Five Non-Negotiable Must-Dos to Maintain the Health of Your Writerly Body and Soul

Whether we want to admit it or not, we writers are sensitive souls. We write because we notice more than others, which means that, through all the observing and processing, our systems are bombarded, infiltrated, and taxed to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis.

We must take regular reprieves and preventative measures to keep our vessels in good working order. And while some – if not all of – the items in the list below may seem obvious, it’s easy for us to forget. As a reminder, here are five essential, absolutely non-negotiable must-dos to maintain the health of your ever-sensitive writerly body, mind and soul.

1) Get enough sleep. See? I said they may seem obvious, but how many times do you stay up late to gulp in just one or two more episodes of your recent TV series binge? (Okay, maybe I’m talking more to myself than to all of you.) More and more, scientists and the medical community are speaking to the fact that we need a certain amount of sleep for our health, on all levels. When we sleep, we not only rest and replenish, but we also tune into our subconscious, which is crucial for us writers. And if you’re someone who remembers your dreams, there’s so much great fodder there for your next excellent story.

2) Drink plenty of water. Again, maybe obvious, but how many times do you realize that the day is nearly over and you’ve only had one or two glasses of water – if even that? The adult body is believed to be about 60% water. If we don’t maintain that level of liquidity, horrible things can begin to happen. Not only does our skin and mouth dry up, we can get dizzy or lightheaded, tired, and develop headaches. Who wants to – or can – write when they’re lightheaded, tired, and nursing a headache? More severe symptoms of dehydration include confusion, rapid heart rate, fever, and even seizure or shock. 

Imagine the cells of your body and your brain tissues plump and elastic, fully hydrated and ready to serve the wealth of stories that live in my imagination every time you imbibe a glass of clear, refreshing water. If you work at home, keep a glass out in plain sight in a location you walk past several times a day as a reminder. If your budget can tolerate it and your taste buds like it, quaff some electrolyte-loaded coconut water on the daily to keep your system happy, supple, and ready to churn out all those words shoring up inside you.

3) Walk outside. Kill two birds with one stone. After hours at the keyboard or at your desk, hunched over pen and paper, give your body a break and go for a walk outside. Not only will you keep your muscles from experiencing ennui, you’ll get some sunlight on your eyes – always good for your mood, and you’ll get next to nature – always good to keep us grounded and tuned into the earth’s natural rhythms, which will help the writing flow.

4) Eat healthy brain food. And again… this may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes, we writers can get on a roll and forget about eating. Of course, doing this once in a while, when we’re deep in flow and lost in our story world, isn’t going to do much harm. In fact, it can be a good thing, in terms of clearing us out to make room for more creative solutions to our story problems.

But regularly foregoing food – especially, healthy brain food – can have lasting effects that can harm our physical health, including our brains, and, in turn, our ability to create. Here’s a good list of The Top 50 Best Foods for Your Brain. If you’re like me and have a lot of food sensitivities, there are plenty of other foods you can substitute that are equally good for your brain.

For me, here’s a typical brain food-rich day:

Breakfast – Hot buckwheat cereal with chia seeds and blueberries

Lunch – Salad made with romaine lettuce, celery, chopped carrots, and sweet corn, topped with virgin, cold-pressed olive oil, apple cider vinegar, Himalayan sea salt, and fresh herbs, like parsley, cilantro, and basil

Dinner – Baked sweet potato with grass-fed butter, Himalayan sea salt, and pepper OR sliced baked parsnips, zucchini, and multi-colored carrots tossed with fresh pesto OR beets baked and drizzled with melted coconut oil or nestled atop a pile of romaine along with dollops of herbed goat cheese, topped with cold-pressed, virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar.

Plenty of water throughout the day with a 17-oz can of coconut water keeps me hydrated and happy, and snacks include blueberries, dates, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds. And in the evening, some dark chocolate and wine are a luxurious treat at the end of the day.

5) Meditate. It’s SO good for us. It gives us a breather from all the rampant thoughts that bounce around inside our brains day after day. It slows our heart rate. And it expands time. As the old Zen proverb says, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”I start my days with meditation, and it always leaves me feeling that I can take on the day with MORE time to spare. On the days I scrimp, I can tell.

For writers, it’s a great way to quiet our minds and give our characters the space to talk to us. They’re ready and waiting, and when we give them the room, they’ll always tell us what’s next, whether we like it or not.

I’d love to hear what you do to keep your vessel – your writing machine – your physical body, mind, and spirit – in prime working order so you can honor your call to write and tell stories.

