Reader Request: How do you clear your head to write?

We love the comments we receive from our readers and occasionally are asked really great questions that deserve an entire blog post to adequately answer. Thank you for your comments!


One of our wonderful readers recently lamented:

“I truly do enjoy writing, however, it just seems like the first 10-15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin.”

How do you center yourself and clear your head for writing? Great question! First off, I have to say, “you are not alone!” In fact, the best writers I know intentionally spend those initial writing moments something other than the work at hand.

One time-honored method for waking your muse is to dedicate those 10-15 minutes (and more) to a writing prompt or creative challenge. Don’t try to write for your official assignment or creative project yet. Just write. Here are some suggestions:


Set a timer. Do not stop writing. That’s it! This is called freewriting. It is a stream-of-consciousness, totally does NOT matter what you write or how you write it exercise that is destined for the trash. It’s a method invented in the late 60’s, early 70’s that’s still used today because it works. One study showed that freewriting significantly improved English fluency amongst ESL students’ writing samples as well as bolstering their confidence in the language. Something about releasing that need for control over every comma enables the brain to tap into that lusher landscape of language needed for quality writing. So “waste” those 10-15 minutes with gusto! Even if all you are writing the first time around is, “I have no idea what to write and this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever tried…” keep at it. I’ve occasionally salvaged some interesting phrases that have emerged from freewriting exercises. But that is NOT the purpose. You aren’t writing for anyone or anything. You are just writing. And writing. And writing.


Tune in. Close your eyes for a moment and focus in on all that you feel, hear, and smell. Open your eyes and write it all down. Get every detail. Every hum, every rhythm, capture it the best way you can. If you still have time, choose a corner or space to describe visually in great detail. You are warming up your mind with rich vocabulary and practiced perceptions.


Zoom out. Start small. Focus on a detail. A fly on a machine. Zoom out to see the room where it rests. Who else is there? Now what about the building? Keep zooming out to take in the big picture. Show an entire town. A society. A world.


Josh’s recent post offers some more great prompts to get your creative gears engaged!

It may seem counterintuitive, but I am sure you will find that allowing your mind to wander along its own paths first will help it settle down to the writing you would like to see. My article on Writer’s Block also shares several proven tips for clearing the head and getting ready to move forward in your writing when it has come to a dead standstill. Best wishes and we’d love to hear how these suggestions have worked for you!



Your Editor is not the Bad Guy


Red ink bleeds across the page. Hard questions scrawled down the margins. Rewrite this whole passage? Really? Sometimes confronting your work after a thorough edit can be as daunting as running into Darth Vader in a dark alley.


“Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” – Blake Morrison


Your Han Solo self might not think your beloved Millennium Falcon is in any need of repair, but you can’t see the entire ship from the cockpit. Here’s the thing: our minds see and feel the whole picture, and it’s incredibly important to recognize the many mini-jumps your brain makes when reading your own text that will be impossible for the reader to replicate. You know the protagonist inside and out, and it can be challenging to see where you’ve misled readers by providing incomplete or inaccurate information. You know it’s supposed to say, “He dashed over the log…” and your brain may not flag you that it actually says, “He dashes over the leg…” because it already knows what it should be. That’s what your editor is there for! Even the best of the best need editors, which is why the acknowledgements of practically every book published are practically gushing with gratitude for their editors!


Patrick Ness advises, “Learn to take criticism. Your first draft won’t be perfect, and it’s damaging to the book to think that it is. Every great book you’ve ever read has been rewritten a dozen times. This is the hardest thing to learn (trust me), but very, very important.”


A good editor will jump at light speed on issues with story arc and continuity in a developmental edit, or search with the uncanny precision of a Jedi for errant language in a line edit. The purpose of it all is to make your work the best it can be. At The LetterWorks you’ll find some of the most encouraging and gentle editing services out there, but they also strive for a letter-perfect edit. All the editors are authors themselves and fully understand the incredible honor it is to be entrusted with your younglings! It is precisely for that reason a manuscript may come back with some serious work to be thoughtfully considered and executed.

