6 Purchases — Big and Small — That Have Boosted My Productivity as a Writer

A lot of the suggestions given here on the Writing Advice blog are rather conceptual in nature: I recommend strategies, ideas, and practices to up your writing game.

But there are plenty of items — many tactile and physical — which are just as crucial to maintaining a writing career. So, here are six purchases that have helped me stay productive as a writer.

Disclaimer: This is not — in any way — a sponsored post. The recommendations given below are based on my genuine thoughts about the products, and I make no commission or affiliate income if you click the links provided here. 

1. Cute Notebooks

Perhaps the most essential purchase for a writer is a plain old notebook. Having readily-available stationery is a must for any author. 

Of course, you can buy whatever type of notebook you like — whether it be from a pricey bookstore or your local dollar store. 

For me, I find that I work best with cute-looking, distinct notebooks. This is because — in the past — I’ve purchased random, plain-looking, cheap notebooks, and always lost track of them. Since they all looked the same and none of them really caught my eye, I had a hard time staying organized. 

The solution? To spend a little extra on nice notebooks with designs that I love. That way, I feel motivated to grab them and always keep some handy at my desk.

My personal favourite is the Ssuiem & Cclim Compact Notebook, which is from a Korean stationery brand that I found at a local paper shop, Hanji Gifts (more on them later).

The notebook comes in a variety of adorable designs — so I always make sure to have a few on hand: one to consolidate all of my current rough work, and a back-up or two for when the first copy runs out. I like to rotate different designs just to keep things interesting.

But again, you may have different taste; perhaps you prefer leather-bound notebooks. Find a company, store, or style that you enjoy, and stick to a standard one for the sake of simplicity.

2. Easy-to-Use Pens

What is your favourite brand of pens? It may seem like an inconsequential detail to most people, but I think most writers would agree that having an easy-to-use pen makes a huge difference in terms of productivity.

Again, this is all up to personal taste, but my personal choice is the PaperMate InkJoy brand. I find them to be a pleasure to write with, and I use them for most of my freelance writing, personal journaling, or just for making to-do lists.

I often find them at my local dollar store (Dollarama here in Canada), with a box of 12 pens running no more than $2-3. I find that they strike a nice balance between affordability and quality.

So, find a brand that you enjoy using, and make a point of keeping your desk stocked with them for whenever inspiration strikes.

3. Music Subscription Service

This is by no means a required purchase, but I’ve found that having a Spotify Premium subscription (which I split with family members to keep the cost low) is extremely useful. 

Paying the $4.99 a month for ad-free listening is worth it to me — both personally and professionally. For a long time, I opted for YouTube as my source of playlists to use while working on my laptop. If you’re on a budget, it’s a solid option — but the increasing number of ads on each video is kind of excessive at this point. 

Shelling out for an ad-free service makes it easier to stay in my workflow without going back and forth between tabs to skip through ads. I like to listen to instrumental playlists to keep me focused and in the zone. 

Other people might also prefer using a white noise machine, which can play ocean sounds or rain tracks to relax you in the background. That might be a worthwhile purchase if it suits your needs (I have one to keep running in my room at night, as well). Since it’s a one-time cost, it might make more financial sense, too.

Depending on your budget, find some type of music or background noises to help you stay focused on your writing work. 

4. Quality Laptop

Again, this isn’t a must-have, but I’m a big fan of my MacBook Air. I purchased mine seven (!) years ago after saving up money from my part-time job for years and years. It was an investment I made right before starting university (since my dying, old laptop just wasn’t cutting it anymore).

Of course, everyone is working with a different budget. Some people have the funds to invest in a high-quality laptop, while others might resort to using computers at their local library. 

Wherever you are financially, try to strike a balance between a computer that is within your budget but will still serve you well over time. Even though I paid over $1000 for that 2013 laptop, it has served me well throughout university and beyond without a single problem. 

The only thing I’ve ever had to replace is my charging cable, and in the next year or so, I’ll probably shell out for a replacement battery. But when you break that purchase down into its cost-per-use, it’s actually pretty low at this point. 

Having a reliable and fast computer has certainly helped me stay productive as a writer. Try to find an option that works for you.

5. Simple Pen Holder

This item certainly costs less than a laptop! For me, another invaluable purchase has been a simple pen holder that I bought at my local dollar store (again, Dollarama for us Canadians). 

It’s pink, it’s cute, and it helps me stay organized. I keep it beside me at all times while working at my desk, and I can easily access pens, highlighters, pencils, and scissors as needed. This may seem silly and insignificant, but it has genuinely helped me stay on top of my work without having to interrupt my flow to search for a pen.

6. Zine Paper

Lastly, another worthwhile investment has been in high-quality paper to print my zines on. A couple of years ago, in between writing my two poetry collections, I wanted to take a less-structured approach to creating and publishing new work.


So, I opted to make single-page zines on which I’d copied and pasted miscellaneous new poems. I made them using my at-home printer/photocopier, and whenever I table at zine/book fairs, I still sell them in addition to my poetry books.

I found it useful to pay for high-quality, handmade paper which I also found at Hanji Gifts here in Toronto. You can always check out your local paper shop or office supply store for different options.

If you choose to go the self-publishing route, quality paper is a worthwhile investment to make your work look professional and catch the eye of a potential customer.

Conclusion


And there you have it: six essential purchases that help me stay productive as an author. 

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice blog, and be sure to subscribe to receive notifications for each new article. 

Let me know in the comments: What is one purchase — big or small — that you’ve found essential as a writer?

Happy writing!

4 Alternative Ways to Up Your Writing Game

When it comes to improving as a writer, there are some fairly obvious methods to try. For example, reading a diverse range of books, taking courses/workshops from experts in the field, and maintaining a regular writing practice are all excellent ways to develop your craft.

If you’re serious about becoming a successful author, those are great tips to keep in mind. It’s true that more-obvious forms of learning — through reading material, coursework, and dedicated work-time — are valuable. But you don’t need to stop there.

