Are You Ready To Amaze Yourself? (Exploring Possibilities and Loving Writing. ... You Know. The Usual.)

These three prompts are gonna knock us out of any little ruts we've been in.

Instead, we'll practice being writers who see dazzling possibilities in the information we read, the places we go, and the projects we dream up.

It's going to be a lovely ride... 

Get your goggles on and let's get started!

We're investigating three simple ways to strike out in new directions with our imaginations and our words. Loving your writing life through new possibilities? Heck yes. Join us over at

February 22: Be a sleuth.

I know, I know. I've already gone on record about my massive love affair with the reference section, and how it's like taking superpower pills for my imagination.

But it is so freaking worth it to make this a regular part of our writing lives!

So just go with me on this.

TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Pick up a reference book you don't normally grab.

Maybe something medical, or a botany index. A random chunk of the encyclopedia, or one of the incredible hyper-specific volumes in the reference section of your local library. 

Flip through it for fifteen minutes. And just write down everything that delights you.

This isn't RESEARCH. This isn't looking for FACTS.

This is about being exposed to and charmed by words and phrases and sentences that you aren't around all the time.

This is about wandering around, wearing your imagination's heart on your sleeve, and falling hard for the strangest and loveliest bits of information you come across. 

Go ahead. Let yourself geek out a bit.

(My latest delight? I just found out about the tradition of night climbing in Cambridge. Those photographs!! Swoon!)

February 23: Be a spy.

TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Go somewhere where you don't normally think of writing, exactly. Someplace that isn't overtly literary...

But bring the writing life with you.

Maybe you're sitting at the bar of a restaurant and watching the chefs zip around the kitchen.

Or maybe you're in a concert hall, an art museum, a church service, or a graveyard.

Wherever calls you most: Go.

And while you're there, imagine you're a literary spy. 

You're an emissary, a representative of the writing life.

Study everything, like you've just fallen into a novel. Like you could spin a story out of this moment, this place.

Bring a blank notebook and jot down phrases, notes on the atmosphere, or even just a single word that seems to sum it all up. Catch the juiciest bits of dialogue you overhear.

You don't have to write much. It can be just a few notes and scribblings... or it can be a huge, lyrical, epic poem.

But try to enter that place of having a writer's eyes in a "non-writing" place.

And just see what happens.

February 24: Be extravagant.

TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Start a dozen little projects today. Writing projects.

You and your writing life. Put your heads together, and dream. 

Yes, really.

Yes, even if you already have plenty of unused ideas floating around. (What's a few more, lionheart?)

These new ideas don't have to be more than one sentence, or even one word. 

Invent a series of books together. Maybe it's four novels, or sixteen quick chapter books for kids, or an epic saga cycle of five huge fantasy books.

Maybe it's a whole detective series based on the amazing bits of info you picked up on Monday, and the place you visited yesterday.

If this makes you feel crazy, just shake it off. Have a light touch. No sweat. This isn't "for real." You're not committed to any of this. It's just for fun.

This is like talking about the dream plans for a future house, or places you want to travel, or all the kids you want to have.

This is just about entertaining possibilities. 

So lean into it.

Suggest titles. Dream up the most off-the-wall protagonist ever.

Write a sentence or five for each of the ideas.

Or, just come up with a huge list of pretend character names.

Or invent the cities and empires that will rise and fall at your command. Make maps. 

Goof off together. Try to come up with bigger concepts, the more impossible the better.

Dream huge dreams, you and your writing life, together.

Give each other the moon, the world, a whole solar system. 

Dazzle yourself with the possibilities.

Isn't this dangerous? Nah. You can come back down to earth later, and have a renewed appreciation for the sweetness of your current work-in-progress. It's a wonderful thing after all.

... Or, wait. Yes. Yes, it is dangerous, incredibly so. We're playing with ideas, after all. It might as well be dynamite.

You might be laying the imaginative tracks that you will sail down in a year or two, on your way to becoming one of the most inventive writers of your generation. 

