Tag Archives: Pat Schneider

Are you making a resolution to write?

Since I published my first novel, several people have told me they’d also like to publish a novel or memoir.  I think this is great, but in some cases it’s surprised me because I didn’t know these folks were interested in writing.  Maybe–in some cases–they didn’t know it either.

            If there’s anybody out there who is inspired by my example to pick up a pen, I say, Yes!  Go for it!  But now here comes the unsolicited advice.

            If you haven’t been doing a lot of writing, but now you’re wondering “Shall I write a novel or a memoir?”–well, I have to say I think you’re asking the wrong question.  Here’s the right question:  Do you like to write?—because if you want to write a novel, it helps if you like to write.

            Try this:  set aside some time to write.  I suggest 30 to 60 minutes, three to five days a week.  I think it’s best to aim for the same time every day (e.g. right after breakfast, during your lunch hour), but I’ve heard some people schedule blocks of time in their calendars every week, wherever it fits.

            The idea is to develop a Writing Practice.  You’re like a musician practicing scales or an athlete doing warm-up drills.  Writing every day helps you develop a habit so when you sit down to write, the words spill out and you actually write, rather than thinking about writing.

            Now when you first start this practice, don’t try to write your novel or memoir out of the gate.  At this point just write.  Write fast.  Write whatever comes into your head.  You’re practicing.  You’re learning how to get into a flow, a rhythm.  Write silly stuff, write angry stuff, doesn’t matter, just write.

            DO NOT spend three or four hours writing everything you’ve been holding inside for years and years in one giant cathartic rush that you just can’t wait to get onto the page, and wow, it feels so good to finally do this, yes, yes, I can write and I can write a lot for a long time, all right, and now I’m done.  You read it over, it sounds brilliant!! You feel great about it–but you don’t pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard again for four months, because you’re waiting to feel inspired like that again.

            Yeah, sure, you can do that if you want, and probably somewhere there’s a successful novelist or two who writes books this way.  But I’m here to tell you that most people who write novels sit down and work on it day after day after day.

            So when you want to develop a practice, on Monday you write for an hour and it’s trash.  On Tuesday, you write for an hour and it’s trash.  On Wednesday you start to write a cool story about your Mom leading the Girl Scout troop in fourth grade, and the hour is up but you’re not done.  That’s great.  You stop anyway and the unfinished story rides around with you for the next 23 hours and when you start on Thursday you waste no time. You get right into it, and the story is richer in detail and complexity because it’s been cooking in your subconscious.  Maybe you don’t finish it till Friday, or maybe not even till a week from Friday.  That’s fine.  But the day after you finish that story, you come back and start again.  And maybe it’s trash again.  That’s okay, it’s all part of the process.  But now you know that, because the practice gives you the confidence that you can stay with it for the long haul.

            I suggest you try this for a month or so, just to see how it goes.  I know it’s not easy to stick to a schedule.  If you need to skip a day now and then, that’s okay, just start up again the next day.  The main thing you want to find out is this:  is it fun?  When you’re actually writing, is it fun?  Is it satisfying?  Are you enjoying putting the words on the page?  If the answer is yes, then you’re going to write that novel.  You will.  You’ll figure out when and what and how.  But if you don’t enjoy it, well, maybe you’ll want to re-think this novel-writing goal.  But if you’re determined to write even if it’s not so fun, I do have another idea.  Join a writing group.  Not a critiquing group—that’s for later.  No, join a group of people who actually writes together.  Because we writers are so much fun, we’ll guarantee you a good time.

            Here’s a link to an earlier post about books I’ve loved that have helped me with my writing:


  And here’s a link to a post about writing groups:


Good luck, have fun, and drop me a line if you’ve got any questions!  Happy New Year!


Loving Harvey

Last week my former companion Harry called me to see how I was doing since the passing of my dear friend Craig.  It was incredibly kind of him to call because our relationship has at times been rather prickly.  We had a brief conversation and as we were about to hang up he said, “You’re in my heart, Nance.”  I responded most sincerely, “I’ll always love you, Harvey.”  OMG!—I called him Harvey!

Harvey—as Harry well knows—is the name of one of the main characters in my first novel.  Best laugh I’ve had in weeks!  (Harry thought it was funny too.)

Now let me assure you that Harvey is a fictional character.  Resemblance to any person living or dead is accidental and unintentional.  And the similarity in names is coincidental!  I’ve always loved the name Harvey.  I named our kitten Harvey when I was a kid, and he grew into one of the best cats ever.

Later that day in a more introspective mood, it occurred to me that what I’d said was the absolute truth. I want to love Harry, but what I really love is the image of Harry I’ve created in my head.

I don’t think this is so unusual.  I’m guessing a lot of couples idealize their partners (especially in new relationships).  When our partner doesn’t live up to the character we’ve created, that we imagine them to be, well, there can be hell to pay.  Parents might do the same thing with their children, and children (particularly “adult children”) with their parents.  Employers definitely have created a box they want their employees to fit into.

It seems to me that Christmas is a good time to open our eyes and hearts and do the best we can to love our families, friends and co-workers exactly as they are.  Most of us have some picture of an ideal holiday:  it was generated by a childhood memory, a saccharine TV show, Martha Stewart’s magazine or a frienemy’s boasting of holiday bliss on Facebook.  If only we could get our families and friends to comply!  Then we too could have a perfect holiday!  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing this isn’t how Jesus would want us to celebrate His birthday.

