Curiosity Cures the Cat . . . and the Writer

Cats, Bubba and Spaz on Window SeatMy husband and I often joke about our cats’ reverence for routine. The more predictably their days unfold, the straighter their tails stand at attention (a sign of confidence) and the narrower their eyes squint (a sign of affection).

Writers find comfort in routine, too. I see it when I ask the college students I teach to reflect on when, where, and how they write best. And I see it in myself. I drink Caribou Daybreak Blend coffee from the same stainless-steel travel mug every morning. I water our houseplants on Sundays and follow an identical pattern each time I vacuum our house. I begin writing projects—whether creative, academic, or utilitarian—by generating bulleted lists.

But too much routine stifles creativity. Even cats are inherently curious, as their Internet fame can attest. I’ve found that channeling their ability to see fleeing mice in stuffed toys nudged down a staircase and snakes in yarn dragged across a carpet acts like catnip in my hunt for inspiration.

Here are some recent—and unexpected—discoveries:

Books

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators. This novel puts the creative process under a microscope. Two writer-artists forge a path from obscurity to ubiquity, hitting signposts along the way that nearly every writer will recognize:

  • The discomfort of mining one’s life for material to put on display.
  • The tide of inspiration that drags a lull in its wake.
  • The pendulum of emotion that propels progress.
  • The spinning plates of daily life that interrupt project momentum.
  • The intoxication of creating art that reveals a sum greater than its parts.
  • The excitement of publishing a work that has been a labor of love.
  • The pain of fissures that crack open when relationships are depicted as art.
  • The void of purpose that follows a completed project.

Ultimately, however, Whitaker’s book confirms that no writer toils in isolation.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Almost Sisters. Readers accompany a writer as she untangles her identity from her protagonist’s while also convincing her family to accept her unplanned pregnancy. The novel examines creators’ art-imitates-life-imitates-art conundrum in fascinating detail.

Podcasts

Invisibilia, 99% Invisible, Radiolab and Ear Hustle. All four shows take a familiar concept (anything from parenthood to concrete and memory to lightning bugs) and twist it just enough to make listeners perceive it anew. Radiolab’s Placebo” (season 3, episode 1) is among my favorite episodes because of its relevance for writers: The hosts set out to examine the placebo effect and discover just how integral narrative is to our human brain’s functioning.

Heavyweight and This Is Actually Happening. These podcasts offer listeners a glimpse into one real-life event per episode. Happening serves as a study in voice because individuals describe an experience, such as getting stranded on a mountain or witnessing a mass shooting, in their own words. Their telling is organic but edited flawlessly by the show’s creator to eliminate the linguistic gear-grinding inherent in speech. The result is a sense that I’m inside the speaker’s head, observing as she processes what happened.

Ironically, Happening is the weightier of the two podcasts. Heavyweight garnishes its poignancy with wry humor. The host turns a spotlight on his life, narrating in real time and then reflecting in hindsight.

Both podcasts remind me that moments big and small can produce rich content.

New (or Borrowed) Toys

Last summer, my sister lent me a high-end camera she’d purchased to document her kids’ milestones. Playing with it proved, well . . . eye-opening. Searching for shots drew my attention to things I’d looked past and made me see them. The digital format meant I could experiment without getting stuck developing 100 unwanted photos for every keeper. Looking through a lens changed the way my eyes viewed and my brain processed the world, which sparked ideas I turned into blog posts.

Other Writers

Recently, I’ve met writers who have published a book while parenting and working full-time. One woman composed her memoir solely during lunch breaks. Another wrote his YA novel during his son’s hockey practices. These reminders perk me up when I’m feeling deflated (See? Anything is possible if you stick with it.) and kick me in the butt when I’m lagging (You have no children and a flexible work schedule, so no excuses!).

The most important thing I’ve learned from hunting inspiration is that its sources are endless when I remain open to possibility.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work (Part II of II)

A Great White Shark attacking a lineIn Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part I, I broke the rules by suggesting that we writers can benefit from two reality TV shows: Project Runway and Shark Tank.

While Project Runway inspires creativity and shepherds me through the writing process, Shark Tank teaches me how to pitch my work for publication without becoming prey.

