From Larissa, Stories

How to Not Become a Better Writer in 3 Easy Days

February 5, 2015 From Larissa, Stories

(Alternative Title: My Virtual Writer’s Retreat)

Nowadays most of my writing revolves around “When’s this due?” work emails and commenting on the adorableness of friends’ kittens and children on Facebook. However, somewhere in the back of my brain, I remember a time when writing was actually an enjoyable exploration of ideas and seemed, well, kinda fun.

Back in my hippie-run high school we used to do 10 minute “free writing” sessions in English class. It didn’t matter what you wrote, as long as you kept your pencil moving. It felt awkward at first but after about a minute, time dissolved and I’d get lost following my train of thought as it lurched across the page. That relaxed flow of the exercise seeped into my other writing and, while I was never a great writer, it felt gratifying to get my ideas down on paper.

That was a long time ago though. Since then I’ve become a designer who worries much more about how things look and function than what words they use. However, when we started our Mommikin website, I found myself suddenly trying to write again and it felt incredibly daunting.

This is how I found myself signing up for a “Virtual Weekend Writing Retreat for Entrepreneurs.” “Writing Retreat” — just from those words I was pretty sure I caught a faint whiff of alpine breeze blowing across my living room as I hit the sign up button.

I was going to get my writing groove back!

I emailed Lina (my Mommikin co-conspirator). “Hey Lina, check out this great virtual writing retreat!!! Sarah Vowell is going to be the one sending US stalkerish fan mail!!!! SIGN UP NOW!!!” She wrote back, “The word “retreat” always make me think of enforced corporate fun.”

I clung furiously to my dissipating alpine breeze and logged into the group’s Facebook page.


Thursday: Pre-Assignment: When and Where You Write (And Why It Matters)
The pre-retreat assignment was to find a time and place to get you in the right mindset to write. I imagined myself in a cafe in the early afternoon with good cakes, soft lighting and a gentle hum of indistinct chatter.

Then I typed on the group’s Facebook wall that I’d be writing from my sofa in that small window of time between my kids falling asleep and me falling asleep while trying to write on the sofa. Someone else replied that she was checking herself into a quiet hotel near the beach so she could focus on her writing.

I began to worry.


Day 1, Friday: Distraction Free Writing and Focus, Process, Finding Your Voice
With the kids finally asleep, I eagerly started the first video. The instructor Nicole Baute’s voice was soothing and reassuring. This WAS going to be awesome! The crisp alpine breeze wafted across my living room full force. She started with removing distractions and focus.

“Close any additional browser windows,” Nicole says in that way people do when something is so obvious it shouldn’t have to be mentioned. A chat box pops up on my laptop, Lina wants to know if the graphics on her article look okay — “I’m doing my retreat!!! I have to concentrate!!!! But yeah, they look fine.” I promptly minimize the chat window and eye my 3000 open browser windows. Surely they won’t distract me.

Except I see a window open to my bank and I needed to look into that one freelancer’s check that’s gone astray. I’ll do that ASAP. Anyway, I can just listen to what she’s saying about not getting distracted while I do that….

Moving on to finding your voice, Nicole suggests reading an author whose voice is similar to yours for 20 minutes before you start writing. I love whimsical, storytelling authors with a touch of dry humor. When I see what books are accessible without a risk of waking the kids, I end up reading Susan Sontag who is exactly none of these things.

To get started writing, Nicole recommends an optional free flow writing assignment. Perfect! I can do this! I perk up. “Just begin with ‘I hope…’ and see where it goes from there. If you get stuck during the 10 minutes start again with “I hope…”

I find a page in my notebook where my toddler has only scribbled a little bit. “I hope…” I look at my 3000 browser windows…each waiting with some task to be done.

It’s surprisingly hard to recapture that joy of just writing for no end, no purpose. Somehow between motherhood, where I have to cram as much productivity as possible into each minute, and freelance work, where I constantly have “time is money” drilled into my head, it’s really hard to release all that.

Plus I’m tired. If she wrote that the exercise is “Optional (Highly Recommended!),” it’s probably not important, right?

I go to bed.


Day 2, Saturday: Vulnerability, Storytelling, Professionalism, and Perfectionism
On the group’s Facebook page, everyone is rehashing their breakthroughs and excitedly discussing how many articles / chapters / revisions they got through so far. Before the retreat started, I made a list of about 6 articles I thought I’d miraculously pack into the weekend. I flip open my note book open to see what I can report. My notes say “Shitty first drafts are ok,” some doodles, then “I hope…”

I take a deep breath but the alpine breeze seems to have been replaced by the smell of the pizza we had for dinner.

I start the day’s video lecture and resist being distracted by an email notification that flits across the screen. I might not write anything worth-while but I’m going to nail the whole concentration thing today. I try to stay focused — back in high school, we certainly never touched on maintaining professionalism or when vulnerability becomes over-sharing.

Next Nicole outlines the make-up of a story: context, conflict, turning point and transformation. I’ve heard that before but I pause the video and scribble it down anyhow. Seeing it broken down helps to de-mystify it. As just four words, it seems almost manageable.

At the end, she has a prompt to tie your writing into your business but the blank space after “I hope…” is calling me. I set a timer for ten minutes, close my laptop and pick up my pencil. After about 4 minutes, a grumpy little sleepyhead in polka-dot pjs appears with a list of demands including a need to go potty, get a drink of water and a most urgent desire to find a small stuffed sheep toy, without which sleep is clearly impossible.

I wonder how things are going at the beach hotel.


Sheepy, Ruler of Sleepy Time

Day 3, Sunday: How to Craft Clear, Effective and Compulsively Readable Sentences (Editing)
The last day. I timidly tip-toe into the Facebook group. People are putting up links to articles they’ve written, edited and posted online during the retreat. High fives resonate all around. I glare at my list of to-be written articles laying next to my short scrawl of free writing gibberish. I wonder if I’m wasting my time. A chat box from Lina pops up “Are you doing that writing thing????” (We love our excessive punctuation). “Yes, it’s very…helpful.” I want to tell her that I think the alpine breeze snuck out under the door while I was changing diapers.

I start the final video. Today is all about editing which requires time and patience — two things that I perpetually have in short supply.

She makes it sound simple. It’s about having the time to reflect, think about something else and come back to look at your writing with fresh eyes. But it also sounds like such a luxury when everything I do is about instant responses and stuffing in as much as possible during nap time.

At the end of the video, she gives one last writing exercise. It’s useful and practical and would be a good asset for the website. I probably should do it.

I stop the video, push aside the list of articles to be written and flip to a fresh page in my notebook. What I really want to write about is how writing made me feel when I was younger and I just wrote for myself. When time felt free and endless. When I never dreamt of writing clickable headlines or trying to stuff in search-engine-friendly keywords.

I start to write.

This is NOT a sponsored post (believe me, she would have picked a better writer). However, if you are interested in improving your writing, check out Nicole Baute’s Story Factory!