Emily Hanlon’s Ten New Year’s Resolutions for the Fiction Writer

emily-hanlon-emily-at-pendlehill

Emily Hanlon

Emily Hanlon posted these New Year’s resolutions for fiction writers, and she’s given me permission to reprint them here. I first encountered Emily through the International Women’s Writing Guild years ago, when they were holding their annual summer conferences at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I gained a lot from her five-day workshop, and I’m delighted to be back in touch with her. She gives workshops both live and online as well as mentoring individual fiction writers.

Reading Emily’s bio, I just learned that like me, she’s a graduate of Barnard.

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Fiction Writers!

Forged in Fire: Creativity and the Writer’s Journey!

  1. When I begin a new piece, I write without thinking or planning.
  2. I welcome the unexpected in my writing.
  3. My best writing comes from my heart and the fire in my belly.
  4. I become my characters, they do not become me. I go where my characters take me.
  5. I love my first draft writing for its chaos, fertility, and uncovered gems.
  6. I do not think about being published until the piece is finished.
  7. I set up a writing schedule that supports, not defeats, my writing. I will not use failure to keep to my schedule as a reason to give up.
  8. I write the story that is gestating within me—even if it scares me or makes me think I am losing my mind.
  9. Writing is a craft. Craft supports writing, it does not define it.
  10. I am a fierce warrior for my writing and creativity!

Excellent advice for all writers, fiction or nonfiction. It’s especially applicable to “pantsers,” who write by the seat of their pants without outlines or preconceived ideas. Planners who like to know where they’re going before they embark on their creative journeys may find some of the ideas intimidating, even downright scary, but you can take what you need and leave the rest.

car-night-road

Personally, I’m a pantser. My novels are character-driven, and the plots evolve chapter by chapter. I like E.L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” But I’m not gutsy enough to carry that method to the extreme. I prefer having at least a rudimentary map, though not a GPS; I don’t like taking directions from anyone else.

Of the ten resolutions above, I have the most trouble with #6: I do not think about being published until the piece is finished. For me, it’s impossible not to think about publishing; it’s the omnipresent elephant in the room. But when the writing is going well and I’m in a state of flow, I forget about publishing. It’s only in the before and after times, or when my inner critic kicks in, that publishing becomes an issue.

My favorite may be #7: I set up a writing schedule that supports, not defeats, my writing. I will not use failure to keep to my schedule as a reason to give up. Schedules are a major nemesis for me, one I’ll discuss in a future post. Even in retirement, with few fixed obligations, I have trouble maintaining a regular writing schedule, and that danged inner critic makes me miserable when I let distractions lure me away from my desk.

edvard-munch-aften-pa-karl-johan

Edvard Munch

Much of Emily’s coaching focuses on getting in touch with our shadow sides. Lately she’s been giving hour-long online workshops where students from throughout the country and abroad can participate free of charge. You can learn more about Emily Hanlon, her coaching and workshops, by visiting her website: www.thefictionwritersjourney.com.

What do you think of these ten resolutions? Which ones inspire you, and which ones scare you? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave comments. And subscribe to my blog by leaving your email address in the column to the right. Creatively speaking, I feel 2017 will be a great year, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

A new year, a new book project

At yesterday’s New Year’s service at church, we sat in a circle, passed around a talking stick, and shared our goals and resolutions for the year ahead. I announced two:

  • Work on creating a serene, organized home environment
  • Complete the presentation for my new book project on creativity, then find an agent and publisher
fuusa-emerson-choir

Emerson Hall at FUUSA

The church in question is the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, and our minister, Sam Trumbore, had chosen the topic “Begin again in love.” Usually we sit with the chairs arranged in conventional rows, and there’s less opportunity for individual participation, but this being New Year’s morning, Sam expected a smaller turnout. But there were several dozen of us, and we formed three concentric circles. As we passed the South American rain stick, many people chose not to speak, and others spoke of modest, everyday goals—spending more time with family or in nature, being more mindful of health concerns, learning more about social media or, conversely giving it up entirely.