To reach publication, sometimes to even be considered for publication, your manuscript needs to reach a certain caliber. Even a vigorous plant is sometimes in need of some pruning to really let it shine and flourish. So take courage, and take up that pen. Let your editor be your ally.

May the “fourth” be with you.



Putting Poetry into Motion by Melissa Heiselt

As National Poetry Month comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the art and its significance in my journey to become a better writer, and ultimately a better editor.

Poetry is often considered to be the inaccessible literary art form, and is arguably one of the most difficult to get right. In 2011, we experienced a resurgence in the popularity of art’s most unpopular medium. Poetry featured in publications like The Moth, and Button Poetry flooding the digital world of Facebook and YouTube with engaging narratives, brought it back to pop culture in a way that I wouldn’t have suspected as a closet-poet teen. I was always told back then to focus on more “practical” writing endeavors, grow up and let the poet die. Here’s why everyone was wrong.

Poetry is a powerful practice for mental health. Researchers from the University of Liverpool investigated the effect of poetry on the brain, and their findings published in 2015 suggest that poetry strengthens the mind in ways little else can. The flexible thinking and agility required to extract multiple meanings from Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” employ the same mental gymnastics we perform when navigating the unexpected in our daily lives. The National Association of Poetry Therapy embraces a body of research reaching back to the early 1920’s as basis for their therapeutic work. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith says, “Poetry invites us to listen to other perspectives, and to care about others who may not look, sound, or think like ourselves.” Embrace poetry, whether through sound, sight, or action and see what it does for you.

Poetry is built to evoke emotion, a sense of place, and presents abstract thoughts in a tangible way. These are effects every writer seeks to draw out as they write a narrative, whether fact or fiction. Take for example the way Carl Sandburg brings us, in just a few words, to a specific moment that inspires memories of a thousand of our own meaningful moments:


“See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it all go by the way the biggest wind and the strongest water want it.”

~ Carl Sandburg, Landscape ~


Studying and putting into practice what you learn can improve your writing by orders of magnitude. Poetry is the practice of paring down your words until only the most necessary and meaningful remains. Catherine is fond of quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupery who once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I whole-heartedly agree, and no exercise is more effective in sorting that out than the writing of poetry.

The study and practice of poetry compels a writer to focus on word choice in a very detailed way. You consider things like assonance, which hones in on the vowel sounds within the words you’ve strung together; and alliteration, which refers to sentences or phrases with the same beginning sound. Consider that Carl Sandberg poem again. The concrete images, paired with metaphor, dressed in nothing but rhythmic repetition, a little alliteration, and assonance make it powerful. These devices are put to good use by talented authors for more than just poetry. They create music within any text and can evoke a sense of mood without being overtly… “rhymey.” (Yes, I just made that word up.) Take a look at this excerpt from Ursula K. LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea“:


“Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.”

~ Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea ~


Notice the repeated word pairings, coupled with how the “S” and “W” sounds chase and echo each other? It seems to amplify the meaning of her words creating this flow and feeling of natural growth extending into eternity.

Last of all, poetry is practical. We see poetry all around us without noticing… a child’s picture book, your favorite song on the radio, a meaningful greeting card, and catchy ad jingles … it’s enhancing the messages in our lives all the time. Just because it isn’t flowery and old doesn’t mean it isn’t poetry. So you don’t see yourself taking up a job as an ad writer. That’s okay. Neither do I! It still brings value to your life, and especially your writing. And if you, like me, are a closet poet, take out that old notebook and add to it as part of your regular writing habit. Maybe you won’t publish an anthology of your own… and perhaps you will. Either way, the practice of appreciating and writing poetry itself will do wonders for every other form of literary prose you choose to write. So whether you want to become a great journalist, fiction writer, or biographer, I encourage you to nourish that inner poet. She just may feed you back.

The Secret to my College Success: How to get an A on any Essay

While it’s not strictly true that I got an A on every paper in college, it’s safe to say that I would have graduated with a 4.0 if all my grades rested only on my ability to write an essay. So gather your college hopefuls and struggling students. I now share with you the secrets to my success and how to implement them for your own purposes. It’s important to note that these tips are specifically related to playing the academic game, and not all can or shouldbe used to generally apply to writing an essay for purely literary purposes.


