The Writing Life: Developing a Change Mindset

Image courtesy of Eileen Rackus

Change is inevitable and inexorable. No matter what we do or don’t do, change happens. It is thrust upon us by people or forces, known or unknown, and there is nothing we can do to stop or prevent it. Change can happen at any time. Even during the midst of change that we have initiated, the unexpected can happen. There is no predicting how or when unplanned change will occur. This is just how life is. But this doesn’t mean that we are powerless.

I have written quite a bit about habits and the importance of creating balance. But there is more to thriving than just helpful routines and practices that ensure wellbeing. To do more than just survive, we need to be resilient and foster a change mindset.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to challenges and hardships. It means being flexible and able to bounce back quickly when unexpected or unwanted things happen. Developing good habits, creating a balanced life, and having a strong support system allows us to be more resilient. Curiosity is important during uncertain times and contributes to resiliency. When we are curious, we seek to understand and learn from something new. This helps us to get back up and get moving more quickly.

Many of you have probably heard of a concept called a growth mindset. A growth mindset means that you believe you can grow and change, choose to be open to new experiences, and seek out opportunities to learn new skills and abilities. What I like to call a change mindset builds upon that. Having a change mindset is believing that opportunities are always present and being prepared to take advantage of them to improve a challenging situation. It is believing that you can thrive even in the most difficult of times, that you can learn and grow in positive and life-affirming ways from hardship, believing in yourself, and having faith in the unfolding of life.

Even during periods of planned change, there are always opportunities around us that, if we only paid attention, we could take advantage to make our lives even better than initially envisioned. Having a change mindset means knowing that life doesn’t always work out the way we plan. Sometimes, it can be even better. That is why being curious, flexible, and adaptable is so important.

Having a change mindset means being prepared to jump on chances that come our way. It means not getting bogged down by emotions or negative thoughts. It means to keep moving forward and always looking for opportunities to improve and not being afraid or allowing ourselves to get stuck because things are good. There is always something better waiting for us if we have the courage to take a chance and change.

Don’t think of the discomfort of change as negative. Change helps us get out of ruts. When we are outside our comfort zone, we have to pay attention in order to navigate our way through uncertainty. This is where meditation can be of great benefit. Staying calm and present are necessary to finding ways to mitigate or improve a situation. Developing a change mindset will make us more flexible, more adaptable and, rather than just surviving change that has been thrust upon us, we will thrive in the face of uncertainty with a mindset that gives us the power to plot a course to a new normal.

The Writing Life: Atomic Habits by James Clear

When I used to work in an office, I loved listening to non-fiction in my car during my morning and afternoon commutes. Learning is something that is very pleasurable. Driving in traffic is not. Listening to audiobooks is one way I make a tedious situation into a time that, if not enjoyable, is at least more tolerable.

One of the books I listened to was Atomic Habits by James Clear. He uses the super powerful atomic bomb, made up of minuscule atoms, as a metaphor for the substantial progress we can experience by making tiny shifts in our choices and behaviors on most days. The English geek in me loves this comparison: atom bomb is to atoms as change is to habits. Math geeks might like this too!

This is one of the best books on change I have come across so far. It is well-narrated by the author, interesting, easy to follow, and extremely practical. Clear breaks down the science of change and habit formation into his own proven system that enables us to affect significant transformations over time by taking small steps every day. He also offers many tips that will ensure our success. An example of this is habit stacking which means to piggyback a new habit onto another that is already well established making it more likely you will follow through with the new behavior. This reminds me of one of the basic laws of physics: objects in motion stay in motion. Let your momentum and/or pleasure and satisfaction from completing the previous activity carry you through the new practice you are trying to create.

This text is loaded with helpful information. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in a single blog post and that would probably violate copyright laws, so I’ll just write about a remarkable gem called “The Habit Loop”. This concept is distinctive because it works on any behavior, negative or positive.

The Habit Loop demonstrates how some trigger causes a craving that we act upon and receive a reward for. Determining how and when this loop operates (or can operate) in our lives will help us reduce bad practices and construct new routines. We can intervene at any point in the loop. Let me illustrate how this works with an example of my own.

I am accustomed to eating certain foods when I am overly tired or particularly emotional. (I won’t mention what they are because someone reading this post, who shares this proclivity, could be triggered.) My feelings are the cue to start craving and the response is that I stop somewhere to buy those items. The reward is the feeling of anticipation at eating these tasty products and relieving my stress. I know this is not healthy and the immediate results are various discomforts such as stomach upset and headache followed by weight gain. I have several choices in how to break this cycle.

  1. I can notice when I begin to feel fatigued or emotional and chose to eat something healthy or take a break from what I’m doing to restore energy and equilibrium.
  2. I may try to resist the craving by focusing on something else such as a work task, reading, cleaning, exercising or any number of activities.
  3. I could purchase healthier versions of my “feel better” foods or select the smallest size available so as not to overindulge.
  4. I might remind myself of all the negative consequences of eating that stuff and how engaging in this behavior is contrary to many of the positive changes I am striving to make in order to be happier, healthier and feeling better.

