

So I gripped the book a bit tighter, and read everything she had to say about luxury.

By which, she doesn't mean Champagne and fur coats and private jets.

By which she means: little things that delight you. That delight the artist in you. That feel like pampering. 

Not the stuff that you necessarily feel like you should get, not the pricey stuff or things that are luxurious to other people but not maybe to you.

She's talking more like: fresh flowers. Or a toy you always wanted as a kid. Watercolor paints. 

Maybe it's a paperweight that makes you happy. A candle that smells like the beach. Sidewalk chalk or a paint-by-number kit. A kite.

When you think luxury, don't think "tons of money!"

Think instead of the thing that is so easy to deny giving yourself. What you might shrug off and say, "I don't need it."

Aim for what delights.

I'm still learning how to best do this. One night, my answer to "luxury" was to splash some (very cheap) white wine into a jam jar and slip outside. I sat on the back deck and watched the sky turn from twilight to night, catching sight of the neighborhood bat, noticing which stars showed up first.

It was such a simple moment. So ignorable. Skippable.

But it felt like total delight to me, like a luxurious thing to do.

So now I'm brainstorming: where else can I invite that kind of luxury in? 

To do some digging in this area, just start asking yourself: What delighted you as a kid? What kinds of things still sound fun or interesting or just cool?

What kind of natural view fills you up? Where would you love to spend more time? What hobbies did you used to love? What scents and sounds make you happy? 

If it seems small or silly or like something that of course you could just do without... then you're probably on the right track. 

After reading this book, I'm pretty convinced: if we want to be original in our work, but we deny the little things that make up who we are and what we love, then we're going to struggle.

And not just struggle to keep working, but to be as unique and brilliant as we're meant to be.

Not great news for our work, right?

So let's listen to our delights.

Let's fill notebooks with our morning brain dumps, and clear our systems for work.

Let's fill up our inner wells, our reservoirs of image and idea and metaphor.

And then let's celebrate the things that make us happy, the things that pamper us, even if they're small.

These three small practices just might be some of the most important pieces of our writing lives.

As Cameron writes, 

Creativity lives in paradox:
serious art is born from serious play.

So, my friends: Let's play.

You've Already Done Your Hardest Research (So Let's Turn It Into Idea Gold!)

You've done so much living and learning that your heart knows a TON. (With clear, vivid imagery attached, of course!) Let's get it all down, so it can fuel your most amazing ideas! (Idea Camp going strong y'all!) | lucyflint.com

"Write what you know" is probably one of the most clichéd sayings in writerdom.

I've heard a few different takes on it, as well as a thorough defense of its opposite: Write what you don't know. (Intriguing, right?)

Like any cliché, it can get a little irritating. (Yes, I've definitely rolled my eyes at it.)

But. When we really lean into "write what you know," it can be one of the most powerful and freeing guides to our writing.

Also? It can generate a bunch of quality ideas.

Which is why it totally belongs in Idea Camp.

Here is the truest true thing about my best work: it all is closely tied to what I know very well. 

Especially what I know well emotionally. The stuff that I've seen to be true in my life. What I know about people, about power, about place, about change.

About family. About loneliness. About myself.

THAT is the kind of what you know that drives really good ideas, and really compelling stories.

Writing what we don't know is magnificent when it comes to new settings, fantastical beings, and villainy. 

But as writers (and observers! and artists!), part of our job description is to truthfully share the things that we know the best.

Meaning: What our hearts know.

When I encounter that kind of knowing in a novel, it rings in my head and heart long after I finish reading. You know the feeling? 

When another writer has taken the time to show exactly what it looks like: to be here, to be alive. To feel small, to be alone, to try hard. To get bruised and then to get up again. To fight for what matters. 

THOSE are the stories we need. And that's what it means (to me, at least) to write what you know.

Which means some of the best stuff that you will write comes straight out of your own past. 

The strongest, brightest, strangest, sharpest memories.

The places and people and relationships and circumstances that you knew most intimately. 

That is what will drive your material. And that is going to lead to your best, clearest writing.

Mmmmmmm!! I'm excited.

Let's hear from two helpful guides before we dive in.

First, Heather Sellers makes a fantastic point in Chapter After Chapter, when she talks about the difference between ideas and images:

When most writers try to write down their ideas for stories, they usually only capture a tiny bit of the work from a faraway, not creative place in their minds. ...
   Do not save up ideas. Do not write about the work from a distance. Instead of writing notes about an idea like
story about babysitter, write: Dana said, "You didn't pay me last time, either, Heather." And she smacked that gum which seemed to be a weird striped gum, green and purple, both. 
   Write down what you hear. Write down what you see. ...
   Transition out of ideas and into
images. You will be amazed at the results you get when you start doing this. 

Let me just say: she is totally right about that.

It is so tempting to leave our ideas in those distant terms. "Write about my second grade teacher. Write about recess in sixth grade. Write about my friend-who-wasn't-a-friend in high school." 

