The snowball method of writing stories

While mindlessly browsing the web this morning, I happened this 15-year-old comment at AskMetafilter. It is, in essence, a description of what I’m going to call “the snowball method” for writing a story.

Why snowball? Because the writing process builds upon itself, gaining size and speed as the work progresses. Here’s the entire comment from /u/unSane (with some editing by me to make it read more easily):

Context: I’m a professional screenwriter. I wrote the movie SYLVIA. The following works for me. I’m not saying it will work for anything else.

Start with three sentences representing the beginning, middle and end of your story:

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Woman buys house. House turns out to be haunted. Woman defeats ghosts.

Those are dumb examples but you get the idea.

You already have a finished story. You just need to expand it now. You expand it by doing the exact same thing. Take each sentence and expand it into three sentences.

So, you write the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, and the end of the beginning. Thus, boy meets girl becomes:

Family moves house. Boy is lonely. Boy meets girl who is next-door-neighbor.

Or whatever.

You know where I am going with this next, right? You keep doing the beginning/middle/end thing over and over again.

Family moves house becomes:

Boy lives with parents. Parents divorce. Boy forced to move with mother to new town.

And so on. Pretty soon you have every event in your story mapped out. Then you can write it for real. In fact, you will discover that you have already written most of it.

The great, huge virtue of this is that you always have a finished story, and you are just filling it out. Of course sometimes things change, and at a certain point you just write, forgetting about the top-down thing… but it’s like scaffolding that you can eventually discard.

I’ve used this for every script I’ve ever written.

Serious writing is a serious business, like building a house. You don’t expect a builder to just get out of bed and start building.

This snowball writing method appeals to me. I think this is primarily because this isn’t how I work. I’m a professional writer, but almost zero percent of my work is planned top-down like this. Mostly, I just start writing and I see where things take me.

That’s what I’m doing right now. It’s what I did last year. It’s what I did yesterday.

(When I started writing yesterday’s post, it was about my recent fascination with mid-century modern homes. I have some strong opinions on the subject. But while researching and writing that post, I discovered Japandi design, and ultimately that’s what I wrote about.)

But I can’t help but wonder if taking a top-down approach to writing wouldn’t help me be more productive and more effective at communication. This snowball method of writing sounds like a great way for me to experiment with top-down writing.

How I Got My Groove Back

It’s been an interesting week here in Savannah.

After Kim and I settled here six weeks ago, I slipped into a sort of routine. I’d get up in the morning, answer email, do a bit of work, go for a five-mile walk, come back and do more work, and then call it a day. Much of the time, I struggled to get my writing done. It felt like everything was rusty, like I was trying to remember how to make things move again.

That’s changed now, and in a big way.

For the past four-and-a-half days (it’s almost noon on Friday), I have been a writing machine. I haven’t been able to tear myself away from the computer.

I get up in the morning and sit down at my desk. I sit there, clacking away at the keyboard until dinnertime (with only a brief break for lunch). I’m not going for walks, I’m not answering email, and I’m not getting anything else done that needs to get done.

This will be a problem if it continues indefinitely, but for now I’m just riding the wave. It feels so good to have my groove back. This is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi means when he describes the psychology of flow. I’m doing meaningful work that challenges me, and it makes me feel terrific.

Note: As you might expect, 95% of what I’m writing is for Money Boss, my new personal-finance blog. The site went live this week, and I’ve been backfilling the archives with bits and pieces I wrote this summer. Plus, I continue to write long essays as part of the “financial freedom crash course” I’m sending people when they sign up for the email list.

What was it that helped me find flow once more? It was a combination of a few things.

  • First, I’ve begun reading about money again. After I left Get Rich Slowly, I stopped reading personal-finance books. It was as if I took five years away from immersing myself in the subject. Now, though, I’m re-reading classics (like The Millionaire Next Door), finding new favorites (like the Warren Buffet biography The Snowball), and searching for other books about wealth. The stuff I read is constantly triggering new ideas for articles. I love that!
  • Second, I’ve been talking about money with readers and colleagues. I’ve always been piss-poor at answering emails, but when I started Money Boss I made a vow to reply to as many messages as possible. (This is something Chris Guillebeau does that makes a big impression on his audience.) So, I’ve been reading the email people send me, answering their financial questions, and sharing stories and ideas. This too has given me lots of ideas for articles.
  • Lastly, I’ve been freewriting. One of the sucky things about being a writer is that the stuff you produce when you’re “cold” usually isn’t very good. In fact, it’s often terrible. But novice writers — or experienced writers who have forgotten — don’t realize that it’s this shitty early stuff that sets the stage for the better stuff later on. You’ve got to push through it. You’ve got to produce a lot of words that will never see the light of day before you get to the gold. I’m finally getting to the gold.