As you can see, some are better options than others. We want to set ourselves up for success so discovering our loops, and planning ahead, will improve results. For some, early intervention in the cycle will work best and, for others, maybe multiple points of interference will do the trick. Whatever the solution, consistent application is the way to achieve outstanding results.

I highly recommend Atomic Habits. When you purchase the book, you gain access to a wealth of material on, not all of which is available to the public. Some of this is in the form of worksheets to help with planning your new habits. I have found it to be a wonderfully helpful guide that offers growth in all areas of our lives. If you are looking for a simple plan for building an exceptional life, this is an excellent resource!

What do you do to inhibit undesired behaviors and to encourage advantageous actions? If you have read Atomic Habits, what did you find most useful?

The Writing Life: Meditation

Image courtesy of Eileen Rackus

If you have been following my previous posts, you know I have written about how beneficial meditation can be for writers. It has helped me a great deal and I think it can help you too. Meditation can help you feel calm, centered, and grounded. Centered means to be fully aware of being in your body in the present moment. This can be difficult when we haven’t been taking good care of ourselves. If you are like me, you push away discomfort or pain and place your attention on other things. Grounded means to be aware of your physical body in relation to the earth under your feet (especially when your feet are on a carpet, that is on a floor, that is on a foundation, that is on the earth – it is easier to feel grounded in nature, but we can’t always go outside whenever we want.) This awareness of our connection to the planet nurtures us and allows us to feel connected to the earth and everything around us, even other people.

Being centered and grounded are powerful states because we can focus on what is most important in the moment and can respond thoughtfully to any person or situation that arises. When I am centered and grounded, I don’t worry about how I will react if something happens. In addition to feeling calm, I am confident in myself. These are not natural states for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things done and do them to the best of my ability. This often leads to anxiety, anger, and depression when I don’t live up to my high standards. Meditation alleviates that pressure and returns me to serenity.

There is a heightened sense of wellbeing that comes when you are physically, mentally and emotionally balanced and connected to everything. I sometimes feel that life/the universe has a frequency that it resonates at and when I am very relaxed and aware of myself and my surroundings while in the meditative state, I can feel that resonating energy. I can feel my own energy vibrating at the same frequency. That feeling is transformative and restorative. And it helps me write better and more often!

Many people are daunted by meditation. But there are different ways to do it. In a previous post (insert link to creating balance), I provided instructions for a simple mindfulness mediation focusing on the breath. Now, I would like to offer something more advanced. This mindfulness meditation focuses on awareness and connection and is wonderful at any time but particularly beneficial when feeling alone or isolated.

  • Sit comfortably in a quiet place (i.e., no television or music and turn the sounds off on your phone and computer) and close your eyes.  
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths, focusing your attention on breathing, and letting your breath fall back into its natural rhythm.
  • Notice any thoughts that come to your attention and let them go. Refocusing on your breathing.
  • Become aware of what you are sitting on and how it rests on the floor or the ground.
  • Scan your body from head to toe, noting any sensations in your body or coming into your body through your feet or where you are sitting.
  • Keeping your eyes closed, slowly and gently begin to notice sounds around you. There are many sounds in a home or office that we are often unaware of such as the hum of the refrigerator, the fan of the air conditioner, or electronic devices. Whatever the sounds, just notice them.
  • Then, expand your awareness to noises in the hallway, on another floor, or outside. If it is morning, you may hear birds singing. Maybe someone is mowing their lawn or there is a delivery vehicle on the street. Perhaps people are walking by, talking and laughing. Just notice what is occurring around you.
  • Sit for a few more minutes (or however long you are comfortable with or have time for), noticing your body and breath while being aware of the noises and activity around you.
  • To finish, bring your awareness back to your immediate surroundings and slowly open your eyes. Give yourself time to refocus your attention on where you are, why you are there, and what you are going to do next.

I love this meditation because it reminds me that I am not separate from the world. I am a part of the life that is happening around me. It is the same life that is within me. I feel connected to everyone and everything around me. Give it a try and post in the comments what you experienced!

Meditation is for everyone! It is very flexible and can be suited to your needs of the moment. You can meditate anytime, anywhere you feel safe, and for as little as a minute or two. You can meditate for much longer periods of time. You can meditate focusing on nothing or everything, your breath, your emotions or physical discomfort, or a myriad of other things. Try a variety and see what works for you. For beginners and people who have difficulty not thinking or stopping their brains from working, I recommend using an app to help you meditate. I like Insight Timer. It’s a meditation app that offers more than a hundred thousand free guided meditations and many music playlists, live talks, and classes (requiring a paid subscription) on a variety of topics to help people live their best life.