Pitching in Primetime

Shark Tank grants inventors the opportunity to pitch their products to venture capitalists (the sharks), who then decide whether to invest. The pitch room is called “the shark tank” for good reason: Investors are shrewd entrepreneurs who cut their teeth as they battled their way to the top. They don’t suffer fools, and they smell blood in the water a mile away. They extend investment offers only when a great product comes from a well-prepared inventor.

Pitching Basics from the Boardroom to Publishers

The same applies to publishers. Nonprofit presses enlarge the tank we writers dive into, but the feeding frenzies that surround submission are no less intense. Pitching a book is so similar to what Shark Tank portrays that watching TV feels like taking a course. When pitching to agents or editors, writers have three minutes to describe their target market, highlight their book’s unique features, and convince “paper sharks” that investment will lead to profit.

The show provides a second benefit, too. While agents and editors rarely explain why they reject a piece of writing and don’t give feedback unless they sign the writer, Shark Tank investors do both.

Let’s Meet the Sharks!

Like reality shows, however, not all sharks are created equal. Several seasons have helped me identify species that bear striking similarities to people who comment on writers’ work.

WHALE Shark (Robert Herjavec).

He proposes only win-win deals, and he wants investors to succeed whether or not he backs them. Whale Sharks don’t have teeth; their writing-world counterparts have no agenda. They don’t need to show off, have their ego stroked, or hear their own voice, so they speak little but convey a lot. Seek them out in writing groups, conferences, and critiques. Listen carefully. Take what they say to heart. Employ their advice; it will lift your work to the surface like a buoy.

The GREAT WHITE Shark (Kevin O’Leary).

Whether O’Leary or his writing-world counterpart, the Great White lives to get his teeth into writers and tear them to shreds, but only after batting them around for his own amusement. He panders to an audience he imagines is awed by his power and amused by his antics. He’s not above nipping at fellow sharks, swooping in at the last second to grind their offers—and the inventor/writer—to minced meat. He cuts down others to raise his profile, so unless you find value in something he says, ignore it all.

The BULL Shark (Mark Cuban).

Bull Sharks are mercurial: docile enough to hand-feed one second, voracious enough to attack the next. Their gut guides their every move. How their writing-world counterparts react to a text depends on their perception of its author. If intrigued, they offer a win-win deal—but only after they investigate to a degree that unnerves. If provoked (even unintentionally), they strike. If not engaged within the first 20 seconds, they dart out of reach and disappear. Regardless of their reaction, heed whatever feedback they give; they have a killer instinct.

The LEMON Shark (Laurie Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, and guest investors).

Lemon sharks prefer to observe from the periphery before they enter the fray. Smaller and less aggressive than other species, they rely on agility rather intimidation; therefore, they navigate shifting currents with ease. Their writing-world counterparts’ feedback may conflict, but that’s what makes it special. Keen eyesight aids them in glimpsing flashes of insight in murky depths. Consider their comments carefully; some are sinkers, while others’ quiet wisdom makes them rise above.

Finally, Shark Tank reminds me to pursue publication with a sense of humor. The most successful inventors laugh, even as the quake. The more shark teeth they reveal through smiles, the less likely they are to get eaten alive.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/

Ten Tips for Grooming Drafts, Straight from the Horse’s . . . Hoof

The author poses with a horse on a cold February morning
Smitty, the horse, posing with Lisa, the author, on a chilly February morning.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as my alarm jolts me awake on a dark Sunday in February. Its glow seems spitefully cheery combined with its announcement of the temperature for my horseback riding lesson: -14 degrees. Ugh.

Flannel pajamas, a quilt my great-aunt sewed, and a cat’s soft bulk plead with me to stay. But I love to ride, so I roll from my cocoon and don layers.

Once at the barn, I’m glad I ventured out, not only because I’m assigned to ride a favorite horse I haven’t been on for a long time, but also because grooming him sparks insights about grooming my writing.

During the previous two years, I’ve ridden Penny, a horse who spends her winter free-time in a stall because she stirs up trouble when allowed to roam the paddock (the fenced holding area). Preparing an indoor horse for riding is easy: brush her coat, pick her hooves, cinch her saddle, buckle her bridle. No muss, no fuss.

