Two Articles on Never Being Too Old to Go After What You Want

Longreads: Is it ever too late to pursue a dream?

In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”

Can a 39-year-old play college basketball? Absolutely.

LitHub: When 80 Famous Writers Published Their First (and Last) Books

In compiling these figures, I found it interesting to see how the length of a writer’s publishing career didn’t necessarily have any bearing on their current level of fame. Just look at the ten writers with the shortest number of years spent publishing: Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, Toni Cade Bambara, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen. You wouldn’t exactly call any of these people “minor” or “forgotten.”

It doesn’t matter when you start doing THE WORK. It doesn’t even matter whether you can devote your whole life or just part of your life to THE WORK. All that matters is that you do THE WORK you want to do.

Whether it’s writing or singing or playing basketball. ❤️

Saturday Open Thread

Time to discuss WHATEVER’S ON YOUR MIND.

I’ve got vacation on the brain, first because it’s Spring Break and a lot of people I know are either traveling or getting back from travel or preparing to travel, and second because I just started planning my own vacation for this summer. (More on this next week. It ties into the creative practice, I promise.)

So chat about travel, or… whatever you’d like! ❤️

On Writing That Scene

I wrote that scene this morning.

You know the one.

The piece of the project that inspired the whole project.

The piece of the project that you’ve been carrying in your head (and in your heart) this entire time. Imagining how someone else might react when they get to it. What you hope they might think or feel.

And then you have to write the scene or, if you’re working in another medium, create the moment, however you do it, and it’s never quite what you felt, just like a retelling of a memory is not the same as feeling that memory which is not the same as having that experience the first time.

And part of you is like “Yay! I did it! I got so far into the project that I finally got to write the scene!

And the other part is like “Oh. This is the best I could do at this scene, and it’s already disappointing me, and even though I know I can always revise it I also know that it’ll never be the thing I imagined in my head because you can never make anything exactly like you imagine it.

But hey, I’m 18,547 words into this project and I finally got to write the scene.

And I’ll get to write again next Monday, and add another thousand words to the story. ❤️

The Perks of Having a Writers’ Group

Today’s guest post is from Kimberly Lew, a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I first started working at a play publishing company, I was immediately taken by how creative my coworkers were. They were mostly in their late twenties, and they all wrote plays or directed or produced on the side.

I remember early on, when I was just an intern, one of the founders of the company — a very prolific playwright himself — hosted an informal reading of his latest comedic one-act, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t an actor by any means, but no one seemed to care. Despite fumbled lines and lack of writing expertise by some of the participants, me included, we had a really productive discussion about the piece and all got a sense of what was really working and what wasn’t.

I had done writing workshops and classes my whole life. I knew the graces of a good compliment sandwich and the pained challenge of perfecting a piece in time to be shared with a classroom. But never before had I felt the vibe of room that was so constructive and so fun while simultaneously educational.

When the play company moved to bigger offices that included a small but well-kept conference room, a couple of my coworkers, who had been friends since college and were both playwrights published with the company, began using the conference room as a meetup space for their after-hours writers’ group. As the company grew and a few other young female 20-somethings joined the team, I helped organize us into our own writers’ group, which remained a consistent creative outlet for the next couple of years.

That informal one-act reading I attended with the company founder was deceiving, though — while good discussion and feedback doesn’t necessarily require professional writers and creatives, there is a delicate balance that separates a constructive creative meeting of the minds from the dry writers’ workshops that leave you wishing you’d stayed home.

Here are a few things I’ve since learned about having a successful writers’ group:

Everyone in the group needs skin in the game

Theoretically, everyone who joins a writers’ group shares a common love of writing, but everyone has different creative processes and produces differently. In a good writers’ group, everyone needs to be able to feel like they are learning and growing from the experience — or they’ll be less inclined to contribute.

Many writers’ groups operate workshop-style, where people take turns bringing in pieces to be critiqued by the group. In ours, it was especially nice that a lot of people had long-term projects that they could share in smaller chunks, instead of needing to bring in a finished piece every time. This gave everyone a forum to try new material still in development and bounce ideas off the group.