Leave a comment below and let me know!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
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Author Interview – Ulrick Casimir

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
This is a great question, but it has like ten different answers, since each piece compelled me in different ways, and at times those ways overlapped.  Sometimes—like with “Stars of Gold,” “Phantom Power,” “I Love You, Joe,” “Marvin’s Dilemma,” and “Urania’s Mirror”—what compelled me most was the exploration of perspectives that are dramatically different from my own, which is something that I tend to value greatly in my fiction writing.  At other times, like with “Children of the Night” and “Phantom Power,” it was my long-running interest in exploring the potentialities of literary noir that truly compelled me to develop and flesh out those stories the way that I did … and the same goes for the collection’s closing story, “Urania’s Mirror,” which is about as much “sci-fi” as it is “tech noir.”  “Many Happy Returns” was compelling to write mostly because it’s such a large noir-ish sweep of a story, and it’s so much about interior and exterior landscapes, that the thing really opened up like a large flower, letting me dance with some of the well-established conventions of the short-story genre in a single piece. But one major thing that often compels me to tell specific stories (and that certainly girds the stories in this collection) is an overriding concern with a sense of “place,” which often expresses itself in terms of “belonging”:  Some of the pieces in the collection (e.g., “Just Like Me” and “Urania’s Mirror”) are deliberately vague in terms of setting, while others (such as “Many Happy Returns,” “Phantom Power,” and “I Love You, Joe”) are far more specific about setting … but almost all of these pieces show characters struggling, in some way, with community and belonging.  So perhaps it’s the difficulties that come with “being where we are” that most compelled me to write the pieces in this collection.