Beyond the free meditations and music, I enjoy using this app because it is easy to use with important features such as search, bookmarks, recommendations, and reviews. You can search by topic or how much time you have. Who can’t squeeze in 5 minutes for guided meditation to feel calm and focused? It is easy to share meditations and music with friends, even if they don’t have the app yet. The app also allows donations to Insight Timer teachers.

I cannot extoll enough the benefits of meditation. Meditation helps me feel serene and to focus on achieving my large and small goals, goals for a lifetime, goals for the day or the next hour. If, as researchers have stated, will power is finite and when we run out for the day, we won’t have any more until tomorrow, then we need another way to accomplish goals. One way is through habits and another way is through mediation. But that is a discussion for another time!

If you’ve always wondered what meditation was like, or you’ve struggled to meditate, try Insight Timer. You will notice a difference! And, if you have used a mediation app, please share your experience below.

The Writing Life: Habits

“With habits, we don’t make decisions, we don’t use self-control, we just do the thing we want ourselves to do.” Gretchen Rubin

Image courtesy of Eileen Rackus

Life is filled with many challenges and responsibilities that sometimes place a heavy demand on our time and energy. Such things often conflict with our desires and needs. Achieving goals is not something we should leave to chance. There is contradictory evidence about will power: it’s finite, it ebbs and flows like our emotions, it is like a muscle and becomes fatigued from overuse. Whatever the case, if we foster healthy habits to create and maintain balance and know ourselves better, we will be more successful in our efforts. In order to preserve will power, we can build behaviors that enable us to accomplish more every day. Habit building requires time, focus, and energy so before undertaking this worthwhile endeavor, we should make a plan to set ourselves up for success.

The first step is to look at your various ambitions and choose one. It will be challenging enough to create one new, lasting habit. Trying to do too much can cause your preliminary progress to crumple like a house of cards. You might be wondering how you can choose just one. This exercise can help.

  • List all your goals and think about each one. Ask yourself the following questions.
    • How long have I wanted to do this?
    • How important is this?
    • Why is this important to me?
    • How difficult or easy will it be to accomplish this?
    • Will it take a longer or shorter amount of time?
    • What feelings come up when I think about this?
    • How would this fit into my life right?
  • As you ponder the level of effort against the importance and your current feelings about it, does 1 or more goals from your list rise above the rest? If it’s just one, great! That’s the one to work on now. If not, take a walk, meditate, or perform some other physical task and let one part of your mind consider what’s next while another part focuses on your exertions.

Once you have decided, it’s time to deconstruct the goal. Most ambitions involve many smaller goals. And those smaller goals are made up of many new practices. One of the keys to success when it comes to creating good habits is to break them down to the smallest steps possible. For instance, I wanted to have more energy so I could get more done. I had lots of plans such as painting my home office, decluttering, organizing the closets, but felt so tired after working that sometimes I didn’t even cook dinner. I just wanted to chill and watch Netflix.  When I thought about what would be involved in having more energy, I came up with the following list:

  • sleep better
  • eat better
  • exercise regularly
  • relax more
  • work less

When I looked at the list, I wasn’t sure if work less was very realistic. I didn’t even know how to relax in a way that would rejuvenate me. I realized that some of these would require a lot of thought, research, and trial and error. It felt a bit overwhelming, so I decided to start with just one item on the list. I decided to start with exercise. I knew from previous experience that I would start to feel good after just a few days of consistent exercise. My goal was to get on the elliptical for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week. It was a great plan, but it was still too big.

Days turned into weeks without getting on the elliptical once. I always found an excuse. I’m too tired. I’m too busy. Somedays I didn’t even think about exercising. I changed the goal to 20 minutes at least 5 days a week. When I did not use the elliptical a single time in a few more weeks, I decided on 15 minutes. I kept planning and decreasing the time until, one day, I got on for six minutes. That worked out well, so I did it again a few days later. Then, a third time in the same week! Over time, I worked my way up to getting on the elliptical 2 times a day for 10 minutes each, 5 or more days per week because I liked how I felt afterwards and those breaks throughout my day became very welcome.

This is not how I envisioned exercising would look, but it worked. I wasn’t too tired. I had more energy! I wasn’t too busy to fit in 10 minutes. In fact, I looked forward to the break from work. Often, we just have to keep breaking our goals down until they feel possible. Many experts agree that breaking down habits into the smallest steps possible will decrease resistance to the new behavior.

Once we have a plan that feels doable, we have to be consistent to make it a reliable practice. There is some disagreement on how long it takes to form habits and, in my experience, some things take longer than others. Occasionally, I’ll make a decision and never look back. Typically, though, the formation of new behaviors requires weeks or months. But it doesn’t have to be tedious. I like to learn so when I’m trying to build a new habit, I read a lot about it. I want to understand the theory behind an activity or aim and I wonder what has worked and not worked for others. I know myself and I try to engage my strengths to bolster my efforts.

