Monday, February 17, 2014

How a simple phrase can boost your writing -- and running

Guest Post

Susan Puckett
I was thrilled when writer/author Susan Puckett  agreed to do a guest post. I knew her advice would be incredibly inspiring and insightful. She did not disappoint.  Susan, a food expert, has authored several cookbooks including her culinary travelogue, "Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South".    I worked with her at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she served as food editor.  She was one of the most passionate and creative editors I had ever worked with.   Here, Susan shares her tips on tackling the "uphill battle" of writing. 

Advice from author Susan Puckett 
My Mantra for Running and Writing...

    For every uphill there’s a downhill. 
    For. Every. Uphill. There’s. A. Down. Hill.
    My thighs are on fire and lungs feel on the verge of collapse.  I am tempted to walk the rest of the way to the top. But I chose this dauntingly hilly course for a reason. I’m on a writing deadline, but the words aren’t coming. Panic is setting in. I need more than a leisurely stroll today. I need to feel the burn.
     I take a deep breath:  For every uphill…
     And then slowly exhale: there’s a downhill.
    Repeat. Again and again, until at last I reach the top.
    That wasn’t so bad! With head up and shoulders back, I lengthen my stride as the road flattens, and then dips, allowing me to coast effortlessly, reveling in the breeze and the satisfaction of this minor achievement. 
     The next hill presents itself. This time, though, I face it with less trepidation. I begin my ascent to the beat of my mantra once again. And when I get to the top, I feel a little more empowered and in control than I did five minutes ago.
     When I return home, I am fully energized, with a rough sketch in my head of where my story needs to go.
A powerful writing weapon.      For most of my writing life, I have been a runner. I took it up more than three decades ago, while working as a rookie reporter at my first newspaper job. I hoped it would help me lose weight and quit smoking. I accomplished both, and discovered another benefit: the more I ran, the better I wrote. While running did not cure my procrastinating tendencies – which still dog me to this day – it became a powerful weapon to fight back the fears, doubts and insecurities that egg them on. It helped me build confidence and discipline, inspiring me to take risks and see possibilities I couldn’t within the confines of a newsroom. Running, in fact, sparked my interest in food and nutrition, and ultimately put me on the food-writing path that continues 35 years later.
     My running habit has not been totally consistent. For a couple of years, while struggling with personal issues that led to a period of depression, I hardly exercised at all. I fell out of shape and my work suffered, too.
    About a decade ago, I decided to give it another try. I started very slowly, counting laps on a rubberized track in a gym. I found a supportive group of slow runners who helped me rebuild my mileage on the streets. One of them inspired me to enroll in running guru Jeff Galloway’s marathon training program, which advocates interspersing walk breaks into long runs so even a slowpoke like me has a shot at finishing 26.2 miles.
The magic of mantras.  Get one.   Galloway, like many athletes and sports psychologists, also speaks often of the motivational powers of a personal mantra: a strong word or phrase that can be repeated over and over to replace negative, debilitating thoughts with empowering ones. 
    Mantras don’t have to be poetic or profound – only energizing and affirming.   Here is a litany of others:
    Writers have mantras, too, often posted on sticky notes on their computers for a pick-me-up. Blogger/author Rachel Held Evans posted about them, listing a bunch of good ones – short  (“Simplify, simplify” – Henry David Thoreau)  and not-so-short (“…Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”  – Sylvia Plath) 
     Where I first heard the mantra that would serve both purposes in my life, I cannot say. I know I didn’t make it up. 
   Somewhere in the midst of an especially grueling training run, those words entered my head and stuck:   With every uphill, there is a downhill.
    Running is hard. Writing is hard. But the harder I push through the challenge of either, the greater the exhilaration once I reach the finish line – be it a marathon or a book.
    Sometimes, if I am on deadline and can’t break away for a jog, I will compromise with a meditation break. I will step away from my computer, shut my eyes, and visualize myself at the base of a steep hill. Taking deep, controlled breaths, I repeat my little chant to myself until I get to the top, and then try to imagine the runner’s high  as I coast down the other side, perhaps with an audience at the end,  cheering me as I cross the marathon finish line.  
    Then I open my computer and get to work. 

