[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.


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

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.

How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter (or, Writing What Scares You)

Everyone's always saying to do what scares you... But what does that *actually* mean? How do we write like that? | lucyflint.com

We're told over and over to do what scares us.

You've heard that too? As writers, as artists, as creatives, but also just as human beings: do what scares you. 

Write what scares you, do something that scares you every day, take risks.

Honestly, I do find this very exciting. I get all up in arms about it.

Rah rah rah! Yes! Do what scares you!

And then I calm down and think: 1) What the heck does that even mean?

2) And also, actually, no thank you.

Since "doing what scares me," applied literally, would involve a lot of stepping into traffic, leaping off cliffs, and working in a chemistry lab, I'm guessing that all these risky artists are talking about something else.

Besides. I'd like to have a decent life span. And fill it with daring books.

So what does it mean, to write what scares us? What does that look like?

For starters, here's what I don't think it means: 

I don't think anyone needs to share the brutally tragic stuff of their past before they feel ready to. 

I don't think it means writing anything self-abusive. 

Pretty sure some people would disagree with me on that, but I don't care. I just don't believe writing should be about impaling ourselves on our pens.

Okay. So what does it mean, then, to be risky, to do the scary thing? I think it boils down to three things.

First, there's a sense of risk anytime you start something new (What if I fail?).

And second, there's the risk of doing something in a new way, the risk of being original (But no one's done it like this before!), which is kind of an echo of the first risk--what if I fail?

But this idea of what scares you sounds like it lies closer to home.

And actually, I think that the answer isn't so much about asking "what scares you?"

Instead, let's look in the opposite direction: 

What grabs your heart?

What do you care about? Specifically, what do you care about so much that you would fight for it, tooth and nail? 

If all the stuff of your life were stripped away for some reason, if you lost everything, but you could keep three things, what three things would they be? 

Home, family, faith, pursuits, friends, land, health, abilities, memories, possessions?

At the core, what do you love?

... Do you have a general idea? A specific idea? Awesome. Me too.

Next question. (And this is where it gets really good.)

Who in your story loves what you love, to the same degree that you love it? 

Which characters are passionate about what you value? And not in a vague, of-course-they-do kind of way. But in a specific, definite, extremely-clear-to-the-reader way.

Do we get to see them fight for it? Scratching and kicking?

Do you ever strip everything else in their lives away, boiling it down, till their life is about fighting for this one thing?

Here's my confession: I've written characters who cared about stuff I just don't care about. Or, they shared my values, but in a general yeah-whatever way.

I tried to make those books work, but, um, nope. I couldn't really believe in the characters. I clearly wasn't invested in it.  

This trilogy I'm writing, though... At its core, it's about truth and family. 

Stuff I care about. In a tooth-and-nail way.

There's a scene, midway through the third book, where the aunt says a line of dialogue to her oldest niece--and writing that line just about destroyed me. I had to put my notebook down and bawl for a moment.

What?! Why?? My writing process doesn't normally involve snot, so what's up with that?

I'd somehow put everything I feel about being an aunt--all the crazy, insane love I feel for my nieces and nephew--into that one line. 

Especially how it was delivered, in the context of that moment. After everything desperate that had already happened. With everything climactic still to come.

The wording isn't fancy. The setting is simple. 

But when I wrote it, I put a piece of my core out there on paper.

And yeah, that does feel scary.

I mean, there they are, my guts, in between quotation marks!! 

I do feel a little exposed by that. 

And that's what I think is at the center of all this do-what-scares-you talk. 

If we aren't invested in these stories, why write them? If we aren't bringing our values, our emotions to the book, why bother? 

I'm guessing that you and I, we both want to write books that will grab our readers by the shoulders and not let go. We want to draw characters that will live in their minds and their hearts. 

Who might even inspire them. Maybe even give them courage. 

To do that, we need to dig deep into the things we care about. We've gotta get really personal.