What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
I think for most writers the most significant obstacle to their writing is time and space.  I’m deeply fortunate to have friends and family who are generous enough to allow me the time and space it takes to draft and render, to revise and proofread—and since the collection’s publication, I’ve been busy reconnecting with my friends and family, in a concerted effort to show them just how much I’ve appreciated their patience with me.  I learned, long ago, that writing can feel like a disappearing act to those around you, which can be a major obstacle if you’re a (semi) social person who’s neck-deep in drafting and revising and proofreading.  Work, too, that thing you do to keep bread on the table, can make things difficult … though I thank my lucky stars, every day, that teaching college and university classes offers a tremendous amount of flexibility to my schedule.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
One really rewarding aspect of drafting this book was how it raised my level of confidence and command in storytelling.  MFA’ers are taught in a way that leads us to focus intensely on one story at a time, but with this collection, precisely because I wanted a sort of thematic unity with the stories that it contains, I had to revise and proofread them all simultaneously.  It was a bit like holding several conversations in your head all at the same time, and it was the wildest, most freeing and pleasantly dislocating experience of my creative life.  Honestly, I cannot wait to feel it again.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
Corpus Callosum is the publisher of this collection—so no, I did not self-publish.  I guess the publication of this collection would qualify as “the traditional route” … though to be honest, since this is my first book, I don’t really have another route to compare it to.  One of the most exciting aspects of this process is that Corpus Callosum is a new literary press that launched with my book:  My publisher and editor, Eric Tucker, who is also the editor of Plainsongs literary magazine, is someone I’ve known for quite a while, and he is very familiar with my fiction writing (in fact, he picked “Stars of Gold” to move Plainsongs, which had a long-standing reputation as a poetry magazine, into the inclusion of short fiction pieces).  Trust and a critical eye are two things that I deeply value in an editor … and I lucked out, frankly, with Eric.  Lots of ins and outs of the publication process, and he has been there to patiently help me through it all.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
I am indeed friends with other writers.  Sometimes their work influences me, while at other times, they help me as critical-yet-encouraging readers of my work, and in those instances, it is their editorial commentary that truly influences me.  Some writers, like the fine young poets Terry Kennedy and Julie Funderburk, I’m influenced by them from afar even though I’ve known them since my MFA days.  There are few things like seeing great writers who you went to school with find success; this can be powerful motivation on those dark days when writing is hardest.  There are some more local writers who influence me as readers—and I’m afraid that they are quite literally my secret weapon, so I won’t be naming them anytime soon.  🙂  I should note, though, that there are many writers who I’m not friends with but whose writing influences me deeply—Donald Pollock, Megan Abbott, and Wells Tower are among them.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
I do maintain a regular writing practice, but I’ve learned over the years that writing can take on many different forms, which is to say that what’s regular for me might seem quite … irregular to someone else.  For me, it’s all about figuring out ways to “hack” my life in order to include writing most firmly within it, and in as many ways as possible.  A good example would be “Phantom Power”:  That story came to me late at night and very quickly, in a burst that I captured as quickly as possible in a notes app on my phone—and this happened while I was in the middle of revising an earlier draft of “Many Happy Returns.”  Capturing stories like this, jotting them down before I start plotting them out, lets me sift through story ideas later on, when I’m looking for something promising in order to start the next stage:  loose planning, which is especially vital for me later on while drafting and rendering.  Without that loose plotting/planning, drafting and rendering slow down to a painful crawl for me, becoming more mechanical and less artful, like building skin and then trying to slip the bones underneath.  Normally, I try to draft and render one piece at a time.  Depending on what I’m working on, I can revise and proof one piece or many pieces at the same time.  Now, if you atomize that process, you start to get a sense of my writing practice.  For me, life as a fiction writer is all about being productive.  I focus a lot less on a specific number of hours, or pages, per day than on fully integrating my writing practice(s) into my life and lifestyle—this lets me work gradually while staying productive.  I’m not sure if that way of writing work for everyone, but I can tell you that this personalized practice of mine places much less stress on me as a writer.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
So I literally have hundreds of stories jotted down (!!), but if you’re asking about work that’s more realized, I have a couple of stories in progress at the moment, one of which will appear in this summer’s volume of Plainsongs magazine.  As far as the next book … this is a funny story (at least it’s funny to me!!) but one of the most frustrating/pleasant things that happened while I was writing Children of the Night:  Stories was the discovery that two stories that I was frantically revising to include in the collection simply weren’t “fitting” with what I had envisioned thematically for the volume.  It wasn’t until after I cast them aside that I realized both would benefit from elongation … and the two were speaking not only to one another but also speaking to another piece whose story I’d already jotted down (but I had yet to plot out or start drafting).  All of this basically meant that right as I was proofreading my first book, I suddenly discovered I’d started working on the next one.  With any luck, I’ll have that next one drafted by mid- to late 2019.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
This is a great question—I don’t know about “spiritual,” but I do think of writing as an intensely psychological practice, in that it helps the writer make sense of the world, which automatically gives writing a kind of sociological dimension or “thrust” as well.  For me, the purpose of reading is to place yourself in someone else’s perspective, which is one major reason that I see fiction writing as a game of perspectives—if you as an author aren’t inside of your character, if you aren’t sympathizing with them and seeing the world as they do, then you’ve lost the game as well as your reader.  If there is a global spirit, then I figure it must exist not within but between us—and in that way, yes, I do think fiction writing takes on a spiritual dimension.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
Honestly, I’m not even sure how to imagine my life without writing.  To me, writing isn’t something that you do—being a writer isn’t a choice, it’s just who you are.  Take away my laptop, stick me on a desert island with nothing but the clothes on my back, and watch how quickly I find a fallen palm frond and start scratching out passages on the beach.  If you’re an artist, then you paint because you must; if you’re a writer, then you write because you have to.  I literally can’t imagine my life without writing.  Hell, I don’t even want to.

Why do you write?
Great question—I write to make sense of the world; I write because I have to.

Ulrick Casimir lives, writes, and teaches in the Pacific Northwest.  He earned a B.A. from North Carolina State University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; he also holds an M.A. and a Ph.D., both in English, from the University of Oregon, where he teaches. Ulrick‘s scholarly writing has appeared in the film journal Jump Cut, and his short stories have frequently appeared in Plainsongs literary magazine.  Published by Corpus Callosum Press, Ulrick‘s debut short-story collection, Children of the Night:  Stories, appeared this spring.

Three Easy Ways Strangers Can Enhance Your Writing

I live in downtown Portland, Oregon, on the second floor of a 113-year-old building. I love my apartment, and while the building has its issues, it also has a fair amount of charm. I work at home, so I’m able to look out any of my four, big, north-facing windows throughout the day to see and hear snippets of stories unfold or pass on by. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up to the sound of alcohol-induced squabbles and lines of dialogue that stay with me.

The storyteller in me kicks in and I can’t help but create a beginning and end to the middle I’ve witnessed and/or heard.

As writers, we have at our disposal a jackpot of fodder and triggers for our writing. Even if we’re working on a longer piece, like a novel or memoir, taking the time to write a quick story based on a conversation we’ve overheard, a facial expression we’ve witnessed, or a scent that stays with us after someone has strolled past can lead to breakthroughs we might not have expected. Or it could lead to a finished piece we submit for publication, and getting our words in print never hurts, right?