We also had members set goals from week to week, so even if we didn’t have a piece to discuss, we could discuss the progress we were making with our creative projects. As we became better friends, this became an opportunity to share goals related to both our careers and our lives. Writing wasn’t just about making a script for a play or typing out a short story — it was also about setting up a website for clips or submitting an application to a development program. We weren’t simply commenting on each other’s work; we were providing a support system for people’s creative endeavors.

A writers’ group needs structure

It wasn’t enough to simply open the floor to anyone who wanted to bring in a manuscript and have them share with the group. We needed to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to both receive and give feedback. We also wanted to make sure that everyone felt represented in decisions about how the group was run.

The ways in which we structured our meetings varied over the years. At one point, we had everyone take turns running the meetings, and usually the person who ran the group would have a piece to present. We also took notes every session, usually by having someone record any goals we discussed and circulating those goals to the group after the meeting to hold us accountable. When people were having a harder time consistently bringing new material to the writers’ group, we instated short writing prompts, sometimes for free-writing sessions during the meetings and sometimes for us to develop short pieces that would be shared in the meetings.

We also once tried to instate a “punishment” for people who didn’t meet deadlines. This involved creating alternate song lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as a shame song for not fulfilling writers’ group duties, and then singing our song out loud as a group. This was all in good fun until we realized that this actually just punished all of us who had to sing in front of everyone.

A writers’ group doesn’t need to be just about creative writing

While it was always incredibly helpful to use the writers’ group as a forum for getting feedback on creative writing projects like plays and stories, it was also a place to get feedback on anything. As one of our members began getting more and more interested in graphic design and printmaking, she would share some of her art with us. When I started blogging for an arts website, I shared my initial posts with the group.

I feel like everyone could benefit from a writers’ group, even if they don’t think of themselves as a writer. It could be a great forum to get feedback on a resume, or a letter to an editor, or a Yelp review. Sometimes it’s nice just to get another pair of eyes on your work — and sometimes, in our group, we would simply share ideas about what wanted to see happen with our writing and our lives. It was nice to have a built-in think tank to discuss ideas with, even if those ideas never evolved into anything.

A writers’ group isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to one space

While our writers’ group met regularly in the office conference room, we would often go out to support each other in the real world. We often attended each other’s readings and performances. It was nice to have a group of people at these events who understood the nature of a work in progress — and how far our work had progressed!

We also planned a writers’ retreat once, where we all went up to the Cloisters for a day writing around the property. We split off to sit in the little courtyards, working on whatever we wanted to. We even stopped by the park on our way home for a quick writing exercise where we all sat on a park bench and wrote as much as we could in a few minutes. It was a great opportunity to get ourselves out of an office setting and feel like our creativity could roam free.

A writers’ group doesn’t have to last forever

In a successful writers’ group, everyone feels like the group is helping them grow as a writer and a creator. Unfortunately, not everyone grows at the same speed. It’s important to communicate with your fellow members and check in with how everyone feels about their contributions to the group. If someone doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they need out of the group, or that their time is not being well spent with the group, it’s fine to re-evaluate whether or not the group is serving its purpose. It’s important to keep people accountable, but depending on where you are in your creative development, sometimes you need to reprioritize to be accountable to yourself first.

Our writers’ group ended quite unceremoniously. Our goals just weren’t as aligned as they were when we had started and we were finding that we were getting less and less value out of our meetings. When one of our members decided not to continue, we disbanded. I missed it a lot, but with time I’ve also come to see that sometimes a writers’ group is a support group for a moment (or luckily, in our case, years) in time.

Bringing other people into your writing is always a tricky thing, but when you find a group of people with similar goals who genuinely want to give feedback, it can feel like the most valuable thing in the world. A writers’ group doesn’t have to follow a blueprint — you don’t have to bookend your criticism with compliments or have regular in-person meetings. You can form a writers’ group over email or FaceTime. You can discuss your latest novel or your list of failed ideas for novels. All you need for a good writers’ group is the ability to share your work with creative people — and a clear structure and/or agenda that ensures everyone gets what they need. It may sound simple, but when done right, it can be the most magical thing in the world.