#1 Know your audience.

This is essential for any graded assignment. In attending lectures you will become aware of certain peculiarities and opinions held dearly by your professor. They don’t mean to, they do try to be objective, but opinions or stances that mirror our own just sound better. I remember laughing out loud at a comment scribbled in the margin of one of my essays; “very well stated!” Turns out, it was nearly a direct quote from her own observations in class. Does that mean you should be a sycophant and suck up at every opportunity? Absolutely not. In fact, if you disagree with a professor, absolutely take it on; but be sure that every opinion you know they have is addressed in some way or your argument is flawed. In fact, I once took a Semantics class that had two different textbooks with two different theories of semantics to consider. Our final paper asked that we choose one or the other and defend it. I couldn’t in good conscience do either, so I showed why both were wrong and suggested my own theory with the research to prove it. A+.


#2 Know your assignment.

Read your assignment carefully. Usually the professor plants in there all the clues for your success. This isn’t like writing for a publishing house or magazine you hope will be a good fit. They are literally telling you exactly what they want. Be sure you give it to them. Thinking outside the box is great and showing your creativity is even better, but not if it’s at the expense of your grade because you failed to meet the minimum requirements. If they want you to demonstrate your understanding of a scientific principle using three examples, make sure you have all three! If they want 1500 words, keep fleshing that out until it’s at least 1500 words. And if it’s a page requirement, don’t mess with the margins to make it work. Professors aren’t stupid, and they look at this stuff every day of their lives. They know a two-inch margin when they see it, and they will flay you. You can’t afford to miss an expectation that easy to meet, especially if writing is a challenge for you.


#3 A good outline saves lives.

Okay, friends. Here is the meat of it: I will be forever grateful for my high school English and History teachers who taught me the value of a good outline and how to write it into the first paragraph as a stellar introduction. This tip is especially effective for essay responses required on a timed test but can be adapted for nearly any informative essay. Your format is as follows:

Sentence(s) 1: Attention grabber. Start with an inspiring quote, restating the prompt in a creative way, and make it personal; whatever you can grab that is relevant and interesting. For example: “‘When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization,’ said Daniel Webster.”

Sentence(s) 2: A sentence or two that lists out the points you intend to prove, and there should be at least three points of discussion. For example: “The American Civil War impacted the lives of farmers in multiple ways. Not only did the war itself disrupt production and destroy valuable farming land, but the shift from great plantations to smaller farms led to changes in economy and family structure.” Do you see that? I now have my entire essay set up. I have stated my thesis, and I know where I need to go. I need one paragraph about the war and its impact on the land itself, I need one about the transition from slave-owning plantations to smaller farms, which transitions nicely into how the subjects of those two preceding paragraphs changed the economy, then how things changed for farming families or civilization… which ties into my quote that started it all.

Sentence 3: A bridge or transition from this to the next paragraph. Example: “The war changed the landscape literally and figuratively.”

Rinse and repeat. This format enables writers to quickly outline their thoughts in a few sentences. All you have to do is come up with at least three things to talk about related to the subject at hand. That’s not so hard as coming up with an entire essay and complete thoughts all at once. After this initial paragraph is set up, the essay practically writes itself. You know what comes next, you just need to flesh it out with thoughtful examples from history, evidence from the literary text, proof from an experiment; whatever the subject, these same principles apply.


#4 Transition well.

The body of the essay will start and end each paragraph with these transition sentences, which are often the hardest part, so I will sometimes skip them to be added back in once I have the body completed. The format of the middle paragraphs will echo the format of your introduction, with each point of discussion substituting for the overall thesis statement in the introduction. The structure should be as follows:

Sentence 1: Transition into this point

Sentence 2: Point 1 stated

Sentence 3-5: Examples of point 1, at least 3 of them

Sentence 6: Transition into the next point

As you can see, the transitions are a big part of smoothly moving from one subject to the next. Try to see how each idea is connected to the next, and highlight that.


