How to Become Brave (on the page at least!)

Spoiler Alert: I don’t have the answer! But let’s consider….

I used to live walking distance from The Mayan Theater in Denver, one of the old movie houses from the 1930s that now lives its life as an art film theater. Since it was just around the corner, and therefore I could decide to see a movie 15 minutes before it started, I would often find myself at a movie I knew nothing about. Eventually it became almost a game, a wonderful grab bag of mystery prizes–which lollipop will I get? Approached with a sense of playful curiosity, even a boring movie was still an adventure.

As a young reader I approached books much the same way–I went through my dad’s entire library, reading Kon Tiki and Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darnest Things just because they existed.
I often feel far away from that curiosity and exuberance, now. Sometimes I think I know too much. I know which books I should be reading, be they classics or what’s hot. I know what “good” writing looks like. I know what my writing “should” look like. Rarely do I read a random book or watch a random movie. And rarely do I show up to the page without an idea or a goal.

So…is this the opposite of being brave? A literary version of playing it safe?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. Recently I was a guest in a college creative writing course, and after class a young man came up to me and asked with complete sincerity:  How do you become brave?

I fumbled for an answer, assuring him that I’m constantly doubting myself and falling prey to comparisons like everyone else. But the question was so beautiful, so spot-on….and so universal. 
How do we become brave?

When we talk about bravery we usually assume it’s hard. Brave people climb mountains. Brave people get on stage. Brave people write books or jump out of airplanes. (Why does writing a book sometimes feel like jumping out of an airplane??) 

But perhaps another way to think about creative bravery is a willingness to show up for what my teacher calls the “lovely possibility” of everything turning out right. We show up for the lovely possibility that the movie will be amazing, the book will become a new favorite, the performance will reach audiences. We show up for the lovely possibility that today our own writing will dazzle and surprise us.

Making art on any scale is an act of bravery. To trust a vision and to bring it to fruition is a courageous act. Period. Thankfully the arts give us many opportunities to become brave. You don’t just win the brave game once and then it’s over. Instead, we spiral around our own courage again and again. Each day you face whatever brand of risk is in front of you, starting with the page, and you show up for the lovely possibility: what if it all goes right?

So…perhaps one way we can cultivate bravery is to remember all the times we already have?

For instance: At one point, whether it was last year or decades ago, the act of writing words down at all was an act of bravery. 

But you did it. And then you got braver. 

Maybe it was the first time you called yourself an artist or spent money on your art–taking a writing class or buying the musical instrument or the art supplies.

Maybe it was the first time you let others read/hear your work.

Or the first time you sent things into the world, risking rejection. 

Or the courage to show up post rejection and keep going.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is the bravery required to write a manuscript. To publish a book and have it out there in the world. To teach a class on writing. To start a journal or press. To try something completely new after having success. To write your truth in whatever form that takes, over and over and over.

I think knowing too much can stop us before we even begin. We’ve read the reviews. We know the odds. We’ve heard the horror stories. We become less willing to risk failure. We have forgotten the adventure of it all.

Maybe cultivating bravery is to also cultivate our lost exuberance for adventure and playful curiosity, the same adventurous spirit that would take us into a movie or book or most importantly to the blank page with a sense of wonder and magic. We cultivate courage, not without fear but with fear. 

What if we show up for the lovely possibility of it all being amazing?
I think that takes guts.
xo Nancy

The Writer’s Life: What happens when your writing routine stops working?

I’m home from traveling (thanks so much for joining me!) and I’m getting ready for the Colorado Flash Fiction Retreat with growing excitement. 

AND if I’m honest, I’m struggling to find my post-travel writing routine, trying to find my footing through the inevitable wobble of movement, summer, impending school schedules, and knowing whatever rhythm I manage to establish will probably have to change again as soon as the university calendar kicks in. 

Ug. Can you relate?

What happens when your old routine stops working? I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met who felt lost when their old routines stopped working. We beat ourselves up: I should have a routine. I should have a routine. Should should should: shame shame shame.

But there are three things I know about writing routines:

ONE: Writing routines ARE helpful for our creativity–that instinct to want one is valid. Our creative selves like some measure of predictability. It likes knowing you’ll be in the chair every day at 9 am, or 4 pm, and it also likes knowing you will be back in 23 hours to continue the conversation. And that consistency will also create a sense of continuity–never away from your work for more than 23 hours, your unconscious will help out in the off-time by continuing to puzzle on your ideas–so the more consistent you are, the more you will find yourself overflowing when you sit down to write each day.

TWO: The routine itself doesn’t matter, only the consistency matters. You can write in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, at night. You can write at home, in an office, on the couch, in bed. You can rent a hotel room by the month for writing, like Maya Angelou. You can do sit-ups and pushups while writing like Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve personally written entire books from 8-10 pm when everyone was in bed, others from 1-3 pm, others from 10-12 am, and even one from 4-4:30 pm every day while riding the train home from work (Going Short). Every one of these routines “worked” once the rhythm was established. 

