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A Poet in Quarantine

Surviving COVID-19

Like many of you, I am adjusting to a life in quarantine. I consider myself an introvert’s introvert meaning, I can spend extended time in silence and solitude. Being in groups and talking can be emotionally and mentally draining. However, I do feed off of human interaction and touch (just not as much as others).

I have seen numerous posts on social media admonishing us on how we should spend this time. Personally, I think most of it is ill advised. What each individual is experiencing during this pandemic varies from person to person, state to state, situation to situation. Like many cases in life, a one-size fits all approach does not work.

Rather than grinding or hustling, I been spending my time watering my creative well. This is a principle I learned while listening to a live interview with Elizabeth Acevedo. Some of what I had considered writer’s block was my creativity crying out: “I’m in a drought. Pour water on me please.”

Watering my creative well has meant reading more poetry. If I am reading poetry, I typically am writing poetry. I also try to take walks or ride my bike. As a Southerner used to lots of sunshine year round, it’s challenging for me to spend most of my day indoors. However, I work at my kitchen table, which is positioned in front of two windows, so I can feel the sun.

Rather than ignoring what is happening in our world, I using it to water my well. I’m writing a chapbook, Wash Your Hands. I given myself a constraint: start every poem with the words: wash your hands. Write 30-40 poems around this line. So far, the poems are exploring colorism, relationships, identity, and home. Stay tuned for some recordings of those poems.

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Planning Poetry Projects

In an earlier post, I shared with you my method of organizing projects by using binders. Another tool that has helped me start organized is a collection of Project Planner worksheets. I did some searching online and found Printable Pineapple. The owner, Shannon, has been featured on BuzzFeed. What I love about these worksheets is:

  1. They are affordable. It costs under $5.
  2. Since they are printable worksheets, I don’t have to have a separate planner for projects. The worksheets were automatically downloaded after my purchase. I print the appropriate worksheets and put them in my binder. This was a major win for me.
  3. I can break my projects down by week, by month etc. I highly recommend them. You can find other useful planning tools on her website.

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Staying Organized

Knowing where to start was a major barrier I faced when I sat down to write. I lost precious time searching for poems, gathering research or trying to be inspired. Much of the time I had allotted to write was wasted. A fellow poet mentioned that she created binders for her poetry projects and renowned dancer, Twayla Tharp uses boxes to store materials. (View a sketch note video on her book here.)

Putting all of my materials in one place has made writing less stressful and my writing time more productive. I’ll walk you through my process so you can try it out to see if helps you. 

First, get a binder. I opted for a quality binder so I didn’t want time and money replacing binders. I also purchased a binder that was pretty because visually appealing items inspire me. I got scrapbook binders from Hobby Lobby during a half off sale and a regular  binder from Target. 

Second, create sections. These vary based on the project. For example, I’m working on an audiobook of lynching poems. My sections include research, poems other poets have written about lynching, my old poems and new poems I am writing. I also have paper in the binder for writing new poems.  

I recently added a section of photocopied poems. Whenever I feel stuck, I look to these poems for inspiration on form, style, etc.  I may add a section of images since many of my poems are inspired by visuals. 

Create sections that are helpful to you. Add as you go and take away what doesn’t work. Consider writing an artist’s statement about why you are doing the project and include in your binder. It can serve as a motivator or a compass during low times. 

What if you are not working on a specific writing project, can the binder still work? I think so. You can create sections of different types of inspiration.This can be quotes, other poems, images, sketches, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Third, label your binder. Seeing the name of the project on my binder helps me be more connected to the project. I don’t fall into the out of sight out of my mind  phenomenon. 

Fourth, get to writing. 

What I love about my binder is that I can take it with me anywhere I go, and I don’t need technology. I don’t have to spend time looking for materials. I have everything I need in one more place. Now, I spend more time creating, and I feel less overwhelmed. 

If you prefer an electronic version, you could create folders on your laptop or use Padlet or similar programs. Here is a video a fiction writer made about her binder and one made by a writer turned business coach.

I think this system can work regardless of what genre you write in. If you give it a try, let me know how it works for you. 

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Dear Writer, please get out

Writers can be like hermits. We stay in dark shells and never come out. Sometimes we lie to ourselves and say that we must be secluded all the time to write. We believe we are following in the steps of Emily Dickinson. We are self-proclaimed introverts, and we are proud about it.

