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Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Agony of the Untold Story for the Fiction Writer

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.  -Maya Angelou

Someone recently sent me this quote. Its truth brought tears to my eyes. The synchronicity of it's arrival was uncanny. Although I am a fiction writer and have written about ten novels, some published, some not, a few unfinished, others yet unborn, I have for the past ten years or so feared I would never give birth to another novel.

Why my fiction writing dried up, I don't know. It was a slow drying up, but one day it was gone. There were no more characters and stories inside me. It was astonishing, really. I had written all my life, since the time I was a little girl. There hadn't been any great long breaks. I wrote all through school, majored in writing in college. I married a man who loved my writing, believed in my career as a novelist. I wrote when my children were small and all through their growing up. I reveled in the freedom of the empty nest. My time was my own. I wrote more furiously. I expected I would write fiction for the rest of my life.
At first I worried desperately. Who was I without my fiction writing? What would I do? When there seemed there was nothing I could do to rekindle the flame, I grieved, I berated myself; I thought I was a failure. Wasn't I born to write? And finally, because I tired of the struggle, I grimly accepted the fact that my novel writing days were over. I was still writing, just not fiction. Sobeit. I'd had a great run with countless memorable characters and plots, successes and failures. I'd lived the life of a novelist and now it was time to put my creativity into other adventures.

My teaching, workshops and retreats became my passion. Yet, I have to admit, it was odd to be constantly working with, coaching fiction writers, creatively involved in other's characters and stories and not be writing fiction myself. As the years went by, I became aware of a subtle but aching emptiness that showed up now and again. Why, I wondered, am I not writing a novel? I never allowed myself to wonder long. It only increased the aching.
About two weeks ago, during a session of my teleworkshop Priming the Pump, I decided to write from one of my own prompts. Priming the Pump doesn't use word prompts. Instead, I pick photos and sometimes paintings that evoke feeling and drama for the prompts.

I have been holding Priming the Pump teleworkshops on and off for years. (If you would like to be informed of the next Priming the Pump teleworkshop, please sign up for the blog mailing list.) There always energetic and fun and the participants do some excellent writing. I, however, didn't write from the prompts myself. Since I knew why I chose them, I didn't feel drawn to write about them. Then I found the picture you see here.

The journey of rediscovering the Inner Fiction Writer, Quote Maya AngelouThe picture to the left immediately captured my imagination. When others in the workshop began to write (there are two time writing periods of twenty minutes each during the teleworkshop) I decided, hey, I love that painting, why not write? It wasn't actually a decision -- more of a reaction. And the story flowed. Out of nowhere. Out of the picture. Out of my imagination. Out of the fiction writer in me who suddenly woke up. Out of.... I don't know where, but the words flew. Characters appeared, the story took off. I felt the novelist in me breathing again. I read it to the class. The response was exhilarating. I was on to something.

I could barely sleep that night. Was this a fluke? Would I be able to write more? Sure, the characters showed up, but the story was slight. I was rusty, and blah, blah, blah. My doubts flowed as my writing had, but underneath the uncertainty, I knew I had found something intangible but real.  
I woke up the next morning with these words in my head. "My name is Viola Carpenter. I am 94 years old and of sound mind and body. I have lived most of my life in a small fishing village midway up the Maine Coast..." This was not the story I had written the night before. The character had another name and there was nothing of Maine in the story, but I knew this character; Viola was a live one. She was bold and she was ready to talk.
I jumped out of bed, put on the coffee and when it was ready, headed for the computer and Viola. I wrote for hours and wrote again the next day.... Viola has been talking to me ever since, and the story is evolving. She speaks to me when I am not writing. I fall asleep thinking about her and wake up thinking about her. I have no idea where the story is going. But I am writing. The fiction writer in me is alive and well.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How to Use a Writing Prompt in Fiction Writing

How To Use a Writing Prompt in Fiction Writing
Some Tips Before You Begin
Any prompt is only a starting point. If your imagination takes you in a direction that has nothing to do with the prompts, go where your imagination takes you.
Do not listen to the voice inside your head that says, “Oh, no! I shouldn’t be writing about this!” or “I’m not doing this right!” There are no “shoulds” or “should nots” in this process. The only thing you can do wrong is to not write.
Always name your characters, even if the name never appears in the story. Why would a character tell you her story if you don’t care enough to learn her name?
Write dialogue. In thirty years of teaching writing, I have never worked with anyone who couldn’t write dialogue – only with people who thought they couldn’t!
Be a risk taker. Don’t think. Write from your passionate core. Risk and passion are the essence of the creative journey and the sweetest nectar for your Inner Writer. Don’t forget to have fun!
The Prompt
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Do We Make Writing So Hard?

