Author Archives: Maria

About Maria

I am a full-time communications advisor, part-time dabbler, sometime student and permanent dreamer. Oh, and I like to write.

7 ways that mindfulness can make you a better writer

jonathan-pielmayer-252923-unsplash - smallAfter an exceptionally busy summer where I did hardly anything but work and recover and work some more, I am now back in a mind-space where I can re-introduce myself to my writing. (Hello, Writing, how have you been? Great to see you. It’s been too long. You look fantastic. Have you lost weight?)

Over the summer, my writing projects took a back-seat in my brain. They were lazy and laid low. But now they’re up and about and ping-ponging all over the place. I can’t seem to catch hold of one idea long enough to do anything about it. And more keep cropping up. So many ideas! How wonderful! How energizing! How…overwhelming!

It’s not unusual for me to be a scatterbrain. I am a Restless Writer, after all. But there must be a way for me to corral all my ideas and see one through to completion, right?

Maybe the answer lies in mindfulness.

Mindfulness has its roots in the practice of meditation, and it was all the rage just a few years ago. Experts and gurus were spouting the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness, and how it could be used to enhance productivity and problem-solving; how it could help people tap into emotional intelligence; how it could help us be more resilient to stress and trauma. Everyone from yoga instructors and schoolteachers to CEOs and your employer’s EAP was doing it, and it spawned magazines, gadgets, apps, ringtones, retreats and colouring books—a whole industry devoted to helping us “be present” and “live in the moment” (and spend money while we were doing it).

Do I sound skeptical? Maybe a little. I get squinchy when I ponder the woo-woo stuff. Plus there’s a whole “first-world problems” side to mindfulness that makes me uncomfortable. Not to mention that entrepreneurs are getting rich by telling me to focus on one thing at a time and take deep breaths.

But okay—and I am taking a deep breath here—skepticism aside, how can I apply some of the lessons of mindfulness to writing?

Hold up. Is it even possible for writers to train themselves to be aware and present in the here-and-now when their minds and imaginations are pulling them far, far away? Writers are characterized as dreamers. We either have our noses in a book or our heads in the clouds. I’m forever thinking about people who don’t exist and putting them in impossible situations—how mindful is that?

It’s true, however, that I find the act of writing to be very grounding. When I have my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard, I’m exactly where I should be, and doing exactly what I should be doing. One of the Restless Writers’ favourite quotes is courtesy of Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” That sounds like the very definition of mindfulness.

So maybe there is something to this mindfulness thing for writers after all.

I did some research, and there are some lessons that I can take away from mindfulness when it comes to me and my writing. Here’s my short list of learnings:

  1. Do one thing at a time: We often overestimate how much we can get done in a day. I often boast of my multi-tasking skills, but maybe that just makes me more scattered. When my mind is constantly thinking about the Next Thing I have to do, how do I get the One Thing done? Multi-tasking is the intellectual equivalent of the fidgets—it just wastes energy and doesn’t lead to anything productive. It’s good practice to tamp your enthusiasm down a bit, and focus on seeing one thing through to completion before switching tasks.
  2. Live “in the now:” “The now” and “the here” provide endless wells of inspiration for writers. Going grocery shopping? Grabbing a coffee? Eating lunch at a diner? These are all opportunities to tune in to what is going on around you and to witness how people interact with each other and their environments.
  3. Be mindful with others: Other people are living in the now with you. Put away the distractions and focus on the person you’re with or the people who share your space. Not just because it will help you write better dialogue or create more authentic characters—but also because you don’t want to be a jerk.
  4. Be mindful with yourself: What is distracting you? How do you feel about what you’ve written so far? What are you uncomfortable with? What scares you about what comes next? Can you power through this paragraph or do you need to take a break? Checking in with yourself and your feelings can help you overcome writing obstacles and achieve new insights. Fatigue, frustration, and anxiety can lead to writer’s block, so be alert to when a walk or a sandwich are in order.
  5. Use all your senses: This element of mindfulness practice is fun, although it requires a lot of attention. When you’re engaged in mindful practice—whether you are eating an orange, going for a walk, or folding laundry—it’s an opportunity to enhance your vocabulary and make your writing come alive. Focus on the smell of the orange, the sound of the early-morning birdsong, the texture of those towels. Bring that depth and richness of sensation into your writing.
  6. Unplug from devices: This is always a good idea, and goes along with the practice of doing one thing at a time. Allow yourself to focus on the task of writing itself. Don’t get caught in a social media spiral, or lose the thread of your story by cleaning out your inbox. Use your writing time to write. You can always check your feeds on a break.
  7. Let go of judgment: This element of mindfulness requires you to free yourself from your inner editor/critic/English teacher/asshole, and just let your words flow. Don’t criticize or question your writing as you go. Don’t shrink from a scene that is uncomfortable or painful. Don’t go back and rework a comma or reconsider a snippet of dialogue—just write and see where it takes you. Being mindful when you’re writing means to accept and be grateful for your words and your work.

