Write what you know. This may seem like the most obvious advice in the word, but it’s not. While I’m sure many of us have a burning desire to write the next great novel of pure fictitious brilliance, there is something to be said for using the material your life has gracefully provided you. And it is immediate and at-hand. The only research required is within your own personal history and daily life.
Julia Cameron‘s suggestion of writing “morning pages,” from her book called the The Artist’s Way, is one great suggestion to mine the creative juices from our lives. In this free writing, free flow, pre-consciousness approach, we can find creative breakthrough by writing whatever comes to us. I suspect that this method frequently reveals gems from one’s own personal reality.
What if you rebut: “My life is so boring!”
I’d respond: “Is it? Is it really?”
My six-year-old daughter tells me when she is bored. Often times it is when she is not engaged by me or a teacher or a friend or her siblings; and also when she is too tired or grumpy to play by herself. When she says this, it always blows my mind. She has a pretty amazing life for a little girl – that’s what I feel from my perspective at least. I’ve stocked our home with countless garage sale books. She has neighborhood friends and they play (safely) in the street. We travel to visit our out of town family. When I look at all the places she has gone, the experiences our family has had together, the opportunities open to her, I think: “Wow, you’ve had a great life so far, my dear.” I hope most days she realizes this too.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
One of our mandates as writers is to translate our experiences into our fiction, non-fiction, poetry, young adult stories, mysteries, essays, short stories, and the list goes on. Whatever your mind can conceive of, right?
If you are a fiction writer that has never considered taking inspiration from your own life, I suggest you give it a try! Think about the people that cross your path every day; your coworkers, family and friends . Maybe some of them can become your most beloved characters – or villains. You have a collection of people around you. People you know extremely well – from their opinions to their facial expressions. Take inspiration from these folks and write that kind of detail and intimacy with humanity into your stories. The same goes for settings.
I’ve heard it said somewhere, something to the effect of: there is no true fiction. (If someone can point me to the actual quote, that would be much appreciated.) There is a grain of truth behind all stories. What better reason is there to write what we know!
Somehow, my life experiences always seep into my writing. Or perhaps I would better describe it by saying: my life provides the richness of inspiration for my writing. This is something I am extremely grateful for.
I am so inspired by the human experience that I have inevitably become an avid observer and recorder. For me, memoir and personal essays are an easy choice. However, it is nice every once and a while to break out and experiment with fiction. You could say my successful completions of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month; 50K in the month of November) and the 3 Day Novel Contest (September long weekend; 100+ pages) are just such a foray into crafting work outside my every-day life. I would also argue that I simply love a challenge.
Funny enough, I actually found it much easier to write fiction to the pace of the racing clock during these competitions than I did the one year I participated in NaNoWriMo with a memoir as my goal. I couldn’t unearth my personal stories that quickly. They require a slow-cook-approach I’ve discovered.
What I write about most often, for my profession and for pleasure, are family stories. Parenting. Motherhood. Being a working-mom. Being an artist-mom. Personal identity. These topics are close to my heart. They feel almost quintessential and spiritual to me. For now, I am telling these stories through creative non-fiction. Its a blurry category. Is it 100% truth? Well, no. Is it fiction? Nope, not really. At the same time, I feel like creative non-fiction is my perfect vehicle, for now, to write what I know.
What writing projects have captured your heart right now?
What are you working on?
How do you use your own life as inspiration for your work – no matter what genre you are writing in?
Please comment below. Let’s have a conversation : )
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Thank you for reading!
– Alexis Marie
Yesterday I visited the school where my husband is a vice principal. I wanted to see him, true, but the main reason I popped in was to hear Eva Olsson speak. She was visiting Edmonton to present to students in the Sturgeon School Division, traveling from her home city of Toronto, Canada.
Eva is a World War Two survivor and her stories were arresting. She used her experience with the “Nazi bullies” to implore the children in the audience to stop using the word hate and instead treat each other with compassion and respect.
She told the story of how her family was lined up with thousands of other Jews and separated. One group went to the gas chambers. The other group was put into work camps. Eva was just a teenager. Her mom was separated from her, sent to be murdered, and that was the last time they saw each other.
Eva’s father went to a work camp and died of starvation. The photo Eva showed was of a long line of bodies so thin that their stomachs caved in and the people were literally just skin and bone. It was like a collection of arching ribcages. The image made me shudder.
Eva and other girls her age were sent to another work camp. They slept outside on the grass – even when it was raining – and spent winter nights in a mud hole like pigs. They were all given wooden clogs, not in their size, and had no socks. Their feet were covered in blisters.
“May a new love for humanity be born out of the horrors we have known.” From the Scroll of Remembrance at Bergen-Belsen
Eva spoke of the power of hate to do such horrible things to other people. She also critiqued the bystanders of Europe who let this horrible tragedy of genocide take place. Her message was that bystanders – even those of today – that watch evil happen and do nothing are just as guilty.