Why Do We Make Writing So Hard?
We make writing a lot harder than it is meant to be. Don’t get me wrong—writing is not a piece of cake. It is hard work, but it’s good hard work, like digging in the earth to make a garden. The problem for many of us is that our minds have convinced us that sitting down to write a story much less a book is at best painful, at worst impossible.

I believed this for many years –– and despite that I managed to get five novels, two picture books and one book on writing published. I don’t believe in the pain theory of writing any more. Experience and age has convinced me of this: all our stories and novels are vibrant and complete somewhere in our creative unconscious. If we could side-step the Inner Critic who resides in the mind, we could sit down, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and the story would reveal itself in its glorious completeness in much the same way as Mozart’s symphonies did for him. I have read that Mozart sat down and wrote his symphonies with very little revision, if any at all. In other words, he gave himself over fully to the creative journey and fell headlong into its passion.

The first time I read about Mozart composing without revision, I thought, sure, right. And if it’s true, well, we’re talking Mozart. For sure, that’s not me! Now, some twenty-odd years later, I no longer doubt that it is possible to sit down and write a book from beginning to end and have it come out whole. I would like to experience such a creative flow and know that what prevents me is me, my mind that says it’s impossible, “What, are you kidding? Writing is blood, sweat and tears. It’s revision after revision. It’s tearing your hair out. It’s giving up and picking up. It’s blah, blah, blah…”

Because that voice, the voice of my Inner Critic, still has sway over me, I have, like you, something of a difficult time opening to the creative flow. It’s getting easier. And who knows? One day I might just manage to quiet the naysayer in me and write a book whole from beginning to end. For now, I’m happy that writing is no longer such a mountain to climb… and I can imagine the possibility of creative nirvana!

Looking for help in defanging your Inner Critic? Explore My Coaching
When you are ready, call me at 914.962.4432.

Pass on this posting to your writing friends!
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Friday, March 14, 2014

Do You Want You Want Your Fiction Writing to Expand Like Crazy?

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Wonderland as Metaphor! How Far Down the Rabbit Hole Are You Willing to Go?
Wonderland as Metaphor for Writers and The Creative Journey

Falling down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland is a perfect metaphor for the creative journey which can never take place in the “real” or conscious world. Writing, whether it be fiction, poetry or nonfiction, finds its origins in the dark, fertile chaos of the unconscious.
The Importance of Tweedledum and Tweedledee
If you don’t meet Cheshire cats and Mad Hatters, Tweedledees and Tweedledums, mad queens, dragons, flying monkeys and monsters, or your version of the above, then you have not fallen.

This is not to say you have to be writing fantasy or horror to open to your unconscious, but as you will see, the journey for the writer must hold metaphorically a good sprinkling of both.

Explore Emily's workbook, The Art of Fiction Writing or How to Fall Down the Rabbit Hole Without Really Trying....  Paperback and e-book available
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Friday, March 07, 2014

Are You Right Brain or Left Brain Dominant?

Are You Right Brain or Left Brain Dominant?
The Right Brain Leads the Dance of Creativity...
Creativity is a subtle dance between the rational and the intuitive, between the left and right parts of the brains. In terms of writing, we would say that technique comes from the left side of the brain and imagination from the right side. Both are needed People, by nature, are usually right brain or left dominant. Some are more in balance than others, and no matter which you are, you can learn how to build muscle into whichever side you are weaker.
Here is a look at some of the ways that the many people with whom I have worked over the past 30 years relate to their right and left brain tendencies. This is by no means a complete view of the spectrum but I believe it is fairly typical of fiction writers.

  • Right brain dominant people who actively express their creativity.
  • Right brain dominant people who are not expressing their creativity.
  • Left brain dominant people who yearn to express their creativity.

Which are you?

Right brain dominant people who are comfortable expressing creativity know that creativity is born in the chaos of the unconscious, where nothing is predetermined and everything is possible. They allow themselves to swim in chaos without fearing they will drown.
The early stages of any creative endeavor are confusing and challenging. Oftentimes as writers we want to throw up our hands in despair, but those who trust the creative process knows that if we hang in and keeping on doing our job, which is write without needing to control what happens, characters and plot will take form - usually forms which we could not have foreseen! 