Having come late to the service, as is unfortunately all too typical, I was the last in the row of the outermost circle, and impatiently awaited my turn to speak. When I did, I failed to mention the state of disarray my house is actually in, but I was more specific about my book project, announcing my working title and the fact that I’ve already registered it as a domain name. (I’ve blogged about the project before, but I’m still not ready to go officially public with the title, because I don’t want anyone stealing it. I figure the FUUSAns won’t remember.)

waterhouse-john-william_-_i_am_half-sick_of_shadows_said_the_lady_of_shalott

John William Waterhouse

At 75, I sometimes wonder whether it’s overly ambitious to take on a major project like the book I have in mind. Granted, the goal I set is daunting, and realistically, I don’t know if I’ll manage to land a good agent and publisher within the next twelve months. But completing a nonfiction book proposal is well within my capabilities—I’ve done it three times before, although I abandoned all three projects before seriously seeking publication.

The first was a book based on my daughter’s first year of life. I’d done a project illustrating the minutiae of my daily life with her, I showed it in a SoHo gallery, and it was featured in New York magazine. An editor at a major publishing house saw the show, called me up, and I paid her a visit in her spectacular office high in a skyscraper with panoramic views of Manhattan. I’d brought my daughter along, and she peed on the editor’s couch. That wasn’t the reason I gave up on the project, but I’ll leave that story for another time, along with the reasons I abandoned my books on art therapy and gardening.

For now, let’s just say I’m confident in my ability to put together a book proposal. It draws right-brain-left-brainon the logical, left-brain side of my intellect, the side that won me my Phi Beta Kappa key at Barnard.* And as for being too old to take on a new project, I’m convinced I’m as sharp as I ever was. I could drop dead any day—far too many of my contemporaries are taking that trip—but in general, my health is disgustingly good. The only activity I’ve given up because of age is downhill skiing, and that’s primarily because I haven’t been working out regularly enough to maintain the strength in my legs, not to mention that snow conditions in the Northeast have been abominable for the past couple of years.**

But my major reason for embarking on an all-consuming project is that for my sanity’s sake, I know I have to. From past experience, I know that abandoning my dreams of creative achievement is likely to plunge me into a major depression, and that’s worth avoiding at all costs. When I hear my contemporaries rhapsodizing about their travels, their grandkids and their cats, I know those everyday pleasures and satisfactions, wonderful as they may be, will never be enough for me.

waterhouse-john-william_the_lady_of_shalott

What about you? Do you have any major new goals or resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to hear from you.

*My classmates at Barnard included Martha Stewart, Erika Jong and Twyla Tharp, but that’s another story too.

**In the back of my mind, there lurks the possibility that I may yet ski again. Many people ski into their 80’s and 90’s. Unfortunately, my old ski pants are a size or two too small, but when I told my husband I might buy a new pair, since they’re handy for snow shoveling, dog walking, and maybe a little cross-country skiing, he tried to dissuade me. Maybe I should try flannel-lined jeans, he said, or rain or wind pants. When I asked why not ski pants, he confessed that he was worried I might take to the slopes again. Hey, never say never.

In memory of my artist friend Dan Sekellick

Dan Sekellick - Oceanic at Sunset (Star Island)

Today I’m mourning the death of my friend and fellow artist Dan Sekellick. In recent months, our Unitarian Universalist congregation has lost seven older long-term members in close succession, but Dan’s death hits closest to home.

A retired architect, Dan was dodgy about his age, but he was on the far side of seventy – I know because several years ago he told me he was eligible to ski free at Gore Mountain. Skiing was one of his many passions. He loved gardening, and normally during this dreary run of rainy March days his studio would already have been full of seed flats for his summer vegetable garden. In recent years he began writing poetry to accompany his paintings. He was a volunteer extraordinaire, helping to stock streams with fish each spring and to renovate and launch the Sand Lake Arts Center. 

Even as his health was failing in recent years, Dan had an extraordinary joie de vivre. I’ll always remember the enthusiasm with which he described the latest developments in his garden in spring, the skiing pointers he gave me at Jiminy Peak, and especially the ride he gave me back from Jiminy one early spring day in his vintage Chrysler convertible – with the top down, despite my initial protests. He was right – the windshield gave plenty of protection, and the ride through the Berkshire foothills was beautiful though breezy.