We need to feel the pain of what it would be to lose those things, to have them threatened or taken away. And then put that fight and those feelings into words.

That, to me, is a recipe for a story that will grip. A story someone won't be able to put down.

What does that require of us, though? Being generous. Generous to the point of discomfort. (Maybe even generous to the point of snot.)

It means stretching ourselves: when I'm writing scenes like this, my heart beats faster. Literally. I'm breathing faster as I write. I get a bit anxious. And at the end of the day, I feel like I've been through something. Like I've been crying, or shouting. 

Is that weird? Yes! It feels super weird

But it has also helped me turn out manuscripts that I'm proud of. Stories that are saying what I want to say to the world

So that's what it means to me. It means: you have to dare.

Dare to be utterly honest about the exact kind of human you are.

Show what it means to care so dang much about the things you care about.

It means writing the scenes the way they should be written. Even if you look over the page and see your own guts, laid bare for everyone to see.

It means not racing over those parts in your story that would challenge your characters in the same way you dread being challenged. 

It means not letting clichés fill your pages, but instead, asking yourself how it really feels, what it's really like, and daring to be honest about that. 

It means flinging yourself into your story, no matter what.

Are You Ridiculously in Love with Your Writing? Or, Um, Not?

When you find yourself apologizing for the kind of thing you write... it's time for a change. | lucyflint.com

How do you feel about what you write?

I'm not asking about the quality of it: we all wade through the crappy first (secondthirdfourthfifth) drafts. That's normal and understood.

I'm talking about the actual topic. The genre. The style. The guts of your writing. The center of your universe of words.

How do you feel about it? 

I'm hoping that your answer is along these lines: 

I love, love, LOVE it, Lucy. Maybe I don't have all the plot stuff figured out, and I'm still working on a lot of it. But the world I've created with these words, and the main things that I'm talking about, and the kinds of characters I've created, and the genre that this all operates in, and the style of my sentences... I can't get enough. I'm loving this.

Is that you, saying all that? I really hope so. But if not: I get it. I totally understand.

For a long time, I couldn't have said any of that.

When I started writing full time, I felt pulled in two directions.

First: I wanted to be a clever writer. I had just studied all kinds of beautiful literature in college. I honestly loved reading Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Sylvia Plath's poetry gave me chills. We read so many brilliant short stories that did astonishing things with their sentences.

I felt like, to be a SERIOUS writer, to feel PROUD of what I'm writing, to be able to hold my head up when I'm saying what I do: Then I should write that kind of thing. Clever, prize-winning sentences.

Then, there was the other direction. When I got stressed out, I would always read kid lit. And complicated, beautiful YA fantasy. And smart, funny, middle grade adventure novels.

That's what I read when no one was looking, what I read for fun, what just plain made me happy.

So, I thought, I should write that. Probably I should write that.

So I started writing this young adult fantasy.

But not whole-heartedly. Because I was SO EMBARRASSED. 

Whenever someone asked about my writing and my work, I had a zillion apologetic ways of slanting what I wrote. Trying to sound smart and clever about it, while also trying to cover up the truth about my novel. 

I ended up sounding very sheepish. And like someone was forcing me to write this silly crap. And like I pretty much hated my writing.

Guess what. I ended up pretty much hating my writing. 

And hating my writing life.

It was a grim season.

It took me a long time to realize what I was doing to myself (and to my poor work-in-progress!). 

I was letting other people determine the value of what I wrote. 

And--even worse than that--I was guessing at what they would think about what I wrote. I decided beforehand that they would think it was ridiculous, and then I gave my long cringing apology.

Ack! Ick! No, nono. 

This is not the kind of writing life we want. Right, lionhearts? 

Here's an incredible, powerful quote from Ray Bradbury. Read this slowly, and think about your writing life, your current project, the things that you love to read. All that. Here you go:

Love. Fall in love and stay in love.
Write only what you love, and love what you write.
The key word is love. 

Are you getting that? 