My “success” in developing a habit of exercise spawned the development of additional lifestyle changes. I started stretching, sporadically at first, then daily, and then twice daily in 10-minute intervals. That seemed to be the magic number for physical activity. I didn’t feel guilty about slipping away from work for 10 minutes to do something that helped me focus better. While streaming shows in the evening, I searched for quick and healthy recipes and saved them to Pinterest. Because I like to organize things, I organized the pins into categories. Then, I developed shopping lists and planned when and what to cook. I discovered the less crowded times to grocery shop were Saturdays at 9am and Tuesdays at 2pm. I also carved out time two days a week to cook large amounts of food so there would be leftovers. Sometimes, I cooked and froze food in individual serving containers. Eating better and exercising contributed to better sleep. And I developed quite a few new habits and experienced increased energy to do more things. My closets still need organizing and my home is still cluttered but I am loving learning to play the guitar!

Developing good habits that fulfill your needs and desires is a worthwhile endeavor. Not only will you achieve your goal, but you can change your life. Next time you feel an urge to do something for yourself, give in! And don’t forget to make it fun and interesting. Enlist a friend to learn and grow with you. Engage your strengths and your senses for a fuller, richer, more invested experience. Build practices that give you a better life today. Engage with the process of habit building in a fully committed, fully participatory way. Focus on what you are doing now, in the present moment, rather than where you hope to get to tomorrow. Enjoy the journey.

The Writing Life: Creating Balance

Image courtesy of Eileen Rackus

Writers are not immune to the ills that plague humans. We know about tortured artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath to name a very few. While more than 50 million Americans suffer from one form of mental illness or another, there is some evidence that highly creative people are more susceptible. I think that means we, writers, should make an even greater effort to practice healthy, positive, protective self-care. Following are some steps to take toward creating a life that will support and enhance your craft.

Maintain good health

There has been a lot of advertising around how to be healthy. All of us have a pretty good idea that the following are key to a healthy and long life:

  • eating lots of fruits and veggies
  • avoiding foods high in fat and sugar
  • drinking lots of water
  • exercising regularly
  • sleeping at least 7 ½ hours each night
  • trying new things

But like many things in life, knowing and executing are two totally different things. This is where knowing yourself, discipline, good habits, and patience will greatly help.

Journal writing

Writing in a journal has been proven to provide many benefits. One practice that I recommend is to just write out whatever is in your head every day prior to sitting down to write. For those of you who like writing prompts:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What is on the schedule for today?
  • How are you feeling about writing later?
  • What might get in the way of your writing and what can you do about that?

You can do this first thing in the morning or whenever is convenient. This is not the kind of journal writing that you will want to save for later. There probably won’t be a lot of good ideas or well-turned phrases that you will be incorporating into your next work. That is not the purpose of this type of writing. This is similar to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages”. The idea is to give yourself a clean slate, free from all the random thoughts that seem to occupy too much of our brain. This is a practice that will help build discipline and patience as well as reap more beneficial rewards over time with increased focus. Journal writing will also help you know yourself better which, in turn, will make you a better writer.


Meditation is very relaxing and calming. It’s a great practice that can clear your mind before and after each writing session or anytime you need to slow down and refocus on the present moment. Just 5 minutes will do wonders. A daily meditation practice offers many benefits such as

  • better sleep
  • increased focus
  • managing stress and emotions better
  • enhanced creativity

According to Harvard Medical School, meditating 10 – 20 minutes a day can lower blood pressure. But don’t try to do too much if this is new for you. Attempt 1 to 5 minutes at first. Here is a simple exercise:

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
    • PRO TIP: If thoughts are intruding, you can say in your head, “breath in” and “breath out” with each inhalation and exhalation while you focus on the rising and falling of your chest.
  • Take 3 slow, deep breaths, letting each out slowly and then let your breathing return to its normal rhythm.
  • Continue to focus on your breathing, in and out. Notice how breathing feels. Notice how your body feels. Don’t judge what you observe. It is just information.
    • PRO TIP: If thoughts or judgements come up, in your head say something like “thinking” or “those are just thoughts.” Let them go and return your focus to your breathing.

Be patient with yourself. It takes time to learn to maintain focus on breathing and let thoughts come and go without diverting our attention. It’s a practice, and practice makes improvement.

Walk in nature

Walking outside is like meditating if you focus on what you are seeing and experiencing in the moment. Walking helps one part of my brain focus on organizing my thoughts while another part notices the warmth of the sun, the scent of flowers, and the pleasure of movement. It fosters feelings of serenity and well-being. If you have a dog, bring them along. Be present with your pet and look at the beauty around you. Notice the air you are breathing. Is it cold or warm? Look at the colorful flowers and variety of plantings. Can you smell the freshly mown grass? What shade of blue is the sky? Is it cloudy or does sunshine brighten everything?  How loud are the birds? Practicing awareness will help you stay in the moment and improve not just your focus, but your writing as well. Engaging with the present rather than ruminating on our thoughts will be refreshing!