Instead, recognize that many alternative, seemingly-unrelated activities can seriously up your writing game. Here are four such examples:

1. Listen to intellectually-stimulating podcasts (they need not be about writing).

Yes, it’s useful to listen to writing-related podcasts. Ashley Gainer’s Copy Chatter is a perfect example. Such resources can provide insider knowledge and advice. But you can go far beyond them, too.

Any intellectually-stimulating podcast will do — just one that you find genuinely interesting, regardless of the genre. The Daily by the New York Times is one of my personal favourites.

The topics of discussion on The Daily vary wildly from day-to-day, but they’re always interesting and challenging. Host Michael Barbaro often covers recent political news in the United States (but also globally), and also bounces around from subjects like the dangers of e-cigarettes to the failing business model of Uber.

You never really know what you’re going to get, but it’s always an in-depth investigation full of balanced reporting. As someone who often instinctually leans pretty far to the left on political matters, the reporting of the New York Times often challenges me to reconsider my opinions and appreciate alternative viewpoints (like more moderate or conservative beliefs) before automatically discounting them.

The Daily is great because new episodes are often released each weekday (as the name implies), so you’ve got a steady flow of new content to consume. But feel free to find a mix of different podcasts you like, and just take the time to enjoy them.

Listening to intellectually-engaging podcasts won’t magically turn you into a creative genius. You probably won’t spring from your seat at the end of an episode, suddenly inspired to create new work, and write your greatest masterpiece.

But, over time, regularly indulging in content that interests you (such as podcasts) will help you become a better thinker. Challenging podcasts will present you with new ideas, viewpoints, and experts to consider. At times, you’ll dive deep into seemingly-obscure topics. You’ll laugh; you’ll have fun; you’ll get your mind turning.

And none of it has to feel labourious. When you consume content tailored to your interests, it will feel effortless. All of that new information will inform your thinking process, your opinions, and even your writing style

Becoming an effective writer means consuming information, processing your perspective on it, and formulating your ideas into words. Any type of intellectual activity — like listening to an engaging podcast — will improve your work.

2. Watch interesting films.


Similarly, watching interesting films can aid your writing process. Especially if you’re a fiction writer (or screenwriter, more obviously), movies can help teach the concept of world-building. You’ll get wrapped up in entirely-fictional storylines, each with unique characters, settings, and dialogue.

Take a second to think: What was the most interesting movie you’ve ever seen? Why was it so interesting? What did the writer, director, or filmmaker do creatively to build such an engaging storyline? Or, if it was a documentary, what kind of creative liberties were taken in presenting the facts?

You don’t need to pick movies about famous authors, or those based on classic works of literature, for this to be effective. Pretty much any film that you find interesting and engaging will serve the same purpose.

As with #1 (listening to podcasts), all you need to do is consume content that you enjoy, and that challenges you. Over time, such exposure to new viewpoints will naturally inform your creative process.

3. Spend time with your loved ones.

Many people believe that, to become a great writer, you need to lock yourself away in a secluded room and spend hours upon hours labouring at your keyboard. But that’s simply not true. Even though some legendary authors — think Emily Dickinson — were solitary individuals, that’s not necessarily what you should aim for.

To produce great work, you need to first be in a mental state where you feel motivated to do so. And we, as humans, aren’t meant to focus all of our time on working or writing. Our well-being is holistic in nature; if we don’t feel socially-connected to other people, we probably won’t feel great about ourselves. In turn, we might not be at our best, creatively.

Spending time with the people you love — even if just through a FaceTime call or socially-distanced walk — will inevitably lift your spirits. It can help you unwind and just have fun.

And if you feel fulfilled, happy, and loved, you’re probably going to have higher motivation levels. We need downtime to recharge and rest — that way, we can feel energized enough to show up at our keyboards and put in the work, when the time comes.

4. Meditate — even if only for 30 seconds.

In an article for Author Unlimited, Albert Flynn DeSilver summarizes:

“A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Research discovered that mindfulness meditation actually altered the section of the brain responsible for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

So, when it comes to any kind of creative work, meditation is essentially a cheat code. It’s an effective way to centre the mind, calm the body, and find some stillness in this chaotic world

Whether you’re trying to reduce your stress levels or increase your creative output, meditation is a valuable tool. I was first truly introduced to a formal meditation practice by taking an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course several years ago. My initial goal was to improve my mental health, but the benefits stretched into every facet of my life.

When I started truly understanding how to meditate, how to become more mindful, and how to step back from my thoughts in an objective way, my whole worldview radically changed.

Things that I used to see as inherently “bad” or “unfair” suddenly shifted: They just were. Even if I resisted them, even if I thought that I didn’t deserve them, even if I hated that I was going through them, I was able to step back and observe that they were happening. Plain and simple.

These things were happening, whether I perceived them as “good” or “bad,” and fighting against reality wasn’t helping anything — in fact, it was making things worse. Gaining that sense of perspective was huge.

Similarly to spending time with loved ones, taking time from your day to meditate can seriously help you relax. And if not relax, at least carve time out of your busy schedule to take care of yourself — to invest in self-care, and to invest in your well-being.

Becoming a more well-rounded, adjusted individual will invariably help you grow and learn as an author. When you develop new ways of perceiving the world around you, you’ll have new ideas, thoughts, and concepts to share — perhaps in a new piece of writing.

Some of my favourite resources for meditation/mindfulness include:

  • The InsightTimer app (with a comprehensive free version), which lets you find and listen to free, guided meditations
  • Palouse Mindfulness, an invaluable resource, which allows you to take an entire 8-week MBSR course online, at no cost
  • Buddhify, which is a paid app with extremely high-quality meditation tracks (it costs a one-time fee for lifetime access)

Try including even the briefest of meditations into your daily routine, and watch what happens — to your mind, your wellbeing, and your writing.

Conclusion


There you have it: four indirect ways to up your writing game. 

