On Spending Time


There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.


Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko

Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.


This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.


Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.


Writing in Tragedy

It’s week three of NaNoWriMo—past halfway—and if you had asked me a week ago what I’d be doing, I’d have said, “Panicking over my word count, of course!” Instead I’ve spent a hours over the past few days scrolling through news releases about Paris, French-flag-coloured profiles on Facebook, #Paris on Twitter.


Today, in the face of unimaginable fear, I find myself staring at a blank page and wondering how I can think about fiction when the nonfiction is devastating.

A little over a week ago, I wrote,

“…writers are the gatekeepers. Writers, poets, artists—we are the dreamers with our fingers on the pulse of the world. We are the criers, the voices of the voiceless, the whispers of encouragement, the warnings in the night.”

How I can think of writing when the world is suffering—and yet how can I not write when the world is suffering? How can words ever do any good if I can only write about trivialities? Am I not turning my back on those who suffer if I can’t turn my writing to their circumstances? We never write only for ourselves. The great strength of writing is that, despite being an intensely personal medium, it is inherently intended for an audience.

Joe Bunting wrote,

“You want to help free people from depression, addiction, shame, self-focus, and hate. . . . You want to inspire someone to see life as it really is, a gift and a joy, something to be grateful for. You write to change the world.”

We write for the people who need to be encouraged or educated, or for those who need to know they matter. We write for the people who feel abandoned, for the ones who feel lost, for the ones who feel every bit as confused as we do—not to say that we have the answers, but to say that we, too, wonder how such atrocities can become commonplace. We, too, wonder how we can fit into a world full of such pain.

In the midst of tragedy, I fond myself in silent shock, frozen, paralysed by horror. But the humanity—that’s what moved me to tears. On Friday, as I scrolled through twitter hashtags, my throat choked up only after I saw the #PorteOuverte hashtag. It’s always the humanity that moves me, in the end, not the horror. The people who, in the midst of suffering, reach out to offer what they can, the ones who comfort others through their own tears, the ones who give from their own loss and console through their own grief.

And I realise that after tragedy, I, too, can offer my humanity. From the emptiness of my own confusion and the hollowness of my own wondering, I, too, have something to give, even if all I can write is a sentence or two, the weak whisper of a promise:

We see you; we hear you. Your pain does not go unnoticed.


3 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo

It’s November–the month of crunchy leaves, cold wind, the first snowflakes, and…rough drafted novels?


Yes, my word-loving friends, National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. All across my social media, the familiar abbreviation is cropping up, usually accompanied by expressions of excitement and terror. Word counts are appearing in people’s Tweets and statuses, and frenzied writers are placing desperate calls to friends for plot help.

NaNo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is essentially a challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

Now, I get that not everyone is interested in a writing-related career. But if you have even the slightest interest in writing, I encourage you to dive into the NaNo challenge with the rest of us, and here’s why.