#5 Stay on Target.

The meat of what you’ve studied and are now expected to communicate is the important element to get right. Make sure each paragraph stays on topic, shows relevant evidence of your point, and has at least three such evidences. If it’s a literary critique, this can be proof from the author’s life, a quote from the text, or a note about the meaning of a word at that time … whatever is needed to prove your point. History, science, and (I imagine) law are actually very easy to write essays about because there are actual facts and quotes about that event, or scientific experiments to draw from, legal precedents to relate. Again, you just focus on the three things needed to prove your point here. You can do this!


#6 Draw your conclusions.

This last paragraph is going to be more similar to the introduction, but not a parrot of it. This is where you pull together all the things you’ve described and proved throughout the essay. You need to mention the points you’ve made throughout, but it doesn’t have to be as explicit at this point because it’s been well fleshed out. If there is a way to reference back to the quote or beginning concept, great, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. The thesis should really shine here and be illuminated as truth now that you’ve proved all your points.


For example: “The lives of farmers were forever changed by the civil war in so many ways. With the demands of war on limited resources, farming changed in scope and technique, which in turn affected prices and market value, which changed the opportunities available for families. One could even say the war changed the foundation of civilization, as it transformed the life of the farmer.”

See how each main idea is covered, but in a new way, reflective of the information that would have been shared in detail throughout? The tip of the hat to the beginning quote in that last sentence may be a bit over the top, but it depends on your audience. Is that a concept they’ve really highlighted or resonated with during lecture? Then it will only help.


So there you have it, friends; the secret to my college success. My niece has used this advice to good effect in her college essays, and I hope it will do you proud, too. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments.

Grammar Matters by Melissa Heiselt

Language is constantly evolving. New words are rising up and taking the world by storm. “Google” is a verb in the dictionary and pronouns such as “they” are now an accepted gender-neutral third person singular option. Even spelling evolves as what was once okay is now also OK. Yet incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation can be as off-putting as bad breath on a first date. Especially in the world of online business (and who doesn’t do at least some portion of their business online anymore?) your primary contact with customers will come via the written word. Think only Grammar Nazis care about that stuff? Think again.

In 2017, Global Lingo conducted a study to see how much impact poor grammar and spelling would have on a business. The result? Fifty-nine percent of participants were less likely to patronize a company whose materials contained obvious errors. Obvious to whom? Well, over half of their prospective customers, clearly. Failing to fully vet marketing and communications shows a lack of attention to detail and professionalism, which leads customers to question the quality of the product or service at stake.

The folks at Grammarly proved that good grammar was a decent predictor of success; participants in their study who were promoted just four times in ten years made 45% more grammar errors than their counterparts who were promoted six to nine times in that same period. A 2014 study found that freelancers on eLance (now Upworks) with the fewest grammatical slip-ups on their profiles land higher-paying jobs than their competitors with flawed profiles.

It’s not just in corporate matters that grammar can be a problem. A pair of studies conducted by two linguistics professors found that 100% of the time, emails from strangers containing typos and common grammar mistakes resulted in a lower opinion of the email sender. Need a new housemate? Updating your profile on a dating site? Check your grammar. When it’s a friend or associate we may overlook substituting “their” for “they’re” but when it’s a first impression, it’s one of the few things we have to use in forming a judgment. The jury has spoken: Grammar matters.

So, spelling and punctuation are not your strong suit? Have someone with stellar word sense look things over. Grammarly is a popular option for people who want a filter for casual online communication, emails, twitter posts, and the like. Unfortunately, it can’t catch everything. You need an actual human to catch things like a wrong word (not just a misspelled one) or to edit for clarity. As Canadian communications giants Bell Aliant and Rogers Communications discovered, a misplaced comma can cost you two million dollars. For more enduring output that will be an official reflection of you or your company, think contracts, advertising brochures, web content and consider hiring an actual editor. The LetterWorks staff can look over everything from menus and marketing materials to a resume and cover letter. Truly. It’s worth it.

