Category Archives: creative process

RIP Mots Justes

Mots Justes is going on hiatus. “Going on hiatus?” you might ask. “You haven’t posted in three weeks!” You’re right. You’re absolutely right. And that’s why I have to take a break and reassess.

I’ve known I have to do this for a quite awhile now. I’m freelancing, with large swaths of “free” time that I feel like I have to fill up. So I start projects. This blog. Another blog. A nascent idea for yet another blog. A photo-a-day project and a cookie-a-week project. Meanwhile, I’m constantly behind—or flaking altogether—on my paid gigs, and worse, I’m not writing my fiction. I’m doing everything around writing but the actually writing itself.

I held out this long because there were legitimate reasons to continue. But frankly, my vision for the blog has been too ambitious, and I have to prioritize the activities that are going to serve my writing best.

I’ll be ceasing Mots Justes’ daily tweets as well, although I haven’t been able to keep on those for awhile either. I learned a lot and made a lot of connections through the research required for that news feed, but it was a giant time suck too hard to keep up with when I’m actually going into an office, even if it is just a couple of days a week.

I don’t plan to shut down Mots Justes the blog or the Twitter feed completely. I may post the occasional writing-related column and tweet my writing-related activities. (I tweet my personal and film-related stuff at @annleee.) But Mots Justes can no longer be a daily commitment. I’ve decided that rather than reading about writing or even writing about writing, the best thing I can do for my writing is … write.

That’s probably the single best piece of advice I’ve come across and that you’ll read here: log off and write.


Still here? Okay, then, let’s talk about writing.

What’s been occupying my thoughts on writing lately has been blogging. Not the how-to type of blogging I’ve been doing on Mots Justes—nor news blogging nor gossip blogging nor fan blogging nor theme blogging—but personal blogging in which writers record what they observe, what they’re thinking about, what inspires them. It’s in this type of blogging that the future of writing lies, multimedia storytelling that a platform like Tumblr especially facilitates—journals or scrapbooks in which bloggers not only write about their lives but illustrate them with photos and videos and music. If a text or image or piece of audio touches a blogger, chances are it will touch a reader, too.

(The work I’ve read is mostly autobiography at this point, but I just know that someone somewhere is doing something really cool on a blog with fiction. If you know who and where, please share!)

Writers have always kept diaries and written letters. It’s just that now those same instincts are available for instantaneous public consumption, simultaneously encouraging more thought and less. Fleeting insight can now be permanently recorded, but it’s also published without context, consideration, the guiding hand of an editor.

Lately I’ve felt I need both—more thought and less. My writing can only benefit from paying more attention to my surroundings, observing my environment more closely, thinking about it and analyzing it. But I also need to obsess less about the actual writing, not be so precious about, well, the mot juste. I’m stifled by that, that everything has to be polished, publication-ready, and it’s an area I want to work on: experimentation—trying to be less staid in my writing and my thought.

I suppose this is supposed to happen in a writers notebook, but the instant gratification of the web is so tempting and satisfying; even experimental work is somehow legitimized by its availability to be read by someone else.

I guess what it comes down to is I need to do the work where it feels most relevant, write the stuff that speaks to me, follow my bliss, as it were. For now, that’s not on Mots Justes. At least not in the same way.

Now, go write!


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Everyone’s a Critic

Last semester, my graduate alma mater hosted a panel discussion on arts criticism. The timing was apt, as I had just started to review films again for a new outlet. Until recently, with opportunities shrinking (for paid gigs, anyway), I had resigned myself to the reality that I may not write about film anymore. I had been seeing fewer movies, and watching those I did see as a fan, not a critic. “Critics Talk Shop: Writing Books, Music, Food, Film, and Why It Matters” served as a refresher course in the form—how and why I review.

These are important questions. With Facebook, Twitter, and, well, WordPress, anyone can write and publish their thoughts on anything—and do. Although I enjoy writing about film for its own sake, the way it engages me with the material, I have to ask myself what I’m adding to the conversation.

“There are too many critics and not enough people to read them,” said Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio. “Become a critic if someone wants to read what you write.”

After my last outlet folded, yet another victim of these tough economic times, I could have launched a blog and kept writing about film. But why? Who would want to read what I write? The backing of a publication, a corporation, a brand name lends credibility. So does a paycheck, however small.