  1. Support
    I’ve taken part in critique circles, editing groups, and submission calls, and these result in critiques, edits, and rejections (and, of course, sometimes, acceptance–which is always accompanied by critiques and edits). A writer needs thick skin; we pour our hearts into original creations and then bear the pain of seeing all our creations’ flaws pointed out… but not during NaNo! This month is not about perfection or critiques. This month is about kicking out word after word after word, pressing through writers’ block, overcoming lapses in creativity, doing anything it takes to reach that goal. The result of NaNo is not, in anyone’s case, a perfect novel. It’s the worst rough draft you’ve ever written, which is exciting because, in the end, you’ve written it. All of us know that our novels will be utter rubbish when we finish. We know each other’s novels will be utter rubbish. So we celebrate the rough drafts. We celebrate every word we force from our imaginations, through our nerves, out our fingers onto the screen. We celebrate the plot holes and the bad twists and the cliches and the filler words and the improbable endings. We celebrate the process.
  2. Community
    Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and many writers are by nature solitary people. NaNo gives us a chance to join together in our solitude. I sit on my couch alone with my cup of coffee and my word count of, most likely, a thousand words fewer than I need for the day, but I’m not really alone. I’m in the company of hundreds of thousands of writers around the world. Each of us has a different reason for doing this. Stubbornness, maybe, or love of a challenge. Desire to prove wrong everyone who said we couldn’t, or desperation to finish something big. Certainty that our words matter. No matter our reasons, our goal is the same, and in that shared goal, we find a community that surprises me every year with its strength, warmth, and openness. My first year, I met a fantastic writer from South Africa. My second, I discovered another girl on my floor was also a writer. I could keep going and going; every year, I find some new aspect of this huge, nebulous community of creative souls. We’re always changing, always growing, always welcoming.
  3. Success
    Here’s the thing that put me off NaNo for a couple consecutive years: we talk about winning. People who hit their 50k words call themselves NaNo winners, which is way cool if you hit your 50k. But what if you freeze up? What if you scramble those last few hours and at 11:59pm on the last day of November, you’re staring at 45k, or 35k, or 25k? What if you aren’t a winner? The idea of “winning” NaNo is a fundamental misunderstanding of the point. The point is to throw yourself into something and work at it even when it’s hard. The point is to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when writer’s block is taunting you. The point is to end November having created something out of nothing. There is nothing magic about the number 50,000, but there is something magic about the grit and determination it takes to shut off distractions and ignore the mocking voices in your head long enough to write. The NaNo website says, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” It’s not for “anyone who can write 50,000 words in a month” or “anyone who won’t fall short of the challenge”–it’s for anyone with the guts to sit down and write when it seems impossible. And if you end short of the deadline, you didn’t lose. If you end with any words more than you would’ve written otherwise, you succeed.

Maybe you’re glancing at this post out of the corner of your eye while you type and you’ve already hit a few thousand words. Maybe you’re curled up and your fingers are trembling at the idea of starting a monumental project. But no matter what position you’re in, if you have a plot in your head, if you have a character rattling the bars of your imagination, if you have anything inside you that perks up at the idea of writing… write! This month is for you.


Chronicle of…what now?

“Blog about what you know best,” said the expert at the writing conference.

And I thought, “Fear. I know fear. I feel it daily. It drives everyone I know. And maybe, just maybe, writing a blog about it will force me to face my fears and grow as a person. What a great opportunity!”

And thus was born my blog.

The concept was simple: blog once a week about a fear I faced. Learn from it.


The practice was…well, less simple.

It turns out fears aren’t as exciting as they sound. They’re not scaly, fire-breathing monsters to be slain and sung of in ballads. They’re mundane things. I’m afraid of apologising. Of meeting people. Of packing and resting and getting out of bed for class. (And of bees. I haven’t faced that fear yet.)

And the more I write, the more I realise something: I don’t want to write about fear. Looking back through my blog posts the other day while trying (in vain, so far) to get organised, I saw that my posts began as a commentary on my fears and gradually grew into the story of my search for beauty. Here’s the thing—fear is everywhere. Everyone is frightened of something, and dwelling on my fear hasn’t helped me deal with it. Maybe I’ve learnt to identify it, to recognise its legitimacy, to admit to it, but I haven’t learnt to live past it. But when I stop looking at what frightens me and focus instead on something that excites, engages, enlightens–then I can move beyond the panic under my ribs and the shaking in my hands.

Overcoming terror isn’t about identifying it; it’s about finding something more meaningful and focusing on that.

The rain glistening on skyscrapers in a crowded city.

The impossible red coating the underbelly of a maple leaf on a Monday morning.

The scent of coffee drifting through the office during a meeting.

Sunlight throwing tiny rainbows through the window after an exam.

Because beauty trumps fear every time.


So this week, here’s my fear: I’m afraid of change and I’m afraid to commit. And this week, I’m committing to change.

I’m changing my focus.

It’s time to stop studying what scares me and start searching for what excites me. And will I still talk about fear? Most definitely—as a foil for the small, bright beauties I find everywhere. The breathtaking moments, the subtle pleasures, the unexpected smiles.

Because the world doesn’t need more fear. It needs more beauty.