The bottom line: I’m churning out articles at a terrific rate, and it feels awesome.

Meanwhile, Kim is experiencing a similar resurgence in her own world.

When we arrived in Savannah, she started the long process of getting her dental hygiene license in Georgia. She’s been working on starting a side business (selling stuff online), but that’s not really her passion. In fact, she kind of hates the internet. But she loves people (and people love her). Working with patients puts her into a flow state of her own.

On Monday, Kim’s hygiene license finally came through. On Tuesday, she hit the streets, going door to door across Savannah, dropping off her résumé and chatting with doctors. On Wednesday, she worked her first fill-in shift — and she’s already scheduled for several more. She even has an interview for a temporary full-time position!

When Kim came home after her first day on the job, she was glowing. “I missed that,” she said. “I missed talking with people and doing something that I’m good at.”

I know what she means.

Some Unintended Consequences — and How We Dealt with Them

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you choose to do one thing, you’re implicitly choosing not to do other things. If you choose to have children, for instance, you’ve made a tacit choice to forego many of the things you valued before. Or, if you choose not to have children, you’re making an indirect choice to never experience all that parenthood has to offer.

Sometimes these trade-offs are obvious. We all know that when we choose to buy a new car, that’s money that can no longer be used for, say, buying a boat. Or a house.

Most of the time, though, trade-offs aren’t so obvious. It’s tough to take into account all repercussions of every decision because usually we don’t even know what all of the consequences will be.

What do I mean?

Trying to See the Future

Let’s take our year-long RV trip, for example. When Kim and I set out on our quest to drive across the United States, we did our best to plan for what lie ahead. We talked with other trailerites. We read books and websites. We considered our own personalities and preferences. For the most part, we did a fine job prepping and packing for life on the road.

We knew that our trip would require certain trade-offs, and we were ready for these. We trimmed our wardrobes to just the essentials. We filtered through all of the Stuff in our apartment to choose only the things we truly valued. (Or, if you prefer, those items that spark joy.) We negotiated living space. We planned an itinerary. We talked about how we were going to eat right and exercise while constantly on the move.

For the most part, our planning paid off. For those trade-offs we could foresee, we did a great job of coping with compromise. Obviously, however, I wouldn’t be writing this post if we’d planned everything perfectly.

There’s No Write Time

There were certain trade-offs we failed to foresee before setting out on this trip. We didn’t anticipate just how exhausted we’d get (mentally and physically) from the constant migration. We should have known — but didn’t — that by drinking beer and wine every night, we’d not only consume way too many calories but also thwart our motivation to work out in the morning. (And we didn’t count on just how frustrating road workouts could be.)

But for me, the primary problem has been a lack of time to write. “I’ll just squeeze my writing time between the cracks,” I thought before we left. But when you fail to make time for your big rocks, they don’t fit between the cracks!

Once on the road, I realized that regular writing would be almost impossible. Kim and I were constantly on the move, either traveling across the country or exploring the places where we parked. Even when I did have time to write — usually early in the morning — it was tough to do so without disturbing Kim in our tiny motorhome.

So, I haven’t written nearly as much as I’d wanted, neither here nor anywhere else. (Only our travel blog has received regular updates, and those haven’t been frequent.)

This lack of writing time was fine at first. It was like a break. I’ve spent the past decade of my life writing constantly, so it was relaxing to not have to think about putting pen to paper.

In time, though, the break became a burden. I’m a writer. It’s not only my vocation but also my avocation. I do it for work and play. Writing is a release for me, a way for me to unburden my mind. When I take a week or two off from writing, it’s a vacation. But when I take a month or two off from writing? I get cranky. And five months — or six? Prolonged torture!

Money Boss

Things came to a head at the end of July. While we were stranded in South Dakota, I wrote an article here about the cost of living. That one article lit a spark inside me that has grown into a raging fire.

“I want to write about personal finance again,” I told Kim on the day I published that piece. “I want to start a new money blog.” I shared my vision with her: A site that built upon the work I did developing the “Be Your Own CFO” guide I wrote a couple of years ago.