Spend time with loved ones

A lot of writing is done in isolation so, to create balance, we must make an effort to spend time with others. If this means arranging in advance a scheduled time, do it. And stick to it. No matter where you are in your writing or how many ideas are coming to you, keep these appointments. Spending time with people who are good to us, who accept us the way we are – true friends – is as important – or more important – than our writing. Life is about relationships and, just like writing, relationships take work. Both are worth it. When you find special people, hold on to them. They make the good times better and the difficult times a little easier.


You can learn a lot about writing from observing how authors write. Think about the books you loved best. What did you like about them? Usually, the answer is something like the language, the characters, and the setting. Paying attention to how other writers use figurative language, create new worlds and develop characters and describe their interactions will improve your writing. Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s how we learn and become better writers. Reading is fuel for your mind. Exposing yourself to new ideas creates connections between known and new information, firing your imagination. But it’s not only about writing. Reading is very relaxing. It’s good for you.

Despite how the tortured artist stereotype has been romanticized at times, I don’t believe we need to suffer for our art. I don’t believe in muses. I believe that our creativity is our own, to be developed or not. We don’t need alcohol, drugs, to be in love, or to be surrounded by beautiful people to write. The best way to bring out our creativity, and our best work, is by fostering our health and vitality, developing discipline, and establishing and maintaining a balanced life. It’s that simple, but not that easy.

Writers on Writing: Michelle Reale

MICHELLE MESSINA REALE is a professor at Arcadia University and the author of 8 academic texts and 13 books of poetry. Dr Reale is the Founding and Managing Editor of Ovunque Siamo magazine and Editor of the Red Fern Review. In 2013 she was awarded the Twin Antlers Prize for poetry. She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her most recent poetry collection, In the Year of Hurricane Agnes, is available from Amazon.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

MICHELLE: A lot of my poems come from memories.  I am attempting to make sense of a life—my life—and my experiences.  Many of my ideas begin with an image—which is wholly appropriate for poetry.  I am a very contemplative person—my favorite thing to do is think about things.  I turn things, events, and images over in my mind like objects of curiosity. I write my way into knowing. I figure things out by writing.

ANGELA: What genres do you write in? And, why?

MICHELLE: I am an academic writer, a voracious and inveterate journal writer, a poet, a flash fiction writer and I have been a fiction writer as well.  But I am truly dedicated to poetry.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

MICHELLE: That is always a difficult question for me to answer.  I am a speed-reader, so I read widely, quickly and massively.  I am reading my way through every post war British novel that my university library holds.  I am also reading poetry, spiritual books, research, etc. 

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

MICHELLE: Impossible to answer since I read so much and so widely, but A Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers is one book that I can say I wish I wrote.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

MICHELLE: I love, more than anything, surreal images in my poetry, and while I am still experimenting with it, there is a danger of being too heavy handed—you can be so surreal that the poem ceases to have any meaning at all, that a reader would find it impossible to find an entry point. I love to read surreal poetry and I love inserting it into my own work.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

MICHELLE: Every day, no matter what, I begin (and end) the day with writing in my journal.  Every. Single. Day.  That has been a discipline of mine from the time I was a child. That sounds unbelievable but it is true. That sets the stage for a certain amount of writing every day for me.  I also keep several writing notebooks where I jot ideas then do free writing around them.  I write at a cozy desk in the corner of my kitchen and listen to jazz or classical music nearly all the time. I also contemplate on what I have written to see what else arises.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write? 

MICHELLE: I can write for hours.  It is the one joyful constant in my life.  I write every day. No exceptions.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

MICHELLE: Yes, sometimes. But since writing is an exercise in discovery, often I don’t.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

MICHELLE: My mind is so fertile.  In each year that I wrote an academic book, I also released a collection of poetry.  I always have several projects going at once.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

MICHELLE: I have never experienced it, and have my doubts about its existence. 

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer?

MICHELLE: That it would take TIME. Writers now, especially young ones, want to be famous right away, they are more interested in publishing than working on craft, being an apprentice.  I publish a lot, but when I was learning I didn’t.  And that is and was appropriate. There is no rush.  I wish more writers would understand that.

Connecting and keeping up with Michelle Reale
Ovunque Siamo

Interview conducted in December 2022.

Engaging with Literature

 “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”  Joseph Addison

There are multiple ways to engage with literature – with our mind, our emotions, and our senses – and there are multiple tools that facilitate a deeper understanding of what we read. Employing literary theories and critical reading will initiate that process. 

Consider this: how we respond to, and engage with, literature is a model for how we respond to life. The tools of literature are tools that we can apply to our lives outside of school. Connecting, considering and drawing conclusions about what we see, hear, and experience is how we gain knowledge about literature, people, and life in general.


As the quote above suggests, engaging fully in the moment (whether you are reading, speaking with a friend, evaluating an offer of employment, or performing work for your employer) allows you to connect with the object of your attention. This opens up our experience to what is seen and unseen, known and unknown, which will form the basis of our conclusions.  