Thanks, as always, for reading the Writing Advice blog, and be sure to subscribe so that you’re notified of each new article.

Pride Month is also coming to an end, so check out this article I have pinned to the top of the blog, which includes info and a call for donations to The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention. It will be highlighted here for the rest of June, but I encourage you to support such causes all year round, if possible. 

Happy writing!

Pride Month Reading List: 5 Contemporary Books by Queer Authors to Check Out (Like, Yesterday)

Pride Month is already winding down, and this year, it’s looking quite a bit different than usual. While mass gatherings, marches, and celebrations are largely cancelled amidst COVID-19, there are many other ways to celebrate the LGBT+ community.

And one alternative way is to support the work of LGBT+ authors. Purchasing, reading, and sharing books by queer writers is something you can do from the comfort of your home — which still goes a long way in uplifting oft-marginalized voices.

Here are five of my favourite books by LGBT+ authors from the past few years. They vary in subject matter, but all include some form of a personal narrative:

1. Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope by Karamo Brown

Known best for his role as the culture expert of Netflix’s hit Queer Eye, Karamo Brown gives an intensely personal and uplifting account of his life in this memoir. Never one to shy away from deep and complicated conversations, Brown gives an intimate look at his own struggles and triumphs.

You may be used to watching Brown facilitate the emotional transformations of Queer Eye’s heroes, but his own life story is perhaps the most interesting of all. This book covers so many intersecting issues, like growing up in an abusive household, navigating substance abuse/mental health issues, and growing up as a gay, black man in America. 

Brown tackles each subject with care, ultimately leaving the reader feeling challenged and inspired. As a trained social worker, he is a master at using difficult experiences to facilitate personal growth, and after reading his memoir, you’ll understand the why behind his signature process. Keep your tissues handy, but rest assured that you’ll leave feeling the warmth and hope Brown is known for providing.

2. Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg

New York Times bestseller, this autobiography by Democratic nominee hopeful Pete Buttigieg is reflective and beautiful. Full disclosure — I’m currently part-way through reading this title, but I’m already deeply engaged in his story.

With perhaps the most unique resume imaginable, Buttigieg has won over the hearts of many this past year in the spotlight. The first openly-gay person to run a major presidential campaign, his life story has been broadcast frequently as of late. 

Buttigieg is Harvard-educated, Oxford-educated, a former recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, an Afghanistan War veteran, and a former small-town mayor of South Bend, Indiana. (And just a few sentences into this book, you’ll notice that his writing style is indicative of an Ivy League literature major.)

If you’ve ever been curious about the backstory of this LGBT+ trailblazer, definitely check out his autobiography.

3. Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together by Gaby Dunn

In this personal finance title, self-proclaimed bi-con (“bisexual icon”) Gaby Dunn continues the conversation started in her popular podcast, Bad with Money. Recognized by many for her early work at Buzzfeed, Dunn’s accomplishments span genres.

Since leaving Buzzfeed to start Just Between Us (a YouTube-channel-turned-podcast) with comedy partner Allison Raskin, Dunn has also co-authored a New York Times bestselling YA novel and recently put out her first comic book.

Bad with Money (the book) takes Dunn’s own money journey and blends it with her classic wit, focus on intersectional activism, and all the info she’s learned since starting her hit podcast of the same name.

Funny, cheeky, and blunt, the book is an excellent look at the personal finance space from the lens of an author deeply concerned with intersecting forms of oppression such systemic racism, LGBT+ marginalization, and sexism. 

Always one to centre social activism in her work, this book by Dunn is a must-read for anyone interested in improving their financial situation or learning more about her unique story of improving her own. 

4. Naturally Tan by Tan France

This Sunday Times bestselling autobiography is written by another Queer Eye expert: Tan France. Known for his impeccable fashion sense and no-BS attitude, France is another extremely interesting LGBT+ figure.

His Wikipedia bio notes how France became “one of the very first openly gay South Asian men on a major show, and one of the first out gay Muslim men on western television.” Another LGBT+ trailblazer, France’s autobiography is a witty, fun, and frank account of his fascinating life.

France covers everything from growing up as one of the only people of colour in his British neighbourhood to coming out as gay to his family. Though he describes how difficult it was facing intersecting challenges like racism and homophobia, his story is ultimately one of triumph. 

A massively-successful fashion designer now married to the love of his life (an American cowboy), France weaves the tale of how he became the man he is today. Interspersed with his trademark fashion advice, this memoir is another must-read (which extends far beyond the importance of a French tuck).

5. I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff by Abbi Jacobson

Lastly, this collection of personal essays is by Broad City co-creator Abbi Jacobson. Already a New York Times bestselling author before writing this title, her tender account of a solo cross-country adventure is essential reading for any newly-out queer person.

Although you likely know this multi-faceted artist best for her stoner comedy style and cheeky drawings, I Might Regret This is an excellent account of what it’s like to face your first big heartbreak. The book follows Jacobson as she grapples with falling in (and out) of love for the first time ever — with a woman.

Whether you’re a diehard Broad City fan or just an individual questioning your sexuality, this title is another arresting personal story to consider reading.

Conclusion


And there you have it: my list of five great books to check out this Pride Month. Thank you, as always, for reading the Writing Advice blog, and be sure to subscribe to be notified of each new article.

Happy reading!

When Hobbies Become Everything: Finding Comfort During a Pandemic

If there’s one illusion the current pandemic has shattered, it’s the idea that work is everything. In our fast-paced, capitalist society, one’s worth as a human being has often been equated with our profession. 

But now that the entire world has essentially shut down, we’ve been confronted with more complicated questions, like: Who am I when I’m not at work? 

Countless people have lost their jobs or been indefinitely laid off. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing. Suddenly, work is no longer a given part of everyone’s lives and identities.

So, where do we go from here? A good place to start is by cultivating hobbies. And creative writing is one of my favourites.

Finding a new sense of value

In the context of a career-driven, capitalist, and consumerist society, hobbies haven’t always been valued. 