THREE: The most important thing to remember–routines are ephemeral. A routine that worked great for a period of time WILL stop working, either organically or prompted by outside forces. Finding the right creative rhythm is a constantly changing process. My own writing rhythms are not only seasonal but also are influenced by the academic calendar, travel, kids’ schedules, holidays, workshops or retreats I might be teaching, even the amount of light! For instance: In the winter I walk first, then write–because if I’m not walking by 4 pm it will be too dark. In the summer, it’s too hot to walk until 7 pm, so I have to write first. This means I’m writing in the heat of the afternoon in summer, and in the dark evening in the winter. Very different processes!

These changes can be frustrating, especially when you’re attached to a routine, but I’ve learned to try and embrace the wobble. An important but overlooked part of establishing creative routines is going in knowing they are as ephemeral as a sunset or a shifting sand dune. As frustrating as this feels in the in-between, it can be a good thing. It can keep us shaken up in a good way.

If you are struggling with your creative routines, here are some questions to ponder:

Today, July 2022:

  • WHEN do you feel most creative?
  • WHERE do you feel most creative? In a quiet room? Out in the bustle? Etc.
  • What pockets of time are naturally available in your current day? 
  • Have you had successful routines in the past? Is it possible to mimic those? 
  • And if not, what else might you try? Think something unusual: early mornings, late afternoons, after dark, before sunrise, at the pool, on the bus…

Don’t forget that our biggest asset–our creativity–can help us reimagine and re-work our routines during these inevitable transition times, but it often takes a bit of experimentation, a bit of trial and error.

Whatever routine you decide to try, there will be an adjustment period. You may be constantly comparing yourself with the past versions of yourself. Keep showing up anyway and embrace the wobble: because once you get the perfect routine, something will shift and you will have to do it all over again. That’s just part of the messy, beautiful, creative life you signed up for.

So today, July 28, 2022, I’m writing at 8 am on my beautiful shady balcony. Two months from now, mornings on the balcony will be a much darker, much chillier affair, and 4 months from now it will be impossible. Summer mornings on the balcony are special and fleeting, so for the next month I will fully enjoy my 8 am writing on the balcony time.

Even a few weeks of a productive routine is a gift. So establish and enjoy the short-term routine that will serve you today and embrace the ever unfolding kaleidoscope that is a long-term writer’s life.

You got this!
xoxoxo Nancy

Fall Workshops Opening August 1

Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel (and Launch Your Big Idea)

August 22-Sept 2 (10 days, online asynchronous)

Early Access Registration opens August 1

Do you have a Big Story Idea brewing, but you don’t know where to begin? Is it a flash novel? Novella? Collection? A regular novel or memoir or a million other things? Sometimes not knowing can stop us from getting started. Sometimes the scope of it feels overwhelming. 

Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel is my signature course designed to help you launch your Big Idea. For 10 days we will envision, draft, collage and create the momentum for that large-scale idea you’ve been wanting to tackle. We’ll begin breaking it apart and making friends with the scope of it, and in that process of discovery you will find momentum, insight, excitement, and sometimes a total pivot–that’s okay! For 10 days we’ll get out of our own way–10 days and a flurry of words and ideas and encouragement and camaraderie–and when it’s over you will have the bones (at least) of a longer project and a much better idea of where to go next.

Whether your book is fiction or creative nonfiction, if you are drawing on the skills of flash forms–from collections to novellas in flash to flash novels–then this class will help you launch your idea into the world. Many, many flash novels and other books have been conceived, executed, and written from the seeds of this class. Maybe yours?

*Participants should have a basic understanding of flash fiction. Come with your big story idea and be prepared to shake up what you thought you knew. (This course may be taken multiple times. It is also the prerequisite/jumping off point for the Flash Novel Mastermind, a private, guided, 12-week community incubator to write yourself to the finish line of the first draft–see description below)

Full payment of $250 is required upon registration. This holds your spot, as workshops fill quickly.

Beautiful Flash Fiction II: Pop Lit and Flash Fusion (NEW)

September 5-9, 2022 (5 days, online asynchronous)

Early Access Registration opens August 1

The world is a constant and incredible source of inspiration–IF we are paying attention. In this brand new workshop we will engage with unexplored or under explored avenues of potential inspiration including pop culture, science, math, music, trends, politics, fashion and more to discover unusual angles and back doors into new ideas. We will continue previous conversations on what makes something beautiful, actively blur the distinctions between low brow and high brow art, and elevate the mundane to the miraculous. As always, come with an open mind and expect to play.

Taking a deeper dive into the concepts from Going Short, we will try a variety of approaches to the compressed narrative and you will generate your own original flash pieces. 