I felt incredibly proud to hear such morality praised and advocated for – and also a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels our culture is very grey. We don’t want to upset others with our values so we water them down. Tolerance is at the forefront. Eva’s message actually felt wonderfully refreshing! There is right! There is wrong! We must be resolute in our convictions.
At one point she asked all the junior high kids: “Who does NOT like going to school?”
A large number of hands went up.
(Being a bookworm and an education-addict, I cringed when I saw the hands.)
What was Eva’s response?
“SHAME ON YOU!” she said sternly.
Eva did not go to school as a child or youth. She could not read or write. This embarrassed her greatly. She so badly wished to get an education! (She now holds a PhD so I believe her wish did come true.)
This is one of Eva’s messages that will linger on with me forever.
I don’t want my children to take their education for granted. It is a gift.
“I cannot live in the past, but I must life with it. Perhaps writing my story will weaken the hold the past has had on me.” – Dr. Eva Olsson LLD (Hon.), FRCPSC
When I was younger and in grade school, I was bullied relentlessly. It wounded my spirit deeply and I too would have put up my hand saying I would rather be anywhere else than in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t appreciate school. Who does as a youth in North America where we don’t have to fight for it?
I hope to cultivate a love of education in my kids. The ability to read and write opens many doors, cultivates the imagination, allows for understanding and compassion for others, and creates a means for self-expression.
As both an avid reader and an author, I cannot imagine my life without the gifts of education and literacy. These are things I fight for in my life – not in grand ways, but they are priorities that I protect none the less. It can be as simple as turning off the TV to read a book. Choosing to use proper English even when texting. Reading to my children before I tuck them into bed even when I myself am oh so very tired.
I celebrate the stories my daughter writes on every piece of paper in the house. Her spelling is a mystery most days, but she is learning. She is hungry for it. What a gift! What a precious ability that we have which I hope we never, ever lose sight of. What a blessing!
I am so very thankful that Eva Olsson reminded me of this lesson – of the critical importance of literacy.
Eva’s life is inspiring. To read more about her, please click here.
There is not much in life where a person can succeed alone. Learning from others, being mentored and reading books are key activities for anyone wishing to strengthen their skills and creativity.
A Writer’s Reading List
What books are your favorites?
What literature has inspired you over the years?
What titles motivate you as a writer?
I have collected the beginnings of a reading list from what I personally have found helpful. It is made up of books I have read and ones I hope to dig into soon. A good number of the titles I discovered during my Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.
Some of these books are helpful for the craft of writing. Others will inspire you creatively. A handful will motivate you to edit, while others are for the publication stage of a writer’s life.
Happy reading everyone!
Note: I have added a category to my blog called READING LIST. I will add to it over time. Please feel free to comment below with the names of books you have found helpful.
FICTION & NON-FICTION HANDBOOKS
The Craft of Writing
By William Sloane
Beyond the Writers’ Workshop
By Carol Bly
The Art of Time in Memoir
BY Sven Birkerts
Writing & Selling your Memoir
By Paula Balzer
Burning Down the House
By Charles Baxter
Art and Fear
By Orland & Bayles
By Madison Bell
By Walter Benjamin
By Painter & Bernays
Letters to a Fiction Writer
By Frederick Busch
By Janet Burroway
From Where You Dream
By Robert & Olen Butler
Six Memos for the Next Millenium
By Italo Calvino
By Julie Checkoway
Pen on Fire
By Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
By Denman & Shoupp
Aspects of the Novel
By E.M. Forester
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
By John Gardner
By Stephen King
Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children
By Nancy Lamb
A Giacometti Portrait
By James Lord
Writing the Breakout Novel
By Donald Maas
The Lonely Voice
By Frank O’Connor
Reading Like a Writer
By Francine Prose
Writing in Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Picture Books
By Uri Schulevitz
By Stone & Nyren
If You Want to Write
By Brenda Ueland
Why I Write
By Eudora Welty
The King & The Corpse
By Heinrich Robert Zimmer
Backwards and Forwards
By David Ball
The Life of the Drama
By Eric Bentley
The Playwright as Thinker
By Eric Bentley
The Empty Space
By Peter Brook
The Power of Myth
By J. Campbell & B. Moyers
By Louis Catron
By Gerald Else
The Art of Fiction
By John Gardner
How to Write a Selling Screenplay
By Christopher Keane
Screenwriting from the Soul
By Richard Krevolin
Bird by Bird
By Anne Lamott
An Experiment in Criticism
By C.S. Lewis
Screenplay: Writing the Picture
By R. Russin & & Missouri Downs W
The Screenwriter’s Bible
By David Trottier
The Writer’s Journey
BY Christopher Vogler
Picture This: How Pictures Work
By Molly Bang
How to Write a Children’s Picture Book
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write
By Elizabeth Lyon
Writing With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books
By Uri Shulevitz
FICTION & NON-FICTION ESSAYS
- Baxter, Burning Down the House
- Baxter, The Art of Subtext
- Baxter, Bringing the Devil to His Knees
- Berg, Stephen (ed.), In Praise of What Persists
- Birkerts, Sven, The Art of Time in Memoir
- Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
- Gornick, Vivian, The Situation and the Story
- Gornick, Vivian, The End of the Novel of Love
- Hersey, (ed)., The Writer’s Craft
- Justice, Donald, “The Prose Sublime”: A Donald Justice Reader
- Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel
- O’Connor, Flannery, Mystery & Manners
- Plimpton, George, The Writer’s Chapbook
- Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer
- Rich, Adrienne, On Lies, Secrets and Silence
- Spitz, Ellen Handler, Inside Picture Books
- Welty, Eudora, One Writer’s Beginnings
- Welty, Eudora, The Eye of the Storm
- Cooper, Susan, Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children
- Harrison, Barbara & Maguire, Gregory, Origins of Story: On Writing for Children
- Marcus, Leonard, Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book
- Zinsser, William, Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children.