Organizing Your Creative Chaos by Melissa Heiselt

Authors tend to be creative people, and creativity tends to be messy. Everyone has different ways of bringing order to that chaos, and finding the way that suits you is an endeavor well worth the effort. In “The Wand and the Word,” Leonard Marcus interviews various fantasy authors revealing their path to success, and their methods. The most fascinating thing about these interviews is how incredibly varied their responses are. There is no hard and fast rule about how to successfully organize information, but there are a few main categories that encompass different personalities and styles of organization.

Highly Structured

Brandon Sanderson has mentioned in his podcast, Writing Excuses, that he organizes everything from characters and their motivations and network of connections to world-building details in spreadsheets. He finds it a useful way to track and cross-reference those crucial story points. I am a very visual person, and that is so not for me. I can say this with confidence because I tried it, and it was miserable. For me it took so much effort to think about how to arrange things in an unfamiliar terrain, and I didn’t have enough room to see what was in each box. For people who love organizing things so they are neat and tidy and put away, it may be right up your alley. If you are more familiar with spreadsheets, I am sure there are many ways to layer and search information efficiently in that format. If you like to see the big picture, or flip from one idea to the next quickly, it might not be the best fit.

Visually Organized

Graphic novelists, designers and cartoonists (for obvious reasons) tend to gravitate toward storyboarding, where the story is told on a large horizontal space with images and text together showing what the story is to evolve into. Some authors use sticky notes to create a timeline for their work, which can easily be moved around and experimented with before the actual writing begins. Mind mapping is a highly visual way of showing connection, cause and effect, and the underlying moving forces in a piece. It is one way I have enjoyed organizing information for a smaller project, such as an article. It can also be a useful way of showing character connections and motivations, or even a useful way of revealing those less-obvious connections in a non-fiction piece. Many times I’ve had a revelation as I surround the nucleus of an idea with its many outgrowths and discover truths I hadn’t seen before. XMind is an excellent digital way to record an extensive mind-map.


Notebooks are a huge part of cultivating a healthy writing habit. Writing every day is essential! It’s also a place to capture the genius that visits in the night, or the moment that would otherwise be lost. The problem is: how the heck do you find anything useful in there? It’s as good as lost if you never revisit those words. Enter the card file idea. This was a method suggested to me for organizing research papers back in the day, but never have I found it more useful than when I have the seeds of several good stories, but need time to flesh out the details and characters more fully. On my countertop I keep an old school card file box. I know. So retro. But it’s in the center of my home where I work, and right at my fingertips so I can jot down snippets while passing by. I have color coded notecards for each of the stories I have in progress at the moment, with headers on each card noting what the card relates to; anything from character name lists, plot twists, or map sketches. They are then chronologically ordered in relevance to the story. You could do the same thing in Evernote as Josh recommended a couple of posts ago, which would make it available across platforms, making your ideas that much more accessible and searchable, which is hugely helpful as a project grows.

Don’t be afraid to try out something new on your next project… but also trust yourself. Just because Jack Kerouac typed it all out on a typewriter, or Brian Jaques hand wrote his work nearly flawlessly in beautiful flowing script doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Same goes for these organization ideas. Do what works for you, and keep writing!

Let it Rest. by Melissa Heiselt

Writing is easy. As the distinguished columnist Red Smith once said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s the editing that’s murder.

Like any great bread, cheese, or wine, time is the secret ingredient to making your writing the best it can be. Let’s say you’ve just finished your masterpiece; a complicated story, biography, or self-help manuscript that you just know is going to enlighten and entertain. Maybe you feverishly earned that NaNoWriMo Badge proving to the world that you can write a novel in just one month. We all know editing comes next, and so many writers want to dive right in and tackle it! Believe it or not, the most valuable thing you can do here is: leave it alone.

In my experience, the length of time for a good rest is dependent on the length of the material. A blog post or article may need just 24 hours. Something that has soaked up your life and soul and absorbed your every thought for months, and especially years could benefit from even more time. Giving it time does not mean abandoning the work altogether. It’s thoughtful time away from the manuscript, enabling you to disengage that part of your brain that created those words, and engage the part of your brain that’s wired for refining those words.