Here are three ways we can use strangers to enhance or kickstart our writing, keep the cogs in our writer brains in good working order, and nurture our imaginations so we can keep funneling words onto the page.

  • Physical appearance. I’m fascinated by the vastly different physical traits humans have that can add to a character’s appeal or intrigue. From meaty cheeks, tiny teeth, and lush eyebrows to slender fingers, perfectly painted toenails, and dancing Adam’s apples, human beings are charming bundles of physical intricacies and abnormalities, all fit to be explored, described, and elaborated on. Keep a writer’s notebook, and when you’re out and about, do some people watching (coffee shops are excellent for this) and jot down interesting features you notice (but be stealth… staring at strangers for more than 5 seconds is creepy!).
  • Dialogue and speech patterns. Again, coffee shops are great for this, or any public place, for that matter. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to sit in a public space and not overhear conversations. I know it sounds invasive (and I have a thing about being overheard in a public space when I’m having a conversation), but it will give you some great indicators about how to vary language, cadence, and tone so your characters are distinctive. The last thing we want is for our characters to all sound alike. Listen for that slight lisp, where the voice emanates from (chest, throat, nasal cavity), the nervous laugh…
  • Fill in the gaps. After you’ve watched and listened, start to imagine the rest of their stories. If someone is sitting alone, imagine what the rest of their life might look like. Do they always sit alone? Are they lonely? Or are they happy to be by themselves, away from a house full of roommates or kids or visiting relatives? If two people appear to be having a meeting, imagine what their home lives are like. Who and what do they go home to at the end of the day?

Writers are avid students of human behavior and the human condition. It’s why we do what we do. And what better way to fill our notebooks with rich, usable fodder that will serve as prompts for practice or, perhaps, a polished piece of prose. And it will keep your storytelling brain in prime form, too.

Do some sleuthing, then let us know what you uncovered in the comments below. The voyeur in me wants to know!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
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Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday – June 1

Here’s your Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday* opening sentence.


__________________ was flat out befuddled when she opened the door and found them all in her living room howling, “Surprise!”


The “Rules”

  • Fill in the blanks.
  • Finish the story in 1,000 words.
  • Post your story in the comments section below by the next Friday.

I’ll post the winner** on my social media sites AND

you could wind up in the Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday book
I just might maybe publish at the end of the year

Sending you mad writing mojo….

Johnnie
XXXX


*Writing is serious business, but sometimes it’s fun to have fun.

**Selection of the winner is arbitrary and depends on my mood, what I’ve eaten or haven’t eaten, how much sleep I’ve had, and my constantly shifting tastes…

The Surprising Secret to Creating Believable, Engaging Characters Your Readers Will Never Forget

We all know a good story when we read, watch, or hear one. But do you have a clear idea of what makes one story better than another? We could likely create a long list: vivid descriptions, compelling conflict, evocative emotional landscape, intriguing storylines, and much, much more. And while all of these are necessary for a good story, what’s the one thing that if it were missing there would be no story?

Character.

Many people are moved to write stories because they seek to make meaning of this crazy, beautifully confounding thing called life. And they’re compelled to explore the human condition, which means delving deep into the kaleidoscope of human motivation and behavior. This is why creating believable, engaging characters that your readers will never forget is essential. It’s also an art.

Constructing an interesting storyline that satisfies your readers’ need to know the answer to “what happened next?” is important, but when all is said and done, if your readers go away wondering “why?” did that character do that thing, they’ll go away frustrated and unsatisfied.

We want to understand why we do the things we do, and we look to characters for those answers. There’s a way to get to the core of that inquiry. We can study the ancient chakra system, which will help us begin to drill down inside a character’s core to unravel all her hidden desires and fears. This will better inform our creation of her, and it will help our readers embrace her as a flawed, yet lovable, character that they become emotionally invested in.

Stay tuned for more about how we can use this ancient, esoteric system as a practical application to writing deep, profound characters that come off the page and stay with our readers long after they’ve put our work down.

To get you moving in that direction, call a character to mind. Maybe it’s one from an in-progress short story, novel, or creative non-fiction piece. Or maybe you want to make one up for this exercise. (Think simply if you’re creating one: gender, age, physical appearance.)

Put your character on a plane or a train (or some other mode of transportation) en route to visit family for the holidays, and answer this question: What tacit agreement does this character have with her/his family?

Now write at least two pages about what unfolds as the character approaches, or arrives, at her/his destination.

Then either share your piece of writing or let us know what that process was like in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…