“That message seems to resonate with people,” I said. “They get it. When I say you should manage your personal finances as if you were managing a business, it seems to make sense.”

That conversation gave birth to Money Boss, my new blog about money. I’ve spent the past two months talking with friends and colleagues about the site, planning its future, trying to find time to write for it. Things may have been quiet here, but they’ve been busy behind the scenes.

And here’s another unexpected consequence: For the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to focus on our trip. All I want to do is work on Money Boss. I haven’t appreciated anything we’ve seen or done since northern Indiana (except for Niagara Falls, which was awesome). Kim too has been struggling to enjoy our adventures.

Solving the Problem

Instead of slogging through six more months on the road, we decided to take action. We need to rest. We need to eat right and exercise. We need to work. To that end:

  • We’ve rented a condo in Savannah, Georgia for six months. We’ll be here until the end of March.
  • Our number-one goal while we’re here is to get back in shape. We’ve already begun eating right and exercising. We both know what we need to do, and we’re doing it.
  • While we’re here, I’m going to write. (Hallelujah!) My primary goal is to launch Money Boss. But be warned that I also plan to post lots around here.
  • Kim too is going to work. She hopes to find a temporary position as a dental hygienist in town (she’s getting certified in Georgia). Plus she wants to launch an online store.

We moved into our new place last Thursday. Boy, does it feel good. We love our motorhome, but living in 250 square feet is confining. This condo is four times as large, so we have space to spread out. We’re close to a Whole Foods, so it’s easy to find and stock healthier food. There are also lots of ways for us to exercise here. (There’s an HOA fitness center thirty seconds outside our front door, so no excuses!)

Best of all? You guessed it: Time and space to write. This morning, I was able to do the same routine I do at home in Portland. I woke up, grabbed some coffee, and sat down in front of my computer. I wrote an article for Far Away Places. I wrote this article. In a moment, I’ll write an article for Money Boss.

It feels amazing to have time to write once more.

I’m happy happy happy.

No More Back Broken: Thoughts on the Creative Process

I’ve written a lot about building confidence and overcoming fear. It’s something I wrestle with all of the time. Despite all of the things I’ve accomplished, I’m always apprehensive about starting something new. People have liked what I’ve done in the past; will they like what I do in the future?

Via Andy, here’s an eleven-minute video that explores the fear and trepidation that all artists face as part of the creative process (and, yes, I just called myself an artist):

Give it some time. The video starts off talking about a joke, but eventually becomes a discussion of the creative process and the pains involved with it. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s poignant.

I’ve done some reading recently about how artists struggle (and cope with their struggles). Why do super successful folks like Ernest Hemingway kill themselves? Why do some descend into addiction?

In Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful Tiny Beautiful Things, she shares some of the advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar” for a site called The Rumpus. One of the emails she answers is from a woman who is scared to become a writer. “I write like a girl,” says Elissa. She wants to know how she can move from being paralyzed with fear to becoming the writer she wants to be.

Strayed’s answer talks about her own struggles as a writer, about how she was afraid she was a failure when she hadn’t written a book by the time she was twenty-eight. (As most of us now know, she spent several months of that time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.)

“I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that,” writes Strayed. She thought that she was “lazy and lame”.

Eventually, however, she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” And so, she wrote it. She describes the process:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

In the end, Strayed says, what matters is that you do the work, whether it’s shitty or not. To become the person you want to be, you have to “get your ass down onto the floor”. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be fit, you have to exercise. If you want to be a better parent, you have to spend time with your children. You cannot succeed if you do not do the work required to succeed.

I think Strayed’s point is that you have to let go of all of the excuses and actually make things happen. And that’s the theme of the video I shared at the start of this post. In it, a musician shares a year-long litany of excuses for not writing a song…until on the last day of the year, he confesses that he hasn’t shared a song because he’s scared to do so.

Strayed’s advice to Elissa, who writes like a girl, is to become resilient and to have faith. To become a warrior and a motherfucker. To have strength and nerve. “Writing is hard for every last one of us,” says Strayed. “Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same…”

“So write,” she concludes. “Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

Do the work, and do it to the best of your ability. Do it despite your fears and insecurities. Put in the days and years of toil and labor. That’s the only way to overcome your fears — and the only way to become the person you want to be.

A Portrait of the Artist: My Development as a Writer

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I was always eager for my parents to read to me: Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The Giving Tree, Anything by Dr. Seuss. Like most children, I enjoyed the pictures in these books, but what I really loved was the stories.

