I’m interrupting my Write in the Middle series to bring you this month’s Curiosity Journal. Years ago I published the journal weekly, but when I brought it back in August, I realized a monthly roundup made more sense. So today, at the end of October, I invite you to peek inside as I document this month’s six areas that ignite a curious mind: learn, read, write, play, try, listen.
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Although Dani Shapiro wrote this blog post back in July, I’ve referred to it several times in the past month. I love the word she landed on to describe what she writes and how she approaches writing. She explains:
Lately people have been asking me what I’m working on. A perfectly reasonable question, though one that strikes terror and dread in the hearts of most writers. If we’re not in the midst of a book, the question makes us feel guilty and fretful. If we are in the midst of a book, we need to find ways of answering in a way that doesn’t take away from the work itself … what I’ve arrived at is this: I’m writing an Inquiry.
Inquiry is rooted in curiosity, lifelong learning, searching. Shapiro says, “Everything I’ve ever written might be described as an inquiry.” That’s curiosity at work, and it’s how I, too, approach writing and life.
“I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know,” Shapiro says. “To peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view.”
By approaching both her fiction and nonfiction work as inquiry, she stays open to new ideas, fresh angles, new insights … about the subject, about the world, about herself.
“And so, when I’m asked,” she writes, “I now respond that I’m writing an inquiry into marriage and time … How do we find the right words to describe what we’re doing? Because when we land on them, we know they’re true.”
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One of my goals is to enjoy and curate good content to share on my Facebook page and Twitter feed. At the same time, I’m always working through at least one book (usually more). Since you can easily click through my Facebook and Twitter feeds to browse what’s there, I’ll focus on some of the books I’m digging into.
Right now, I’m celebrating Deidra Riggs‘ book Every Little Thing: Making a World of Difference Right Where You Are. She inspires with humor and compassion, launching with a written version of her TEDxLincoln story. You can watch her tell it here, but don’t miss the book’s introduction. It’s brilliant.
Let Deidra help you see how you can make a difference every day, even if you feel like you’re just a cubicle worker, lawn mower, pancake flipper or one-mile jogger. “This book,” she writes, “is the story of how God is in control of our lives, even when we think we’ve got things under control.” Take the step, or the leap, whichever it may be. Maybe the first step to making a world of difference is to invite Deidra to cheer you on?
T. S. Poetry Press, which published On Being a Writer, came out with a follow-up to its popular title How to Read a Poem. This time around, author and poet Tania Runyan instructs us on How to Write a Poem. Both books—highly recommended resources for creative writing instructors at both the high school and university levels—are based on the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry.” I enjoyed following Megan Willome’s posts as she worked through the book, writing and revising a poem of her own along the way.
Mary Karr’s recent release The Art of Memoir, which I’ve just started, looks to offer insights and instruction with sass. As I dive in, I’m planning to invite people to join me for a casual book discussion over at my Facebook page. Would you be interested?
Here are some glimpses into The Art of Memoir:
A believable voice notes how the self may or may not be inventing reality, morphing one’s separate “truths.” Most of us don’t read the landscape so much as we beam it from our eyeballs.
A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experience, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
A great detail feels particular in a way that argues for its truth. A reader can take it in. The best have extra poetic meaning. In some magic way, the detail from its singular position in a room can help to evoke the rest of the whole scene…. The great writer trolls the world for totemic objects to place on a page. In every genre, it’s key.
Finally, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick, has been recommended by several people and I love the glimpses I snatched while flipping through:
In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required.
That idea of self—the one that controls the memoir—is almost always served through a single piece of awareness that clarifies only slowly in the writer, gaining strength and definition as the narrative progresses…. The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is “Who am I?” Who exactly is this “I” upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question, the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.
Inquiry. There is it again.
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Have you written a personal manifesto? The author of that article says your manifesto is:
…a declaration of your life principles…. It may not necessarily reflect how you view yourself right now. You may be experiencing challenges in your career, relationships and with self-esteem, but your manifesto is not these issues—it’s the person you are underneath them…our manifesto becomes a written expression of that to serve as a reminder and compass in our lives. It guides our decisions and is a safe place to return in times of trouble when we may have forgotten who we are.
A related kind of self-inquiry comes from James Clear, who recommends selecting about five values from this list of core values and focus on those to guide aspects of our lives. Each year, he writes an “Integrity Report,” summarizing how each of those values played out over the course of 12 months.