My first NaNoWriMo piece was a disaster. DISASTER, I tell you. I dove right in once the frenzied writing was over. After a month of trying to force that monstrosity into shape, I finally decided it was an interesting writing exercise, but for me was ultimately just not going to result in any kind of complete, publishable work. I had completely forgotten about it until clearing out my computer and stumbling across it years later. Just for laughs, I decided to read over this disasterpiece. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. I was too close to it at the time to have perspective enough to know how to handle the awkward transitions and pacing that resulted from my feverish endeavor. There were sections that truly were all but unintelligible. But with time between us, we were able to make amends.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of respecting the time and space required for good writing. When I’ve typed that last period I know it’s time to put it away, take a walk, and enjoy the life of the living for awhile. Now  even as an editor, I’ve learned that when things start to feel muddy, and frustration creeps in, walk away. Give it some space to expand and develop in your subconscious before you return to the work and give it its best chance at published life. You’ll be glad you did.

Writing Past The Wall: A Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Melissa Heiselt

It has begun. You are neck-deep into NaNoWriMo, or a writing project with a looming deadline, or your own creative baby. And it has come to an abrupt halt. Suddenly the ideas just won’t come. You aren’t sure what comes next or why you are even doing this anymore. Every. Word. Is. Wrong. Welcome to The Wall. Let’s discuss how to navigate around that sucker.

Embrace the Mess

I agree 100% with Malcolm Gladwell’s assessment that creative people have messy brains. It’s not just a matter of disorganization; many of us are actually painfully well organized. It’s just that we recognize that every experience can be useful, so we don’t throw anything out. Our minds are overly full, spilling over the boundaries of categorization. The problems arise when we try to pre-edit before that glorious mess comes out on paper. Embrace that mess. Learn the value of a good edit. Which comes later. Know that if it winds up even messier than you had planned, you can always hire a good editor to help you sort it out. Your job at the creative stage is just to see what might happen. What could happen. Scott Barry Kauffman, author of The Psychology of Creative Writing, claims the secret past the notorious writer’s block is in allowing for error, and realizing how non-linear writing can be.

Write Something Else

Prolific writer Graham Greene found that keeping a dream journal was his solution. It allowed him to be completely free of all compulsion to judge the work he was writing. It just was. He was merely the recorder. And everything could happen. Not much of a lucid dreamer? Try another writing exercise to get you going. Imitate another author’s work. Re-write your day the way you wish it had happened. Embrace your inner poet. Take another character’s point of view. Write their backstory, or the backstory of a totally minor side character, and have fun with it. It’s not going into the final product, so don’t worry about it being “right.” My favorite part of this strategy is that I can convince myself I am working on the project. Because it all matters. Even if those pages don’t wind up in the final piece, you as author knowing these details will enable them to emerge in meaningful ways throughout the text. Side trails do not make you less productive. They are an important part of the creative process!

Switch Gears

A routine helps ensure you are making room in your life for creativity and progress in your work. But it can also start to make you dread that 5:00 hour, or whenever you begin writing. Switch it up. Wake up early. Take your work outside. Read out loud. Write with pencil and paper for a bit. Beyond that, get up and MOVE. Literally get a fresh perspective. A Stanford study showed an 81 percent increase in divergent thinking in participants who went for walks. Science doesn’t lie, friends. I’ve also found it helps to go make something totally unrelated. Pottery. Cookies. Paper crafts. Bookshelves. Giving your brain a much-needed break to creatively solve other problems while allowing the story to marinate in your subconscious can create delicious results.

Allow for Distractions

Is there another project taking up brain-space just waiting for you? Tackle it. Do the laundry. Answer emails. Get some holiday shopping done. Get it out of the way so you can relax into the more creative work on your docket. Clear out those distractions. Setting a timer is a great tool for free-writing, but it’s also great for giving room to those nagging projects begging to be an interruption. Give yourself 20 minutes to tidy up the office, or make a phone call. Accomplishing something so visible and refreshingly complete feels fantastic when you’re in the middle of a beast.