*This course is open to writers with all levels of experience in the form, whether you are brand new to flash fiction, a writer coming from other genres, or a veteran flasher looking for a dose of inspiration and some writing camaraderie.

You do NOT need to have taken Beautiful Flash Fiction I to participate.

Full payment of $175 is required upon registration. This holds your spot, as workshops fill quickly.

Flash Novel Mastermind: A 12-Week Guided Community Incubator

September 12-December 2

To embark on the journey of a book is to lose sight of the shore, to surrender to the story and the muse. Now imagine boarding that ship out to sea with like-minded others, colleagues on their own creative adventures but together, in community, with expert guidance and encouragement.

The Flash Novel Mastermind is a private, guided, 12-week community incubator for flash novelists and flash novels in process…a space of content, coaching, and camaraderie where we build on the momentum from Flash Flood while also finding a rhythm that will sustain us over the long haul of actually writing a book to completion.  

Whether your book is fiction or creative nonfiction, if you are drawing on the skills of flash forms–from collections to novellas in flash to flash novels–then this is the community and support you need to write yourself to the finish line of the all-important first draft–that solid and complete lump of clay that lets you discover, finally, what this story has been trying to say.

*The Flash Novel Mastermind is only open to those who have already taken Flash Flood

Waiting list opens August 1. Registration and full details available August 25

Embracing Audacity: What would you create if you had no doubts?

First the bad news: All writers deal with doubt. 

I repeat: If you’re an artist committed to your craft, you will experience doubt. 

The “what if” doubts: What if my writing isn’t any good? What if no one wants to read it? What if nobody wants to publish it?  

The comparison doubts: They’re all better than me! What am I even doing here? I’m an imposter. I’m a hack.

And the deep, dark night of the soul doubts: Maybe I’m not supposed to be a writer after all. Maybe I should quit.

And all these doubts boil down to the big one: I’m not good enough.

Doubt also comes for the musicians, the painters, the filmmakers, the actors, the dancers, the comedians, the photographers:

All of them–ALL of them--experien doubt.

Making art, especially if we are embarking on something big like writing a book, keeps us endlessly humble. Was Margaret Atwood pinching herself as she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale? I doubt it. Was Toni Morrison feeling like while she was writing Beloved? Was Pollock patting himself on the back as he poured paint? Or were these three, and every artist before and after, seized with doubts and insecurity as they wondered what kind of monster am I creating?

I’m guessing the latter.

So if you are wracked with doubts, especially if you are out in the deep waters and taking real artistic risks–remember: doubt comes with the territory. 

Or does it?

A movie I love that puts doubt in brilliant perspective is Florence Foster Jenkins,which is based on the true story of the woman by the same name. Florence (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) fancies herself an aspiring opera singer. But she is terrible. Awful. But she’s also rich, and a patron of the arts, so she forges ahead—doubt free. A sort of “ignorance is bliss” situation. And, in the course of her “career”, she records albums and even fills Carnegie Hall in New York City—without ever knowing she can’t sing.

Here she is singing the “Queen of the Night” aria: hilarious.

I would argue that while her operatic performance was not good, the standing ovation she receives is genuine–the people of Carnegie Hall were not applauding her beautiful voice (as she mistakenly thinks) but they ARE enthusiastically applauding her brazen courage. Her absolute shining, all-in heart. Despite her lack of talent, we can all find something to love in the pure audacity of her art—the child singing at the top of their lungs before they have ever begun to doubt themselves.

And, if lack of doubt made a woman like Florence bold enough to sell out Carnegie Hall, imagine what too many doubts might do to a person instead?? Most of us don’t have a team of advisors shielding us from bad reviews or paying audiences not to laugh.

Doubt keeps us from being all in. We hang out around the edges, circling the pool but never getting all the way in.

Which begs the question: What would you do if you had no doubts?

What might you write if you could be as bold and fearless in the creative arena as the child who has never learned to judge her work? Who just boldly grabs a marker and claims a piece of blank paper: I am here. I exist. 

What might you create if you could had the courage to risk boldly and fail beautifully? What would happen if you went out into the deep waters of your own artistic possibility, far enough out that you could no longer see the shore? What could you create from there? And what if feeling doubt means you’re close; maybe the stronger the doubt…the more important it IS to proceed?

Now I don’t mean to suggest we should be oblivious to the quality of our own work or make no effort to improve. But most of us are not in danger of overindulging our creativity–most of us exist on the other end of that continuum, strangling possibility because we don’t know how it will be received, drowning the seeds of potentiality with doubt because we don’t know what might grow. Most of us are battling the Monkey of Doubt on our backs, not the other way around. 

So again I ask: What would you write if you had no doubts?

And…what if you could begin today?

Wishing you radical inspiration and creative audacity in everything you do.