Many have wondered: Why “waste” your time on activities that won’t explicitly further your professional ambitions? Why spend hours working on a skill that won’t necessarily make you much (if any) money?

And look — I get it. Money is important. It drives so much of our day-to-day lives. Without adequate funds, you can’t put a roof over your head, feed yourself (and your family), or even afford the time to pick up a leisure activity.

But if your basic needs are being met, there is so much value in picking up a hobby. Because we, as human beings, are not meant to be money-making machines. We’re complex, multi-faceted individuals, each with our own talents, interests, and passions.

Not every interaction needs to be an opportunity to “network.” We can (and should) spend some of our time doing things just because we enjoy them — not in an effort to beef up our LinkedIn profiles.

The psychological benefits of hobbies

And hobbies aren’t just for fun — they can have concrete and seriously meaningful benefits. For example, psychologist Joyce E.A. Russel writes for the Washington Post: “Research has shown that people who have hobbies are generally healthier, and have a lower risk of depression and dementia.”

As someone who’s dealt with mental health issues for basically my whole life, I can attest to the fact that hobbies can help provide meaning and structure.

Engaging in your favourite leisure activity is most certainly an act of self-care — which is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days. As many of us are now adapting to slower, less hurried lives, hobbies are easy shortcuts to accessing moments of joy, relief, and comfort.

Why pick up creative writing?

So, now that we’ve talked about the basics of why hobbies are important, let’s look at an example of what you can pick up. Obviously, as this is a blog about writing, I’m a bit biased. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, writing poetry has personally been a source of life-long comfort.

And the thing about poetry is that there really isn’t much money in it. Unless you happen to blow up and become an international best-seller (à la Rupi Kaur), you should never become a poet with the intention of making a living off it. 

Even the most talented and well-respected poets of our time typically still have “real jobs” as professors, teachers, or publishing professionals to pay their bills. And yet, they still write creatively, knowing that their reward for doing so will likely not be monetary.

The act of writing allows one to process their thoughts and emotions into tangible words. It gives the writer time to pause, reflect, and craft something meaningful out of the mess of existence.

In 2020, amidst a global pandemic (and collective suffering/outrage over racial injustice), we could all use a few moments of reflection. Taking just a few minutes per day to write can have lasting benefits.

The timing has never been better

So, if you’re a writer — even just as a hobbyist — give yourself permission to get creative. Many of us now have plenty of free time on our hands, and writing is one way to keep yourself engaged.

Is there a novel you’ve been meaning to write? A great idea you’ve had on the backburner? Curious about writing a poem or two? Or just interested in starting to journal?

Now is a great time to start. And not for the purpose of “getting things done” or staying “productive” — just because you want to!

Truly: if not now, when?

Wrapping up

If you need inspiration for getting started, check out these past posts from the Writing Advice blog:

No matter what your hobby — whether you’re a painter or a home cook — remember to carve out time for doing the things you enjoy. Just because we’re all collectively going through a difficult time doesn’t mean that you should let your fear or sadness consume you.

Taking time to do things you truly enjoy — regardless of their money-making potential — can help offset the widespread stress of living through a pandemic. Remember to be gentle with yourself and afford yourself the time to unwind.

As always, thanks for reading the blog. Be sure to subscribe so that you can receive new, weekly articles straight to your inbox. 

Happy writing!

Statement on Pride 2020 and the BLM Movement

Introduction

First of all, Happy Pride Month to each and every reader of the Writing Advice blog. As always, I want to thank you for supporting this site by subscribing and reading my regular articles. In lieu of a new blog post this week, I’d just like to give a quick note to all readers.

Seeing as I’m someone who doesn’t really use social media these days, this website is one of my only forms of digital presence.

It felt wrong to not use whatever platform I have — no matter how small — to state, unequivocally, that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the widespread, systemic racism that plagues countless Western nations (including Canada), and especially as of late, the United States. I recognize that this recent surge of activism simply serves to highlight an already long-standing issue which includes instances of racial profiling and police brutality.

Call for Donations

I usually have a sidebar on the Writing Advice blog asking readers to consider making a one-time, $5 donation to help fund the site. But, if you feel so inclined to support the blog, please consider making a small donation to The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention instead. It’s a great local charity I’m supporting this Pride month, which works to fight against intersecting issues such as HIV-related stigma, homophobia, and anti-Black racism.

As a queer person, I recognize that the rights I’m afforded in 2020 have only been made possible by those who came before me — many of whom were black (and trans) activists. The black community deserves our support during this time in history.

Conclusion

Again, thanks for your continued support of the Writing Advice site. Regular blog posts will resume next week, and this call for donations will remain pinned at the top of the site for all of June.

Writing as a Form of Mental Health Advocacy

Content notice: This post discusses mental illness, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel safe enough to do so. 


As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I want to talk about the use of creative writing to eliminate stigma around mental illness. 

Throughout my entire body of work, perhaps the most common theme of all is mental illness — and in particular, my experience with it. 

Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of how this happened, and why. And, hopefully, it will encourage you to write about other vulnerable or “taboo” subjects in your own work.

Part One: Denial

I’m going to be completely honest with you: for the majority of my life, I never spoke about my mental illness. In fact, I was in complete denial that I was even experiencing it. I was ashamed of that part of myself and wanted to hide it from everyone possible.

I resisted treatment, even though everyone in my life was urging me to get help. By the time I finally accepted treatment, I was 17 and actively suicidal on a daily basis. That night, I called a crisis line, was brought to the hospital by ambulance, and was admitted on a mental health unit for what would be the first of many times.

My life didn’t magically get better when I started treatment, but it was a pivotal moment in terms of accepting the reality: that I was dealing with severe mental health issues, and I couldn’t handle them on my own.

Part Two: Seeing Others Speak Out

Around that same time, I came upon a TED Talk by Kevin Breel called Confessions of a depressed comic. I’d recommend watching it, but in summary, it’s a brief account of the speaker’s own experience with depression.