We can't write to suit someone else's idea of what is acceptable. What is "worth" reading or writing. We can't try to please other people with our choice of genre or style. 

When I read a novel that I just flat-out LOVE, I am not trying to impress anyone with my choice of loving. I'm not trying to seem all clever. I'm just loving what I love. Because I love it. 

A sense of what I SHOULD or SHOULD NOT appreciate... well, that really doesn't come into it.

The same is true of what I'm writing. 

I am now happily writing a middle grade adventure trilogy. And I'm putting characters in that I just adore, who are quirky and funny and strange and full of secrets. I'm adding crazy details (I've mentioned the telepathic lizards?).

I'm building a storyworld based on love, on my love for this book, and not based on anything else.

And now, when someone asks what I write, I tell them honestly. I tell them that I love it. That showing up for work feels like an adventure. That it's exactly the kind of trilogy I would have eaten up when I was in sixth grade. 

I don't apologize. I don't try to sound super clever, like I'm a really impressive little genius.

I'm frank and clear and direct. 

And guess what happens. No one says, "Sorry, but you're not smart enough to keep talking to me."

Actually, people sound a little . . . jealous. A little envious.

Because my full-time work sounds thrilling and funny and interesting and exciting. (WHICH IT TOTALLY IS.)

No apologies necessary. Imagine that.

So what are you apologizing for? Are you trying to justify your choice of story, your genre, your style, your anything? Do you feel sheepish about any part of your writing life? 

Today I'm inviting you to just let that GO. Get rid of it. 

If you're writing something out of some weird internal obligation or some sense of what you ought to be writing--maybe shelve that project. Or radically change it, into something you madly love. 

If you're writing something you like, but feel ashamed of that: kick that sense of shame OUT. It's not serving you or your work. And it might not even be based on anything real. Okay?

Let's decide to just love what we love. To love what we write.

To operate from that excitement, that energy, that truth about who we are as writers and artists. 

I double-dare you to be passionate and unapologetic when you talk about your work this weekend.

If you want an even bigger pep-talk about how to deal with other people, check out this post on how to talk about your writing (without throwing up).

And, if you're struggling to figure out what kinds of stuff you love to write (because we can get so muddled, right??), read this post on getting permission to play

So speak up.

Here's another reason to write, from Annie Dillard. Because she knows about these things.

Give voice to your astonishment. Write what makes you passionate. Speak up. | lucyflint.com


It's like a big bag of caffeine for the heart. 

Dillard's quote here gives me permission to be more aware of it, to track it, to sniff it out. 

What astonishes you? What dazzles and dizzies you? 

I tend to feel it in an instant, a little flash-fire of brilliance in a moment of beauty. This quote makes me want to throw a spotlight on it, and then step into that light. 

I'm new to Instagram, so I've been prowling around among all the photos, all the galleries and feeds. It's like a catalogue of wonder. I'm amazed by the landscapes, the food, art, and people. The perfect summer tomatoes, the mountains reflected on the lake, the kids throwing sand, the dog's patient expression, the frog wide-eyed on a child's palm. 

All the sweet astonishingness of ordinary (and extraordinary) days. 

We all need to be astonished, to move toward it.

And then this: We are meant to give voice to that.

To take the photos, write the poems, spin the stories, and capture the moment in one way or another. All of us, all us makers: that's our job. 

And it is needed. 

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment. -- Annie Dillard

So what amazes you? What spins your heart around? And how are you giving voice to it? Let me know in the comments.

What we write about when we write about teethmarks.

So, here's a vivid memory from sixth grade. We were in music class, and our poor music teacher... well, discipline wasn't her strong suit. The kids from the special ed class had joined us, and I remember my classmates verbally savaging a mentally retarded girl named Tina. During class. I watched and listened, horrified. 

I could see that Tina didn't understand everything my evil classmates were saying, but she understood enough. I could see that my music teacher was overwhelmed, the class galloping away from her, but I hated her for not acting.

And I hated myself for being helpless. 

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