Dan Sekellick - Jazz Band

Most of all, Dan loved painting. On the website Art-N-Soul, Inc., where a few of his many paintings are displayed, he had this to say about his art:

My working method is an extension of my architectural design training. It often begins with some vague ideas of what I want to happen and it’s mixed with the influences of the works of other artists that I admire, along with my own personality and life experiences. I believe that artists are essentially self-replicating creatures, whatever their art form, and I don’t believe that I’m any exception. I refine my ideas, sometimes making fresh starts in new directions or just plugging along until I get it “right”, even if it takes years, as it sometimes does . . .

Thank you for viewing my work. I think that it helps to bring closure to a process that begins as vague idea or an inspiration or some other mysterious genesis, moves along with a lot of hard work and sometimes disappointment and then, hopefully makes a meaningful connection with another person. Now that’s the real reward in all of this.

What a wonderful description of the creative process, as true for writing as it is for painting. Dan, you’ll be missed by many, but your memory and your paintings live on. Yesterday, leaving the Sunday service at which our minister announced your death, I noticed how beautiful your abstract seascape looked hanging on the wall of our sanctuary, complete with the little seagull sculpture you’d perched whimsically on top.

Seven reasons I love writing poetry

Sylvia Plath

Writing poetry is a wonderful way to jumpstart your creativity and hone your writing skills. A decade ago, I wouldn’t have dared write this sentence, much less declare myself a poet, but now I have no qualms about it. After all, who decides who’s a poet and who isn’t? Danged if I know.

I’ve written in many genres over the years, but poetry eluded me until the year 2001. As a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, I had the opportunity to submit my work to the Oriel, the congregation’s annual literary magazine, and I decided to give it a try. Since then, poetry has become one of my favorite means of expressing myself. I have no aspirations to fame and fortune as a poet; I haven’t even published a chapbook yet. But there’s something wonderfully satisfying about writing poetry. Today I’d like to share seven reasons I love this art form.

  • Poetry is speedy. On average, once the words start to flow, it takes me about an hour to come up with a reasonably polished first draft – about the same time I spend on a blog post.
  • Poetry’s a good way of catching ideas on the fly. Most of my poetic inspiration comes from immediate experience. There’s usually an “ah hah!” moment when I think “this would make a good poem.” If I’ve got a journal handy, I jot down a few preliminary phrases and ideas. This isn’t always possible, though. When I was skiing down Panorama at Jiminy Peak last week, the slushy spring conditions inspired me to think, “This would be a good blog post. No, on second thought, it would be better as a poem.” It wasn’t until later, when I was at the bar with my hot buttered rum, that I had a chance to capture the ideas on paper. You can read the results in Monday’s blog on skiing.
  • Poetry’s a wonderful way of processing your emotions. I

    Mary Oliver

    became intensively involved in poetry a few years ago, when I was depressed and discouraged about publishing my novels. Exploring my feelings through poetry became a vital way of coping with my depression. For many, poetry has been literally life-saving.

  • Poetry’s highly subjective, and hardly anyone knows what makes a good poem. It’s a lot like the cliché about visual art, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” That’s how most people react to poetry.
  • Poetry’s great for getting immediate feedback and applause. No matter where you live, there’s likely to be at least one poetry open mic near you. Many of my poems have been precipitated by the knowledge that there’s an open reading that night and I really ought to bring something new. Most poetry audiences are supportive and enthusiastic no matter what you read.
  • Poetry’s highly compatible with computers. I do my best writing in Microsoft word, editing as I go. Some poets prefer longhand, but I love the flexibility of diving in with the first phrase that comes to mind, then playing around with the words on the screen.
  • Poetry’s a good way to hone your literary skills in other genres. In poetry, every word counts. Part of the process lies in finding the best possible way to communicate your ideas in the fewest possible words, rooting out the clichés and discovering the most powerful images possible. The habit of writing this way carries over into other genres. 

What about you? Have you tried your hand at poetry?  I know quite a few readers of this blog are part of the vibrant poetry scene in New York’s Capital District, but what about the rest of you? As always, I’d love to hear from you. Please – come out of lurk mode and comment!

Windows on the World, World Trade Center

Stop by on Friday when my guest will be Roger Hudson, author of the historical mystery set in Athens, Death by Amphora. And click below to read “In Memoriam: Windows on the World,” my somewhat solipsistic take on the tragedy of September 11th and one of my first published poems.

  More