Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Baby Steps

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 11•12

Baby Steps = Big Changes
Ever since I started teaching and working with writers I’ve advocated the wisdom of baby steps. This means you don’t need to quit your job, dump your lifestyle, or get divorced in order to be a writer. Well, in my case, getting divorced was a big help in becoming a writer, but that’s a long story for another day.

Years ago, when her book Creating a Life Worth Living was published, I went to hear Carol Lloyd talk. And she said something like, “You don’t need to abandon your life and buy a black beret and go live in the gutters of Paris in order to be creative.” In a similar vein, you don’t need to toss out your life to be a writer, but you do need to commit and you do need to dig deeper into who you are, pay attention to how you think, and what you dream.

What you need, if you’re a beginner, or a person ready to take your avocation/vocation more seriously is figure out baby steps that will take you from where you are now (possibly not accomplishing much) to where you want to be (writing regularly or becoming a published author.)

So here are baby steps that just might help.

Awakening
When you get up the morning you need some signal to yourself and all your levels of consciousness that you’re a writer and you’re creative. Do not slog around muttering as the coffee perks and you imagine the commute to work or as you hustle the kids through their morning routine. Take a few minutes of calm, to accomplish something that signals that you’re going to spend the day thinking and acting like a writer. I like to read poems, write poems, write down my dreams—as I’ve said many times, to dip into the river of language and archetype and imagery. To put words first as the sun appears, as the world widens before me.

Write something every day.
I know, I know. Some days are crammed with too-much to do, too many demands. Saturdays are about washing the car and errands and taming the garden. But even ten or twenty minutes spent writing makes you feel more connected to your inner writer, more attuned, deeper. Writing daily signals your subconscious about the seriousness of your purpose and makes writing part of your daily routine. Your voice will strengthen and you will learn to tame your inner editor. It will also increase your creativity since you’ll notice more and more inspirations arriving, your confidence will expand, and you’ll think better. Now, if all these benefits were found in a drug, someone would be raking in huge profits from it.

Practice awareness.
Every day you can see life with new eyes, wherever you are. A few years ago I was in Eugene giving a talk and teaching a workshop and everywhere I went, I was noticing, paying attention. I saw so many things that make Eugene a lively and original city. So many things that contribute to its hippie reputation. A lot of women with long grey hair. Head shops. Vegan restaurants. Outrageous bumper stickers. Bicycles everywhere. People wearing gypsy garb. I ate lunch in a lovely downtown restaurant and kept listening in to the next table and the way-too-intimate conversation that was going on, while at another table, two men, the scruffiest in the joint, were sharing a bottle of expensive champagne. I almost went over and asked them about the champagne, but controlled myself. But I’m the sort of person when I notice something interesting, I walk up to people and ask them what or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Change the way you talk to yourself
The inner voice that urges you onto greatness cannot sound like a headmaster, taskmaster, or dungeon operator. While the inner critic first began in childhood as a helper, over time it’s become so used to bossing us around that it doesn’t know when to stop. You need to listen in, then change the message if needed. You become what you think about all day, so make sure that this voice you’re listening to is kind, compassionate, understanding.

Steal Moments
All through your day. To jot down notes, sketch a scene, play with dialogue. Listen in. Conjure, with eyes closed everything you’re witnessing, noticing, wishing were true. Pretend that magic really exists. Whatever it takes. You’re a writer. Even if you’re an accountant or lawyer or mom to a passel of kids, you’re a writer. Your heart is expressed in words on a page, your longings come through in stories and poems.

Commit
To a daily or weekly word count. Goals are measurable. Plain and simple. If you want to write a novel, for example, most novels run in the 80,000-90,000 word range. By writing 250-350 words, a mere page, each day you will have written it AND had time for some editing.

Before Sleep
Now if I were advising you on a healthy life or restful sleep, I’d tell you to relax and breathe deep before you slip off to sleep. However, I want you to live like a writer, so before you go to bed, instead think about your writing projects for a bit. If you write fiction, place your protagonist or your short story or your current poem in your inner movie screen and mull them over for a bit. Imagine your ending, or imagine the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist. Or, you can tell yourself that your writing solutions lie in the land of sleep.

Submit
Babies are the most transformative and astonishing beings. One day they’re sleeping most of the day and only grinning at a few recognizable faces, and before you know it, they’re crawling across the living room, and then as toddlers are on a sort of suicide mission to explore the world, some of the exploration through their mouths. The point: most babies are fearless, always ready for their next step, venture, exploration. Similarly, you need totter onto your next step and put your words out into the world.

Send your stuff out. To a journal, an online forum, an editor, an agent. The worst than can happen is that they’ll send it back with a no thanks. Babies topple. Babies put nasty things in their mouths. They fail. But in our humanity, we persevere, we look forward. So it is with writing.

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6 Comments

  1. I usually don’t get to “stuff” I want to do in a New Year. I need to feel my way around and settle into the New Year, before I do anything serious and specific. And that takes me more or less, all of January.

    You’ve given me more than a nudge, it’s more of a good stiff kick in the butt, “Get going girl, you writer you!”

    Thank you for this lovely and inspiring post. Notice I did not say surprising. I already know this stuff like many writers do, but like them (and as you indicated) I hedge and haw and listen to that darn inner critic.

    So, tonight’s the night that I take you stellar advice above and chart a way forward – how I will live as a writer this year.

    Wishing you all wonderful things in 2012 Jessica.

  2. Rebecca White says:

    A most excellent post, Miz Morrell. — I have to admit that The Voice in My Head That Knows Everything is going to be a major pain. It has enjoyed bossing me around for so many years that I may have to actively lock it in the closet for a while until it learns a more positive attitude.

    Thanks for all the work and time that you spend on helping us newbies. We may not always say it, but we’re always out here watching for your newest post, and we listen!

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks for reading. Here’s another two cents: we all have many voices inside our heads. The cheerleader voice, the voice of reason, the editor, the censor, the doubter etc. But the one we need listen to and talk back to is the voice of judgment. You can recognize it by its ugly, bullying tone. That’s the one to lock away. The doubter you take on like you’re tackling the school bully who has been terrorizing your sweet 6 year old.

  3. Olivia says:

    Great advice Jessica. I was feeling low and thinking about giving up writing, but after reading this article, I feel I want to continue. Thanks

    • jessicap says:

      Olivia,
      How cool!
      Here’s an idea: choose one word for 2012 that describes your approach to writing this year. Here are some suggestions: meaningful, persistence, prosperity, unstoppable.
      Then post this word around you–in your notebook, next to your computer, on your bathroom mirror.
      And then, well, just keep writing. Jessica
      I would also suggest you check out the site for author Cathy Lamb. Read her first post about getting her first book published. I met her years ago when her parents were still alive and always knew she’d make it. And she has.

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