Susan Puckett is a writer specializing in food-related topics living in Atlanta, Georgia. She has written a number of cookbooks, including her culinary travelogue, "Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South" (University of Georgia Press, 2013.) She most recently collaborated with Daron “Farmer D” Joffe on "Citizen Farmers: The Biodynamic Way to Grow Healthy Food, Build Thriving Communities, and Give Back To the Earth" to be released in March 2014 by Stewart, Tabori and Chang. She was previously the food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitutiona position she held for almost 19 years before taking the freelance plunge in 2008.  For more about Susan, go to

Monday, February 10, 2014

Got no writing ideas? Here's 11 reasons why

Mike Stiles 

Guest Post  

Mike Stiles is Senior Content Manager for the Oracle Social Cloud and a writer/producer/performer/ filmmaker for the Atlanta sketch comedy troupe Sketchworks.  He's also worked as the executive producer of a national radio comedy network, been a top-rated radio host as well as on-camera and voiceover talent.  What I most admire about Mike is that he is one of the most prolific writers I have ever know.  He always has a wealth of ideas that he can quickly and efficiently turn into sketches, scripts,  jokes, columns or even monologues at a moment's notice.  Today, he dishes up some tough love on how YOU can do it, too.  

Advice from writer/author/content manager Mike Stiles 
Don’t Be One of Those “I Don’t Know What to Write” Writers...

   Newbies and pros do it. They want to be writers, they like to think of themselves as writers, they feel like they should be writing, and yet they’re uninspired to do so…by anything.
   It’s not a valid excuse. You’re just being lazy and ignorant.  
   The world and everyone in it are bombarding you around the clock with things to write. The problem is your senses aren’t on. Instead of asking what you can write about, you should be asking, “Why aren’t I aware and making something of everything that’s being given to me?”
   Here are 11 things for you to mull over while you’re busy being stuck:

 1.  If there’s nothing you want to say, why are you a writer? Writers have a need to point something out, make fun of something, explore an unexplored notion, inspire people, vent, educate people, etc. The world doesn’t need more words just for the sake of having more words. If there’s nothing you want to say, it’s okay to be silent.

2. You may know full well what you want to write; you’re just too chicken to do it. A lot of great writing personally confronts and challenges the author as it’s being written. You might be reluctant to go through that. Plus there’s the fear of what readers will think.

3. Much hinges on your ability to story-tell. No matter what you’re writing, you’re trying to take the reader on a trip from title to final word. How far they go depends on how good you are at making them always want what’s next. Is your not knowing what to write just lack of confidence you can get them to “the end”?

4.  I should exercise. There’s no reason in the world not to. But to me, it’s hard. So I make up and believe whatever excuse I can come up with to avoid it. “I don’t know what to write” is an excuse for those who find writing hard. Writing is a muscle. Don’t exercise it for long periods and it’s that much tougher when you do finally hit the keys.

5.  The world is feeding you material daily. There’s more information and more sources of information than at any time in human history. Some writers, nose in the air, actually boast of being largely unaware of current events. Don’t disconnect then cry about lack of inspiration.

6.  Your own emotions and experiences are feeding you material daily. A heightened awareness of what you feel and what made you feel that way is invaluable in informing your work. If you aren’t real, your characters can’t be.

7.  The people you interact with can feed you material daily. If you’re a recluse, please don’t complain about not knowing what to write. Every human being is a library of hugely relatable stories. BUT…to surface them you have to have real relationships and real conversations. Small talk with casual acquaintances will leave you dry.

8.  Seek out experiences. Unfortunately, many of us carefully craft our lives to only experience the familiar and comfortable, to only associate with people who think and believe exactly as we do. This makes your world a really small place, with really small writing to match.

9.  Comedy’s about angles. Make a habit of processing what you see by viewing it from angles “normal” people just don't.  Drama is about fostering relationships between the readers and characters so readers care. Informative writing is about making sure the reader walks away with actionable intelligence.

10.  Keeping an idea notebook is still enormously valid. But it doesn’t work if you don’t note the ideas NOW. You’ll forget. Things like Evernote supercharge the idea notebook by letting you compartmentalize, add to and flesh out ideas. Some won’t flesh out, but others will build up into worthwhile concepts.

11.  If you truly can’t think of anything to write, instead of spending time worrying about how you aren’t writing, shift to another medium. Draw, paint, write a song, any other method of expression. It at least keeps you creating.

  When the entire world is utopian perfection, and neither you nor anyone in it have a single personal challenge, and when everyone has all the knowledge there is to be learned, then perhaps you can complain you have nothing to write about.
   Until then, plug in, connect, turn on all your senses, experience, and say something about what you take in.

    Mike Stiles is Senior Content Manager for the Oracle Social Cloud, author of “Showtime: Brands as Content Producers,” and proprietor of The Stiles Files and the Brand Content Bugle.