Seeing that young man speak so openly about his experience with mental illness was baffling to me. It was a lightbulb moment; I realized, Hey — this thing I’m dealing with, that feels so heavy and so burdensome — can actually be a force for good

I realized that, even though my mental illness was debilitating and suffocating, I could help break down the stigma in society just by being open about my experience. 

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually — as I cycled through countless medications, psychiatrist evaluations, hospitalizations, and therapy sessions — I accepted the fact that I was mentally ill. 

And I eventually realized that blending my lived experience with my professional writing career could be my way to build awareness. 

Part Three: Merging the Two Worlds

As I’ve mentioned on the blog, for me, writing has literally always been an act of survival. For as long as I can remember, creative writing has been my main source of comfort — long before I came to terms with my mental illness.

So, it was a natural progression that the poetry I shared started focusing on my mental health issues — it was a topic I had a lot of emotions about, and that I felt the need to process through the act of writing.

I should also mention that two of my favourite poets of all time — Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski — also centred their bodies of work almost entirely around their experiences of depression. 

As I read more and more of their work, I saw a model for what my career could look like: that I could be open and honest about my mental illness, but also actively re-shape and re-claim my own narrative into a cohesive, creative vision.

By the time I was 21, my first chapbook of poetry came out. The collection — called tulips — was entirely based around my experience with depression (and in particular, what it’s like to be hospitalized on a mental health unit). 

While hospitalization was, at times, very necessary in the course of my recovery, it was also a traumatic experience. Being locked in a unit — often very unclean, crowded, and full of individuals screaming and pounding on walls — is not the most comforting thing in the world. Being essentially stripped of your legal rights (at least for 72 hours) after being deemed unsafe to yourself is demoralizing. So, that was what I wrote about most in tulips.

Part Four: Connecting With Others

Since I’ve made this theme the focus of my work, I’ve been able to connect with so many people. Perhaps the most rewarding thing in the entire world is to perform somewhere and, after the reading, have people come up to me and talk about their own experience with mental illness.

It’s been a tremendously healing thing — to have honest conversations with other people about their struggles. Because, so much of the time, I feel awkward or uncomfortable even bringing up the subject of mental health (i.e. when starting a new job). 

Our society is inundated with pervasive beliefs about mental illness — that it’s an embarrassing, shameful thing, that it’s “not real,” or that people experiencing it should “just get over it.”

Yet, through poetry, I’ve been able to start conversations with others, and to hopefully normalize the concept of talking about mental health. It’s not a perfect solution; I still feel shame about my mental illness on a daily basis, and I still encounter stigma constantly. But it’s a start.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article inspires others to talk about mental health, to write about mental health, and to actively work to combat stigma. 

So, this May, remember that art can act as a bridge between painful experiences and creative expression. Whatever you feel shameful about —  whatever makes you want to hide — try writing about it. See what happens when you open up (even if you’re the only one reading your work.)


Thank you, as always, for reading the Writing Advice series. Be sure to follow the blog to be notified of each new article. And happy Mental Health Awareness month.


Please note: If you’re dealing with mental health issues (and especially if you’re feeling suicidal), there are resources available. Across Canada, there are many free crisis lines you can call. Or, if you’re in another country, try consulting this list.

4 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month From the Comfort of Your Own Home

We’re reaching the end of National Poetry Month, and although it’s not safe to attend live readings at the moment, there are plenty of ways to celebrate while social distancing.

Here are four easy ways to get in the poetic spirit this April:

1. Watch poetry readings online.

Any poetry fan can attest to the magic of attending a live performance. There’s something so intimate about hearing an author read their work aloud; often tucked into small bars and coffee shops, such gatherings are romantic and contemplative.

Yet, even though current social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders have all but cancelled live poetry readings, there are many alternatives. For example, you can find recordings of past poetry readings on sites like YouTube.

Simply try searching for the names of your favourite poets, and see what you find. Here are some recommendations to start with:

Another option is to purchase/listen to spoken word albums. Many poets opt to release such albums to accompany their poetry collections, and there are plenty of titles out there from classic authors.

Check out this Qwiklit article for a list of poetry recordings offered on Spotify, which includes work from acclaimed poets such as Billy Collins, T.S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Bishop. 

And simply search around on your preferred music platform — whether that’s Spotify, Apple Music, etc. — to find albums that speak to your taste.

2. Find some new (or old) poems to read.

Of course, the most common method of consuming poetry is to read it. The interaction between an author and their reader is a unique experience facilitated by the text.

So, if you want to celebrate National Poetry Month, try reading some new (or old) pieces. Crack open some print copies of your favourite collections, or try finding work online. Even just 20 minutes spent reading poetry can provide a welcome reprieve from the current stress and anxiety consuming the globe. 

And, as previously mentioned on the blog, the Poetry Foundation website is an excellent resource. On there, you can find individual poems, bios of famous authors, audio recordings, and more.

Let National Poetry Month serve as a reminder that poetry is an incredibly healing force; it allows us to think, feel, and reflect on life in a profound way. 

3. Support your favourite poets, small presses, and publishers.

Another great way to engage with the poetry community is to financially support writers and their publishers. Ask yourself: Who are some of my favourite living poets? Which local, small presses are regularly putting out important work? What about larger publishers?

If you have the funds, purchase poetry books (either in print or ebook form) from writers, presses, and publishers you enjoy. In the midst of this global pandemic, artists of all kinds are struggling with a lack of funds from gigs and sales. Providing financial support is invaluable in allowing them to continue their work.

Other options are to donate directly via their websites/Venmo accounts or to become members of their Patreon fundraising efforts. If you’re short on cash but have the time to spare, you could share their work via social media, write a blog post reviewing their book(s), or leave them positive reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon.

(Note: Small presses and independent authors are often the most cash-strapped members of the poetry community; supporting them in particular can be wildly helpful.)

4. Try your hand at writing a poem or two.

Lastly, another way to engage with poetry is to get writing yourself! 