In grade school, most kids couldn’t wait until recess. Me? I couldn’t wait until storytime. I was always eager for the teacher to read to us: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, TheLittle House on the Prairie series, The Mad Scientists’ Club, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Eventually, I began to write my own stories. The first story I can remember writing was “The Meanest Inchworm”. To call it a story is generous, I suppose. I was in the third grade, and my creative ambition far outstripped my narrative abilities. But by the fourth grade, I was regularly writing two-page tales.

Mr. Zagyva had a clever story-generating system. Each week, we had writing time. During writing time, we’d pull story elements from a hat: place, plot, protagonist, and so on. So, for instance, I might draw “the moon” from the places, “someone is lost” from the plots, and “a little boy” from the protagonists. I’d then have to construct a story from these random combinations.

In fifth and sixth grades we wrote stories too. As I wrote (and read) more, my skills improved. So did my ambition. I remember once in Miss Bell’s class we were supposed to write a two-page story about a trip to the zoo. My story was ten pages long and I turned the topic on its head. I wrote about being kidnapped by an alien named Gloops who wanted to make me a part of his interstellar menagerie. (Geeks in the crowd will recognize this as the plot to an episode of Star Trek. My homage was unintentional.)

As I got older, I wrote more. In junior high school, I wrote stories for the school paper. (My grandest effort was a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.) I also began dabbling in poetry. By the time I reached high school, I often wrote in my spare time — just for kicks.

It was in high school that I got serious about writing. The English department at Canby High School was phenomenal. Not only were the teachers supportive but they actively encouraged me (and other kids) to push beyond my expectations. Mr. Nichols pulled me out of sophomore English and had me write independently. I designed my own curriculum. Mr. Sanvitale recruited me to work on the school literary magazine, and eventually I became the editor. And Mr. Dage took on a handful of us writing nerds to help foster our development for an entire semester.

Compared to high school, my college English classes were a disappointment. Not only were they less rigorous, but the teachers seemed less practical — more, well, woo-woo. I’m sure that Willamette had some good English professors during the late 1980s, but (with the exception of Mr. Strelow) I didn’t end up in their classes. Still, I continued to write. I continued to work on (and edit) the school literary magazine. Gradually, however, my writing moved from fiction and poetry to personal essays.

After I graduated, I entered a period of hibernation. From 1991 until 1997, I wrote very little. Very little. It wasn’t until I started my web journal during the summer of 1997 that I began to write in earnest again. I re-discovered how much I loved telling stories.

To revitalize my skills, I took writing classes at the local community college. Most of the other students were kids and not serious about writing. (Many were looking for an easy class to pad their GPA.) But a handful of older folks were serious about writing and producing serious work. The instructors knew who we were and would ask us to stay after class to provide personal feedback. It was in these classes that I wrote some of my best short stories. (While cleaning house earlier this year, I found a bunch of these stories buried in the bottom of a box. I spent a couple of hours reading them and was impressed. They were better than I had remembered.)

A large part of my development as a writer has been my development as a reader. When I was younger, I mostly read fantasy and science fiction. I’m still fond of speculative fiction, but as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed. Now I like historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I like philosophy and pop psychology. And after working with professional editors over the past five years, I’ve come to appreciate carefully crafted magazine articles written for mass consumption. Writing simply is tougher than it looks!

Here’s another thing that’s helped my development as a reader over the past eighteen years: Our book group. In 1996, Kris and I formed the Elm Street Book Group with one of my former English teachers (Mr. Dage) and his wife. The group has met every month since November 1996. Along the way, we’ve read a crazy variety of books. Some of them (House Made of Dawn, Mutant Message Down Under) have sucked. Others (Mutiny on the Bounty, How Green Was My Valley) have been shockingly good. But each has helped me grow as a reader — and a writer.

This month, to celebrate our eighteenth anniversary, our book group has come full circle. We’re reading Trout Kill by Paul Dage, one of our founding members and my former high-school English teacher. It’s sort of a surreal experience, actually, to be a professional writer who is reading a novel from one of the men who taught you to write. (Not to mention that Paul has become a real-life friend over the past thirty years.) It’s even more surreal to be marking up the book with the same sorts of comments the author used to put on the papers I submitted in his class: “too many adjectives”, “too much repetition”, “this may be a crutch word”, “show, don’t tell”.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned during my almost forty years (!!!) as a writer: You never stop growing. Yes, you’re a better writer now than you’ve ever been. Yes, you can look back on your older work and wonder why you saw fit to publish it. Yes, your style has evolved over time. But the process isn’t finished. Good writers continue to grow. They read writing manuals. They take writing classes. They read good books (and bad) and try to figure out what works (and what doesn’t). Real writers don’t shy from criticism and feedback. In fact, they revel in it.