But there’s more to it than that, argued Richard Schickel in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times going on three years ago, around the time that the major papers started cutting back on book reviewing:

Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Although Schickel’s admitted elitism rubs me the wrong way—I find the proliferation of the written word online liberating rather than threatening—I ripped the page out of the paper and it’s pinned, yellowing, to the corkboard in my office, a constant reminder that I have to “bring something to the party.”

To figure out what that was, I started to take note of what other writers I read and why. I can go see a movie and decide whether I like it or not for myself. In fact, while a rave review of a film I hadn’t considered watching might talk me into seeing it, a pan rarely will talk me out of it.

What I do appreciate is learning something new. That might be background information on the making of the film, a review of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, or the historical context of the movie’s setting. It might be thematic or technical insight. Whatever it is, it broadens my view of the film and, therefore, of the world.

Ever since I made this analysis, this is how I’ve approached my own film criticism: more than giving a movie thumbs up or thumbs down, I aim to impart some knowledge or insight to the reader—or, if that’s too lofty, to myself. What that requires, though, is research.

What sets the professional critic apart, said David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, is that he or she reads the book on which the film being reviewed is based or reads a number of works by the author whose book is being reviewed “to understand the milieu of it.”

“When immersed in consuming, you do get a sophisticated palate,” added music critic Evelyn McDonnell. “You can eat/read/listen to what the general public can’t understand. The best part of job is to champion someone and explain why he or she is important.”

Turan agrees that imparting that wisdom is “one of the real pleasures of the job. … I can send people to a film. If I like something, anybody can like it. It’s my job to make the film accessible.”

So I watch previous titles in the director’s filmography. I read the book on which the film is based. It’s a lot of work. Too much work, often, for what I’m being paid. But if I’m a professional writer, if I’m going to convey some kind of authority in the field, I have to earn it—by building on my film studies degree, by watching 250 films a year, by reading about film, and by writing about it.

That’s the other part of the equation: the writing.

“In criticism, the writing is as important,” said Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic at the LA Weekly, “taking the work in question and using that as a jumping-off point” to create your own work.

It’s easy to fall back on formula when writing a review, particularly a film review, especially when you’re on deadline, churning out two or three or four a week. There isn’t enough time to watch all the films you should or read all the books you should. But if I’m going to write something that someone wants to read, bring something to the party, contribute to the conversation, I have to at least make the effort.

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Getting the Shot—Be Ready and Be Patient

I’ve had a photographic couple of days. I’m visiting San Francisco, one of the most photogenic cities on Earth, even when shrouded in fog, and home to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic images in the world. Yesterday I spent the afternoon and early evening at SFMoMA, where the special exhibits include a retrospective of fashion/portrait photographer Richard Avedon and a comparative exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s boldly colored paintings and Ansel Adams’s austere black-and-white photographs of the natural world. (Meanwhile, my travel companion gave me a primer on how to actually use my new digital SLR. Let the experimentation begin!)

At first blush, the visual medium of photography and the cerebral activity of writing may seem to have little in common. But two of Adams’s photographs from the exhibit—or, rather, the stories behind their making—offer parallels to writing.

The first, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (one of Adams’s most famous images), is a picture of the lunar orb peering down at a scattered collection of shacks and graves.adams_moonriseThe photographer happened upon the shot on the way back to Santa Fe after an unproductive day in Charma Valley. As he scrambled to set up the camera and tripod, the sun was slipping past the horizon, and he couldn’t find the exposure meter. Using what he knew about the illumination of the moon, he clicked. Before he could insert another slide, though, the sun set, and the light on the crosses went dark. Adams got the shot by mere seconds.

Moonrise is the product of pure serendipity. Only for a split second did the light and elements perfectly align. A photograph captures such moments in time, never to be relived, gone as soon as they arrive. There’s no procrastination in photography—it’s now or never.

Writing’s not like that. Writing can be put off to whenever. Or can it? Perhaps “the moment” is just as fleeting for the writer as it is for the photographer—it’s there and then it’s gone. Strong motivation for keeping your eyes open, camera/pen at the ready.