Self Care

NaNoWriMo, huh? So… how much sleep have you been getting? Despite the urgency of the task, your brain is dependent on the rest of your body getting everything it needs for survival to function at its best. Make sure you are getting a reasonable amount of sleep. Take a nap, if you need it. Set a goal to drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Get some exercise. Running is known to release endorphins and help with memory and cognition. Run on a nature trail if you really want to break out of writer’s block jail. That combo of endorphins and stress relief found in the great out of doors is like dynamite to those walls hemming in your creativity. One 2012 study found that people who spend significant time in the wild increase their ability to solve creative puzzles by 47%. Finally, listen to your grandmother. Choose healthy foods. When you eat well, you feel well.

Hitting that wall can be a daunting experience, but with the right mindset, it can actually lead you down paths you would have otherwise left unexplored. Embrace the mess. Write, walk, and work your way around it. Take care of yourself, and carry on. You’ve got this.



Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Reading and Writing Memoirs by Melissa Heiselt

Truth is stranger than fiction,  and we love to be voyeurs. Unlike autobiographies, which detail a lifetime of achievements and more commonly feature the rich, powerful, or famous; memoirs are the distilling of a life. Any life. All comers are welcome to try their hand here as the genre has exploded in the recent decades. Perhaps as technology has burgeoned, pulling us further from the intimate lives of others, we subconsciously seek a replacement; be it social media, mommy bloggers, reality TV, or a good memoir. Here we can explore the nitty-gritty of a life we might never otherwise touch, crossing boundaries and borders forbidden to us. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls encounters deep poverty and abuse, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom confronts aging and death with grace and humor, diaries by Anaïs Nin dive into unexplored paths of sexuality, and Memoirs by Pablo Neruda dances us around the globe to absorb humanity in all its glory and shame.

When writing a memoir, remember that it isn’t your whole life’s story; it is only a snapshot. Perhaps you want to share the profound insights you’ve discovered as you’ve aged. Maybe you ascribe to a religion or subculture that is massively misunderstood, and your life could be a window to educate the world about it. Each life is unique and has value as the face of humanity with beauty that can be cultivated with artistic framing. Written in first person, a memoir can be as natural to write as telling a string of stories to a friend. With the help of a memoir coach or editor, you can home in on the anecdotes that make the most impact and sharpen the focus of your work. It is the lessons learned, the harrowing journey, or your hilarious outlook on life that make a compelling read.

While detailing your life there will inevitably be other people involved unless you are a modern day hermit. You will need to carefully choose how to navigate the impact your work may have on those mentioned in it. While a memoir is nothing if not unfailingly honest, avoid using a bitter, vengeful tone. It is not an opportunity to exact revenge or seek sympathy by public shaming as if it were a backhanded Facebook post. Be aware that defamation and invasion of privacy laws are there to protect people who feel they have been wrongfully maligned in print, so it is in your best interest to acknowledge that you may (and probably do) remember things differently from other characters in your story. It is okay to change names of those involved, but if there are enough other identifying details that they recognize themselves or worse, their colleagues can identify them, you can still find yourself in trouble. That said, the law typically is on your side. This is your story, after all, protected as such by the first amendment, and as long as what you’ve written is verifiable, you have nothing to fear.

Writing your own memoir can be an incredibly cathartic experience. When speaking of her prolific diary writing, Anaïs Nin once remarked that she found, “life would be more bearable if I looked at it as an adventure and a tale. I was telling myself the story of a life, and this transmutes into an adventure the things which can shatter you.” To take all the drama, pain, and challenges of the past and illuminate and refine the truths that have transpired is a powerful experience. Even if you don’t intend to pursue publication, it can be a worthy writing exercise, challenging your ability to craft narrative from seemingly disparate parts and see a story emerge that had been hidden for a lifetime.

Memoirs remind us that we are all human and as capable of triumph as defeat. People continue to surprise us again and again, and this genre more than any other allows us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. What a transformative journey that can be.