Smitty, the gangly, dark brown gelding I’d ride that February morning, spends his winter free-time in the paddock. A laid back personality makes him easy to catch, but an outdoor life makes him difficult to groom. As soon as he crosses the barn’s threshold, a dull thud replaces the hollow tock his metal shoes usually make on concrete. A look at his feet confirms my suspicion: Ice balls have formed in his hooves’ recessed center, so his shoes float above the ground.

I slide the blanket from Smitty’s body and grab a nail puller (a flat metal bar bent at one end). He lifts a foot, and I cradle his hoof in one hand while I use the puller as a chisel with the other. It’s tough going; the tool glances off the ice instead of carving into it. Just as my back begins to ache and my wrist to throb, an ice chunk falls away. And so do the blinders I’ve been wearing when I revise my writing.

Smitty’s hooves remind me that if I allow grooming—whether horse or draft—to become a series of unaltered steps, I lose touch with its purpose. And process without purpose turns futile.

Grooming must be shaped by context, such as weather for horse, audience and intended effect for writing. Here are ten tips Smitty revealed for warming up to revision:

  1. Start slow. Grooming’s first step is the toughest. I chisel away but make little progress. Then, suddenly, a piece falls. That’s all I need to build momentum. The chunk’s absence reveals weaknesses in what remains, so I attack each spot in succession.
  2. Don’t rush. It’s obvious, but when eager to submit my writing for publication, I forget. Forcing grooming’s pace is as fruitless as it is unwise. Hoof-picks dig mud, grass, oats, and manure from recesses, but they aren’t designed to break ice. Similarly, digging into paragraphs before chiseling big ideas into shape leads to wasted effort.
  3. Rest. I don’t have to clear the whole mess on the first attempt. I merely have to chip away enough frozen muck that the hoof or draft rests on solid footing. Once Smitty can stand flat, he’s safe. Body heat will melt the rest, making it easier to pick. Time away from a draft thaws problems that seem intractable, too.
  4. Let nature share the workload. Allowing Smitty’s bodyweight to warm his hooves offers an opportunity to luxuriate in brushing. Instead of going through the motions, I take my time and stay present, which calms Smitty. I’m surprised how often a solution arises when I let a draft’s trouble spots stew as I work on something else.
  5. Switch it up. Not much gets under Smitty’s skin, but other horses (ahem, Penny) don’t like being brushed. If I start with picking her hooves instead of brushing her coat, I give our relationship a better chance of starting off on the right foot. Switching up where I start revising a draft highlights thematic strands I can braid into something special.
  6. Follow the text’s lead. I’m present enough while brushing to address what Smitty’s coat shows me it needs. A curry comb’s zig-zagged metal teeth cull debris that causes saddle sores and inhibits new hair growth. Reverse outlining is the comb’s textual equivalent. I isolate each paragraph’s main idea and decide whether it benefits the whole, detangling knotted logic.
  7. Apply pressure. A stiff-bristled brush lifts to the surface what the curry comb has loosened. It also distributes oil that nourishes Smitty’s coat, but only if I push hard. When revising, I press myself to answer, “Do I really need this?”
  8. Let it go. A soft-bristle brush provides a gentler way to “kill my darlings.” Dust flies from Smitty’s coat with each stroke. Sometimes the grit makes my eyes water, but the effect is worth the discomfort: Smitty’s hair gleams. My draft, too, shines once stripped clean.
  9. Go back to the beginning. With Smitty’s hide ready for saddling, I return to his hooves—those key points on which he stands. A few swipes with the pick is all it takes. Skipping this step would compromise Smitty’s health. Just as hoof problems left untended can escalate to life-threatening crises, proofreading errors left uncorrected can escalate to career-threatening rejections.
  10. Enjoy the ride. The most important lesson Smitty teaches and re-teaches me is to value process as much as product. In both riding and writing, I used rush preparation to get to the best part: stepping into the arena. Over time, however, I’ve seen how crucial grooming is to success. Now, I look forward to grooming’s meditative nature.

When I finish grooming Smitty, I look him in the eye and see my reflection anew. When I apply to revision what he teaches me, my writing gallops toward unexplored territory.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Whalen