Mindfulness may have been criticized as just another productivity hack or money-making trend or something that has been co-opted from its more spiritual roots. But practiced with consistency and intent, mindfulness might just make you a better writer.

Maria

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash.

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Dispatch from out west

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Last fall, I said good-bye to the hours-long commute, fast-food chains, and crowded shopping malls of southern Ontario, and hello to the small-town living, majestic mountain views, and independent spirit of the BC interior.

I also had to say good-bye to my Restless friends. Or at least good-bye to our in-person meetings filled with food, wine, and conversation. I was sad to go, but also excited about my new adventure.

Four months in, and I am still settling into my new home. I miss my friends and my family every day, but I am also making connections with people in my new community and trying to contribute to the Restless Writers from afar.

Making it work

As Sharon said in her previous post, Restless Across the Miles, long distance relationships take work. But keeping those ties strong is important, so we are making the effort. We have cobbled together a system that works for us. We rely on different kinds of communications technology to keep us connected–from email and texting, to Google Duo and FaceTime. That, and our ongoing dedication to helping each other become better writers, is keeping the spark alive.

It’s not always perfect. The last time I joined a meeting with FaceTime, Beckie said it was a bit like being joined by a robot, with my disembodied face peering from the iPad duct-taped to my customary spot at the table. I have missed the odd joke because of a technical glitch. I have to keep my devices charging or our connection will cut out mid-critique. I definitely miss toasting my friends with prosecco in person, and my virtual attendance means none of Sharon’s baked goods for me. (Insert crying emoji here.)

A change will do you good

But there is also a positive side to me being the Restless Writer who has gone walk-about. I like to think that my long-distance perspective helps to bring new thinking to everyone’s writing. I know it has brought something new to my own. A change can jar you out of your typical habits or patterns of thought, and bring something new to your craft.

A physical move expands your horizons both literally and figuratively—which can ultimately make you a better writer. For me, I am learning to be sensitive to the things that make different regions distinct—and that’s the kind of thing that can give my writing colour and authenticity.

Regional vocabulary is one example. Skookum. Bougie. A skiff of snow. Kootenay time. I am learning new words and phrases that I could use to make dialogue featuring a local character ring true. Place names are also foreign to me—but I am starting to understand when someone talks about “the Valley” or “the Junction.”

The things that people do for fun are new to me too. On any given day, you can make a quick visit to the hot springs, take in a quirky burlesque show in town, or play in legendary powder at a local ski resort.

The natural environment is completely different out here. Growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario meant that I took some things for granted—the morning sun rising slowly and brilliantly over the still water; the gentle rise and fall as you follow the road over the Escarpment; the “lake-effect snow” that makes Ontario highways so treacherous.

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Here, my surroundings continue to surprise me. Like how the mountains look ever-more surreal as I try to follow their smoky march north. How the falling snow gets back-lit by the halo of a street-light. How precisely the river reflects back the treeline. How the snow berm on the mountain pass can tower metres over cars driving through. How the sunshine seems to reach the bottom of the valley for only a few hours a day, and only a few days of the week. Did I mention all the snow?