- Zinsser, William , On Writing Well
The Practice of Poetry
By Behn & Twichell
Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms
By Dacey & Jauss & Strong
By Babette Deutsch
Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
By Paul Fussell
The Poet’s Companion
By Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio
The Discovery of Poetry
The Sound of Poetry
By Robert Pinsky
The Making of a Poem
By Mark Strand and Evan Boland (eds.)
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
- Bell, Old Snow Just Melting
- Birkerts, The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry
- Bryan and Olsen, Eds., Planet on the Table: Poets on the Reading Life
- Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order
- Eliot, The Sacred Wood
- Glück, Proofs and Theories
- Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures
- Heaney, Finders Keepers
- Heaney, The Government of the Tongue
- Hoagland, Real Sofistication: Essays on Poetry and Craft
- Jarrell, Poetry and The Age
- Justice, Platonic Scripts
- Pinsky, Poetry and the World
- Plumly, Argument and Song
- Pound, The Literary Essays of Erza Pound
- Sontag and Graham, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography
- Stevens, The Necessary Angel
- Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us
- Vendler, The Breaking of Style
- Vendler, The Music of What Happens
- Voigt, The Flexible Lyric
- Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry
Here are some links to other reading lists for writers:
I think people envision writers sitting around in over sized leather armchairs, writing in pen by a dim incandescent light, cigar smoke wafting around in lazy curls. Or maybe the idealized vision includes a reserved seat in a coffee shop where the writer gorges on lattes and people watching, clicking their laptop ferociously as inspiration strikes. Or maybe the writer is traveling in the Sahara. Or scratching notes on a pocket pad of paper as bullets whiz by and the thunder of tanks surround them.
Or the vision of the writer includes the best-seller status. I recently heard an aspiring writer say he wants to write the next Harry Potter series. I chuckled to myself, while wishing the writer all the luck in the world. I did wonder though, what is that person chasing? Is it the long hours of writing, the even longer hours editing and the painstaking process of bringing the book(s) to publication? Or is the writer hungry for the title, the gold stamped cover, the royalty cheques, and the fame?
What does the life of a writer really entail?
There are perks for sure, but the writing life is actually bursting with hard work, rejection and administrative chores that none of those daydreaming about the idealistic writer actually take into account.
I wake up by an alarm and get my kids to school. I make lists of things I need to accomplish – and typically writing is only the half of it. I answer emails and phone calls, and handle the business, legal and insurance needs for all my projects. In my daily life, I do an exorbitant amount of research, planning, strategizing, and networking – all so I can be a writer and do what I love. I work in the evenings. I am always collecting ideas. I dream about my characters or a speech I am to give – until my alarm wakes me up again.
It’s a fabulous life!
The life of the writer is not glamorous… at least not yet from my experience. I’ll let you know if that changes. Like any passion; there are good days and bad days, perks and pitfalls, and sacrifices that need to be made to get to the next level.
If you aspire to be the next J. K. Rowling, good luck to you! (I am not being sarcastic.) Roll up your sleeves and get to work! I look forward to reading your book one day – and sharing mine with you.
Graduations are bitter sweet. I loved my two years in the Masters of Fine Art program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. I met many wonderful writers, both those that sat beside me in classes and those that taught us – but from all those creative individuals, I have learned a great deal.
It is sad to move on, leaving a fabulous cohort and regular residencies behind. Cambridge was a hub of creativity and vibrated with people and ideas. Yet, it’s the possibilities of the next horizon, so they say, which is wildly exciting.
I am an extremely planned person, so I know my next few steps, but at the same time the possibilities astound me. I’m open for whatever may come next. I’m thinking PhD, new writing assignments and my next memoir, which is already in the works.
