Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What Is Your Worst Writing Habit? (03/15/05)



Featured writer: Marilyn Petty



Contributors this month:
Anne E. Silber
Arlene L. Mandell
Charles Markee
Connie Mygatt
Geri Digiorno
Kate Douglas
Lakin Khan
Marilyn Petty
Marlene Cullen
Pamela Laird
Sandra Soli
Susan Bono


Marilyn Petty



My worst writing habit is not writing. It is putting "Writing" at the bottom of a written or imagined To-Do list. It is mental wailing about not knowing what to write about. It is gloomy reflection on a long life of ordinariness.
Take last night, for instance, when plain old 80-year-old Ruth, who had 7 children in her first marriage, then married a man, a recovering alcoholic who was marrying his 3rd wife and adding 4 more kids to the pot, told about—that is, Ruth told about—as an aside to our discussion of Tolstoy, how her father—and here's what I'm getting at—rode in a railroad box car through Siberia along with his YMCA companions just after WWI. You see, Ruth has something to write about. My father never left Lanark until he went practically next door to Freeport to attend high school where he met my mother, got married and dropped dead one morning plugging in the breakfast coffee at the age of 67. Right there, in one sentence I've aced myself out of writing anything and fed my bad habit of not doing it at all. What a muddle.

Marilyn Petty, Santa Rosa

What is your worst writing habit?

  by Anne E. Silber

My writing habit comes with only one adjective: bad. I never make an outline. Frequently I start at the middle or end of a work and write it topsy-turvy style. When out and about I sometimes hear snatches of conversation, or see scenes, or get ideas for future writing. My office is littered with little pieces of paper. I never take food into that space, because I know it will get buried under mounds of papers, and will only be found again by the smell. The word "discipline" is not in my vocabulary as a writer.

It's odd, too, because otherwise I am a very organized person. My 4-drawer filing cabinet is neatly organized by category. My apparel has to hang in the closet all facing the same direction. My appointments are carefully jotted down in my appointment book.

I think the haphazard approach to my writing has to do with the freedom of writing. The writer has no chains binding her to her desk, no deadlines if she does not want deadlines. Perhaps it is the one area of life where she can be completely free if she so chooses.

Somehow, out of this chaos, come works that have organization and consistency. Don't ask me how.

Anne E. Silber has a habit of writing novellas, opinion pieces, essays and such. Her website is www.annesilber.net.

Arlene L. Mandell



My most grievous fault as a writer is placing a promising piece of work on THE STACK. THE STACK is a 10-inch high pile of writings that range from potentially splendid to excruciatingly awful intermingled with newspaper and magazine clippings that I deem fascinating, such as: "Quake Lifted Earth's Surface Around Globe." Can't throw it away. Have absolutely no idea how to use it.

Often the upper portion of THE STACK slides sideways on my desk, revealing, for example, a charming recipe booklet from the Walnut Marketing Board. I also have three smaller stacks of more "urgent" writings, including my pet project of the moment, a series of short interconnected stories about my childhood on a treeless street in Brooklyn named Hemlock Street.

If I don't send this confession out in the next five minutes, it might be lost forever as THE STACK topples and hides it under that terrible folder called DEADLINES, filled with deadlines that have come and gone.

Arlene L. Mandell takes a late afternoon nap to avoid being too responsible.

Charles Markee



Multi-tasking is my worst habit. I never write one thing at a time. My
head jumps around and drives my keyboard fingers crazy. On any day I
can be working on my novel, a short short story, a limerick for a family
occasion or a film review, but never just one thing. Toss in life,
scramble until fluffy, add appliance failures, watch the news and I go
to bed a mush head. Every once in a while, I'll finish something and
stop, in shock. What if there's only one project? Yikes!

Charles Markee, ex-dancer, writer, aspiring author & incipient person, lives in Moonview Cabin, Santa Rosa, California. His film reviews are posted at www.hazelst.com

What's Your Worst Writing Habit?

  by Connie Mygatt

Procrastination. Always putting off the luxury of sitting down and writing. I tell the Muse of Creative Thoughts to "Hold that thought." Does she? Of course not. It goes down the drain of passed-up opportunities like those socks in the washer, never to be seen again.