Kathleen and I have begun working on a joint writing project. “How do you feel about me editing your work?” I asked during one of our first meetings. “Some writers get uptight about it.”

Kathleen laughed. “J.D.,” she said. “Edit away. I’m not precious about my words. And I know you’re not either.” She’s right. I used to be precious about my words — I hated to be told that something didn’t work or that my sentences were sloppy — but now I welcome constructive criticism. My goal is to entertain and inform my readers, and to become a better writer. If I don’t listen to what my readers have to say, I’ll never improve as a writer. I’ll stagnate. I don’t want that.

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. I want other people to love words and books as much as I do. The best way for me to be an effective evangelist for the written language is to become more proficient with it each passing week. And so I’ll continue to take classes, to read books (both good and bad), to write stories, and to listen to my editors. There’s no such thing as a perfect writer — but I want to be the best writer I can be.

How to Become a Writer

More often than you might expect, I get questions about how to become a writer. Specifically, how to become a writer online. Just this morning, for instance, I spent half an hour on the phone with Kimberlee, who wants to make the move from academic to science writer but doesn’t know where to start.

I don’t feel like an expert on this subject — far from it — but I do have some opinions based on my personal experience. Here’s my advice for folks who want to become writers:

  • Tell stories. When I speak at conferences, I try to hammer home this point. My talk at the first Fincon was about the power of story. I’ve stressed the importance of story at the Savvy Blogging Summit. For WDS 2013, I secretly fostered a story-based theme among the keynote speakers. Why? Because people relate to stories. Even if they can’t identify with you and your specific circumstances, stories help them relate to the point you’re trying to make. Story provides context. It’s illustrative. It’s one thing to describe the dangers of credit cards; it’s another to share actual anecdotes of people who’ve spent years trying to recover from stupid spending. When possible, tell a story.
  • Be conversational. In college, I was taught to write in an academic style. Contractions were frowned upon. First person was forbidden. Everything was formal. As a result, everything was also lifeless and dull. In time, I’ve come to realize that good writing — especially for mass consumption — is conversational. In fact, when I work with actual magazine and book editors, they often ask me to be even more informal than I alraedy am. (I didn’t fully embrace contractions until working on Your Money: The Missing Manual. My editor was changing every instance of “you will” to “you’ll”, etc., which helped me realize that contractions make things easier to read. They’re an ally, not an enemy!)
  • Develop your voice. Fifteen years ago, when I began to get serious about writing, my stories mimicked other authors. I wrote a story that was a combination of Charles Dickens and Patrick Süskind. I wrote a story that was all Faulkner and one that was clearly an homage to Hemingway. This sort of imitation is natural, but it’s not sustainable. In time, I found my own voice. I learned to write like J.D. Roth instead of like somebody else. Write in a way that feels easy to you. That’s your voice.
  • Hone your craft. The best writers I know work to improve their skills. They read voraciously; as they do, they pay attention to how good writing works. After reading a great piece, they re-read it to find the form and struture. I once attended a reading by David Sedaris. I was fascinated by the way he’d calmly make a mark on the page every time the audience roared with laughter. He was learning from his audience — and I was learning from him. Good writers also take classes and read writing manuals (such as those listed below). Real writers generate a ton of material that never sees publication. I write all day long, but only about ten percent of what I produce ever sees the light of day. The rest is practice.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Eighty percent of writing is editing. Okay, that’s not a scientific number, but you get the idea. You should spend more time editing a piece than you do writing it — generally much more time. When I was younger, I was one of those stereotypical writers who thought his work was art. It was sacred. Criticism bothered me, and I hated when others offered suggestions for improvement. When somebody edited my work, I felt like they were saying I’d done something wrong. After nearly a decade of writing every day, I have a different perspective. My goal is to communicate clearly with my audience. To do that, I need to edit my own material. I need to polish it, smoothing away the rough edges. And if other people want to help me do that work, so much the better!
  • Write. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you a writer, and neither does talking about writing. A writer writes. End of story.