Small-town BC is very different from suburban Ontario. For example, where once I could shop in happy anonymity at one of the big supercentres in the GTA, here I can’t walk a block without running into three people I know. “Business casual” means something very different out here—Blundstone boots, down jackets, and toques are all included in what is appropriate in the workplace.

There’s a grit to people here. Independent spirit and a yearning for solitude, yes. But also true caring and engagement, a sense that we are all in this together. I am learning more about my new community—and appreciating it more—every day.

Disruption and making it new

Disrupt it all

My job as a writer is to take note of the people around me. Not just what they wear or how they talk, but the things they care about and what makes them tick. I want to know what brought them to this place, and what keeps them here. What makes this community thrive? And what secrets does it hold? Anything that jolts you into looking at the world with fresh eyes can help you do this.

You probably don’t have to make a 3,000-kilometre move to disrupt your way of thinking, but hey, I like to go all-in.

I can use my fresh perspective to capture what makes this place so distinct, to think differently about the people and the world around me, and to ultimately tell a great story. Hopefully I can bring a bit of that “make it new” insight to the Restless Writers too.

With warm wishes from out west,

Maria

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Get thee to Stratford for writing inspiration and instruction this fall

Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario by Ken Lund

The Restless Writers are suckers for writing retreats and conferences, so we are super stoked to help spread the word about exciting opportunities this fall for writers to hear from award-winning authors and dig deeper into their own projects.

Attend all or part of a writers’ festival

If you haven’t made plans yet to attend the Stratford Writers Festival, what the heck are you doing with your life? It’s happening October 20-22, 2017, in Stratford, Ontario.

This year’s line-up includes events and sessions with authors including Heather O’Neill, Scaachi Koul, Kerry Clare, Jennifer Robson, Glenn Dixon, Eden Robinson and Terry Fallis. The venues are all in downtown Stratford, so expect to be inspired not just by the special guests but also by the surroundings.

Visit the Stratford Writers Festival website for all the details or buy your tickets today.

Sign up for a writing retreat

If—woe betide!—you can’t make the festival but still want to gain inspiration and instruction for your own writing, check out the Write Now Retreats taking place on October 23-25 and October 30-November 1.

The Write Now Retreats are open to writers at any stage in their work. Whether you’re still at the idea stage or you have the words “The End” in sight, you will benefit from these intimate and insightful sessions.

There are four different retreats available for registration:

  • Writing Technique and Creativity Retreat with Kim Echlin, October 23-25
  • Memoir Writing Retreat with Alison Wearing, October 23-25
  • Finesse Your Next Draft Writing Retreat with Farzana Doctor, October 30-November 1
  • How to Write a Cookbook Retreat with Theresa Albert, October 30-November 1

The retreats provide instruction from award-winning authors who also teach regularly, access to one-on-one coaching with the instructor, creativity techniques to keep up the momentum on your projects, support from fellow writers, time to write, and world-class accommodations in downtown Stratford.

There is a comprehensive list of FAQs on the Write Now Retreat website where you can learn more.

I’ve got my eye on the retreat with Kim Echlin. Which one speaks to you and your goals? Check out the website for all the details, and register soon—there are only a limited number of spots.

Go the DIY route

If you don’t have the time or resources to attend these structured writing events, take a tip from the Restless Writers and plan your own one-day retreat. Wherever you are in your writing or your life, you can make space to pursue your creative goals.

Happy writing!

Maria

Photo: Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario, by Ken Lund, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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On the collective wonderfulness of the women of the Restless Writers

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We Restless Writers have been on our collective writing adventure since spring 2009. Although our composition has changed a bit since we started out—with some writers choosing different paths and new writers joining us for this wild ride—we have always been made up of female members.