You daring lionheart, you!

We're coming down to the end of the month! Can you believe it??

Come back on Thursday for your last batch of writing life prompts... 

And in the meantime, happy dreaming!

Immersion Camp for Writers (The Joyful Way to Never Stop Working)

How do you operate outside of your normal writing hours? Does your mind move toward your story, or far away from it? (Here's the fun way to always move toward the story.) |

So Tuesday was my older sister's birthday. (If you spontaneously ate chocolate cupcakes with lots of sprinkles and didn't know why--well, that's why.) 

Among her many other qualities (incredible sense of humor, fantastic taste in music, and my main movie-watching buddy), she's an awesome graphic designer.

Y'all know I love learning from other creatives, and hanging out with K is no exception.

One thing I've noticed about her? She's a designer all the time. Down to her marrow. 

It's pretty cool.

When she was getting her degree, one of her fellow design students was always showing up to class in pajamas. And not in an occasional, "it's casual Friday" way, but in a this is all I wear kind of way.

Totally normal college behavior, right? I agree. 

But here's the thing: they were all training to be designers. As in: highly sensitized to the effects of color, pattern, shape, and the way those aspects complement each other for a certain effect.

And not-so-much the pajama effect. 

Is it possible to care about design some of the time, and to totally disregard it the rest of the time? Of course it is. The pajama-wearing designer turned in decent work; she's probably doing fine. 

And then there's my sister. Who always has a genius sense of style. She picks her clothes with care because she's a comprehensive designer. It's literally how she thinks. All the time.

She doesn't quarantine her interest to a certain kind of design. She doesn't limit herself to only caring about it between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., only when she "has" to.

She's always paying attention: to digital design, to printed ad campaigns, to the effects of typography and handlettering, to packaging in grocery stores, to the composition of a plated dish at that new restaurant, to photography, cinematography, book covers--

She's always aware of it, always learning about it, always moving toward it. 

I admire the heck out of her.

And right now, as I'm looking to go deeper into my novel, I'm realizing, yet again, how brilliant her example is. I can't help comparing her approach with that of the pj-wearing design student.

How deep can your design sense go, if you don't give a fig about what you're wearing? If you never make it personal?

Why would you practice not attending to your craft?

If you're a designer to the core, wouldn't that come out in all kinds of ways? (Glancing over at my sister: Yup. Yes. Yes, it does.)

So what about us? What about the word-slingers? 

Are we wearing pajamas to class?

Do we think about our novels only when we have to? Do we only care about words and stories when we're "at work"? 

If we only act like writers when we have to, we might not be working at our full potential.

Who are you when you're not writing? When you're not at your desk?

Where does your mind go when you have downtime?

When the writing isn't going well, I sometimes blame everything else--life is hectic, complicated, something unexpected happened, crappy immune system letting me get sick, I've overcommitted myself, blah blah blah.

I look at all the noise everywhere else in my life and feel overwhelmed. Writing is hard

But when I remember to treat my work the same way my sister treats hers--existing all around me, all those opportunities, always fascinating--well! Everything changes. 

Regardless of how busy my schedule is.

Watching her example reminds me: I have a choice. And I start consciously pursuing a writer's frame of mind. I focus on thinking like a writer, wherever I am.

It takes some serious intentionality. It's not accidental.

But when I keep at it, the tide turns. And I find that I'm writing from that deep, shadowy place again. That place where, mysteriously, I feel like I'm surrounded by my story, and every day takes me further in. 

This is when the story becomes real, this is when writing feels almost effortless, this is when I think about the story, build the story, all day long.

If you want, your life can turn into a 24/7 immersion camp in your story.

Pretty awesome, right? 

There are lots of ways to do this (here are three pretty fun ones) but the best way for me to immerse myself in my story is really straightforward: 

I close my eyes and switch out my reality.

... Eeek, did I just type that? For other people to read? This isn't super normal behavior, right? Acting like you can swap realities? Very uncivilized. Not the kind of thing to talk about. 