Where I Got Published Today: Bankrate

If you like turning 🏚️into 🏠or 🌱into 🌼, you’re going to love my latest Bankrate post:

Best credit cards for home improvement and gardening

Home improvement isn’t cheap — according to The Spruce, even something as simple as a surface-level kitchen remodel could cost between $2,000 and $20,000. Add gardening into the mix and you’re looking at what could be a very expensive, but very rewarding, project. Your home is where you live, after all. It’s worth it to make your living space as comfortable and beautiful as possible. (Plus, the right home renovations can add a lot to your resale value.)

The Importance of Scheduling Unscheduled Time

The two most important blocks of time on my calendar are 6:30-9:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

I call these blocks whim time. They represent the time between when I wake up and when it’s time to get ready for my Les Mills class at the YMCA (I take BodyFlow on Saturday and BodyAttack on Sunday*).

They also represent my best time. If you had a chance to read my Lifehacker article about how I schedule my day as a freelancer, you might remember me writing “I solve more problems between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. than I do the entire rest of the day.”

So, during whim time, I can sit comfortably on my sofa with my cup of tea and think about things.

Or put harebrained schemes into action, e.g. “what would happen if I started doing Saturday Open Threads?” (I now prep my Saturday Open Threads on Friday, to keep my Saturday whim time free of obligations like writing blog posts.)

Or read everything the internet has to offer on a particular topic, such as “how to rope drop Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World**.”

Or immerse myself in a book, though I usually end up saving reading for the afternoons because those mornings are just so beautifully wonderful for thinking and digging and journaling and processing and creating.

Anyway, I knew I was going to write about whim time at some point, and then Lifehacker ran an article titled Give Yourself the Gift of Time This Week and I thought yep, I agree with all of this.

To quote Lifehacker’s Alicia Adamczyk:

One of the greatest pleasures of my new-ish morning routine is that I start many of my days by doing nothing. I lay around for a bit, before getting ready and then sitting with a cup of coffee for a few minutes.

My resting cup of coffee never takes me more than 20 minutes to finish—and it’s usually far less than that—and yet when I skip I can feel how much tenser I am, and more prone to stress during my morning commute.

What I’m missing is the benefit of doing nothing, of enjoying a bit of alone time before I venture out into the world and the daily grind begins.

I start all of my weekdays with yoga practice, which is my way of enjoying a bit of alone time before the daily grind begins, but I give my weekends an extra-long chunk of doing nothing time, which is to say time to do whatever I want. To go where the whims take me.

This is where I have to remind new readers that I am single and have no children and have the privilege of a freelance career that fits within a 9-5 schedule. In case you’re wondering how I manage to carve so much time out of my weekends for whim.

On that note: I had an absolutely beautiful whim day last Sunday. No plans (besides BodyAttack, which I wouldn’t miss for the world), no obligations, nothing but whatever I felt like doing, for a full day.

I played the piano and played video games and went for a walk and did some excellent sitting and thinking and did two loads of laundry and watched an entire movie without pausing it except to use the toilet, which is something I rarely have time for on non-whim days. (When I do decide to watch a movie, I tend to break it up into two or three 40-minute chunks because that’s the only way I can fit it into a typical evening.)

If I don’t get a full whim day at least once a month — and it’s nicer to get two — I start to feel cramped and worn out and overwhelmed.

Which means I have to plan for these days in my calendar, just like I plan my whim time on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

And then say no to anything that might conflict with those plans — or if something comes up that I can’t (or don’t want to) say no to, rearrange my schedule to find another whim day.

Because they’re that important.

Is this an introvert thing? I don’t know. It’s something I’ve always sought out, ever since college when I had the ability to start setting my own schedule.

I’m curious if you carve out similar unscheduled chunks of time for yourself, and how you keep those times sacred — and if you don’t, whether you wish you could. ❤️

*I also take BodyPump on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and BodyAttack Express on Wednesday evenings.

**More on this later — but yes, I might be rope-dropping Animal Kingdom soon. (And the other three Walt Disney World parks.)

Book Review: Freak, Geek, Goddess by Jessica Lincoln

I recently started reviewing books for Reedsy Discovery, and here’s my first review, for Jessica Lincoln’s Freak, Geek, Goddess; Tales of Survival From Trust Fund High.

I gave the book three stars — ⭐⭐⭐ — and summed it up as follows:

Jessica Lincoln brings a unique voice to the often-told tale of learning to be true to yourself.

Full review below!