But, there are downsides to constant seclusion. We can be socially awkward, which is not a plus when you interact with those who love your work at a reading or a book signing. We can have terrible stage presence because we are not used to speaking in front of others. So writers, I am urging you to get out! Leave your couch or your table and get into the world.

Most of us write about humans so our writing can be improve by being around people. Dialogue and portraits can be richer by having more social interactions. Now, before you jump off this blog post because you think I am bananas. Let me express empathy. I consider myself an introverts’ introvert. I can spend days in solitude. I am pretty phenomenal at entertaining myself and keeping myself occupied.

I don’t like large social gatherings, and interacting with an audience after a reading is still strange to me at times. However, I know that my writing has improved, and my social interactions have improved through pushing myself to be around others. One easy you can do the same is by regularly attending writing workshops.

Writing workshops have been a much needed motivator and accountability partner in being consistent in writing. They have given me insightful tips to improve my writing, and the feedback I received from other participants has refined my work. I have not been a fan of every writing workshop I attended. That’s a part of the journey. However, I have found a few that I like, and I try to commit to going to two a month.

This doesn’t always work out due to my day job. However, I have experienced shorter writing hiatuses as a result of going to writing workshops. I want to encourage you to find a writing workshop or community in your area and get out there. I’m sure you can find on online, but push yourself to interact with other humans in person. It will make you a better writer. Dear writer, get out there!

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What are your writing goals for 2020?

One of my favorite aspects of a new year is that it feels like life has given me a reset button. I can start over; I can revise; and I can re-think. I even can do new things. I’m sure you have heard of New Year’s Resolutions, and you may even have strong opinions about them. There are valid arguments about why they are effective, and there are reasonable arguments for why they are ineffective.

However, I think it’s wise for writers to set goals whether in January or June. Goals provide direction and focus for your writing. They can give you a path for fulfilling your writing dreams. They also keep you accountable for not letting your writing gift still idle and be untapped.

If you haven’t set a writing goal this year, I want to encourage you to do so. I don’t want to offer you a formula for effective goal setting. Google provides lots of information on that. Instead, I want to serve as a cheerleader, motivating and pushing you to set a goal. I have found that it I connect a goal to a habit and schedule it, I tend to be more successful.

For example, I have three writing projects I am doing this year. I am not sure when they will be finished and ready for publication. I don’t want to rush the creative or research process nor do I want these projects to go on for decades. Rather than setting goals for publication, I will be scheduling writing days to work on these projects. I also will be selecting a couple of poems from each project and submitting them to literary publications in hopes of having them published. I often am unsuccessful with reaching my goals when I do not calendar them.

I want to encourage you to set a writing goal that matters to you and schedule time to work on that goal. Last year, I read Michael Hyatt’s Best Year Yet and it was helpful in re-thinking a new year. I highly recommend it. I would love to hear your writing goals. What do you hope to achieve in 2020?

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10 Tips for Young Writers Entering Contests

  1. Follow directions

Picture this: You are having dinner with friends at a restaurant. You order a cheeseburger with fries. The server brings out the food and hands you a plate with lasagna and salad. You kindly tell the server: “My order is inaccurate. I asked for a cheeseburger and fries.” 

The server replies: “I know, but here’s what the cook made. Here’s the bill. Enjoy.” Server walks away. More than likely, you would contact the manager to rectify the issue. You would not eat and pay for a meal you did not order. And just as you were baffled and a tad bit annoyed when the server gave you an order that was incredibly wrong, the same effect occurs when you don’t follow directions. 

If the contest rules say, submit 5 poems. Don’t submit 6. Rules and guidelines are established for specific reasons. For example, when you are directed to not include your name on the submission. Most likely, the organizers want to reduce or eliminate bias or favoritism in the selection process. They hope to be objective. This works in your favor because your work will receive greater consideration. 

You work hard (hopefully) in creating your work so don’t let your efforts be in vain by being disqualified for not following the rules.

2. Refine the title.

Although some judges may skip over your title, most will read it first. They will be introduced to your poem by way of the title. Make a good impression. Spend time crafting and revising your title. One of my biggest writing struggles is creating titles. I had a professor who advised reading through the table of contents of various poetry books and making a list of titles that stuck out. Those titles became models for my own. This is a simple way to grow in your title-writing ability. 