I don’t think this was intentional; it was just the way things worked out. I’m sure if we crossed paths with the right male writer—and we probably can’t describe what right means in any satisfactory way—we would welcome him into the fold. Although that would certainly change the tenor of conversation at our meetings.

For now, we are a tight-knit group of women, and we like it that way.

In honour of International Women’s Day, I’d like to highlight seven reasons why the women of the Restless Writers make for a supportive and rewarding writing group.

  • It’s a safe space to talk, create and share. Sharing your writing can be scary, and opening your creative work up to critique can make you feel awfully vulnerable. For me, sharing my work with the women of the Restless Writers makes me feel bold and brave. I trust their unconditional support, no matter what outside-the-box idea I bring to the table.
  • Critique is tactful, caring and insightful. We have perfected the technique of giving positive feedback, followed by constructive criticism, and wrapping up with encouragement to keep going. (It’s our version of “the shit sandwich.”) Our goal is to nurture the writing flame—not stamp out the spark.
  • Our meetings are very well catered. (Plus, oh, the wine!) Food is love. Some of the Restless Writers are wonderful cooks, and they aim to have us leave each meeting with full bellies and warm hearts. (And often in the care of a designated driver.) We invariably attend meetings wearing stretchy pants, and no one minds.
  • We swap clothes and books. One perk of having an all-female group is that we can, from time to time, foist unwanted clothes off on each other. I have cleared out many closets this way. I can also pass on books that have lifted my spirits, granted me insight, made me cry, or opened my eyes. We like to share.
  • Craftiness is encouraged. Every year around Christmas, we gather together to toast the season and make something Martha-Stewarty. Most recently, we made yarn balls. The year before that, it was rustic sign boards. Whatever we get up to, you can be sure it involves glue, glitter and giggles.
  • We get to connect with other women writers. We have a bunch of awesome women writers who follow us here (thanks for visiting, by the way!), and our larger networks are made up of women who tell stories, make art, and otherwise create wonderful things. Whether we meet up virtually or actually, and whether it happens just once or on a regular basis, we love having a squad of creative ladies to call on for encouragement.
  • We don’t compete; we support. Each Restless Writer is working on a different kind of project. From fiction, memoir and personal essay, to poetry, performance and beyond, our endeavours run the gamut of creative expression. And that’s one of the best features of our group. We don’t come to meetings and share our work and offer critiques to write better than each other—we do it so we can write better, period.

The women of the Restless Writers are my friends, allies, cheerleaders and accountability partners. We lift each other up and help our voices soar. We console each other when emotions get the better of us, and we toast each other when we achieve a milestone. We encourage each other to tell the stories we were born to tell, and guide each other gently towards our goals.

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to recognize the immeasurable awesomeness that the ladies of the Restless Writers have brought into my life. And I hope you take a moment to thank the women in your life who have done the same for you.

With love and gratitude.

Maria

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Submissions now open for 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize

photo-1457298483369-0a95d2b17fcdThe Restless Writers have just learned that submissions are now open for the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize.

The Walrus Foundation announced today that the fifth annual Walrus Poetry Prize will be judged by The Walrus poetry editor Damian Rogers and celebrated poet Hoa Nguyen. The Hal Jackman Foundation generously supports this $5,000 prize.

Submissions will be received between August 5 and September 12, and Rogers will narrow them down to a short list of five poems. Nguyen will be tasked with selecting the $,4000 winner. (No pressure!)

The five finalists will be revealed online on October 3, where readers can vote on their favourite poem until October 26. The Readers’ Choice winner will receive $1,000.

Both poems will appear in the January/February 2017 issue of The Walrus, at http://thewalrus.ca, and in the Poetry in Voice anthology.

Information at a glance:

Submissions open: August 5 – September 12
Shortlist announced: October 3
Vote for the Readers’ Choice Award: October 3 – October 26
Winners announced: December 6
Entry fee: $25

For more information—including eligibility requirements, rights and how to submit, visit http://thewalrus.ca/poetry-prize.

Even if you don’t submit a poem, please be sure to vote for the Readers’ Choice winner.