Writing and Swimming

Although I remember the agony of learning, I can’t remember not knowing how—can’t remember a time I couldn’t dolphin-kick through clear water, can’t remember a time I couldn’t string words into stories.

You throw yourself in, hope the water isn’t too cold, and if it is, you kick like crazy to try to keep your blood pumping to your fingers and toes. Sometimes it closes over your head, and you open your eyes, and you see the whole world distorted and wavery, and you realise that there are a hundred million different worlds, if you could only see through someone else’s eyes.

Years of practice turn clumsy doggy-paddle thrashes into smooth strokes, turn the adverbs that splash like cannonballs into verbs that balance with the grace and poise of an Olympic diver. You do it until you slip into it like you slip into your bed—without thinking, without hesitating, until someone could throw you in without warning and you would rise to the surface because your instincts know the motions.

You’re untethered, pulling through deep water with only your lungs and your muscles and the strange glide of your body suspended between earth and sky—pulling through strange worlds with only your ideas and your vocabulary and the timeless stretch of your mind between thought and keystroke.

On some days, you cut through the water with the simple ease of a sea creature, barely aware of where your fingers end and the water begins, cut through the thoughts until you can’t feel the place where your ideas merge with words on the page. And on some days, you tread water, and it is enough that you keep your head up.

Sometimes the waves batter you, and the water claws its way up your nose and down your throat, and you can’t kick hard enough to keep your feet above the sucking depths; the words stick and crumble, and your thoughts drown beneath a clear surface your best efforts can’t reach.

Writing and swimming.

You do it, and it keeps you alive. If you stopped, your lungs would fill and your heart would stop. But you do it, not because it makes breathing possible, but because breathing is made beautiful by the burn in your lungs when you kick up from the depths and break the surface like an epiphany.


Waves 2

Of Picture Books and Potential

It keeps me awake at night, haunts me in the daylight, paralyses me with terror…

Can you guess what it is?

The bogeyman? No.

Giant, flesh-eating wasps? Horrifying, but not scary enough.

The bogeyman riding a giant, flesh-eating wasp? Eh…no.

I know you can’t imagine anything worse, so I’ll tell you:

Children’s books.

Let me explain why.


You ever try keeping a five-year-old entertained? You use toys, make weird noises, and possibly stand on your head, and if you’re lucky, they stay happy. Imagine trying to do that all through words on a page. You have to say something meaningful in phrases a five-year-old can understand, and you have to make it interesting enough to keep the mini Energizer Bunny entertained.

Word length.

These things have to be short. You have to fit all that meaningful, interesting content into, like, five words. Okay, maybe like five-hundred, but still, pretty darn short. Which is hard—I was raised on Tolkien and Dickens. ’Nough said.


In the two weeks since my interest in children’s books burst into being, about a million people have told me it’s a hard market. …okay, about four, but they were all knowledgeable people whose expertise I trust. “Agents hate taking on children’s books,” my professor assured me.

I wrote a children’s book anyway.

I poured my soul into it—entirely unintentionally. One day, I read an email from my mother, and I thought, “I should write a children’s book about this.” And then …I did. With no idea how to write one, with no idea how long it should be, with no idea who might publish children’s books or what process to follow to get it in front of someone who might care about it. In fact, I started it without even asking my mother if it was an invasion of family privacy to turn my grandmother’s dementia into a children’s book.

I have no tidy bow to wrap around today’s post. I’m sure you’re all expecting, “And guess what, guys? I sent it out, and they loved it, and I got a contract, and it’s coming out next year!” But actually, I haven’t sent it out yet. I’ve gotten some feedback—some really positive feedback—from some family, some friends, and one widely-published children’s author. But I haven’t sent it out—in fact, I haven’t even finished researching who I could send it to. And the truth is, it might never be published. It might live for eternity (till my computer crashes, anyway) as an unpublished file in a whole folder of unpublished files, just the phantom of unrealised potential.

But here’s the thing: that’s okay.

Yes, it really is.