“What if being me makes me Freak Girl?”

Riley is worried about high school. Nobody likes her new haircut, she doesn’t know how to get to class, and her best friend Kaitlyn is obsessed with the Dukes and Duchesses — high school royalty. Kaitlyn wants Riley to skip fifth period and drive around with a couple of Dukes who tell sexist jokes and keep lumps of chewing tobacco in their mouths. Riley wants… well, she wants to be herself, but she’s afraid that it’ll make her look like a freak.

While Freak Geek Goddess could be the type of coming-of-age story appropriate for fans of Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF, be aware that Lincoln’s novel goes a little darker than comparable titles. Early chapters find Riley getting pressured into a navel piercing that promptly becomes infected, and earning a poor grade on a project after skipping class. By the end of the book Riley has experienced alcohol poisoning and sexual assault.

The story, told through Riley’s voice, is engaging; a reader may correctly predict that Riley will overcome her insecurities and triumph, but the path Lincoln takes to get there is not so predictable — and, in some ways, more realistic than similar high school narratives.

The book’s biggest flaw? Riley is just as judgmental as the Dukes and Duchesses. Readers who prefer their protagonists not crack jokes about “over-eager anorexics,” “popularity whores,” or “gender confusion issues” may want to look elsewhere; readers who want their heroines to show as much compassion to others as they wish they had been shown will be disappointed by Riley’s lack of character growth. Being true to yourself doesn’t always mean being a good person.

How Do We Know When We’re Doing Our Best Work?

My NEXT BOOK draft currently stands at 14,526 words, and I wouldn’t consider any of those words my “best work.”

Not even the 310 words I shared with you last Friday.

It’s some of my most interesting work, and I think the plot is by far my best plot, and the questions it addresses are particularly immediate and relevant to the group of people whom I envision as its ideal readers*, but it’s not my best writing.

Yet.

Which means it’s time to bring up the question that I promised I’d explore at some point: how do we know when we’re doing our best work?

I know that NEXT BOOK is not yet my best work because it doesn’t yet communicate what I want it to communicate to an audience.

That is: I know that NEXT BOOK is never going to be the story I felt inside my head, all at once, when I climbed the stairs of the Brucemore Mansion. That was kind of like… well, I’d been digging at this potential novel about Mars that wasn’t going anywhere, and my mom and I went to tour Brucemore over Christmas because they had all the decorations up, and I saw a staircase that reminded me of the staircase in this mansion that I dream about on the reg, a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and secret rooms, and I was all I want to write about a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and one of the doors leads to another world and the person who knows that has to decide whether she’s going to go.

And then I had to work out the rest of the story, because that’s really only the exposition. The decision process can’t take much more than the first third of the book, because you can’t really dangle a portal fantasy in front of your reader without eventually having your protagonist go through the portal.

So that’s what I did during the rest of the Brucemore tour, in a very general “this is what I want it to feel like” way, and I also figured out who my three main characters were and what they wanted, and then I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar and started studying plot and made everything a lot more specific.

But it’s still not specific enough. With this draft, I’m putting down all the little pencil markings you do before you trace over the markings you want with ink. I’m literally writing down three different ways of describing something and telling myself I’ll pick one later.

(This probably means my actual word count, of “words that form the story and don’t just explore different ways of writing something,” is closer to 14,000.)

So… NEXT BOOK is not my best work (yet), and part of that is because I still have a lot of work left to do.

What about my freelance writing?

I still think that it all comes down to “does this communicate what it set out to communicate,” which in freelancing often includes “does this piece fulfill the client’s specs?” Did I successfully write a 1,000-word article that helps readers decide whether to sign up with Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy?

When I was writing for The Billfold, I got instant feedback on whether my writing communicated what it was supposed to communicate — because if it didn’t, I got dozens of comments either asking questions about the piece or informing me of something I’d neglected to consider. I also had access to the back end analytics stuff, which meant I could see which articles were getting the most views. (This usually means you’ve got a headline that communicates what it’s supposed to communicate, i.e. “HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULD READ ME!”)

I don’t get that kind of detailed analytic information from my current freelance clients, and many sites have stopped doing comments altogether, so it’s harder to tell whether my current posts are doing what they’re supposed to do. Luckily, by this point I’ve had a lot of practice at this kind of writing. Plus, I have a new metric: am I still getting hired? Are my current clients asking me to contribute more work, and are new clients reaching out to me?