It’s a myth that poetry writing is a pretentious, elitist practice; at its best, poetry appeals to the everyday reader. There are many different styles, of course, but you shouldn’t feel scared to start writing poetry just because you haven’t studied it in university or aren’t well-versed in traditional works.

Anyone can be a poet: a child just learning how to read/write, a teenager looking for a creative outlet, or an adult simply looking for a new hobby. Poetry is for everyone — unlike prosaic forms such as fiction, poetry is extremely lax in terms of rules.

Because, well, there are no rules. You can spell words wrong (intentionally or unintentionally), use odd punctuation marks/combinations, and choose to write one or one thousand words in a single piece. There are no limits, and no strict guidelines. As a poet, you have complete creative freedom.

So, grab your favourite notebook or laptop and start drafting up new work. If you need motivation, try using writing prompts, like the 22 listed in this article for Read Poetry.

Once you’ve written a few poems, try editing them yourself (or with the help of a friend/teacher), and consider publishing them. You can post them on your social media accounts, a free blog, or even submit them to various publications/contests. 

Wrapping up

Poetry is a beautiful thing. Especially in the midst of this current global crisis, we need it more than ever. Try one of these tips today, and see how much they change your life.

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice column. Make sure you follow the blog here on WordPress to have weekly articles delivered straight to your inbox.

And if you’re interested in reading my poetry, you can find two full collections at my publisher’s site.

Grey Borders is offering their entire digital archive for free at the moment, with the option to donate if you feel so inclined. (They publish a lot of excellent Canadian poetry, so definitely check out the rest of the site if you’re looking for new poetry.)

Happy writing (and reading)!

5 Free Literary Resources for Writers (and Readers)

Reading is a great hobby, but can often be quite pricey if you opt to purchase your books brand new. Just the cost of a single hardcover can add up to $40.

So, whether you’re an avid bookworm or an author yourself, free literary resources are particularly useful. And especially during these difficult times, I think we could all use some low-cost options for staying engaged and entertained.

Here are my top five recommendations for literary resources to access while on a budget:

1. Crash Course Literature

While it’s mainly geared towards students (whether at the high school or post-secondary level), Crash Course is an excellent YouTube channel for anybody interested in learning more about complex literary concepts.

The channel covers many different subject areas like Psychology, Physics, and History, but I’d personally recommend their Literature series. Presented by John Green (the best-selling author and ‘VlogBrother’), the videos summarize/analyze classic works such as The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and Hamlet.

Green does an amazing job of breaking extremely nuanced ideas into concise (and entertaining!) terms. When I was in high school and studying for the AP Literature exam, these videos were super useful. In fact, when I wrote the final exam, I specifically referenced Green’s analysis of The Catcher in the Rye in my essay.

But you don’t need to be a student to find these videos useful; pretty much anyone could benefit from watching the series. For example, the general public often regards Shakespeare’s works as dense, boring, and difficult to understand. I used to think the exact same thing. 

Until I studied Shakespeare in university, I was turned off by the language. Now, I love to read his work and see modern performances of his plays. But you don’t need to pay hefty tuition fees to have that same experience; the Crash Course video library is like having access to college lectures in your pocket. Definitely check it out if you’re curious about literature in general.

2. The Poetry Foundation website

The Poetry Foundation website is another great, free resource that specifically focuses on poetry. As a poetry lover, I often use their site to read individual pieces from authors that I enjoy.

There’s no need to go out and buy every single poetry collection you find interesting — sites like this re-publish many famous poems. 

I appreciate that this specific website is extremely accurate in terms of its spelling, punctuation, and line breaks. If you simply Google search the name of a poem you want to read, many websites that will pop up, but not all of them are true to the original versions. Opt for reputable sites like The Poetry Foundation, which are very precise in their re-printing.

Their homepage also features handy sections like the “Poem of the Day,” which can help you easily expand your reading horizons. The site is great for anyone interested in reading more poetry (and it certainly won’t break the bank).

3. Project Gutenberg

Another awesome resource is the Project Gutenberg website. It’s an extensive archive of free ebooks (with a focus on older works of literature, since their copyright licenses have now expired). It’s a great way to find digital copies of classic novels and plays.

For example, as I mentioned, I studied Shakespeare while I was in university, and I used Project Gutenberg to get free copies of his plays. Since they were written hundreds of years ago, they are definitely aren’t bound by copyright. 

My print copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is extremely heavy, so the digital versions of the plays were convenient to have (I could even read them on my e-reader or phone while commuting to class).

Give it a look if you’re not too focused on reading brand-new, best-selling books; there are many classic texts available for free to keep yourself busy.

4. SparkNotes

Ah, the infamous SparkNotes: the best friend of students cramming for English exams on books they never read. While many people use SparkNotes as a complete replacement for reading books, that’s not really what it’s designed to be.

Rather, SparkNotes is a comprehensive hub of literary information. It has No Fear Shakespeare (a tool for translating Shakespearean language into modern-day English) and countless Study Guides for classic works of literature (which include plot summaries, analyses, break-downs, and even mini-quizzes).

I worked as an English tutor for a short time, and I loved to use SparkNotes with my students. Whether they were in elementary school or taking AP classes, I could always find useful features to help explain complicated texts. The mini-quizzes were especially handy, since I could use them to test my students’ knowledge quickly and easily.

I’d recommend treating SparkNotes much like Crash Course Literature; they’re tools that can help you understand classic works of literature much easier. But they don’t replace the act of reading — that’s still on you. 

5. The Toronto Public Library (or your local library)

Lastly, perhaps the best free literary resource of all is the humble local library. For me, that’s the Toronto Public Library system, which is a pretty fantastic option. 

There are countless ways to benefit from a library card — some of which require physically visiting your local branch, but many of which can be done from home. 

For example, a valid TPL card gets you free access to the career learning platform, Lynda.com (now ‘LinkedIn Learning’), which usually costs about $30+ per month as an individual. It also gives you access to resources like Overdrive (for ebooks + audiobooks), PressReader (for digital newspapers + magazines), and Kanopy (for streaming movies).

