2 Writing Challenges to Start the New Year

My last blog post was in October. As with most of us, 2020 got in the way of my productivity. The pandemic, politics, riots, wildfires . . . each day, it seemed, there was something new to think about. Add to that a steady stream of freelance writing assignments, and blogging slipped to the bottom of my to-do list—

Did you know there’s a web site that features nothing but lists? Listverse will keep you occupied for hours. And check out Paula Rizzo’s book, Listful Living: A List-Making Journey to a Less Stressed You, where she’ll teach you how to tap into your own productivity style to get things done. Lists help us remember and to stay organized. Authors use lists. They keep journals in which they list new or unusual words, potential character names, mental images, sensory descriptions . . . Lists are like sticky post-it notes used to remind a writer of little things she or he might otherwise forget.

As we transition from 2020 to a new year, I have two writing exercises for you. Will you take the challenge?

First, think about 2020 (I know, you don’t want to!) and make some lists. Think about your strongest mental images and jot them down. What new words come to mind? Write those down, too. See if you can come up with ten lists about this past year. Then save those lists. Twenty-twenty was a year like no other in recent history. What you felt and observed in 2020, those strong emotions and images, will, one day, find their ways into your works of fiction. You’ll be glad you jotted them down.

Some of the world’s best authors use lists when writing descriptive prose. Here’s an example from an essay by John Updike:

Henry’s Variety Store
A few housefronts farther on, what had been Henry’s Variety Store in the 1940s was still a variety store, with the same narrow flight of cement steps going up to the door beside a big display window. Did children still marvel within as the holidays wheeled past in a slow pinwheel galaxy of altering candies, cards and artifacts, of back-to-school tablets, footballs, Halloween masks, pumpkins, turkeys, pine trees, tinsel, wrappings reindeer, Santas, and stars, and then the noisemakers and conical hats of New Year’s celebration, and Valentines and cherries as the days of short February brightened, and then shamrocks, painted eggs, baseballs, flags and firecrackers? There were cases of such bygone candy as coconut strips striped like bacon and belts of licorice with punch-out animals and imitation watermelon slices and chewy gumdrop sombreros. I loved the orderliness with which these things for sale were all arranged. Stacked squarish things excited me—magazines, and Big Little Books tucked in, fat spines up, beneath the skinny paper-doll coloring books, and box-shaped art erasers with a faint silky powder on them almost like Turkish delight. I was a devotee of packaging, and bought for the four grownups of my family (my parents, my mother’s parents) one Depression or wartime Christmas a little squarish silver-papered book of Life Savers, ten flavors packaged in two thick pages of cylinders labeled Butter Rum, Wild Cherry, Wint-O-Green . . . a book you could suck and eat! A fat book for all to share, like the Bible. In Henry’s Variety Store life’s full promise and extent were indicated: a single omnipresent manufacturer—God seemed to be showing us a fraction of His face, His plenty, leading us with our little purchases up the spiral staircase of years.

Self-Consciousness, Updike, John, (Knopf, 1989), “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington”

Your second challenge is to create one descriptive paragraph using lists. You can describe a place, an event, a group of people, an experience, an object, a memory . . . the list of themes is almost endless! Work on that paragraph, edit it, refine it, polish it until it represents your very best writing. Then save it. You might need it as a writing sample someday.

These two exercises are a fantastic way to give your writing skills a workout and getting your creative juices flowing as you enter 2021.

Happy new year!

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Writing After Age 50–It’s Never Too Late—Part II

In my last post, Writing After Age 50–It’s Never Too Late, I shared the advantages of being an older writer. Today, I want to add several quotes from the late author, Ursula K. Le Guin. (You might remember being a child and reading her wonderful “Catwings” book series. Ms. Le Guin is also well-known for her speculative fiction, 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, essays, and poetry.) She said:

“If you want to strike out in any new direction—you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart.”

As an older writer venturing into the world of publishing for the first time, you might be afraid to take that first step into the unfamiliar. But, think about it—how many times in your life have you taken that first step? Beginning with the first day of school when you were a child you’ve stepped into the unknown again and again, and it’s turned out all right. This is nothing new. You’ve been here before. You’ve been given all the life-tools you need. You have faith. God is on your side. Just take that first step and start walking.

“The whole process of getting old — it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters — they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.”

You can’t waste time. If you want to write, this is your moment. Think about times in your past when you’ve stumbled. How did those times change you? What did you learn? Chances are you’ve picked up solid life lessons along the way. You’ve learned to toss out what’s unimportant and make what’s important even better. Think about this—what simple life lessons have you learned that you can apply to this new writing adventure?

“Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.” 

What are you waiting for? What’s holding you back? If you are serious about being a writer, it’s not too late. But you have to get going! Start working. Write as well as you are able; it’s all you can do. As you write, the more you write, you will find yourself learning and improving. Who knows what you might accomplish in these next decades of your life?

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