At this point, you might be asking “what about, like, beautiful prose?” I enjoy a well-turned phrase as much as the next person, but I stand by my initial assessment that it’s only beautiful if it’s understandable. Even nonliteral writing — our poets, our James Joyces, etc. — is understandable in the sense that it evokes an emotional response in the reader and by doing so communicates what it was intended to communicate.

We get Jabberwocky, even though Lewis Carroll made half the words up.

If we don’t get it, maybe it’s not for us. Maybe we’re not the ideal audience, e.g. “Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Draws Mixed Reactions From White Peeps Who Don’t Get Asian Culture.”

If nobody gets it, maybe it’s not for anybody. Maybe the writer was writing just for themselves and not for an audience. Maybe it wasn’t the writer’s best work.

One more note before I finish this up: when I teach my How to Freelance class, I ask my students to draft short posts “to spec,” and many of them use this assignment as an opportunity to show off the most beautiful and/or clever phrases they can come up with. The problem? Online writing favors clear, simple sentences. I’ve worked with clients that have required me to submit text at no higher than a seventh-grade reading level, because they want to make sure it can be understood by as many people as possible.

In this case your definition of “best work” may be different than your client’s definition — so go with theirs, and find an hour every day to write the glorious, elegant, delightful, quippy little phrases that may someday end up in your novel or memoir or poetry collection.

Make sure you write down every one that pops into your head, so you can go back and choose your favorites when you edit the draft. ❤️

*Ideal reader for NEXT BOOK: the Millennial who totally wishes they could go to a fantasy world if they had the chance, but might not actually say yes if it were offered because they’ve, like, got responsibilities. (Or, more specifically: readers between ages 23-38 who loved Narnia and Harry Potter and The Magicians and want a book where a grown adult in a time period a lot like our own gets the opportunity to travel to a magical kingdom.)

Two Articles and One Podcast on the Media We Choose to Consume

LitHub: The 25 Authors Who’ve Made the Most Money in the Past Decade

Some takeaways: 1. Franchises make money, and so do adaptations, but if you want to be a literary millionaire, you really have to write a) for children or b) a mystery (or romance) that strikes fear (or lust) in the hearts of the world. 2. It’s hard to beat James Patterson, but a true phenomenon (Harry PotterFifty Shades of Grey can do it). 3. Some years were good for writers in general, others were (relatively) lean across the board. A full accounting follows. Good luck, aspiring writers.

Maybe you really should be going after the “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog” niche.

The Millions: Women and Small Publishers Dominate 2019 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

The prize honors the best translated fiction from around the world and splits the £50,00 prize evenly between authors and translators. This year, the longlist features authors from 12 countries and books translated from nine languages; it is dominated by women and independent publishers.

This is the first year in a while where I haven’t read any of the books on the Man Booker longlist. Do you have any recommendations?

The Indicator From Planet Money: The Economy Inside Your Head

LEIGH CALDWELL: American adults are now spending 11 hours a day consuming media. And media is the ultimate immaterial good. It’s something that really plays within your head. You might — it’s triggered by something outside, but really, all of the benefit that you get, all the enjoyment you get is inside your own mind.

What about the enjoyment you get while consuming media WITH FRIENDS? Is that inside your own mind, or outside of it?

What about when media moves you to laughter or tears? Or when you talk to the characters on the screen because they’re about to go into the abandoned house full of zombies and THEY REALLY SHOULDN’T GO INTO THE ABANDONED HOUSE FULL OF ZOMBIES? Is it “just inside your head” when your head is making sounds that come out of your head?

For that matter, why isn’t a live concert or sports game something you only enjoy “inside your mind,” since the sitting-and-watching principle is the same?

And what about actual sports? You feel the running and jumping and stuff in your body, but you enjoy it in your mind — because most of the time your body is like wow this is a lot of work you’re asking me to do right now and your brain is like wheeeeeendorphins!!!!!

Anyway I enjoyed this podcast episode but I have a LOT OF QUESTIONS about its “inside your mind” assumptions, PLEASE DISCUSS. ❤️