But--oh wait, we're vagabond outlaws, so it's okay if this is super weird. Okay then.

So yeah. I close my eyes. (If I'm out in public, I keep my eyes open but I let 'em kinda glaze over.)

And I decide that one of my characters is next to me. 

I focus all my attention on making her real. I work at getting a sense of her posture, how she's holding her head, how she's communicating her mood in her stance, or how she's fighting to keep her emotions invisible. I sense the tension in her. 

Sometimes, I start to hear her voice, sometimes she has things to say, sometimes another character emerges from the mist and they start talking.

But mainly, I focus on that first thing: Making the character real.

Because when I believe that these characters are real, the whole book becomes possible to write. 

The most dangerous thing for me is when my characters begin to feel like ideas, like concepts. Mock-people attached to names. Pseudo lives. Narrative chess pieces I move around on a page. 

It is so much better--more dynamic, more thrilling--when I get convinced down to my toes that I'm talking about real people. 

I do this with settings too--conjuring up all the details of that Otherplace all around me, until I think I can almost smell it, I can almost hear the sounds there, I can almost feel the sunlight on the back of my neck.

This is deep imaginative immersion work.

Nothing saves my story like this.

When I'm really in this groove, I can drop into my story at almost any time. It gets easier to sense the characters around me, to catch the pace of the scenes, to anticipate what needs to happen next.

To feel the story world wrapping itself around me.

And then, sitting down at my desk feels like I'm just continuing something I was already doing. I'm already in the story. Breathing it. Living there.

And amazing things begin to happen. 

I ditch the dull scenes, and I write brave new ones. Characters deepen, their motivations become clear and sympathetic, their dialogue sharpens.

Kinda makes my heart start racing.

Try it. Yeah. Right where you are, right there. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and get a sense of one of your characters. Hear them breathing. Believe that they exist, that they're real, that they're right next to you.

And then buckle up, because your story just might take off. You'll have to sprint down that road after it, scribbling as you run. 

It's a marvelous way to work.

... Maybe you do this deep imagining work all the time--in which case, good for you! Have some more chocolate cupcakes. Hand them out to your characters. 

But if you've never done it before, or if you've fallen out of the habit (like I do), grab some time this weekend to practice. Look for opportunities to fall into your storyworld.

Go deep. Immerse. And find out what happens when you're a storyteller, all the time.

Celebrate the Everyday (and Revolutionize Your Approach to Life!) with This One Little Habit

Give special attention to everyday moments, deepen your ability to observe, and, you know, generally revolutionize your whole approach to life with a simple, daily habit. Yes, really. |

For the last couple of months, I've been feeling restless and irritable and creatively unsettled.

I've had a hard time imagining scenes for my work-in-progress. And man, when your imagination bogs down, that draftwork feels pretty steep. 

And in spite of summertime's supposed reputation for laziness and rest, these weeks have been flyin' past. 

Anyone else been feeling like this? Anyone else with mid-summer blahs?

Well, about two weeks ago, something HAPPENED. My brilliant mother recommended this book to me: Art Before Breakfast, by Danny Gregory.


I know it's technically too soon to tell, but--I'm pretty sure it just changed my life. 

The book is about taking just a few minutes every day to make a teeny bit of art. Just doing a little bit of sketching. Maybe just drawing your breakfast.

No pressure. No trying to be a Picasso, a Da Vinci.

Just getting something down, one little line or squiggle at a time.

Danny Gregory makes a really, really good case for starting this habit. This little drawing habit.

I haven't been doing it for very long, but I can already feel a difference: in my brain, in my eyes, in the way I see things, in the way I think.

Crazy, right? I mean--just from doing a bit of drawing? Even though I'm not some kind of massively talented Artist?

YES! Here's what I've figured out: I'm always wanting to be better at observation, but I can't just think myself into being a better observer.

It's hard to just say, I'm going to see the world more clearly now!, and then try and do it.

I mean . . . what do you even do with that.