If I am near a pad of paper I beat her to the punch. Tell her, "Never mind I have taken care of it." I write down the inspiring idea, description, observation, or dialogue and stick it on the door to the computer cabinet. Eventually, the paper loses its stick and falls in the paper shredder. I gasp, as her vision laughs in the corner.

Does she care? Doesn't she give me credit for good intention? Doesn't she know I mean well? I really will sit down at the computer and type for hours, all day, I promise her. She sits there, arms crossed, legs crossed, lips sealed shut, eyes glaring into my writer's soul. My powers of persuasion unfurled, defeated. My mind goes blank for days. I yearn for a word, a sentence, a short thought to tell me she has not abandoned me. And so I sit down at the computer. I catch her image sitting on the edge of the open cabinet door. I begin to type. A gentle wave of inspiration comes over me. I touch the keys and words begin to emerge from the source. I look up, she is smiling. I am smiling too.

Connie Mygatt, Santa Rosa, CA

Geri Digiorno



My worst writing habit is: Not writing as much as I want to, putting off my writing by being too busy, not penciling it in, etc., etc…



Geri Digiorno, Petaluma, CA

Kate Douglas



Hmmm, I guess I can't think of a "worst." There are so many counterproductive urges running through this writer's life, whether it's the urge to stick an exclamation point at the end of every line of dialogue or spilling coffee in the keyboard. Is it a bad habit to wait until the very last moment to write the story promised a month ago to my editor? Not if the ensuing panic brings on a flood of inspiration...

I guess I can say, without hesitation, my entire writing career functions because of my bad habits, in spite of them, and in honor of them. I procrastinate, I forget to use spell check and I've had characters change eye color in the midst of a tale...but that's why God made editors and critique partners. It's my belief, to paraphrase Hilary Clinton, that it takes a village to write a book. Thank goodness I've got a truly understanding village at my disposal-their attentiveness allows my bad habits to thrive and enjoy each and every day.

Damn, I love what I do for a living!

Kate Douglas lives between Healdsburg and Cobb Mountain in California. For more info about her and her many books: www.katedouglas.com.

Lakin Khan



Five Worst Writing Habits

1. Waiting for the muse to arise from her gossamer bed (and taking her own sweet time to do so), I'll breakfast at the keyboard. Sticky keys everywhere. Ugh. Can't write then.

2. Petting the insistently needy but excessively fluffy cat. Furry keys everywhere. Really can't write.

3. Banging my heard on the computer screen when keys jam and brain freezes. It used to work with those hardscreen CRT's; now the words warble in the middle of the screen as if narrowly escaping a black hole. Can't write, can't read.

4. Suddenly needing to make salad for dinner (at least I'm being useful). Oily fingers do not, in fact, clean furry, sticky keys. Arrgh!

5. Writing surreptitiously at work and emailing it to myself. The muse (she's a late sleeper) catches up to me when I should be typing minutes, balancing accounts, entering data. At least the keyboards are clean and the screens are solid. But everything seems to need bullet points.

Lakin Khan lies in wait for the muse in the wee hours of the morn before heading to work. Seems like that darn muse is a night owl, though. She's had some small pieces published here and there, mostly there.

Marilyn Petty



My worst writing habit is not writing. It is putting "Writing" at the bottom of a written or imagined To-Do list. It is mental wailing about not knowing what to write about. It is gloomy reflection on a long life of ordinariness.
Take last night, for instance, when plain old 80-year-old Ruth, who had 7 children in her first marriage, then married a man, a recovering alcoholic who was marrying his 3rd wife and adding 4 more kids to the pot, told about—that is, Ruth told about—as an aside to our discussion of Tolstoy, how her father—and here's what I'm getting at—rode in a railroad box car through Siberia along with his YMCA companions just after WWI. You see, Ruth has something to write about. My father never left Lanark until he went practically next door to Freeport to attend high school where he met my mother, got married and dropped dead one morning plugging in the breakfast coffee at the age of 67. Right there, in one sentence I've aced myself out of writing anything and fed my bad habit of not doing it at all. What a muddle.

