Six Tips for Writing Well (and You Can Still Write After Kids)

BlogHer Original Post

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I started writing frantically. I'd graduated from my writing program the year before and was glowing with the newly minted feeling of writerly success: I'd had a few poems and short stories published somewhere other than my university's literary magazine. "What if it ends?" I thought. "What if I never get published again because I'm too busy being a mom?"

After my daughter was born, I couldn't even pee without listening for my girl, let alone think about writing, but I missed it. Those who need to write, need to write. It itches. I desperately wanted to create something I could be proud of but didn't have the time or brain cells to put together a line of verse or the shortest of short stories (which, in my estimation, are actually harder to write than long stories, but that's a post for another day). So on May 25, 2004, I wrote my first Surrender, Dorothy blog post, about tornadoes. It was self-titled, as so many debut acts are, at least that's what I told myself. The post was three paragraphs long, as that was as much as I could handle with a seven-week-old daughter -- but when I hit "publish," I felt some sense of accomplishment, writerly accomplishment. There.

I had no idea at the time that motherhood wouldn't actually hinder me that much as a writer -- if anything, it provided me with endless material as I found myself in myriad situations for which I would never have volunteered left to my own devices. And the lack of time forced me to tighten up on writing time -- it turns out if I think I have all the time in the world to write something, I won't write at all. Who knew?

writer's block

Credit Image: photosteve101 on Flickr

Though I've read hundreds of books on parenting and motherhood and probably fifty books on the craft of writing, I was drawn to Kate Hopper's new book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. It was filled with both solid tips and -- my favorite -- examples of writers doing things correctly. When I was in that graduate writing program, my professor made us read The Art of Fact, and I don't think I would've understood that narrative nonfiction can indeed be literature without that book. Use Your Words brings together practical advice and solid examples in much the same way.

Some of the advice reminded me of what I learned in school, especially in terms of craft. Though the book covered fiction and narrative nonfiction, most advice applied across the board. For example, this quote was written about an essay, but I think it applies beautifully to blogging.

Whenever you find yourself using abstract words -- those slippery concepts like love, hate, joy -- stop and instead try to convey emotion through details. - p. 6

Some of my favorite bloggers are such because of their grasp on description -- often, hilarious description. There are so many cliches in life -- and now there are blogging cliches (ex: hated with the fire of a thousand suns, nom nom, etc.) -- and it's really hard to avoid them. They flow out of my typing fingers on a daily basis, and I can tell how much energy I have that day by how willing I am to delete them and look for a better descriptive phrase. (Um, I'm not that willing every day.) In other words (which is in and of itself a cliche): One truly original sentence is better than an entire post of generic cliches. If you only have fifteen minutes, go for the one sentence, seriously! Then post it all by itself. Everyone will think you are brilliant or at least wonder what you are doing.

Another bit of advice that screamed BLOGGERS! to me was this, even though she's talking about books:

So voice can change from book to book, depending on the needs of your subject, and it changes as we grow and change as people. - p. 57

I use my blog as a place to experiment with my voice and how it changes based on my subject matter. Some posts are very straightforward and conversational, as though I'm passing a note in class. Some are more formal, structured as though I think I am writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times. Some start in medias res and are anecdotes leaving out tons of information to capture a moment, usually about my daughter. Some are structured like screenplays, complete with dialogue and staging directions. Some are storyboards with lots of pictures and captions, usually in a lame attempt at humor. It wasn't always this way -- when I started my blog I tried to be funny every day. Now I try to be funny only when the mood strikes me, because in retrospect I see that I am not one of those people who can be funny on demand. And that's okay! Though I'm always me and if you are very, very familiar with my writing, you may recognize my voice from post to post, I now realize it's fine and authentic and all that to bring forth the Rita I feel necessary on that writing day, not some static persona all the time. (Some people write with the same voice all the time, and they do it for entirely different reasons than I use variations on me on my blog, and it works for them!)

I don't only write on my blog, though, and I know many of you don't, either. Whether you're interested in a blog to book memoir, a cookbook, a novel, poetry, what have you -- any time you write anything is an opportunity to practice. Here are some more tips I pulled from Hopper's book and how they work for me.

Structure is always tied to the story, and identifying the heart of your piece will help you decide what kind of structure you need. - p. 150

One bit of advice I've given to quite a few friends working on memoirs is to think hard about structure before really getting started. I remember grief memoirist Claire Bidwell Smith (we read her memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, in BlogHer Book Club) saying she wrote her book twice before she realized she wanted to use the five stages of grief as her structure instead of chronological order or something else. It's a fascinating spin on structure, as she bounces back and forth between ages and timeframes from chapter to chapter, which forces the reader to focus more on the character than the plot. I myself have struggled with structure in my fiction because -- without an outline -- I tend to sprinkle too little of this character or leave that narrative arc hanging at maybe three-quarters of a rainbow and end up having to rewrite something twelve times instead of three.

Speaking of grief and heavy stuff, I liked the advice Hopper gives about creating emotional distance. I've had feedback from plenty of readers on more than one writing project that my work is "an unrelenting downer." YAY! Nobody wants to be dragged through hell with nary a moment of levity. Have you ever been reading a novel and thought, "Good GOD, if one more horrible thing happens to this narrator, I'll throw the book out the window." No? That's just me? Hmmm ...well anyway, here's a bit of advice if you're getting feedback that your stuff is just too morose:

Two ways to create emotional distance are with voice and tense. - p. 102

Hopper goes on to talk about past tense versus present tense. I didn't give tense a lot of thought until I heard a rumor that Suzanne Collins' editor made her rewrite The Hunger Games in present tense to make it riskier. I don't know if that's true or not, but the idea stopped me in my tracks. I find it easier to write in past tense, but I get it. If you're writing in past tense, the reader knows it already happened and you lived through it. Present tense is anyone's guess. So past tense can make things a little ... safer ... for the reader. Something to think about.

Finally, I wanted to pass along a great bit that I've found true for myself. What I don't have in talent, I make up in spades by being a ridiculous terrier about follow-up. I know plenty of amazing writers with buckets of talent who just don't have the desire to put themselves out there over and over and over for the next thousand times until someone says, "Yes, I'll publish this." It's a marathon, not a sprint. And look! I'm not the only one who thinks so:

DiCamillo says, "I decided a long time ago that I din't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent {...}." -- p. 191

Do you love talking about the craft of writing? Come to the panel I'm moderating at BlogHer '12! I'll be talking with Jennifer Armstrong and Susan Goldberg about turning blog posts into publishable essays at 10:30 am on Friday. I hope to see you there! If you have questions you'd like to discuss now, please ask them in the comments!

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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