And what about Jesus?  What about God?  Are we willing to love God exactly as God is, or have we created an image of God inside our heads that we love and worship?

Now it would be very tempting for me to point a finger at people who hold political views divergent from my own and say, “You have created an image of Jesus to justify what you do, but you’re wrong!”  Yes, it’s tempting but that’s not my purpose today.

I think there may be as many ideas of what God is—and what God is not—as there are people on this planet.  I believe every idea is valid, but every idea is incomplete.  In How the Light Gets In, Pat Schneider explains that she has come to use the word “mystery” (with a lower case “m”) as her pet name for the Divine.  Her story acknowledges a hard truth:  none of us in human bodies (what my friend Janice calls our “earth suits”) can fully know and understand God.

This Christmas season I invite you—while praying, meditating or just sitting quietly—to ask God to reveal a bit more of Him or Her Self to you.  I don’t know what will happen.  Maybe nothing will happen.  But, hey, it’s Christmas!  Maybe God will surprise you!

Writing the Amherst Way


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of writing in a workshop with Pat Schneider, the author of Writing Alone and with Others, and the recently released How the Light Gets In:  Writing as a Spiritual Practice.

Pat developed a workshop method of writing together in community, which came to be the Amherst Writers and Artists Method.  Pat says the method is “nothing but common sense and kindness.  But we’re so short of that today that we require a ‘method.’”

It’s really pretty simple.  We get together to write.  The leader gives a “prompt.”  It may be a word, a phrase, a quote, a photo or other form of visual art, an object or a guided visualization.  The prompt is not an assignment, but a jumping off point to get each writer started.  We can write about the prompt or write about something else.  Often the prompt will get us started, and then lead us down a path where the real story lies.

After we finish writing, we share.  No one is required to read, but most of us do—especially if we’ve been writing together for a while.  Since we’re sharing brand new baby writing, only positive feedback is given.  No one is allowed to be harsh to vulnerable new writing.  But the feedback is helpful.  It focuses on what is strong and what we remember, i.e. what stands out.

One more rule:  we pretend that all writing is fictional.  If written in the first person, listeners will refer to the speaker as “the narrator,” rather than assuming that the author is writing a tell-all memoir.

I love this rule!!  Decades ago, in the first writing group I joined after college, the narcissistic drama was thick.  Someone would read a poem or story and people would blurt, “Oh, my husband (or boyfriend or partner) does that too!—blah, blah, blah. . ..”  The writing would be forgotten as everyone began gabbing about her own problems.  Such a relief now to write with people who want to focus on writing!

But despite this seeming restriction, the Amherst method is often therapeutic.  The creation of a safe space and the promise of anonymity allow the writer to dig deep and share hard truths.

At our workshop last month, Pat described writing as if it were a version of the hero’s journey.  She said when we dig deep to confront our fears, we will come to a cave and confront a metaphorical dragon.  Know that the dragon is guarding a treasure, but realize this:  the dragon is guarding the treasure not FROM us, but FOR us.

You may have guessed that Pat lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, but there is a very active chapter of Amherst Writers and Artists here in Sacramento and northern California.  For more info, check out this link:


My Writing Life


I want to share some books that have enriched my writing over the years.  I would recommend these books to all writers.  And for teachers of writing—no matter how young your students—these books may also be helpful.


Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico

This book was ground breaking for me in the early 80s.  Rico’s techniques helped me get past the right brain/inner critic to the deeper left brain/inner poet.  That first week I couldn’t write fast enough.  I was scribbling poems on paper napkins in the cafeteria while I supervised my students at lunch!  Later I learned to pace myself.

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Another amazing eye-opener from the 80s on giving yourself permission to pick up a pen and keep your hand moving, to write free and uncensored from any inner critics.  Natalie Goldberg is a legend now.  Read her!

Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo

This book is less celebrated, but was equally influential in the development of my writing and my psyche.  I was reading it years ago when I had an argument with my then-companion (a not infrequent occurrence).  The next day I told friends about this argument, but I made it sound cute and funny.  Everybody laughed.  I thought, “I should write this up:  it’s cute and funny.”

But because I was reading this book I did something I’d never done before:  I wrote what really happened.  I allowed myself to write about how dark and shameful it was.  It wasn’t cute and funny anymore:  it was incredibly powerful.  I didn’t show it to anyone:  I do have boundaries, which is why I write mainly fiction now.  But after this book, my writing was never the same.


Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda N. Edelstein

The name says it all.  This is a fun book filled with little quirks and habits that will help lift your characters out of one- dimensional-land into the realm of living breathing human beings.

Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Character development is one of my strengths, but coming up with a plot used to intimidate me.  This book has alleviated my apprehensions.  It briefly outlines dozens of plots–you fill in the blanks to make the story uniquely yours.  It has been invaluable to me in the plotting of my novels.

The work of Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists Institute has also been a great influence on me.  I will be writing about them in a future post.

My writing has always been inseparable from my spirituality.  I have garnered strength from the writing of Pema Chodron, Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, Anne Lamott, and Carolyn Myss.  More on these and other inspiring writers in subsequent posts.

Please tell me about your favorite writers and artists.  Who has influenced you?