When we lose ourselves in a book, engage in conversation, focus on a puzzle or problem, or allow ourselves to connect, our whole being provides information for us to consider. Our intellect observes many things while we read: how a novel is organized, the word choices and grammatical structures of the author, our emotional and physical reactions, thoughts, and memories. (This is why reading is so important for writers! We learn to become better writers by reading a lot of different authors and genres.) When we speak with others, we listen to the tone of their voice, watch their eyes, notice their bodily movements, gauge their reaction to what we say, and determine if we agree or disagree with their words  Considering how something makes you feel emotionally and physically can guide you in knowing if something is creditable or worthwhile. A lot of this happens just below our conscious awareness, but we do it all the time. What is being asked of us with regards to literature (and writing) is to bring that same diligence to our reading. To do that, we must be conscious of what we’re taking in and how we are processing it.


Once you have all the information, gathered through being present, engaged and observant, you can analyze the bits of data individually and as a whole to discover meaning. Identifying patterns in the whole will provide a deeper understanding, based on our beliefs and unique perspectives.  Utilizing literary theories may seem strange, but in reality we have applied some of the principles in our own lives many times before. Analyzing the works of others as well as our own writing with one or more literary theories can provide some idea of how our readers process our writing as well as allowing us to think more critically about our own writing. Following are two examples. For an overview of additional theories check out the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • New Criticism – This theory says that the meaning of a work is found in the text itself. Analyzing the literary elements (figurative language, plot, characters) used by an author, individually and as a whole, will inform the reader of the author’s meaning. Applying this level of analysis enables writers to see other perspectives rather than our understanding.
  • Biographical/Historical – When we talk to people, everything they say is compared to what we know about them. We contextualize their words to give them meaning beyond the statements themselves. The time and place a person grew up, the size of their family, their life experiences, their hopes and dreams all provide a deeper or different meaning to things people say. With this theory, we can identify the background influences on an author’s writing and this can add dimensions to the story previously unrecognized.

Whenever we pick up a book, we look at the cover and the title, read the flap or back cover, peruse the table of contents, and if still interested, read the first few lines of the book. It’s like buying a car (kick the tires, look at the engine, sit in it, take a test drive) or deciding if you want to try a recipe (read the ingredients, see how long it takes to prepare and cook the item). What do these disparate things have in common? We are thinking critically about what we are doing. This is a skill we use not just in writing; we use it for most everything we do in life. Examining options using critical thinking skills helps us determine meaning and decide what is best in our lives and in our writing.

Engaging with literature is not that different from how we live our lives. Being present and focused no matter what we are doing will add dimensions to our experience and help us to make better decisions and connect more deeply with readers who consume our writing. How do you analyze your own writing and that of other authors?

The Writing Life: Routine

When I was in my 20s, I thought having a routine meant you were in a rut. Life should be spontaneous and doing the same thing over and over did not appeal to me at all! I was quite nomadic. Always carrying a backpack with a few essentials because I never knew where life would take me. I didn’t know how freeing a routine could be.

I like to think of a routine as two or more habits grouped together. Gretchen Rubin stated that “With habits, we don’t make decisions, we don’t use self-control, we just do the thing we want ourselves to do.” We have many habits. Brushing our teeth. Showering. Washing dishes while preparing a meal. A routine helps us do more of the things we want to do without having to give those tasks much thought. This helps with procrastination and other feelings that might get in the way. No matter how tired I am, I brush my teeth, remove cosmetics, wash my face and moisturize before going to bed.

Developing routines can be so beneficial. A morning practice such as showering, having coffee (or tea) and a bite before work can ensure that you’re starting the day out right. And if, for any number of reasons, you don’t get enough sleep, having the habit of a morning routine will ensure a poor night’s sleep doesn’t wreck your whole day. Being tired makes me crabby but a shower makes me feel better.

Having a routine is very grounding and being grounded is important to a balanced life. As writers, we are not always the best at self-care. Sometimes we forget to eat. Sometimes we can’t sleep because the ideas and words keep flowing. When we’re in the middle of a project, sometimes that is all we can think about. Much of our time is spent writing, researching, and thinking about the writing. Some of us spend time planning and outlining each chapter of our book. Some of us develop detailed character sketches. Being a writer means often being consumed by our work. Routines can keep us healthy and on track with all aspects of our lives. We don’t want to neglect our health or our relationships.

Maintaining routines can ensure that we take time for ourselves and the people we love while ensuring that we have writing time in our busy lives. This is especially important if we work a full-time job to pay the bills. It is challenging to make a living from writing. Author Scott Tyrell quantifies how much he gets paid for writing in his blog. It’s not a lot right now. Like Scott, I have a day job to pay the bills. I work full time in addition to my editing and coaching work, writing, cooking, shopping, spending time with my spouse and our dog, and everything else that constitutes a life these days. If we didn’t have a routine to write regularly, our stories wouldn’t be told. 