To spend hours on the words, to pour my heart and soul into a story, to lovingly craft sentences and phrases…and then to see that work live forever in the shadows…that’s meaningful. Because my desire to publish is an outgrowth of my desire to write. I write to process, to understand myself better, and I desire to publish because I believe that individual issues relate to broader human experience. Because my heart and soul might mirror someone else’s, and if writing helps me reach conclusions and gain insight into myself, perhaps reading my conclusions might help someone else gain insights, too.

But if that never happens, nothing is wasted. Because, like I said, I have to stop discriminating against readers. And if I’m my only reader, but I gain something from my own writing, the process is entirely as valuable as if my book becomes a bestseller that touches thousands of lives.

Because the power of words is not quantifiable. Because there’s something beautiful and mysterious in the way that arbitrarily assigned sounds and letters can touch our souls and teach our spirits.

And that why I write. Not for bylines. Not for fame. Not for money.

For the mystery.


Musing on Meaning

I stare at my hands. Uncomfortable silence is not improved by the comfort of solidarity–none of us has an answer.

 “This is an important question,” my professor urges.

The first answer is too loud against the heavy quiet: “I feel called to include ethnic diversity in my writing.”

Like the first drop of spring rain, one brave answer starts a flood. Hands shoot up. Everyone feels called to write something: encouragement to the weary or a voice for the marginalised, clean humour or food for thought.


I don’t feel called. Neither do they, the cynic inside me snickers. We’re writers–fiction is what we do. But not in this. About writing we must be absolutely honest: writing is the solid thing in our grey worlds of shifting realities.

“Because I like it.” My fallback answer for people who made that face (you know the one: eyebrows cocked and mouth pursed as they think, “You want to do self-assigned homework for a living?”) and asked me why I wanted to write. It seems inadequate now. Other people write because they feel called. I write because if I don’t turn fiction from smoke and shadows to solid print, it clouds my thinking and colours reality. I write because if I don’t narrate someone else’s life on paper, I catch myself narrating my own life aloud. I write because my mind, like a neglected attic, is unnavigable, cluttered with boxes of stories and trunks of ideas and unravelling characters shoved like so many unwanted sweaters into paper bags.


Because loving to read at an early age shouldn’t mean learning to skim around adult content, learning to see the signs of it and flip the page because you’ve already finished your library’s collection of clean books. Because opening magical worlds is just as important as planting deep thoughts and asking hard questions–because people need escape as much as they need engagement.

So I inch my hand up, and I lay my humble ambitions among the lofty callings of my classmates:

“I want to write good novels–not about God or anything, just engaging stories that follow my values and entertain people.”

That has to be enough. I tried for two years to feel called to a more glorious message, and still, deep inside me, with every spark of my imagination, I just want to write good fiction.

In the held breath behind my words, my professor nods. But the tension in my gut stays. No matter the approval in her eyes–somehow this answer is still not enough for me.

I put the important, unanswerable question out of my mind and turn my energy to passing my classes. I pay my dues: I write devotionals, radio scripts, news pieces. With my leftover energy, I pour my imagination into fiction.

And then another question rises, a dark tollbooth on the road of life, and I must pay an answer to continue my journey: “What unites your writing?

My writing is diverse. Lush fantasies bump up against factual articles. Blog posts settle among drifted short stories. How can I unite them? Again, I sit in humble silence, listening to others’ answers, mortified that, again, I have no calling. I review my writings: misplaced faerie-tale heroes questing for “happily ever after;” secret agents fighting to reconcile past and present as they hunt killers; memoirs of my childhood struggle for identity; Bible verses explained with children’s activities and fun-facts. And a light in my mind illuminates a single thread, glimmering like spiderweb at sunrise.


And again, slowly, I raise my hand.

“I want to emphasise the worth of individuals.”

That’s it. One single, tiny idea. A seed of a reason to write. It isn’t grand. It doesn’t seem high or holy. But it’s genuine.

So what about you? What is your reason–the real, true seed of a reason deep inside you, the one that seems insignificant and small, the genuine desire that feels too humble to share? Because I promise you, whatever it is, it is not insignificant. You are not insignificant.