Shifting Focus


Last week, I had a crisis at work that diverted all my attention from creative pursuits. Needing a day job is an unfortunate reality for me. My fervent wish is that someday I won’t have to focus on technical writing but until that happens, the paying gig always has to take precedence. I really enjoy not living in a cave.

But even after things began to settle down a little, I realized I was trapped in a technical writing mind set. The fiction class I was in came to a close this week and we have a two week break before the next one starts up. Add into that mix IT issues and the eight rejections I’ve gotten in as many days and my inspiration and motivation levels have plummeted.

I was asked to participate in an interview with a fellow writer who wanted to pen an article on moving from fiction writing into technical writer. Her questions really made me think about the functionality of moving between two very different styles of writing.

ImageTechnical writing is forcibly succinct. No stage setting, no creativity and it tends to follow a very strict style guide. As a technical writer, you may or may not fully understand the subject matter at all times (which is why subject matter experts are essential). You need to know just enough to be dangerous.

Fiction writing is full of colorful word choice and syntax. No limit exists in the world of fiction. You can break all the rules and still be successful. There is something inherently satisfying about creating something with nothing but your own creativity.

Sitting in front of a computer and writing about technical things you don’t ever fully understand can be draining. It makes shifting gears over to fiction writing very difficult. So, I’m exploring ways to facilitate that shift.

Here is what I’ve come up with so far:

Go for a walk

Wherever you live, there has to be something beautiful to walk up to and admire. This is especially true for me because I happen to live in the middle of the boonies. We have deer living in our front yard. A hawk built her nest along our drive. I go visit the neighbor’s goats that live up the road. I really, really love goats. We live in a farming community so things are rustic and fresh and smell like grass. When I get really bogged down by work, I take a long walk. Art comes from beauty. Art, itself, is not always beautiful but the spirit that creates it is.

ImageDiscover something new

Recently, we drove up to Hanging Rock State Park and hiked the day away. We’d never been there before. I turned my cell phone off because my brain needed to recharge. I needed to live in the moment. We jumped in the car without planning anything – just started driving. It was the first sunny day in a long stretch of rain and it was like the lunatics were set loose from the hospital. It was a perfect day in the midst of a lot of stress. We got to the top and looked out for miles. On the way home, we stopped at a gas station that had two king sized candy bars for $2.22 and fountain soda. We ate 900 calories and laughed and sweated and told each other lies.


Try a mood altering substance

Ok, so if you have substance abuse problems, this won’t help you. We are all adults here – follow any advice I give you with care. But, if you are like me and you are wound super tight, you might need to relax. For instance, the other night, I had a glass (ok, ok, three. Jesus.) of wine and watched The Last Unicorn. While I did that, I wrote poetry.

Really bad poetry.

But, the point is, I was putting words together. My brain was loose. I was freestyling without fear of judgement. I came up with the following literary gems:

Something is breaking. Inside me, beside me.

I am on the cusp of something.

I dance alone, peeling potatoes, sweet potatoes

day after day, I can only be this.


Love is slowing you down,

You’ve turned inside out, a hung steeple

I picked you up on a doorstep

Every movement betrays you

(I don’t even know what some of that means. But, you know who does? Wine. Wine does.)

and (this one is my favorite)

I refuse to apologize

for the BLT I just ate

for following the bread crumbs

I was younger. I was younger once.

Wake up, she says to me. And, I chew on my pillow.

Mouth full of feathers.

Mouth full of sleep.

Seriously, some of those poems are literally taken straight from dialogue between Prince Lir and Amalthea (the unicorn’s name when she got magicked into a human by Schmendrick . If you haven’t watched or read it, you really should. That cartoon fueled my childhood). I’m not a poet by trade. Not even by desire. But, it does help me make word associations that I can use as inspiration or even to develop into unique sentence structure.

Not Weird.

Ask the gods for luck

You pick the god. Meditate, if that helps you. Spend time with your congregation. Go eat a boat load of Dim Sum and then rub the luck dragon on the way to the car. Whatever gets you there.

Luck Dragon gets me there

Read for pleasure, read for trade

Nothing gets me as excited about writing as reading does. If I read a shitty book, I think, “I could have written this! I can write better than this!” If I read a brilliant book, it makes me excited enough to try it myself. Holy shit, sometimes I just need to read. Because reading is important.

Books on writing can help jump start a creative brain. I’ve read a lot of them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood

Check out this link to amazon for more.

Take a mysterious picture and write your way into it

But, where do they lead!?

Revisit Past Glories

Most of my problems with inspiration stem from confidence issues. Writers are a delicate breed. We are both narcissists and suffer from an inferiority complex. We are children capturing lightening bugs in a bottle, pretending they are flashes of lightening. So, sometimes, I’ll go back and remember that one time I got two acceptances in two days. I’ll think about how amazing that made me feel. I’ll re-read something I’ve written that felt strong and good.