None of this is new, I know. But there’s a reason everyone offers the same advice. It’s because these are the things you need to do to become an effective writer. Like anything else, it takes practices to get good at this job. I often think of Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Outliers. He notes that research indicates that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly proficient at a skill. That’s five years of full-time work. Over the past decade, I estimate I’ve spent around 15,000 hours writing — maybe more. That’s enough time for me to feel comfortable with my craft, to reach a level where I can confidently say, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

At dinner recently, Kathleen (of Frugal Portland) and I talked about writing. She thinks she might register for a community college writing class to improve her skills.

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “I do that every few years. I know I write well, but there’s always room for improvement. I learn tons every time I take a class. And since one of my goals for 2014 is to write a novel, I feel like I should take a class again soon.”

Kathleen showed me the book she was reading, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. “Have you heard of it?” she asked. “It’s awesome. She wrote it in 1938 as a guide to her writing students, but a lot of it isn’t even about writing. For instance, she talks about how you can jump-start the creative process just by going for a walk. She used to walk several miles a day, and she says it helped her write better.”

I smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard of the book,” I said. “It’s one of my favorites.” I opened Kathleen’s copy to the first page and pointed to the title of the first chapter: Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. “I’ve incorporated that idea into my personal philosophy. I truly believe it.”

“In fact, this is one of the books I push on people all the time. I always have a few copies on hand to give to aspiring writers. I have three at home write now.” (Actually, it turns out I have four copies here in my office.)

“Would you be interested in a list of my favorite books about writing?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” Kathleen said.

“Done,” I said.

Here are three of my favorite books about writing:

  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an inspirational book that many return to in order to escape the dreaded writer’s block. (In fact, I may re-read a bit of it later today.)
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book is primarily about writing nonfiction. It offers lots of advice about the actual craft of writing, including clarity, revision, tone, and more. This is another book I keep on hand to give away. (Also see Writing to Learn by the same author.)
  • Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method by Gerald M. Weinberg. This flawed but brilliant manual describes the author’s method for organizing writing ideas. It’s sort of a left-brained approach to a write-brained activity. I think it’s especially useful for bloggers and magazine columnists.

There are many other books I like, including:

Many people I know like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (although, curiously, none of these people are writers). Most folks love Lamott’s style. I don’t. She has some good things to say, but I find her manner twee. It’s grating. I’m in a small minority, though, and you will probably love her, just like everybody else.

Every writer has room for improvement. Most of us write every day, and that’s great — that’s the best way to develop skill — but there are other things we could (and should) do to hone our craft. Take classes. Join writing groups. Read books. And, most of all, occasionally do work that requires an editor.

Paperback Writer

Last week, I wrote about how I’m trying to focus on just one thing at a time in my professional life. Instead of tackling many projects at once — preventing me from giving my full attention to any of them — I’m instead devoting my attention to a single job. It makes me happier and more productive.

This new productivity method doesn’t keep me from dreaming, however. I still have lots of ideas on the backburner, and I’m eager to get started on each of them.

One idea that really has me excited is a return to writing fiction.

You see, I never set out to become a personal-finance writer. I stumbled into that career. And as much as I love it, there’s a part of me that still wants to write poetry and science fiction and literary short stories.

I wrote a lot of poetry during high school and college, but this urge has faded in adulthood. I think this is the last poem I wrote myself (in March 2005):

Like a Lion

The coming of Spring is a violent thing:
The tulips proclaim their riotous hues
While peas and then carrots have thrust their way through
the crust of the earth (swollen and muddy).

The apples and cherries and plums are now budding.
The camelias are flinging their petals en masse
Bright-colored habits for shaggy-haired grass.

The Earth’s in rebellion! Again has grown bold!
Has dethroned Old Winter, destroying his hold
On daylight and sunshine and the world out-of-doors.
Spring has arrived: Hear how she roars!

As my poetical self has diminished, a different sort of writer has emerged. I want to tell stories. For several years, I took writing classes intermittently at the local community college. As a result, I produced half a dozen short stories like this one [DOC file].

I used to think my writing sucked. I don’t think that anymore. I’ve been writing full-time for nearly a decade, and I’ve had a lot of practice. Sure, there’s more improvement to be had, but that’s why I’m constantly reading writing manuals, and that’s why I want to take another writing class when January rolls around.

This time, I want to try something different. This time, I want to write a novel. Perhaps a children’s novel.