3. Revise the work. 

In journalism, we were taught to “kill our darlings.” This means removing text that you may love but isn’t serving the piece well. You can only do this by being objective when reviewing your work. You have to train yourself to not be overly attached to your words. Keep a journal where you catalog your darlings. They may be bettered suited in other poems. 

4. Revise your work. 

Yes, I intentionally listed this twice because I think it’s that important. Most writers – even those with Pulitzer Prizes and national awards – revise their work. The process is unique, but it is done nonetheless. Revision is your way to make your work stronger, clearer, bolder. You improve as a writer and the piece improves as a work of art. Don’t neglect this step. Here’s an example of a prominent poet, Nikky Finney, who extensively revised her work.

5. Ditch filler words

Just because a word sounds cool or fancy doesn’t mean it belongs in your work. Every word should carry weight. This requires you to be intentional as a writer. I have noticed with young writers the trend of sprinkling swear words or sexual innuendos throughout their writing that does not aid the piece. Language is a vast, beautiful field. No need to solely rely on four-letter words and f-bombs to convey emotion. Turn to the dictionary, not the swear jar. 

6. Heal before sharing. 

Many writers, particularly poets, enter writing by way of trauma. Counselors often incorporate journaling into therapy to help clients process pain. Writing is a place where the broken can heal. However, it is possible to share work that is undeveloped because the creator hasn’t healed from the traumatic event(s). In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown, writes: “I only share when I have no unmet needs that I am trying to fill. I firmly believe that being vulnerable with a larger audience is only a good idea if the healing is tied to the sharing, not to the expectations I might have for the response I get.”  

7. Study form.

Many young poets have not studied forms, so they opt to write in free verse. This is fine. I write mostly in free verse. However, what makes poetry poetry is that there is a rhyme to the reason. It is not random. Form is a cornerstone of poetry. Line length should be intentional. Line breaks should be intentional. Stanza should be intentional. ‘I just felt like starting a new line’ is NOT an intention. It’s laziness. Everything you do in your poem should be tied back to the heartbeat of the poem. 

8. Cut cliches

Poems with them are boring to read and are unoriginal. Your poem can easily stand out by using original, fresh language. This will stem from a rich vocabulary. Read vastly and often. Start a notebook where you gather interesting words. Strive to learn knew words and incorporate them into your daily speech. 

9. Read poetry. Real poetry.

I may step on toes with the following statement. But it must be said. A lot of what is circulating around on social media as ‘poetry’ is short, life advice you would find in a fortune cookie. They are proverbs at best. 

Just because I call something poetry doesn’t make it poetry. No matter how many likes I get on social media or how many of my friends tell me it’s great. Poetry should be poetic. Poetry should have rhythm and rich language. Poetry should have form. 

I know it’s popular to redefine terms and push the envelope of what is poetry. I respect that. At times, definitions have been used to restrict, confine and even keep folks out. It is useful to re-examine definitions. People’s misuse of definitions doesn’t mean definitions are bad. 

Make sure you’re not calling your writing poetry simply because of laziness or a rebellion in learning the form. This leads to my final point.

10. Learn the craft.

I recently did a writing workshop, and I shared work from four respected poets. One of whom was Joy Harjo, the U.S.’s first Poet Laureate who is Native American. Most of the students had never heard of the poets I shared. Granted, I don’t expect young writers to know the name of every well-known poet. But, reading is the single best way to learn about the craft. Read poets from various periods of history and parts of the world. Learning the craft improves you as a writer. How you ask others to read your work when you are actively reading and supporting the work of other writers?

Hopefully, these tips will help you as you send your poems out into the world. 

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Benefits of Coloring

Did you know there are at least 10 benefits of your children coloring? Here are those 10 reasons according to Color Psychology.org.

1. Improves motor skills

2. Prepares kids for school

3. Stimulates creativity

4. Contributes to better handwriting

5. Improves color awareness, recognition and discernment

6. Improves focus and and to eye coordination

7. Helps instill boundaries, structure and spacial awareness

8. Improves confidence and self esteem

9. Allows self-expression

10. Calming and therapeutic

My latest book, How to Create a World, has ample pages where kids can color and experience those benefits. The book also has doodling pages. If you are looking for a simple way to keep your child engaged academically for the reminder of the summer, you definitely want to order my book. Kids can color, doodle and write poems all in one book. Order your copy today.