I’m the kind of person that thrives on activity. I may not be working hard for university classes after this, but I’ll be putting that same determination into whatever is to come. And don’t worry – I’ll keep you posted!
Graduation speech given. Degree received. Now on to the next adventure!
Happy writing, my friends!
Happy Fourth of July to all of you American writers! I wish you all a great day of celebrating the country you love to live in. I love to travel to the United States and I really enjoyed my time going to Lesley University in Cambridge Massachusetts. Although I’m going to be finished school this year, I’m sure I’ll be back in the United States a lot in the future.
“Only in America can someone start with nothing and achieve the American Dream. That’s the greatness of this country.”
I hope inspiration comes your way this Fourth of July!
Here are ten quotes by great contemporary writers on topics regarding rejection, writers block, and not just the want, but the need to be writer. These words encourage me and I hope they do the same for you. These quotes will enlighten you to the fact that all of the most successful writers have dealt with and still deal with their fair share of rejection and writers block. However their love of writing never faltered and they never gave up. All successful writers learned the hard way that getting rejected doesn’t mean you aren’t talented.
Nobody chooses to be a writer because it’s easy! As long as you love the process and take every chance you can to improve, you have the ability to be a great writer.
“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had a daughter who I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
“With a book I am the writer and I am also the director and I’m all of the actors and I’m the special effects guy and the lighting technician: I’m all of that. So if it’s good or bad, it’s all up to me.”
-George R. R. Martin
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
“Creativity itself doesn’t care at all about results – the only thing it craves is the process. Learn to love the process and let whatever happens next happen, without fussing too much about it. Work like a monk, or a mule, or some other representative metaphor for diligence. Love the work. Destiny will do what it wants with you, regardless.”
“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.”
“I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts … so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating. I also like to remind myself of something my dad said in [response] to writers’ block: ‘Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.’”
“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”
-Hunter S Thomson
“When you’re a writer, you hear your internal critic, and that’s really hard to get over. And then sometimes you hear critiques from classmates and stuff. But when a book comes out, it’s just hundreds of opinions and you have to learn to separate out the ones you want to listen to or figure out many you want to listen to.”
“Don’t ever let the other stuff get in the way of your inherent skills as a kick-butt storyteller. Move the reader, make them happy and sad and excited and scared. Make them stare into space after they’ve put the book down, thinking about the tale that’s become a part of them.”
“It’s not easy. I got lots of rejections when I first started out. If you want to write, you have to believe in yourself and not give up. You have to do your best to practice and get better.”
Writing a book proposal is a marathon, not a sprint. While many writers dream of penning the next Harry Potter, creating a great book is only one part of the process. The writer must then transfer all their skills to crafting an outstanding proposal that will wow many audiences, from editors to the finance department to marketing.
Here are three lessons I learned about writing an awesome book proposal:
- Do your research and really know your audience. This is twofold. Know the audience for your book, who is going to read it, but also know the audience who will be reading your proposal. Tailor each section to simultaneously present the facts AND sell your book. Of course don’t sell in a pushy, cheesy, or desperate sort of way, but make your case why your book needs to be published – and back up that opinion.
- Get help from others. This was such a wonderful boost for me when I got sick of my proposal, having worked on it for weeks straight, to gain a new set of eyes. Ask friends or family to help research statistics or surf Amazon to compile a book list of comparable titles. These are people who have watched you write your masterpiece and now they are invested as well in seeing you succeed. All in all, I had four other people outside myself help with my proposal – and I am incredibly grateful. My mom, an avid memoir reader, read my book proposal multiple times, her first go around noticing a giant gap. I likely would have missed that hole entirely without her.
- Spend a good chunk of time on your marketing plan. I read countless guides, studied how other books were marketed and daydreamed about the right marketing trajectory for my story. Now, I feel tremendously excited about that stage of the process – which is a good thing if publishers are passing the bulk of marketing responsibilities on to authors. With a very specific and clear plan, writers are able to jump right into marketing activities that will ensure their book is a success.
What stage of the proposal writing process are you at?
What have you learned from writing your book proposal?
Later this summer I will be sharing a book proposal outline, including all the elements you need for success.
I have been reading Edmonton Woman Magazine for years, so when they offered me a column in their glossy pages, I was honored to accept. My first article in my Alexis Marie Uncensored column was published in their May/June 2015 issue. The topic: Motherhood, just in time for Mother’s Day.
While I could write a book on my almost six years’ worth of practice being Mom, I chose to focus on what has changed and what has stayed the same over the years. In the end, moms are still crazy busy, they still put their kids first though take time for themselves and their careers, and moms still drink crazy potions their children mix together. Being a mom really is the best job.
The July/August 2015 issue is just around the corner. No spoiler alerts but I will share about my article here once it hits the newsstands.