Here is a fact: if I did it once, I can do it twice.

And, if I can do it twice, I am capable of doing it a hundred times. 

The Problem With Introspection

The problem with introspection is that it has no end.

– Philip K. Dick

In 2003, I was accepted into the Southampton – Long Island University Master of Fine Arts program. Based on my fiction portfolio, I was offered a small scholarship of $1000 a semester. I’d attended the 2002 Southampton’s Writer’s Conference and fell in love with the program. A writer’s life was for me, it seemed.

But, I turned it down. I didn’t attend any MFA program. Instead, I shacked up with my boyfriend of five years, moved from our hometown in Ohio to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and got a job at Borders Books as a Cafe Supervisor. We didn’t know anyone in North Carolina. We had no prospects. All we had was the belief that it would work out – we never even considered that it wouldn’t.

When we first arrived in North Carolina, Michael and I did a weird thing. We printed up copies of our resumes, put on our nice traveling sales-people dress clothes and starting walking around business parks. We passed out our resumes to over 80 places. It took us over three days to run out of resumes. The very last place was a little office in Cary. We didn’t know what they did. We didn’t care. Michael was in I.T. and I was marketing myself as an administrative expert with strong communication experience (which, was a total crock. In college, I’d been a writing intern at the American Red Cross and I was desperately trying to parlay that into something useful.)

A man answered the door and led us inside. It was after 5pm and he was, apparently, the only person left in the office. He looked over our resumes, asked us if we were a package deal. We both answered emphatically in the negative. Turns out this particular office was a technical writing firm. They were always looking for writers but I didn’t really have the necessary experience. They’d been toying around with the idea of adding an I.T. person, however. He took our resumes and sent us on our way.

Time passed and nothing seemed to come of it. We’d worked through a lot of dead leads like that. Michael got a job at Home Depot. I bounced around different Borders book stores in the area – my nagging sense of ambition never let me rest too long. In retail, if you want to succeed and you aren’t too busy getting stoned by the dumpster, you can rise up through the ranks pretty quickly. I did. And, then, Michael got a call from that little office in Cary. He was hired on as their I.T. person. We were thrilled – the people were great to him and it was our first sign of success.

By the time 2004 rolled around, I was a manager (still in training) at the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. But, at Christmas time, they told us our store was closing. It was my first indication that the entire company was about to quietly collapse. Michael had been offered a new position in the I.T. department in local government and was leaving the technical writing firm. We’d become friends with the director and she did something that really rarely happens: she gave me a shot.

I don’t think I really deserved it back then. I was a fiction writer and not the least bit technically minded. I was brought on as a Junior Technical Writer. I felt successful for the first time. Michael and I bought a house. We got married. I was promoted to Senior Technical Writer. I started to deserve the shot she’d given me.

Michael and I bought some land way out in the boonies. We saved up our money and finally built our dream house. I was promoted to Project Manager at the technical writing firm.

When you are a writer, it nags at you. You can’t really give it up for long. I toyed with it – writing things but never sharing them. I’d do NaNoWriMo in November and then throw the novel away. When I was younger, it was my whole identity and I’d turned my back on it. Getting back into it is like getting back into running after an injury – it clanks and hurts. It is awkward and hard. In the beginning, there are more bad days than good days. It can be discouraging.

I become friends with another writer, Molly Schoeman, who is the epitome of kindness and support. She encouraged me to keep going.

I started taking continuing education writing classes at Central Carolina Community College. I was lucky to be grouped with a really amazing teacher and a group of fellow writers that took the craft really seriously. There is a real pressure to show up and not suck when you are surrounded by people that are truly good at what you want to do. It is said that if you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people that are better than you. If you have enough ambition, it can work. I’m still working that out.

I’ve started submitting stories to literary journals and I am just now beginning to see some success. I decided to take it seriously. No more shrugging and blowing it off. When people ask me what I do, I’m going to say I’m a writer, because I am. No more qualifying it with “technical” because that’s a cop out. If I don’t take it seriously, why should you?

I think about that MFA program and wonder what would have happened if I’d accepted my spot. I might not be married to Michael. I might not live in my pretty house in the woods. I might be even further in debt with student loans than I am now. I might be a barista at a coffee shop, somewhere. Or, a bookseller at another book store. I might have found success because I’d taken the craft seriously at a younger age. I don’t know, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I don’t regret it. When you are a writer – or a singer, a painter, a woodworker – you don’t have a choice. You’ll do it in secret or you’ll do it on the weekends. You’ll tie your whole self up in it. You’ll shy away from it because even the idea of failure will hurt too much to try. But, hopefully and eventually, you’ll start to take it seriously again.