Thursday, November 6, 2008

Clutching Your Marbles: Keeping Sane As A Writer

Working at home may be one of the best perks in a writer’s life, but many aren’t prepared for the inevitable solitude. Even if you have a family whizzing past every day, you are still missing out on social interaction. Gossiping, complaining, or just discussing events with other grown-ups are a vital part of everyday life and something we all took for granted back when we had day jobs. That feeling of isolation, especially if you don’t have many friends that understand what you do for a living, can unstring your mental tennis racket, and have you talking to the wallpaper in short order, and unduly affecting your productivity. Having a network of friends, either in real life or cyberspace, is invaluable for perspective, feedback and inspiration. Here are a few tips to vent that inner steam and find a few buddies, before the wallpaper starts chatting back.

Join a network. There are so many social networking sites out there: MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, just to name a few. My new favorite is Plurk, which tracks your mini-conversations through a timeline, and is easy to use; you can chat as much as you like, then drop it into the background, and catch up when you take a break. For me, Plurk most closely replicates the kind of quick, easy conversation found in an office environment, without all the office drama and politics. MySpace and Facebook have more users, giving a lonely author more chances to connect with like-minded friends, and LinkedIn is an excellent resource for mixing business with a touch of pleasure, allowing you to upload your professional resume and qualifications, and adding friends to your own circle of talent. Most social media sites have a healthy number of friendly, helpful writers online, and I haven’t seen a site yet that turned away a newbie. There's also excellent communities for writers in Second Life as well.

Find a forum. The communication isn’t as instant as social networking sites, but joining an online forum can really open up your world. My writing consciousness has expanded threefold after finding an online bulletin board; I’ve learned so much in the last year and met writers in every genre, from erotic horror to television screenwriters and more. Forums can also be useful in answering those everyday questions, from formatting issues to keeping records and invoicing. Often, writers will share leads on the latest news in publishing, or new markets that haven’t hit the magazines yet. Some boards even have FAQ files for new writers, and special threads, or discussions, to answer newbie questions. Instead of quick chats, a forum allows longer, more in-depth discussions to occur, letting all participants join in with opinions, experiences and advice.

Attend a conference. Let’s admit it; many people don’t understand the day-to-day job of a writer. As writers, we live in our own heads, and get paid for the words we pull out on a daily basis. We wonder about strange things, and ask weird questions. Every conference I attend, I overhear this phrase: “It’s so wonderful to talk to someone who doesn’t think I’m crazy!” Even if you can only go to one conference a year, a weekend of talking face-to-face with other writers can last you for months. Conferences are also great for meeting folks who write in your genre, from magazine writing to fiction to creative non-fiction and more. As a magazine writer surrounded by a region rich with western and romance authors, I’m always thrilled to find another freelancer whenever I travel to a conference. Finding someone who understands your niche’s particular quirks can be mind-saving. Also, don’t make my mistake when I first started venturing out to writers conferences; I was so shy, I sat in the back for every talk, then left immediately afterward so I wouldn’t seem awkward. While the seminars and workshops are definitely worth the price of admission, it’s the social events that provide lasting connections with your fellow wordsmiths. Attend a banquet, or just pal up for lunch or an after-hours get-together, and you’ll get twice the reward for your conference dollar.

Get with the group. A well-balanced writers group can be an excellent way to improve your craft and talk shop; many groups have social time either before or after the official get-together, and some alternate critique nights with informational meetings. A writers group is more structured than online networking, so it’s very important to find one that fits you. Great groups offer a nice mix of mentors and newbies, give constructive criticism to help you grow as a writer, and let each member have a chance to shine. While it’s easiest to join an existing group, you can also start your own writing group: there are several handy books and websites on the subject, including the Writer Groups Starter Kit at, which is targeted toward college students, but has some very useful—and free-- worksheets and handouts available for download.

Open a book. If you still need some real-world contact but a writing group isn’t for you, consider joining a book club. You’ll meet interesting, literate people, enjoy a good book every so often, and you’ll learn more about readers and their tastes. You’ll also read works you wouldn’t normally choose for yourself, which could open your eyes to new inspirations.

Do some good. Volunteering for a few hours each week is the best way to get completely out of your own head and focus on helping someone else. Whether you take on a day at the local food bank or a few hours sorting treasures at the hospital guild thrift shop, you’ll find good-hearted people who don’t care about your writer issues; they are just glad you’re there. Since part of your brain is always working, you’ll also likely find some amazing, uplifting stories to write about later.

Make a date. We’ve all heard of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and her soul-saving creativity technique, the artist date, where you take a day off and explore what inspires you. Instead of taking a day to focus on yourself, think up some questions and head out with new purpose. Ask the supermarket checkout lady about her family (provided there’s no one behind you in line, of course), or tell the librarian that you love her new bracelet/outfit/hairdo. Once, I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I complimented a girl on the lovely shade of blue in her arm tattoo. Her smile bloomed like a spring flower, and we spent five minutes talking about art. It isn’t in-depth conversation, but you’ll be amazed at the effect it has on the other person; everyone loves to be asked about themselves, and making them feel better will boost you, too. You may even forge some new friendships along the way.

While the writing life may solitary in nature, it doesn’t have to be a lonely existence. Just having someone to cheer when you receive an acceptance or pat you on the back when the rejections come in will keep you focused and productive. Whether you choose the company of other authors, or seek out new friends, you’ll reap the benefits in both your career and private life.