The trick to routines is making sure that they don’t become rigid. We want the behaviors that make up a routine to become automatic so that we complete tasks without having to think too much about it. Thinking rather than doing can lead to procrastinating and other forms of resistance. On the other hand, if a routine is too fixed it can lead to problems. We need to be flexible. If I used the last of the coffee the day before (and forgot to buy some more), I’m going to be very upset with myself and I’m not going to have a good morning. My morning routine is out the window. Rather than just being upset and going to work upset and out of sorts, I could skip breakfast to get out the door earlier. Then, I can use that time for a quick stop at a coffee shop and grab some food there as well coffee. I can treat myself to a nice breakfast I didn’t (and would rarely) cook for myself. Maybe I’ll have ham, cheese and egg on a croissant! Or a blueberry scone! I usually eat something healthier like fruit, nuts, and low-fat yogurt. But going outside my comfortable behaviors can be a nice treat on the rare occasion rather than an upsetting and frustrating event.

Similarly, if you always write in the same place and at the same time, a break in the routine may not be as welcome. If you’re used to writing in a coffee shop and it’s closed due to lack of staff or renovations, where will you go to write that is busy and noisy? It might be better to have a routine where you write in different situations – quiet and noisy and, if you don’t have a day job, at different times, so that you can quickly and easily adjust to a change and still be able to meet your writing goals. It’s good to have productive routines but remember to be flexible when normal routine is broken so that you can still achieve your goals.

It’s good to have productive routines but remember to be flexible when normal routine is broken so that you can still achieve your goals.

Dissertation Consultation

Dissertation consultation is a tailored service designed for doctoral candidates who would like assistance with their dissertation project. This may involve a variety of services including editing, writing consulting, and coaching. The purpose of this work is to assist individuals and groups in completing their dissertation on time and submitting their best work. The dissertation process can be daunting, exhausting, and stressful. The best time to involve a dissertation consultant in the process is before submitting the proposal, but consultation is advantageous at any time during the project.

It can be extremely useful and a huge relief to have someone managing the big picture while you focus on the details. There are many areas where a dissertation can go wrong. Are you struggling in any of these areas?

  • Project feels too big and overwhelming
  • Research question is too broad
  • Literature review doesn’t connect research to study/research question
  • Literature review is boring
  • Study doesn’t address research question well
  • Graphs, charts and other visuals are boring or don’t simplify complex information
  • Not making an original contribution to current research
  • Difficulty justifying use of guiding framework
  • Ideas and discussions are too abstract
  • Discussions focus only on concrete details
  • Chapters are too short
  • Dissertation lacks cohesion between chapters
  • Lacking scholarly tone/academic voice
  • Writing repeats same words and phrases throughout
  • Writing lacks credibility, clarity, or coherence

A Dissertation Consultant can get you back on track. Services are highly customized for each client depending on their needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Following are examples of the expertise that will benefit your dissertation process:

  • Assessment of writing completed to date
  • Weekly/bimonthly meetings that can include the following
    • Coaching – work on improving habits and skills while being held accountable and receiving support and encouragement
    • Consulting – enhance your writing and develop your ideas and discussions in the dissertation
    • Editing – receive ongoing reviews of writing
  • Develop a project plan, including a timeline, for the dissertation project, beginning to end
  • Learn ways to manage the challenges of life and the dissertation process
  • Receive writing consulting which will highlight problems and show how to resolve them
  • Discuss ideas and aspects of the dissertation along with resolutions to particular problems
  • Review ethics of the study including mitigation of researcher bias
  • Ensure requirements are met
  • Utilize tools to critically evaluate, brainstorm, and organize your thoughts and writing

When undertaking a project of this magnitude, it is quite helpful, even necessary, to have encouragement, support, and expertise available. Please make use of additional resources on this site including how and when to edit, writing the Literature review, working with a writing coach, and many other topics related to writing and literature in the blog. Let’s talk about what you are struggling with and come up with a plan together to get you back on track.

Stephen Crane:  The Advance Guard of Modernist, Expressionist and Absurdist Movements

According to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, “the term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the twentieth century, but especially after World War I (1914-18)”. This description can certainly be applied to the writing of Stephen Crane in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets even though this novel was written more than twenty years prior to the start of World War I. There is no doubt that the story is based in naturalism due to the day-to-day depictions of human life and the underlying beliefs that humans have no soul and that there is nothing waiting for us beyond our embodied existence. Nevertheless, the use of imagery, the style of writing, the exaggerated representations of characters, and the sense of futility in this novel are indicative of later styles and periods of writing.

A special feature of modernism is avant-garde. In his Glossary, Abrams describes avant-garde as

a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to ‘make it new’. By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected, and sometimes forbidden, subject matter… a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois culture.

Using the stylistic and artistic forms mentioned above, Crane wrote about societal problems during a time when people still preferred escapist novels. Readers in the late 1890’s did not want to read about slum life in the city, a topic better suited to “serious literary study” (Gullason). By doing so anyway, Crane sought to wake people up to the real world – not the world they pretended to live in. In this, he foreshadowed the modernists and in particular, the group known as the avant-garde.