He answers three questions in his reports and invites readers to do the same:
- What are the core values that drive my life and work?
- How am I living and working with integrity right now?
- How can I set a higher standard in the future?
While in this self-reflective mode, I was intrigued with the idea of crafting a Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, for myself as a writer and coach, and for the various projects I produce, such as books and podcasts.
An author at The Write Life writes, “To stand out and make an impact, you have to differentiate yourself…In marketing parlance, you need what’s called a Unique Selling Proposition (USP). It’s being able to answer the question, ‘What problem can I solve for my client in my own, special way?’”
Copyblogger says to think of your USP is as a “remarkable benefit.” Through blogging, a writer, consultant, or coach can use the power of story, over time, to position herself with this proposition. Copyblogger suggests writing a practice sales letter “that will help you focus in on exactly why you are in business and what you have to offer. It will also tell you exactly how best to blog in support of your business.”
First, ask yourself, “What is it that you offer customers or clients that your competitors do not?”
Next, ask, “[I]s what you came up with newsworthy? Is it so remarkable that you could you get free publicity because of it, say from your local newspaper?”
If the paper would write something up about you, “What kind of headline would the newspaper article carry when writing about you?”
Then Copyblogger recommends the mock sales letter continue with a brief story or anecdote illustrating the benefit in that headline, such as a client’s outstanding results due to your newsworthy, remarkable work. Follow that with benefits from working with you—what you’ll do for the customer or client that is exciting enough for them to take action—and finish with how you’ll fulfill the headline’s promise.
Then give the reader a specific call to action.
When you’re all done writing your letter, ask this:
“Would you buy from you, knowing what you know about best practices in your industry?”
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My schedule and responsibilities make it challenging to play as much as I might like, so I settle for the simplest moments. I rarely watch TV, but to spend time with my kids, I stepped away from my work a few times this month and joined them on the couch to watch their favorite shows on Netflix (“The Flash,” “White Collar,” and “The Office”).
And this past week, I went to the zoo with two of my kids: my just-turned-20-year-old daughter, and my 14-year-old son. We all three rode the carousel.
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Writers have to try different techniques as they work to develop a voice. In his 99U article “The 4 Phases of Developing Your Creative Voice,” Todd Henry writes, “Your voice is the confluence of inspiration, dedicated practice, and strategic risk.”
Your voice is how you’re recognized by others. It’s the tone your collective body of work takes, and it speaks to your values and the unique perspective and skill you bring to the work. However, this individual perspective is often forged over time as you follow the inspiration of your influences, engage in intentional practice, and commit to leaps of intuition.
He identifies four phases a writer goes through, trying different styles—even imitating at times—in order to arrive at his or her own distinct voice:
- Discovery Phase: “[W]hen you suddenly become fascinated with an idea or a new direction for your work, but you don’t yet have a clear path forward. In this phase, it’s important to identify the small, obtainable skills that could become the building blocks of growth.”
- Emulation Phase: “Many artists have honed their unique voice through a strategic regimen of emulation. By mimicking the work of their influences, they were able to build a basic platform of skills necessary to eventually branch out and explore new territory.”
- Divergence Phase: “You diverge from the prescribed path, and create uniquely identifiable work as you begin to take more intuitive risks and leaps with your work.”
- Crisis Phase: “Once you become known for something, it’s tempting to begin to protect the thing you’re known for…. Things that once felt risky are commonplace, and what used to vex you is now second nature. In short, you’re a little bored and stuck. The key to moving beyond this phase is to re-cycle through the phases of growth, and seek new inspiration to emulate and incorporate into your work.”
I’ve moved through those phases more than once and feel Henry has landed on an interesting way to trace where we’ve been and decide what we might try next. He’s saying it’s a process, a cycle, a commitment.
Try to identify which phase you’re in and what you can do next to hone your voice.
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I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and webinars, videos and scopes. I love learning from all these presenters and I’ve taken copious notes, but tonight I sat and talked for a long time after dinner with my husband and son. I always want to be learning, but listening to people I love? That’s the best listening of all.
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I’ve always valued, even nurtured, a healthy, holy curiosity that tends to stretch me, surprise me, and lead me to a more creative and productive life. Tracking the month’s curiosity discoveries reminds me to stay open, ask questions, try new things, play, and pass along my discoveries to others.
Images with words created by Isabelle Kroeker.