I've finally found a better way: Drawing is observation put to paper. Ta da! Which means it's a whole lot easier to practice than just randomly staring at the world. 

If you need a bit more selling, here's what's happening as I draw:

  • I'm suddenly surrounded by muses. Everywhere I look, I think: hey, I could draw that! I could draw that. I wonder how I might draw this? Which means that everything around me feels new and full of possibilities. And I feel more alert and live. (Goodbye, blahs!!)
  • The act of drawing forces me to confront my own assumptions. My brain has a shorthand answer for what I'm seeing: It's a round red tomato! But when I sit down to draw it, I notice all its bumps and flattened sides, the range of gold and brown freckles across the top, the long scar down its side. 
  • I'm finally in the moment. When I pause to draw something, I can feel myself slowing down in the best of ways. I feel myself breathing. My mind stops spinning and focuses in. I feel extremely present, extremely aware. 
  • It's one more kick in the pants for perfectionism. I'm embracing the beginner state: making messes, enjoying my mistakes, and trying ANYTHING! 
  • I'm stocking my writing-brain with TONS of visual details. I've said before that I can feel blind when I sit down to write. Well, I'm slowly filling up those reservoirs of imagery, texture, shading, and color. 

Can I be honest with you? I'm SHOCKED at how much I am loving this new habit. Really shocked.

I used to doodle off and on, for fun, occasionally. But drawing as a regular habit--well, that was something that Other People did, and I was fine without it.

I had no idea that a bit of sketching would unlock so much for me. 

And I've only just started! There's still so much more to do, so many more things to try! 

So--this is my Monday challenge to you, Lionhearted Writer! Try it. Just try it. Try drawing something every day this week.

Even if it feels a little silly. Even if you only have five minutes to spend on it. Even if the drawing is lopsided, or childish, or one-dimensional.

... Because it isn't about the final drawing at all, it's about the act of drawing, and what happens inside your wonderful writer-brain, your newly sharpened writer-gaze, your ultra-aware writer-heart.

This is especially especially for you:

- If you feel like you've been scooting over the surface of your life, and maybe not actually living it.

- If you feel like your ability to observe has grown dull. 

- If your writing life just feels less exciting than you'd really like it to be.

- If your imagination is a bit tired, and keeps handing you the same old answers.

- Orrrr, if you get an enormous case of the munchies when you're writing. (Tell me it's not just me.) Try this: draw instead. I don't know why it works, but it does for me!

Try it. TRY it. A teeny-tiny little sketch doesn't take long at all. Two minutes. You might change your whole life in two minutes! You have nothing to lose! 

One last thing: a bit of visual inspiration:

Creative juices stirring yet??

If you already do this--if you use drawing as a companion to your writing life--or if you're going to take me up on this and try a sketch or two this week, please encourage other writers (and me!) by leaving a shout out in the comments. Or, share it with someone who might need to hear it. The more sketching enthusiasts, the merrier!

Cool. Happy drawing!!

Let's Use Writing to Prop Our Eyes Open

Can notetaking while on your travels enhance both your writing AND your whole life? What? It can? YES! |

So there was this one time when I was in Sicily on a train, zipping around the coast. I was exhausted, disoriented, and exhilarated. (Typical travel state.)

I knew about eight words of Italian (none of which I could pronounce confidently), and I was feeling far away from my ordinary little county of cornfields in southern Illinois.

Mostly I was trying to absorb everything. Everything. All at once.

I tried to catch the scenery with my crappy little disposable camera (this was a lonnnnnnnng time ago). But the camera couldn't get the smell of the train car, wasn't fast enough to really capture the lemon trees outside, couldn't possibly imprint the mix of emotions among me and my friends.

So I put my camera away. I pulled out my journal. 

And I wrote as fast as I could.

I wasn't writing complete, magical sentences. I wasn't framing my experience in lovely, travel-memoir terms. I was just taking notes, as if one of my professors were rapid-fire presenting all this information in class somehow.