Coinciding with the modernist period was the expressionist movement. Expressionism can further be described as writers and artists departing “from realistic depictions of life and the world, by incorporating in their art visionary or powerfully emotional states of mind that are expressed and transmitted by means of distorted representations of the outer world” (Abrams). In Maggie, Stephen Crane does this through his use of animal symbolism and color. Crane draws analogies between characters and animals, thus exaggerating reality. He likens Maggie to “a small pursued tigress” while she is eating dinner. Jimmie “became immured like an African cow”. According to Wikipedia, “Immurement is a form of execution where a person is walled up within a building and left to die from starvation or dehydration”. Whether this passage is symbolic of his life in the tenements or symbolic of his being stuck in traffic, it is not naturalistic but rather an expressionist exaggeration of reality. The use of animal imagery by Crane is characteristic of expressionism in their provoking of powerful images and feelings and understandings in the reader by the use of distorted depictions of reality.

Additionally, “Expressionist writers of prose narratives … abandoned standard modes of characterization and plot for symbolic figures involved in an obsessive world of nightmarish events” (Abrams). In Maggie this can be seen in each of the main characters, but none more so than Maggie. Maggie is a sort of anti-heroine. She is living a life of social isolation, experiencing physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, enduring the ridicule and outcasting by the other slum tenants when Pete severs ties with her, taking up prostitution in order to survive, and ultimately in killing herself to escape the horrors of life. Her brother Jimmie is depicted as a drunken thug with delusions of grandeur and high moral standing that are in direct opposition to the reality of his existence. The mother is a drunken, abusive parent who is often in trouble with the law. Mary screams wrathfully and laughs mockingly when Maggie tries to return home after Pete is finished with her. Mary condemns and ridicules her daughter and casts her out onto the street. When Maggie commits suicide, Mary mourns as though she had never cast out Maggie. She is sorry but it is too late. Finally Pete, the despoiler of Maggie (and presumably other women), is himself taken advantage of by a prostitute with whom he is enamored, but who despises him. At the end of the story, all the characters degenerate. They all continue their pathetic, hopeless existences, while Maggie, on the other hand, is released from her horrible life. In Maggie there is no salvation for anyone.

This lack of salvation is typical of absurdism. Literature of the absurd is

works in drama and prose fiction which have in common the view that the human condition is essentially absurd, and that this condition can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd… The literature has its roots also in the movements of expressionism and surrealism, as well as in the fiction, written in the 1920’s of Franz Kafka (Abrams).

This movement began “as a rebellion against basic beliefs and values in traditional culture and literature (Abrams). Crane was himself a renegade and that is reflected in his writing. First, he rebelled against his strict religious upbringing and then became a bohemian and began experiencing all the things his parents preached against (Gullason). Furthermore, being a Darwinist informed a lot of Crane’s naturalist writing. However, in writing Maggie Stephen Crane “railed against the nature of things, raging against the universe which Darwin describes but raging against it as one might rage against the daily rising of the sun” (Gibson). The futility of such an action is illustrative of the absurd. Furthermore, in Maggie, Crane represented life as pre-destined. His characters were doomed. They could not change, could not improve. This is illustrated in Jimmie’s thought that Maggie could do better, be better, and at the same time he was not able to forgive her because damning her put him on a higher moral standing (Simoneaux). Furthermore, on several copies of Maggie that Crane gave to friends, he wrote “tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing and shapes lives regardless” (Gibson). This inability to change or succeed in the face of the ‘tremendous environment’ that shapes the lives of the characters is an early version of absurdism and similar to the writings of Kafka.

Abrams describes the evolution of the absurd movement.

After the 1940’s, however, there was a widespread tendency… to view a human being as an isolated existent who is cast into an alien universe; to conceive the human world as possessing no inherent truth, value, or meaning; and to represent  human life – in its fruitless search for purpose and significance, as it moves from  the nothingness when it came toward the nothingness where it must end – as an existence which is both anguished and absurd.

Maggie was very isolated. She had no one to talk to about Pete and no one to give her advice about him. If she had had someone to educate her about men like Pete she might not have ended up on the street, in an ‘alien universe’. If Maggie had not had an absent father and an alcoholic, abusive mother she might have had a different life that had some value and meaning. But she did not. She repeatedly endured pain, horrors, and suffering. There was nothing significant or purposeful about her life. The only thing she had any control over was the manner and time of her death. Rather than continue in anguish and absurdity, Maggie chose to end her life. Her ex-lover, her mother and brother continue to live their ‘anguished and absurd’ existence “as it moves from the nothingness when it came toward the nothingness where it must end” (Abrams).

Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is not simply a naturalist novel. While Crane is considered to be a naturalist, his style of writing seems to break the mold of naturalistic writing and creates something new and interesting.  His liberal lifestyle and modern beliefs gave rise to an unconventional writing style that influenced future writers.