Marilyn Petty, Santa Rosa

What's your worst writing habit?

  by Marlene Cullen

That's just it! I don't have a writing habit. I have a writing non-habit. Maybe if I did have a writing habit, I would have written that great American novel by now, or at least, a short story or an article.

My worst writing habit is not writing.

No, wait. I DO write - tons of emails, notes to remind myself of things I don't want to forget, little snippets to send to friends via snail mail (yes, I am old-fashioned that way, I still send handwritten notes). Do these things count? Is the great American novel lurking in my head, waiting to be released? Am I chicken to sit down and find out if I can really write?

I clear my desk, catch up on odds and ends, do all the errands I can possibly do, and now, no more excuses. It's time to sit down and find out. Can I really write?

Gobble-gobble. Oops, that's turkey talk. I meant to say cluck-cluck.

Marlene Cullen fumbles at her keyboard in Petaluma, CA

Pamela Laird



Just Write the Best Next Word You Can

I am trying to teach my brain to slow down, to stop getting ahead of my writing.

If I begin a piece of writing, while the ink flows from my pen for the very first sentence, another part of my brain begins to imagine how good this piece will be. If I am able to produce a smooth first paragraph, I imagine this piece will be published. When I can keep myself writing—rather than pacing, daydreaming how I will not snub my nose at Oprah like Jonathan Franzen did—and I actually finish a first draft, I am already thinking "New Yorker." And if one of my handpicked readers likes it, I am lost in visions of the Pulitzer Prize rather than paying attention to her criticisms.

This mental leapfrogging into momentous success can really get in my way, diverting my energy and concentration from the task at hand. It is a habit of my brain that extends well beyond writing. But I have been practicing a cure, staying in the moment, and it may be yielding results.

Recently, I made great progress while bowling for the first time in a decade. Starting off, I was up to my usual mental tricks; each time I threw a strike, I got busy doing the arithmetic for my best possible score. I could score 150, I would think, and then while so distracted, throw two gutter balls, ending up with 95. Then, in the third game, I started off with a spare and tried a new approach: Just Throw the Best Next Ball You Can, I chanted to myself to keep my brain focused on each ball. I threw 4 strikes in a row and scored 182, the highest I've achieved by 30 points.

Now, I just have to translate this new mental skill to my writing. I am experimenting while I pen this piece and it seems to be working. Perhaps I can teach a workshop. At Iowa or Columbia, of course.

Pamela Laird thinks big in Occidental, CA

Sandra Soli



My worst writing habit is paragraph perfectionism. I am obsessive about sentences, so much so that the overall project bogs down when the rhythm of a paragraph does not suit me. Sometimes I lose the vision of the long stretch because of the immediate need for rewriting. This year my goal is to keep on truckin' so that the entire draft is completed before I frenzy out early on. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must be worrying about falling over dead at the computer, relatives reading rough drafts then commenting at the funeral, "You should see the crap she was working on when her heart stopped."

Sandra Soli, Poetry Editor Byline Magazine: www.bylinemag.com

Susan Bono



My office is a place that draws envious sighs from writers who have more cramped quarters. Its wide cluttered counters and bulging bookcases just shriek of writerly chic, or so I think. Other people say they imagine floating into this room with a cup of coffee, settling onto the couch or the chair in front of the computer, opening a notebook or flipping the "on" switch and getting to it.

If hesitation weren't my worst habit, that would be my vision, too, but whenever I am faced with the prospect of forming sentences and organizing thoughts in this garden of literary delight, some vital part of me freezes up.

Prospects of various failures crowd out whatever curiosity I might have brought into my office with my latte. I spend a lot of time and energy fighting my way through them. And yet I am coming to realize this fear is merely a habit, one I have cultivated like a prize-winning bonsai for years.

Why I got so good at being afraid is hard to say. Telling myself I can't write feels like a way of telling the world, "Don't expect too much from me." But the world doesn't expect anything from anyone, does it? It just spreads itself before us, waiting to be discovered.

I think it's time to cultivate a new habit, one that makes me happier. In this office there is room to grow myself something bigger than doubt and much more beautiful.

Susan Bono is trying something new in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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