Writing fast, jotting nouns and verbs in a mess. Trying to write down everything as quickly as it was happening--

The sheep on the hills, the construction worker pausing as we rattled by, the laundry on wires between houses, the look of the rooftops, all the satellite dishes, the view of the sea.

And now, eleven years later, so many of my memories from Sicily aren't really preserved in the photos I took (though of course they help).

They're in the words. In the frantic-quick phrasing, in the cascade of nouns. The lists-turned-into-paragraphs.

I read that description, and I can remember it exactly, every part of it. The giddiness, the uncertainty, the strangeness, the beauty. And the immediate mad love I felt for the island I somehow found myself on.

So now I never leave home without bringing a notebook (even if it's just a teeny one in my purse). Whenever possible, when I find myself in a strange setting, I try to exercise this creative muscle, this freewriting-meets-notetaking, getting down my raw impressions.

It's one of my favorite-ever practices.

It helps me come up with fresh descriptions. Besides--as any artist will tell you--it's good to paint pictures from life, not from photographs or stale memories. 

But the best thing for me is this:

It gets me into my skin.

When I rely on a camera, I see everything in terms of a photograph. I get panicky about missing shots--that one is beautiful, and then, oh this one is perfect, and oh gosh what about that fountain, and maybe if I line up like this...

I find myself moving from photo op to photo op, missing the feeling of actually BEING THERE. 

(Anyone else get like this??)

But writing is different. When I sit down with pen and paper to capture my surroundings, I feel entirely present. I am fully there, a pure human recorder, getting every sense impression, everything down.

And it gets me to live more fully. 

How great is that? Writing serves your traveling; your traveling serves your writing.


But who says you have to go far from home to practice this?

Here's my creative challenge to you: go somewhere at least slightly unfamiliar--whether it's down the block, somewhere unexplored in your town, or a nearby city.

(Or, hey, I recommend Sicily. Unless you're from there. In which case: have you been to southern Illinois? Because it's super-different.) 

Open your journal, grab a good pen, and just get it down. 

Use your senses, all of 'em.

Not just the smell and the sounds and the tastes in the air, but--does it make you feel exposed and alone, or is it tight and claustrophobic? Is there tension in the environment, or peace? 

What kind of history lurks under the surface? What feels like it's about to happen?

Who knows. You might springboard yourself right into a scene for your novel. Or into a bunch of reflections about your own life.

Or, you just might get a breathless page or two of notes. However it works--it's writing and it's immediate and it's good.

Let's use the unfamiliar as a catalyst. And get really good at capturing the life that's happening around us and in us.

Where will you be writing from? 

How to Make a Good Writing Day Even Better (or, How to Save a Bad One)

Wanna kick your writing day up a notch? A reading recommendation that just might make all the difference. |

After writing my last post, I've done a lot of thinking about observation. And how darned hard it is.

I mean, really: it's hard. 

There is so much CHATTER in our heads--are you getting that?

So much noise, and not a lot of room for those small moments of watching a scene, staring out a window, and letting a deeper sense of meaning and understanding bubble up.

Or, I don't know. Maybe y'all don't struggle with that. But I'm guessing I'm not alone.

Enter: My best-ever remedy for living in the moment.

Do yourself a HUGE favor and curl up with a copy of Billy Collins' poems. You won't be sorry. |

Have you read Billy Collins' poetry?

If so, you know where we're going with this. If not, you are in for such a treat. 

And if you've decided you hate poetry and are therefore exempt: well, I hear you. Really.

If poetry means fussy, pretentious verses full of obscure references, and you need a zillion footnotes and a master's degree to piece together some semblance of meaning--

Then I'm totally with you. I hate that kind of poetry. 

This isn't that.

Step inside a poem by Billy Collins and you see the world differently. 

After reading half a dozen, you'll start to develop this wonderful sensitivity. You'll pay better attention to what's around you.

Read half a volume, and you'll begin seeing poems everywhere you go. Really. Seriously. 