I’ve always loved a certain type of book, one that describes the adventures (and/or misadventures) of a group of smart kids living in a small town. Examples include The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley (holy cats! look at those Amazon reviews — 61 five-star, two four-star, and one three-star!), The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (another five-star book at Amazon!), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I think it’d be fun to tackle a similar world, although I’m still not clear on what sort of conflict/plot my story would involve. (I do have some characters and scenes in my head, though. And because Kim also grew up in a small town, I listen to her stories with great interest!)

So, my goal for 2014 is to return to writing fiction. I have a lot of other things that must get finished first. I have to finish my ebook. I have to start a digital magazine. I have to help Kim launch her website. I have to start a new website (or two) of my own. And I have to begin organizing a retreat with Harlan and Jim. But after all that? Yeah, I’m going to write a novel.

Poems for People Who Don’t Like Poetry?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. In high school, I wrote poetry all the time. Some of it was actually okay — in a sophomoric kind of way. Most of the time, it was about what you’d expect from a nerdy high-school boy. Still, I managed to get some poems published, and even saw a few paychecks because of it.

I haven’t written much poetry since college, though. The impulse vanished. About once every couple of years, I’ll dash something off, but mostly I’m non-poetic. Here’s a little bit that I wrote on September 11, 2001. I like it.

In the twilight
the colors bleed and fade —
what once was red, or blue, or green,
is now black. Or white.

The approaching darkness
casts long shadows, cloaking
all that once danced in light,
consuming warmth, producing fright.

Though I don’t write much myself anymore, I appreciate good poetry. Here are a few of my favorites:

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Summer Storm
by Dana Gioia

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

The Sunlight on the Garden
by Louis MacNeice

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told,
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth comples, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

I’m particularly impressed by folks who make good use of meter, rhythm, and rhyme. It’s harder to work within these contraints than outside of them. Besides, I don’t find much difference between modern free verse and flowery essays. (I’ll readily admit this could be a shortcoming on my part.)

When Kim and I started dating fifteen months ago, I mentioned my fondness for poetry. “I’m not sure I like poetry,” she said. “A lot of times, I just don’t get it. Plus, I don’t like being told what things mean.”

“Some of it’s good,” I told her.

“You should share it with me,” she said. But I never did.

Last weekend, I found some time to read her a handful of poems. She liked a few, but others simply reinforced her opinion. “I don’t get it,” she said after a couple of opaque poems. From her perspective, it was as if the poets didn’t want to be understood, an observation I find interesting (and, quite possibly, accurate).

So, I’m coming to you for advice. Can you recommend some poems for people who don’t like poetry? Did you used to be a poetry hater? Are you still? What poems changed your mind? What poets do you appreciate? How does somebody who finds poetry frustrating learn to love it?

Lost in Translation

All day long, I think about Spanish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I think in Spanish (though this never lasts for long). When I’m not working on my Spanish, I wish I were. And sometimes, like last night, I’ll stay up long after Kris has gone to bed just so I can read more Spanish or do more flashcards.

My favorite activity is translation. I love taking a Spanish-language book or poem or song or comic and working out the English translation. It’s such lovely, imprecise work. (Aly and I have had some good conversations about how translation is never an exact thing because words in different languages never have direct analogs, and because of cultural nuances.)

Here’s a poem I’ve been working on today, a poem by Amado Nervo, a Mexican writer from a hundred years ago. This poem is called “En Paz“, or “At Peace”. It’s about a man nearing the end of his life.

En Paz por Amado Nervo

Muy cerca de mi ocaso, yo te bendigo, vida,
porque nunca me diste ni esperanza fallida,
ni trabajos injustos, ni pena inmerecida;

porque veo al final de mi rudo camino
que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino;

que si extraje la miel o la hiel de las cosas,
fue porque en ellas puse hiel o mieles sabrosas:
cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas.

…Cierto, a mis lozanías va a seguir el invierno:
¡mas tú no me dijiste que mayo fuese eterno!

Hallé sin duda largas noches de mis penas;
mas no me prometiste tú sólo noches buenas;
y en cambio tuve algunas santamente serenas…

Amé, fui amado, el sol acarició mi faz.
¡Vida, nada me debes! ¡Vida, estamos en paz!

And here is my very amateur translation, with an attempt to keep things poetic:

At Peace by Amado Nervo

As I approach my twilight, I bless you, Life,
because you never gave me false hope,
nor unjust labor, nor undeservéd pain;

because I see at the end of my long journey
that I was the maker of my own destiny;

that if I’ve taken sweetness or bitterness from things,
it was because I put sweetness or bitterness in them:
when I planted roses, I always harvested roses.