But for Idea Camp, we're aiming at appealing, useable concepts with velocity. 

Velocity shows up only when we're working in images. In sounds, smells, textures. In the emotions, in exactly how they feel. 

So, for this list we're about to make, paint your images as richly as you can. 

What's going onto the list? Memories. 

James Scott Bell talks about how this kind of memory list can work. This is from Plot & Structure (awesome book, by the way!): 

Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his subconscious. These became fodder for his stories. 
   Start your own list. Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your own past. ...
   Each of these is a germ of a possible story or novel. They resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.

(How much do I love the idea of Ray Bradbury's list of nouns?? Ahhhh. So much.) 

I love Bell's point: that these memories have a natural resonance.

Also, the things that our hearts have learned are tied to real, factual moments: Nouns. Verbs. Images. 

The concrete stuff that we'll communicate in our writing.

So today, we're going to start our Memory List. You can start with a bunch of nouns, if you like Bradbury's approach, and see what comes up. 

Or—because I like a good question to chew on—check out my list of prompts below.

Think through your past with each question. And if that feels totally overwhelming (it does for me!), try scanning  your history in seven-year chunks. Age 0-7. Then 8-14. 15-21. And so on. 

Try to answer each question with as much imagery as you can. Let your heart talk.

... But before we make our lists, one more quick thing. This is meant to be a list of things that you feel willing to write about. This isn't about the stories and memories that we're not actually ready to write about.

So if there are dark, sad, terrible truths in your past that you don't feel ready to share, then they don't belong on this list. Okay? Keep processing, keep healing. You don't have to write about those yet.

This list is truly just for the things that you're ready to bring out in stories. (Also, if this is you, then I wish I could give you a big hug. Truly.)

Ready? Grab your pen and paper, grab a fresh document on your computer, and let's dive in!

For each span of years, think about what stands out the most in your memory. Especially: 

  • What places meant a lot to you? Where did you live? Where did you visit? Where else did you go: school, church, camp, friends' houses, family, vacations... Describe them with as much imagery as you can remember. The sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • What were you most afraid of during these years? (Again, press for the images, not just the ideas...)
  • What embarrassments do you remember?
  • What most delighted you? 
  • What happened on the "happiest day of your life" in this time period? What made it a great day? What were the highlights? Capture the sensory details of that kind of day.
  • What achievements did you have? What are you still proud of? 
  • How did you like to spend your time? What hobbies, what activities? 
  • Which people and which relationships were the most important to you (in good ways or bad ways)? Who was helpful? Who, um, wasn't? What specific memories do you have about these people? 
  • If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be, and why? What would happen next?
  • What haunts you from this time? And what do you still feel happy about? 
  • What else do you remember? What else won't leave you alone? Nothing is too small of a detail.

What I love about this list is that we've already done the emotional research.

This is the stuff we know! We've already done the hard work of learning it and living it. It's time to turn those experiences into vivid scenes, characters that resonate, high moments in our novels.

What I love about using our memories for ideas is how versatile they are.

They can be the tiniest ideas that we sprinkle into our stories—the little things we add to make the scene feel more real, vivid, and lived in. 

Or they can be the whole point of the novel itself. The theme. The main characters. The villain. The setting. The conflict.

That's why no memory is too big, too small, too localized, or too weird. (I love the too weird ones!!)

After you've taken your first run at this list, give yourself a bit of a break—a few hours, a few days—and then read it through and add more to it. 

Hopefully you'll see situations, characters, circumstances, details, moments, and settings that are just begging to be used.

Maybe you'll write them in clear, memoir-esque detail.

Or you'll use your history, but totally transformed, turned inside out and backwards. Reinvented. Fantastical. The funhouse-mirror version of your past. 

This is ridiculously fun to do, by the way.

When I think of ways to switch up my past and use it in a story, I get the most incredible glee. It's still one of the best parts of being a writer, being able to use (redeem, vindicate) your past.

Okay. Want to get even more crazy? YES YOU DO and so do I.

Get out your two lists from the last post: your Major Interests List and your Curiosity List

Let's have some fun. Choose an item from two of the lists, and mash 'em up in your mind. Or pick an item from all three! 

Do a little mix-and-match action, and just see what starts to come up. Try to imagine it as fully as possible: full images, full senses. 

Jot down notes, and chase anything that quickens your heart. 

Like: how much do I love the mash-up of my stern, much-wrinkled second grade teacher, who was always writing my name up on the board for talking (memory list), plus the circus (curiosity list)?

Stir in a bit of how cooking and sharing meals bring us together (major interests list), and suddenly I have some AMAZING images, unusual characters, and hilarious conflicts brewing in my mind!

This is the fun part! Let yourself loose, and see what connections you can make between the three lists.

Maybe there's your next novel in there. Or a whole series.

Oooooh.

Happy idea finding!


Want to do a little more digging into how you're already an original, full of ideas? (Because you totally are!) Check out these two posts: they're right up your alley! How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter and Stop Dodging Your Best Work (Celebrate Where You've Been)