Adams’s other picture, Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, is also a landscape with large swaths of land and sky, snowcapped mountains soaring over black foothills and a ray of light illuminating a lone horse grazing in the valley below.adams_sunriseWhereas the taking of Moonrise had been a fluke, a stroke of mad luck, Winter Sunrise was carefully composed. The photographer set up the shot, but the horse, oblivious to having its picture taken, wasn’t facing the camera. Rather, Adams’s view was of the animal’s rear end. So he waited for the horse to turn around. And waited. And waited. All the while, as the sun rose, the light changed. But finally, the horse moved into profile, and Adams got his shot.

For writers, it’s not just when inspiration strikes that we need to be ready. We need to set up the shot, like Adams did, and if the image isn’t perfect, wait patiently until all the pieces fall into place.

In writing, as in photography, be ready and be patient—that’s how you capture the moment.

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Grant Writing and Project Development

As mentioned at the top of Wednesday’s post, for the past ten weeks, I’ve been taking a class in grant writing. I signed up for the course for two reasons: 1) because I thought it would be a useful skill for raising money for personal projects that are better funded by sources other than my bank account and 2) because as I troll the Internet for freelancing writing and editing opportunities, I often see wanted ads for grant writers, and I thought grant writing would be useful to have in my repertoire.

It turns out that I’ll likely not be adding grant writing to my skill set, at least not for now. For the first few weeks of the class, I was completely overwhelmed. Our teacher warned us that this would be the case but that eventually the concepts would come together and make sense. I remained overwhelmed, however, daunted by the size of the task in creating a proposal even for a project as modest as mine. This was not a job I’d be willing to undertake for any project other than my own.

Part of the challenge is that too many factors contributing to the success of a grant proposal are out of the grant writer’s hands—the effectiveness of an organization’s board, for example—and too many of the “grant writer wanted” listings I saw wanted to pay after the grant money was awarded. Only one in ten grant proposals get funded; I’m not keen on taking a one in ten chance that I’d get paid for a lot of hard work.

The class did, however, introduce me to the world of nonprofits and inspire me to “think big.” And the process of writing a grant proposal forced me to think strategically about my project.

The Logic Model

Grant proposals are built using a nonlinear logic model that connects the dots between the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your project.

  • Needs Assessment: Why is there a need for the project? Who does it serve—i.e., what are the demographics of the target population served by the project? What problem does the project address? How long has this problem existed? Has the problem been addressed before? How does the problem impact the target population and other surrounding populations? Why does the problem exist? All of the claims made in this section should be supported by evidence and statistics from credible sources.
  • Goals: A goal is a general statement that reflects a change. It’s so broad, though, that it will likely never be fully achieved: To increase world peace. Or, to lose weight.
  • Objectives: Objectives, on the other hand, are the specific results or outcomes the project will accomplish. They are achievable and measurable and take place in a specified amount of time: To work out at a gym three days a week for one month.
  • Methodologies: The methodology is the step-by-step approach or plan for achieving the objectives. It includes a summary of activities and a timeline of major tasks: To research gyms. To select and join a gym. To buy tennis shoes. Etc.
  • Evaluation: How will you measure whether the project was successful? How will you know whether the objectives have been met? What information is needed to demonstrate success, and how will it be collected? Who will gather this information, analyze it, and report the results?
  • Budget: How much money is needed for the project? What are the expenses? Where will the money come from?

All of this is summarized in the project summary that opens the proposal but is written last. This is your “elevator speech”—how you’ll describe your project if you happen to find yourself on an elevator ride with someone interested in what your group is doing.

Also included in a finished grant proposal are mission and vision statements that help focus the organization and project and information on why your group is qualified to pull it off, whether it be the credentials of the people involved or the successful completion of past projects.

I’m a long way from actually applying for a grant for my project, but using this logic model to write a hypothetical proposal for it really helped me develop my idea.

Meanwhile, my project moves forward. Stay tuned!

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Deadlines Are Our Friends—Part II: How to Function Without One

As discussed at length in yesterday’s post, I handed in my thesis last week. As the deadline approached, I was writing furiously, madly. Now that the deadline has passed, however, I fear I may stop. (I prefer to think of my current lapse as a “break” or a “pause” as I consider my next step.) How will I function without a deadline?