So, if you’re social distancing at home and in need of some free reading material, see what’s offered online from your local library — it could save you a ton of cash on digital media subscriptions.

Wrapping up

Thanks, as always, for reading the Writing Advice blog. Use the sidebar to easily subscribe, so that you can get free weekly content for writers delivered straight to your inbox. You can also learn more about my writing and editing services by browsing the rest of the site. 

And let me know in the comments: What’s your favourite, free literary resource?

How to Write Your First Ebook: Tips From a Professional Ghostwriter

With people staying home now more than ever, ebooks are having a moment

Just today, The New York Times released an interesting article about how the COVID-19 crisis has shifted American spending habits. The piece notes that, while many forms of entertainment/media have seen stark drops in sales, those of ebooks and audiobooks have actually increased.

So, if you’ve ever flirted with the idea of writing an ebook, there’s no better time to get started. And as a professional ghostwriter, I know a thing or two about the process.

When I ghostwrite an ebook, my job is to take a client’s rough work and turn it into a cohesive publication. They might give me a full outline or simply a working title. Then, I step in to research, organize, and write the text of the ebook itself.

I’ve ghostwritten over 100 projects for various businesses and authors, and I’m going to let you in on my top tips for writing yours:

Start with brainstorming.

The first step of any good writing project is to brainstorm. And if you don’t have a topic in mind yet, try asking yourself the following questions: 

  • What is the purpose of this ebook? If it’s to promote my business, what kind of industry am I focusing on? What do my potential clients need to learn? What kind of knowledge gaps am I equipped to fill?
  • What am I really knowledgeable about? What are my strengths? What am I interested in?

The goal of your ebook should be to teach the reader about something you’re an expert on. Look at your own background and skills to find a good topic to narrow in on.

You can also take a bit of time to research popular ebooks. For example, you can check out the Amazon Kindle Store to see which titles are selling well at the moment —  both in general and in your specific niche.

Pick a particular topic, and try to come up with an interesting title. (This can always be edited later — it’s just to get things started.)

Make a thorough outline.

With a title/concept in mind, the next step is to get organized. Consider the following:

  • How long do I want my ebook to be? 3,000 words? 5,000 words? 10,000 words?
  • How will I structure the book? What are some potential titles for my chapters?

With that in mind, start creating an outline for your ebook. You can always change this later, but start planning out different chapters.

For each chapter, you’ll need to conduct research. Using the internet or print books you have at home, find reputable sources in your field. 

Treat it almost like an assignment you’d write in school; come up with your topic/thesis and find some sources to reference. Your outline should have plenty of notes and links to various relevant articles.

As with writing a homework assignment, you don’t want to be caught plagiarizing anything. Keeping a handy outline with all of the links to your references will make it easier to cite them within your ebook itself. Even if you’re just paraphrasing something you’ve read, you need to link back to the original source.

(An added step is to later use Copyscape Premium as a final plagiarism check to make sure you haven’t missed any citations. I’d highly recommend this.)

Set a timeline/schedule.

After you’ve got a good handle on what you’re writing about and how you’ll actually organize it, you’ll need to look at when you’ll get it done. So, open up your calendar and see what your next 1-2 months look like.

Make a timeline for completing your first ebook draft. Schedule in work sessions (ideally at least 1-3 hours at a time) across several weeks. Figure out when you’ve got the time to write, and make a plan to do so.

Of course, if you’re writing a super short ebook, it might only take you a week or two, but if it’s more extensive, you could be looking at over a month’s worth of work. 

Whatever the length of your project, staying organized will help ensure that your project gets done.

Start piecing everything together.

Once you’ve made your schedule and are starting work on your ebook, you need to put a few basic things in place. Using your chosen platform (I often use Google Drive to write drafts of ebooks), get the skeleton of your ebook worked out.

Create a simple title page; write a table of contents; find some free stock images to include with each chapter. (Pexels and Pixabay are both excellent sites for finding images that are free for commercial use.)

It doesn’t need to be perfect, but getting down a bare-bone version of your ebook will allow you to fill in the blanks with your writing.

Complete your first draft.

Over time, you can start actually writing your ebook. Using your outline as a starting point, draft up your chapters. Be sure to properly cite each source.

When it comes to the quality of your writing itself, don’t stress too much about making it perfect — your first task is simply to get it written. You can edit everything later.

Keep things simple to read; most ebooks meant for the general public should feel quick and snappy. Your job isn’t really to create a highly-dense piece of writing — the tone of an ebook is typically short, sweet, and to the point. 

You want to communicate helpful information to your reader, but you also don’t want to bore them with complicated jargon and lengthy paragraphs (at least not in most industries). 

In a way, you can think of an ebook as an extended blog post. If you’re already an experienced blogger, you’ll know that writing for the web involves breaking complicated concepts into simpler terms. Your job is to streamline reputable information into a breezy, digestible format.

Get editing.

Congrats! You’ve finished your first draft. The next step is to start editing. You can obviously do this by yourself at first, but you’ll want to get a fresh set of eyes on your ebook, too.

Ideally — if it’s within your budget — the next step is to hire an editor. If you’re on a shoestring budget, sites like Fiverr or Upwork can connect you with low-cost freelancers, but the quality isn’t always the best.

(For reference, I’ve used Fiverr as both a freelancer and a customer, and the whole thing is really hit-or-miss. The extremely low rates aren’t ideal for sellers or buyers; the result is an oversaturated marketplace with many inexperienced freelancers essentially racing to the bottom/seeing who can do the most work for the lowest rate of pay.)

For this reason, I’d suggest researching freelancers on sites like LinkedIn, or simply through a Google search. Try to find somebody who’s experienced in digital content and has a thorough portfolio.

But if you don’t have the funds to spend on a professional at all, you can try asking family and friends to give you their feedback. Try offering them something in return, even if it’s just a small favour, for their time.