"The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion,
some place, in the air. All I must do is find it…." Jules Renard 

Right brain dominant people who are not comfortable expressing creativity trust neither the right nor the left side of the brain. They swim aimlessly in the chaos and often give up and feel unsuccessful, unworthy and even stupid because nothing they do gets finished. They are likely to believe the stories that have pigeon-holed them as ditzy, disorganized and sometimes useless. These people have had little support for their right brain strengths, and even when their creativity is praised, the praise falls on deaf ears. They have lost belief in themselves and their self worth. This is a tragic situation for the person who is born right brain dominant. Becoming a warrior for your creativity is a big part of the answer. Finding someone who can help you challenge your inner critic is another.

Left brain dominant people who yearn to express  their creativity must learn to swim in the chaos of the right side of the brain. This is very challenging because left brain dominant people are excellent at processing information, drawing conclusions and seeing a project to completion. Such linear thinking is antithetical to the first part of the creative process where anything is possible and mystery is the guiding light. This is why Einstein could say: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

What is the left brain dominant person to do then? Ah, there are many ways to skin that cat, but a great metaphor is that of falling down the rabbit hole.  

Both right and left brain dominant people need help falling down the rabbit hole. It's a scary place....until you've found a home there.

Need help in finding your Wonderland. Call Emily at 914.962.4432 and see if her coaching can take you there!
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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Give Muscle to Your Inner Writer

Start Writing No Matter What Louis L'Amour Quote

Getting up-close and personal with your Inner Writer
Ask her to write you a letter. Seriously. I suggest you do this using pen and paper.

Simply ask you Inner Writer to write to you and tell you what she thinks about you and your writing.Actually write that down.

Dear Inner Writer, What do you think of my writing?
Then, let her take control of the pen and write! You'll be amazed at what your Inner Writer has to say.

Hint: if you hear judgment or criticism you know that your Inner Critic has taken over. Tell her/him in not uncertain terms to go away and invite your Inner Writer to keep writing.

If you like, please post your letter to the blog!
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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Chocolate and Writing? What the Connection? It's Personal!

The Writing and Chocolate Connection

The Writing and Chocolate ConnectionWell, there's always a connection between chocolate and writing, especially if you are a chocolate lover. Chocolate inspires creativity and love (fact or fiction?!)

Bellavista Chocolate is a new business that my husband, my son and I have started -- with love and creativity! Please take a look.... the website, designed by my son, Nick, is a work of art. A pleasure to explore.

What Makes Bellavista Chocolates Extra Special?

Though bonbons from dozens of chocolatiers are available for Valentine’s Day gifts, we only present our favorite four whose assortments benefit from the highest quality of ingredients, classic flavor pairings, and special skill in the production of chocolate bonbons. We even have Michel Cluizel vegan and kosher assortments.

Bellavista Chocolate offering includes eight flavors each from  Michel Cluizel, Jacques Torres and Anna Shea, our Bellavista Tasting Assortment is a surprise that your Valentine will truly love! If you choose the Bellavista Tasting Assortment to express your Valentine love, whenever you order one of our 50 piece tasting boxes during the rest of 2014 (excluding July and August), we’ll give you free shipping!

Try Bellavista Chocolate for any special day. Or gift yourself with some today!

While your at the website, check to shipping page to see if we are shipping overnight, free delivery, to your address. If you are outside the overnight shipping area, please email me and I will see what arrangements can be made.

And I would very much appreciate it if you can spread the word to your chocolate-loving friends. Your support in our new endeavor means a lot to us.

Chocolate inspires creativity and love!
Emily, Ned and Nick
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Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Glorious Five Day Writing Retreat, May 6-11, 2014

A Five Spring Day Writing Retreat Led by Emily Hanlon
“My characters pull me, push me, take me further than I want to go, fling open doors to rooms I don’t want to enter, throw me into interstellar space, and all this long before my mind is ready for it.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

Being pushed and pulled into interstellar space by our characters, especially those we've just met, might not sound like a whole lot of fun. In actuality, it’s the best thing that can happen to a fiction writer! All that's required is that we give up control of our characters and stories.

All? Well, I have to admit, that trusting characters to rise up and guide you on the wild, passionate journey into the unknown is difficult. Yet that is what we are being asked to do as writers. And that is also why coming to a writing retreat is a great idea.