  1. Set new deadlines. For example, I might say to myself that I am going to complete the second draft by the time I walk for my diploma in May. Of course, deadlines are hard to enforce if there are no consequences for missing them—like, say, having to extend (and pay for) your studies for yet another semester.
  2. Join or form a writers group. If the group meets regularly, you’ll have regular deadlines, and you will be held accountable.
  3. Get and enforcer. I learned this trick of the trade from Mark Sarvas over at the Elegant Variation. When he was writing his first novel, Harry, Revised, his goal was to write two pages a day. Upon completion of this goal, he sent an email to a friend with a simple “done” in the subject line. If he didn’t check in, his friend got after him.
  4. Schedule writing into your daily routine. Set aside time. This should be as important as grocery shopping, or showering. More important.
  5. Set goals—a number of words or pages or hours to be met every day or every week. Think of it like a job—if you miss your quota, you have to make it up the next day. Monthly goals are less effective, as it’s hard to make up three-and-half weeks’ worth of missed work over the last couple of days.
  6. Join a support network. I caught on to Facebook rather late, but many of my “friends” are fellow writers. I see through their status updates, and they see through mine, whether they are writing. Mutual encouragement and support ensue.
  7. Don’t make writing so precious. If getting to work on that second draft of your novel is too intimidating, spend some time with your writers notebook instead.
  8. Shift gears. Do some research. Or switch to short stories.
  9. Attend readings. There’s nothing more inspirational than being in the presence of other writers.

Caught in the ’Net

The newspaper industry is feeling the effects of the economic crisis: Tribune Co., parent company of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, has filed for bankruptcy, and ad sales at newspapers will likely be even worse next year. One pundit makes the case for the resurrection of the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project.

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Deadlines Are Our Friends

Hello again! Yes, Mots Justes is back online, having survived the thesis throes. And yes, as a commenter on the post below notes, unfortunately it is well past November 4. Here’s what happened:

As noted in my last post, I decided that during the last month before my thesis was due, I could ill afford any distractions. I had to cut out anything unnecessary-i.e., anything that didn’t pay the rent. Unfortunately, that meant the blog had to go on hiatus.

MJ wasn’t the only sacrifice, however: I stopped freelancing, too (which arguably does help pay the rent, but not much). I stopped cooking, which resulted in a late-night run to Ralph’s by my desperate significant other, who never goes grocery stopping, and a fridge full of frozen pizzas, pot pies, and Lloyd’s Barbeque Pork. I stopped cleaning my house. That has yet to be remedied.

What I did do is write, as many as 1,000 words a day, which is epic for me. It was frantic. It was stressful. It was really kind of great.

At no other point in my career had my creative writing taken center stage. At no other time was it the most important thing that simply had to get done. There were no other articles to write, no other assignments to turn in, no blogs to post that took precedence over my novel. It was wonderful.

And then, with just two-and-a-half weeks to go, I got a month extension. I didn’t even ask for it; it just arrived, uninvited, in my inbox. My thesis was now due on December 3.

I expressed joy and relief at the time, of course—deadlines are the bane of any writer’s existence, and extensions are always welcome. Inside, however, all I could think was “Oh, no …”

You see, for the past year or so I had been building toward this November 3 deadline. I had put MJ on hiatus for it. I had pushed back the ship date of Southern California Review, of which I am editor-in-chief, so I wouldn’t have to turn it and my thesis in at around the same time. And truthfully, I liked the idea of handing in this major project on my birthday. Now, my blog would be offline for two months, I still had to turn in SCR and my thesis at the same time (literally on the same day), and the new due date was, well, insignificant.

Then I did what I feared I would do, what I knew I would: I stopped writing. Less than two months before my thesis was due, I didn’t write. For two whole weeks.

Yes, I could have stuck to the original deadline. I could have finished the draft by November 3 and given myself a whole extra month to revise and edit. But I don’t work that way. I don’t do anything until I absolutely have to.

Eventually, I found myself in the same position as the day the deadline was extended—running out of time and writing like mad. And again, it was great.

Today, now that my thesis is turned in, SCR is at the printer, and my gig at the Writing Center has come to an end (alas, you have to be a graduate enrolled in classes to stay on the payroll), my life looks completely differently from just five days ago, and my goal is to hang on to some of that momentum, to not stop writing again now that there’s no deadline.