Start looking at next steps.

Once you’ve finalized your draft, you can start looking at next steps. If you have the funds, you can look into hiring a graphic designer or book designer to help with the formatting/layout of your ebook. 

Alternatively, sites like Canva offer free graphic design tools, and you can do some online research of your own to find technical tips on your ebook layout (like choosing between PDF or EPUB format, creating a clickable table of contents, etc.).

Personally, I usually opt for a PDF format and use free Google Drive templates to get my basic formatting done. But I’m not an expert on that side of things — I’m just the ghostwriter — so definitely do your own research to see what makes sense for you.

After that, you’ll want to look into distribution: Will you sell it on Amazon? Will you offer it as a free download for subscribers of your email list? Figure out the best way to get it to your potential readers. (A designer can often help you optimize the ebook for various platforms.)

Wrapping up

There you have it: a basic guide to writing your first ebook. I hope you found this article useful, and that you’ll consider drafting up your own title.

And if you’re ever looking to hire a ghostwriter or editor for your ebook, I’m also available to hire as a freelancer. Visit the Contact page to send me a message and get started.

Thanks, as always, for reading my Writing Advice column, and be sure to follow the blog if you’d like to keep up with future posts.

Happy writing!

8 Ideas for Kick-Starting Your Writing Career During Quarantine

Starting a writing career is often a lengthy process. It doesn’t happen overnight; getting your name out there takes plenty of time, effort, and hard work.

But if you’re one of the many people in quarantine mode right now, there seems to be more time on our hands than ever before. 

So if you’ve got room in your schedule to focus on your writing career, here are eight ideas for getting started

(I’ve mentioned several of these strategies on the blog before, so I’ll also link to relevant further reading where applicable.)

1. Update your writer’s CV, LinkedIn profile, and/or Contently portfolio.

A few weeks ago, I covered the importance of keeping an up-to-date writer’s CV. (So check out that full article if you need a step-by-step guide.)

In brief, creating (and updating) your writer’s CV acts as a handy overview of your writing career — including your past publication credits, performances, and awards. It acts as a resume for creative writing work, so treat it as a priority. 

It’s also a good idea to keep an active LinkedIn profile. Be sure to include your creative writing career and accomplishments under your work experience. Keep your profile current with all of your most recent publication credits and awards (if applicable).

And if you’ve got a poetry reading or book launch coming up, try posting about it on your feed. Staying active on LinkedIn will help build your professional network and let you present yourself as a qualified writer.

Lastly, if you’re a blogger/freelance writer, Contently is a great site to help with building a professional-looking portfolio

It’s free to use and gives you a polished home for your writing credits — which is especially useful if you haven’t built a writer website yet. As with your CV and LinkedIn profile, make sure to update your Contently profile regularly so that you can showcase your most recent accomplishments.

2. Edit your past work.

Editing your work is a detailed and often time-consuming process. 

Much like spring cleaning, editing involves painstakingly looking at every nook and cranny of your work. It takes a lot of effort and mental energy, but it’s one of the best things you can do as a writer.

So while you’re at home, try taking a red pen to some of your past writing. Using either a digital word processor or a printed copy, give yourself some time to really dig into your own work. 

If you’re a poet, check out my past article on how to edit your own chapbook for a full break-down of the process.

3. Try compiling a longer collection/book.

This step goes hand-in-hand with editing: If you’ve got enough drafts of past work, why not try assembling them into a full-fledged book? 

For in-depth tips, check out another past article I wrote about assembling a poetry chapbook. In essence, try sorting through some past drafts to see if there are any core themes. If so, play around with grouping certain poems/pieces together into a larger body of work. 

If you’re a fiction or non-fiction author, try reading through your past notes to see if there are any interesting topics you could flesh out into longer pieces. 

Use this time to sort through your rough work and parse out what’s worth expanding upon.

4. Submit to new publications or publishers.

Again, I’ve covered this on the blog, but now is a great time to send your work out for consideration. Take the time to research calls for submissions in your area and assemble some high-quality samples of your work.

Or, if you’ve got a full-length book, try researching local small presses who are accepting manuscripts. Although tedious, this research could lead you to your first big break!

6. Try journaling.

Another topic I’ve mentioned before is the value of journaling. Whether free-form or structured, journaling is a great way to get your creative juices going.

Try not to put pressure on yourself to create a masterpiece while doing this exercise — instead, treat the process like a warm-up

Allow yourself to flex your writing muscle and see where it takes you. Even if you don’t end up with high-quality writing, you’ll be better off having practised.

7. Use writing prompts.

As with journaling, using writing prompts can really help you move past writer’s block. And during quarantine, you’ve likely been afforded the chance to play around with your writing practice.

ThinkWritten has a handy list, but you can find other prompts online (or in a book on writing). Try using one prompt per day to get yourself writing, and see where it takes you.

8. Start a blog or website.

Lastly, you could use this time to start an entire blog

This is an exciting prospect made even easier by the fact that platforms like WordPress make the process quite simple. You can try free versions to start out, and simply use a basic theme to design the site.

Try to pick a subject that you find genuinely interesting — whether that’s sports, makeup, gardening, or video games. Focus on something you’ll be excited to write about on a regular basis.

Alternatively, if you’re a freelance writer, this is an excellent time to start a writer website. As a digital creative, your website acts as a business card. The sleeker your writer website is, the more professional you’ll look to potential clients.

While you could technically use a free website, try shelling out for a custom domain name if at all possible. Even a super-basic WordPress plan will do you well. Be sure to include an ‘about me’ page, a contact form, and even a relevant blog if you have the time.

Conclusion

There you have it: eight tips for kick-starting your writing career while social distancing at home. These are trying times, but keeping busy with a creative practice can serve as a welcome distraction or soothing activity (especially journaling!). 

I hope you’re all doing well (or as well as you can right now). Thanks for reading this week’s post, and be sure to follow the blog if you’d like to be notified of future articles.

Happy writing!