These poems help me live in the present. They unlock an ability to encounter the meaning in the moment.

They help me see what I didn't expect to see. Does that make sense?

If you're having a good writing streak, spend time in these poems to spur yourself on, to replenish your imagination, and to keep nourishing your mind.

And if you're having a crappy writing day (or week, or month), then take one of these books with a cup of tea and a long afternoon. Really. It's the best remedy I can recommend for you.

When I'm struggling with words and imagery and feeling tongue-tied, these poems are how I patch myself up. 

They win my heart back over to writing. They draw ideas out of me when I think I'm empty.

They just might do the same for you.

They're simple. Exquisite. And very powerful.

Give 'em a try. 

Thanks to the Internet, here are a few poems for you to taste:
the best-ever: a three-year-old boy recites "Litany" 
- "Nostalgia"
- "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House"
- "Marginalia"

Enhancing the Amazing Ability to Take Notice

How are your observation skills doing? Because mine TOTALLY need brushing off. |

Can I tell you something? Sometimes when I sit down to write a descriptive passage, I feel like I'm going through my days blind and deaf. 

How else to explain the total blankness I feel, when I need to sketch out the elementary parts of a setting?

I start to worry about myself. About my vision. About my sense of hearing. Because all my descriptions come up flat.

Does this happen to you? 

Writing shows me, over and over again, how dull I get to the real world. How little I've actually paid attention to what's going on around me. How unspectacular my observations are.

This isn't a good state for a writer to be in. 

At least half of our job description must be: Pay attention. 


I want to get better at this, friends. For the sake of my writing (who needs another lame description?), but also for the sake of my living: I don't want to be in a fog all the time. 

I'm pretty sure that paying attention is one of those "Use it or lose it" skills. My writing is begging me to get better at this!

So here's how I want to change, how I want to grow my ability to observe:

- No distractions. We all know that we're living distracted most of the time, yes?

While I technically understand that, I can too easily forget how much it's costing me, as a writer and an observer.

Writing flat descriptions? Having zero material to draw from when it comes to setting scenes? Not okay! 

So here's to putting down the iPhone and unplugging the headphones. Here's to actually looking hard at what is going on around me.

- Go slow. Racing around is basically the antithesis of noticing.

When I move quickly, when I operate on glances and quick snatches, I only catch the most surface details (if I catch anything at all).

If I wait out my first observations, if I settle in a bit, then I can catch the second wave of details, and then maybe the third. I notice the deeper things, the interesting things.

- Fight the blur effect. It's too easy for my brain to laze on autopilot and to report back: tree, tree, tree, (yawn) tree.

But if I ask myself to see specifically, to pull meaning out of the blur, I can do it. I can finally see: maple, pine, pear, oak

And since each word has its own personality, each detail its own connotation, those specifics matter.

- Wait for the telling detail. Observing gets so much more interesting--for me at least--when I come across something unusual.

The little detail that juxtaposes the rest of the picture. The one thing out of place. The note that jars, that stands out, that goes a different direction, that puts a new spin on the rest of the picture.

That contrast always draws me in: it gives my imagination something to wrestle with, intriguing blanks to fill.

And that's where observation fuels storytelling.


So that's how I'll be reframing my downtime in waiting rooms, in grocery store checkout lines, in my kitchen as I'm watching dishes.

I'm going to turn it into storytelling gold, honing my skills as an observer of the world.

How about you?

We the observers.

We the observers.

There is something exhilarating about this quote. 

Probably because: it does not describe me at all right now. 

I have been living on the surface, my friends. Skimming along, trying to deal with the urgent things before they get out of control, taking care of immediate needs. I have not stolen the time to sit still, breathe deeply, and look close. 

And while that keeps home life simmering happily, it is wreaking havoc on my writing.

Which has filled up with adverbs. Oh, adverbs. The sign of sloppy thinking.

Dull word, dull word, blah verb, and then a whole wodge of adverbs and cheap adjectives marching in to fluff out the image.

This is not how I like to work.

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