I’ll explore ways to do that in tomorrow’s post. In the meantime, how have deadlines been your friend?

Caught in the ’Net

How to

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The Writer’s Obsession: Notebooks

Any serious writer already keeps a notebook. Ten reasons why can be found over at Write Livelihood.

Writers can be very finicky about their notebooks—see Deeplinking‘s Notebook Reviews and Black Cover, a blog dedicated to “The Search for the Perfect Little Black Notebook.” (I would caution new notebookers against getting too precious about their writing material, however, as it may prevent them from actually writing on it—you may find the perfect notebook, but the writing inside it doesn’t have to be.)

And civilians, anecdotal evidence suggests, recognize what writers’ notebooks mean to them. This summer my friend Steve was traveling in Paris and lost his Moleskine on the Metro. It contained all the writing he had done all summer, including three weeks of study at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. Devastating, right? Well, that very same day, he got an email from the gentleman who found it—a banker—and Steve retrieved it the very next day. Amazing.

Which reminds me: I need to put my contact information in my writer’s notebooks.

I keep four. No, wait … five. Well, when you count up all the notebooks I’m keeping at any one time, it’s more like eight.

  • Morning Pages: I’ve written morning pages for going-on a half-dozen years. These are three pages (more or less) I write first thing in the morning (more or less) every day (more or … well, you get the picture) in 8.5-by-11-inch, five-subject, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebooks. The goal is to write three pages every morning, which I don’t always accomplish (in which case I used to be so obsessive that I would actually leave blank pages where I should have written as a physical reminder of the days I missed; I’m living greener now and relying on the skipped dates alone to chastise me).

This is where I basically keep my personal diary, recording what I did the day before, making a plan for the day ahead, and, probably more than any thing else, complaining. It is incredibly tedious to go back and read these pages, which inevitably say the same thing over and over and over again. I look at the published journals of writers I admire—Virginia Woolf, say—and am mortified that, were I ever to become a novelist whose personal writings become of interest, these might ever be read by anyone else, let alone published.

However, because the morning-pages exercise requires three hand-written pages, sometimes I run out of the daily grind and have to dig deeper into my thoughts and feelings on, for example, God and religion.

  • Novel Notebook: I also have a notebook this size in which I work on my novel. Frankly, this wasn’t a choice made consciously but rather to use a stray notebook lying around the apartment. When it’s full, I’ll probably move to a three-ring binder filled with blank pages ripped out of my morning-pages notebooks.

I freewrite here about characters I’m still getting to know or what needs to happen in the chapter on which I am working. Inevitably this work naturally leads to scenes and, eventually, whole chapters. Lately, at least, I’ve been writing the novel long-hand in these pages. The notebook is also stuffed with comments and critiques from my writing group and thesis adviser.

  • Writer’s Notebook: I also keep a 5.25-by-8.25-inch lined Moleskine that probably most closely resembles what we mean when we talk about writer’s notebooks.

It started as a poetry notebook that I was required to keep for a class, in which I recorded my reactions to poetry I was reading and poetry readings I attended, brainstormed and drafted poems, and wrote about the writing process. What it has evolved into I’m still working to define. Although there are notes and ideas for future projects, I’m so focused on the novel now that they have really taken a backseat to writing about writing, including material for this blog.

  • Pocket Writer’s Notebook: Finally, I also keep a 3.75-by-5.75-inch pocket notebook that serves much the same purpose as the Moleskine, except it can fit in my purse or pocket. The one I carry now is a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pocket journal manufactured by Pomegranate that was a gift from my mother.
  • Other Notebooks: I also keep a soft-cover pocket Moleskine in which I record my running grocery, shopping, and to-do lists. In my bag I carry a reporter’s notebook that I pull out for film screenings. My daily calendar, which also contains more lists (including daily to-dos, birthday wishlists, movies-and-books-I’ve-seen-this-year lists), is in a half-size spiral-bound notebook. And I keep separate notebooks for classes, which, because I study writing, could also be classified as writer’s notebooks.

These are my writer’s notebooks. As with all facets of creativity, however, how a writer keeps a notebook is highly individualized. What kinds of notebooks do you use, and how do you use them?


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