Whether you are a beginning or advanced writer, the creative energy and support of the circle is inspiring. When you see others take risks with their writing, it becomes easier for you to do the same.

On the retreat the risk and passion demanded by creativity are electric and life affirming.

"The best part of the weekend for me was drawing on the spirit, passion and energy of the group. And having a forum to read without criticism was wonderful..." ~ Carolyn Rowland

If this sounds like the kind of journey you want to take, please call me at 914.962.4432 to talk about your participation on the Spring Writing Retreat.

Register now!

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

When Inspiration Strikes, It's well... Cryptic!

Writer's Inspiration comes from strange places!  E.L. Doctorow Quote
How does the writer make sense of mysterious and cryptic connections that excites the creative unconscious
Don't need it to make sense. Just go with it. Play with it. See what turns up.

What follows is a quote from E L Doctorow on how his new book, Brain of Andrew began. Won't make sense to the logical mind, but clearly his creative unconscious saw it as something to run with!

"Many years ago, I worked for a man, a good decent man in the movie business. And he told me one day that years before he had been feeding medicine to his infant child with an eye dropper and it was the wrong medication. And as a result, the child died. And he had a couple of other stories that made me realize that he was an inadvertent agent of disaster, leaving a wake behind him of terrible events. And I also had the image in my mind - I don't know where it came from - of a girl with colored pencils drawing on a pad and then she sees an adult trying to see what she's done. And so she takes the pencil in her hand and scribbles over what she's been so carefully doing. And those two images somehow combined in some sort of evocative way and got me writing this book."

Good advice!
Have you had such an experience? If so, share it with us.
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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reading a novel triggers lasting changes in the brain...

Sat 28 Dec 2013 - 12am PSTReading a Novel Changes the Reader. Imagine how it changes the writer!
Sat 28 Dec 2013 - 12am PSTMarie Ellis
Reprinted from MNT-- Medical News Today

Lovers of literature can rejoice...
A new study combines the humanities and neuroscience to take a look at what effects reading a novel can have on the brain. Researchers say exploring a book can not only change your perspective, but also it can change your mind - at least for a few days.

Stories shape our lives...
The researchers, from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, published their findings in the journal Brain Connectivity. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author and director of Emory's Center for Neuropolicy, says: "Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person. We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it."

 To investigate the inner workings of the novel-reading mind, the researchers recruited 21 undergraduates from Emory, who were instructed to read a thriller written by Robert Harris in 2003, titled Pompeii. Based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy, Berns explains that the narrative "follows a [fictional] protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano."
While the protagonist tries to save the woman he loves back in Pompeii, the volcano continues to erupt, and meanwhile others in the city do not recognize the signs, Berns says. "It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line," he explains, so that the study participants would read a book with an intriguing plot.

Changes in language and sensory motor brain regions
After performing fMRI scans, researchers found that reading a novel causes lasting effects in regions of the brain responsible for language receptivity and for making sensory representations of the body.

For 19 days in a row, the study participants were analyzed by the researchers. For the first 5 days, the investigators performed base-line functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on the students' brains while they were in a resting state.

Then, over the course of 9 days, the students read specific portions of the novel until they completed it. Instructed to read each assigned part in the evening, the students came back to the researchers in the morning.

In true college undergraduate style, they had to take a quiz in order to prove they had completed the assigned reading, after which, they again underwent an fMRI scan during a non-reading, resting state.
After completion of the novel, the students then returned for 5 additional days, during which they again underwent scans while in a resting state.

On the mornings after the reading sessions, the researchers observed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is an area of the brain linked to receptivity for language.
Berns explains that this heightened connectivity remained, even though the students were not reading the book while they were being scanned. "We call that a 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory," he says.

The investigators also noticed heightened connectivity in an area of the brain known as the central sulcus. This is a main sensory motor region of the brain, which is associated with making representations of sensation for the body.

They explain that, for example, when we merely think about running, we can activate neurons in the brain that are associated with the actual physical motion of running.

Neural changes are not just instant reactions
Berns says their findings "suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist." He adds: "We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else's shoes in a figurative sense. Now we're seeing that something may also be happening biologically."
Interestingly, because the investigators observed these neural changes even 5 days after the students had finished the novel, Berns says the reactions were not simply instantaneous.
Although he says the team is not sure how long these changes last, Berns notes that since they observed them while the students were reading a "randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain." 
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