Indeed, my blossoms will continue into winter:
Although you never promised me an eternal spring!

It’s true that I’ve had long nights filled with pain and sorrow;
but you never promised that I’d only have good nights;
and in exchange, some nights were holy and serene.

I loved, was loved, and the sun caressed my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!

I’ll freely admit that I may have messed up this translation in places. I’m not familiar with many Spanish idioms, and I suspect there are a few phrases here that I’ve translated literally but which ought to be taken in another way. (“Trabajos injustos“, for instance, and “pena inmerecida“.) But I’ve done my best to convert a beautiful Spanish poem into English.

Note: Here’s another example of translation difficulties — at least for me. There are several subtle different ways to translate the line “cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas“. Rosales could be “roses” or it could be “rosebushes”. Rosas could be “roses” or it could be “pink” (or “pinks”). The latter may always imply the color — I’m not sure. So, how does one translate this? For me, to get the meaning that I think the author is going for and to remain poetic, I used the English word “rose” in both cases. But I could be wrong.

Back when our book group read the first volume of Proust, I remember that Pam complained that the translation was imprecise. She wanted it to be literal. The translation we read was the classic from C.K. Scott Moncrieff, who translated for mood and feeling and not exactly word for word. This bugged Pam. It didn’t bug me.

Note: For instance, the literal translation of the title to Proust’s huge novel is In Search of Lost Time, but Moncrieff translated it as Remembrance of Things Past, which was more poetic, a reference to Shakespeare, and attempted to capture the mood of the work. The modern, literal translation of the second volume’s title is “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, which is hideous. Do the literalists actually like this? Moncrieff translated it as “Within a Budding Grove”, which is poetic and hints at the sexual awakening without being so overtly clinical.

The more I learn about languages, the less I like word-for-word translations. They may capture the technical meanings, but they don’t convey the deeper dimensions, the wonder behind the words.

I still have a lot of Spanish to learn — I’ve barely begun my journey — but I look forward to lots and lots of future translating. It’s my favorite part of this process.

A Brief Message is Better Than No Message

Recently, I met Charlie Gilkey for lunch at Jade Teahouse. Over noodles and vietnamese stew, we talked about blogging. (Charlie runs a site called Productive Flourishing, which contains “strategies for thriving in life and business”.) And we talked about e-mail.

Junk food may be one of my biggest weaknesses, but e-mail is nearly as bad. I get a lot of e-mail, and I do a poor job of processing it. I try to reply immediately to friends and family, but it usually takes me far too long to reply to everyone else, even when the messages are important.

As I described this weakness to Charlie, he was sympathetic. I told him how I’d watched Chris Guillebeau blitz through e-mail during our cross-country train trip in April. Chris is a master of efficiency (thanks in part to Text Expander, which allows him to type “/WDSreply” and immediately get a prepared three-paragraph reply).

Charlie gave me some quick tips for handling e-mail, including:

  • Use filters. I already filter many of my messages. Get Rich Slowly e-mail is routed to its own box. Comic book e-mail is routed to its own box. All of the e-mail for Kris’s liberal causes is routed to its own box. (Or, in the case of MoveOn.org, directly to spam.)
  • If you open it, act on it. Instead of opening a message and then hemming and hawing about it for the next few days, act on it immediately. If it requires work, put it in a separate folder. But if it gets opened, it gets pulled from the inbox.
  • And, most of all, make e-mail responses brief. Except when rambling to friends (like when I’m writing to Mac and Pam about running, for example, or when I’m writing to the geeks about Tron), the best way to expedite e-mail is to write short, meaningful replies.

As an example of how Charlie implements that last rule, take a look at this post, in which he explains why he writes brief e-mails. (He links to this post from the signature of every e-mail he sends.) After our lunch, he wrote an expanded explanation of his method.

To quote Charlie:

My brief email message is just me…ensuring that I don’t bottleneck the conversation. I’m happy to have deeper and extended conversations with you, and you aren’t something I’m trying to get out of my Inbox. Please continue the conversation if it’s appropriate, and feel free to write in whatever length and style that feels comfortable for you. I don’t want my anti-bottlenecking practice to bottleneck you.

All of this is to say, I’m moving to the brief e-mail model. I’m going to do my best to give folks timely replies to their e-mail, but my responses may be short. It’s not because I don’t care, but because I do care.