Good luck to all!

Maria

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Holiday Craft Night 2015

The Restless Writers have a few pretty cool traditions. Not all of them involve wine, cheese, and a loosey-goosey approach to page-submission deadlines. No, some of our traditions actually involve our creativity and learning new skills.

Our Holiday Craft Night is one such tradition. We held our third (I think?) Holiday Craft Night just before we all got swept up in the crazy busy-ness of Christmas. Our mission: hand-painted rustic signs. The plan was to start with empty boards, sift through a few packs of letter stencils, and wind up with something personal to take home at the end of the night.

Here’s how the evening went down:

Boards fully prepped–and the table fully stocked–we got started right away. There was some friendly competition for desirable letters (“I’ll trade you this glass of prosecco for that little e!”), but it all worked out in the end.

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Making good progress. So pretty!

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Painting and peeling were the messy parts. Some of us wore protective head-gear.

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Sharon taking a short break. Being crafty is hard work!

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Back at it.

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The finished products!

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I love our annual Holiday Craft Nights, and I love how they make me take my creative impulses in new directions, with new media. And I also love how these nights help me connect with these amazing women, and be inspired by them.

How do you cross-pollinate your creative impulses? Beading? Colouring books? Macrame? Let us know in the comments–we need to start thinking about next year’s Holiday Craft Night.

Maria

 

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Tread gently: Some tips for critiquing poetry

photo-1429032021766-c6a53949594f“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
~ Robert Frost

The Restless Writers are a diverse bunch. Our interests range from children’s picture books and YA to memoir to spoken word. Recently, a few of our members have even ventured into poetry. And while we as a group are supportive of all our individual efforts–even if we haven’t had a lot of experience with a particular genre–we are not all confident in our ability to critique poetry.

I have a graduate degree in English literature, so you’d think I would have some skills when it comes to reading a poem and giving feedback to help the poet better express her idea. But my university years are well–well!–past, so I have been trying to find ways that I can offer feedback in a constructive way. Because with our writing group, it’s all about trying to make each other better writers.

Poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, and you might not get or even appreciate each poem you read. But hopefully my approach to critiquing a poem will help you give positive and constructive feedback to the poet in your group.

Immediate impact: 
The first thing I reflect on when I read a poem is how it makes me feel when I read it for the first time. I try not to get bogged down in the structure or form of the poem at this stage–I let the words and rhythm carry me through. Does my mind delight in the poet’s language? Does she make me think about an object, an experience, a setting in a new way? Do I smile involuntarily because of the way she described a particular moment? Can I relate to the subject? Is it uniquely personal or oddly universal? How did her poem touch me, on an emotional or intellectual level?

Dig a little deeper:
Next, I think about how the poet achieved these impacts. How did she use language and metaphor to evoke a specific mood? How did she structure the poem? Did she employ a specific form, and was she true to the spirit of that form? Was she consistent in her use of meter and rhyme? How did structure and form help to emphasize different elements of her poem? Where could she have used such devices to better effect? How did she use words and sounds to jar, to charm, to tease, or to question? The important thing at this stage is to be honest but respectful, and tread gently.

Move forward:
To wrap up my critique, I provide suggestions regarding word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If I found some phrases to be a little clichéd, I try to help her come up with some fresher or more surprising options. If I really liked a particular stanza or rhyme, I let her know that too. I also like to find out what she wants to do with the poem. Is it a stand-alone piece that she wants to submit to a journal? Or will it be part of a larger work or series of works? Perhaps she wants to read it at an event or gathering, or keep it all to herself. Whatever she wants to achieve, I offer to do a second reading before she considers it done.

I always bring my own emotional state and life context to each poem I read. Different poems with different subjects will have different impacts on me, depending on what is happening in my life at the time of reading. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about poetry–it can create an intimate connection between the poet and the reader, using language as a bridge. And for the Restless Writers, poetry is just another way we get to explore the ideas, themes, and words that keep us writing.

Happy critiquing!

Maria

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