Page 2 of 3

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!

Why Writing Often Flourishes in Times of Crisis

There’s no doubt that this point in history is frightening. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated every normal aspect of modern life: the comfort of lingering in coffee shops, the hustle and bustle of busy shopping malls, or even the act of hosting a small dinner party among friends.

Combined with the constant flood of negative news stories, this situation has undoubtedly shaken us all. 

Crises aren’t fun; they come with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and danger.

But if you’re a writer, you might have noticed a tricky paradox: that your best work often comes out of the most difficult experiences of your life. 

Let’s dig into that concept a bit more.

[Content Notice: the rest of this article mentions experiences of trauma, mental illness, and hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel that it’s safe for you to do so.]

The Myth of the Tortured Artist 

It’s a common stereotype that, especially for poets, you need to experience extreme hardship to create great art. 

This is a dangerous belief: it implies that artists can’t find inspiration from joy or happiness. And it often justifies self-destructive behavior (i.e. alcoholism) as the price of being a creative genius.

I’ve always struggled with this myth of the tortured artist because, on one hand, I recognize that creativity doesn’t require pain. 

On the other hand, I recognize that some of my best poetry has been written during mental health crises. 

My Personal Experience

For example, my experiences of being hospitalized on psychiatric wards informed much of my first chapbook. My chronic depression and suicidality were some of the foremost themes of that collection.

I’ve always considered writing as an act of survival. I truly believe that I would have committed suicide many years ago if I’d never begun writing creatively.

Long before I was able to accept help for my mental illness, I supplemented treatment with the act of writing poetry. Writing was — first and foremost — a way for me to process trauma that I was experiencing in real-time. 

It allowed me to take my overwhelming emotional experiences and not only record them, but transform them into words with meaning.

After all, writing confessional poetry doesn’t just mean dumping all of your unfiltered thoughts onto the page (although some writers may choose to adopt that via a stream-of-consciousness style).

To me, great confessional poetry involves taking something that feels overwhelming (like depression) and reflecting upon it. 

After that point of reflection, the writer uses every tool at their disposal (like literary devices) to re-shape that experience into art. Similar to the act of meditation, writing involves finding distance between you and your thoughts. And that is a powerful process.

And the reality is that many of the greatest writers of all time grappled with severe mental health issues; Dickinson, Plath, and Bukowski (just to name a few) have conveyed their emotional pain in their work.

So, while not a hard-and-fast rule, the myth of the tortured artist holds some truth. While pain isn’t a necessary component of good writing, it has often been a source of inspiration for artists throughout history.

How can we apply this concept to the current crisis?

I mention all of this because I believe that this point in history holds unique potential.

No, it’s not good that tens of thousands of people have died of COVID-19 (and many more have become seriously ill). There is no justification for the global experience of suffering right now — it’s horrible and unthinkable.

But what we can learn from history is that times of crisis often lead to immense creative output. 

It doesn’t make the current situation any better or worthwhile, but perhaps it can motivate us to reflect on our experiences and comment on them through art.

The reality is that, for many of us (who are fortunate enough to not be on the front lines), we’ll be confined to our homes for an undetermined number of weeks or even months. 

So while we’re stuck indoors, perhaps we can use this time to create. Because what’s the alternative?

Yes, working from home can help us feel productive; FaceTiming our friends can help us feel connected to those we love; cleaning our homes can help us feel organized. But what will we do to fill that aching void — an emptiness that threatens to consume us?

If you’re a writer, the keyboard has never looked better.


A Note on Writing Advice 

It definitely feels strange to write my usual Writing Advice articles during this time of global crisis. As such, my blog posts will likely have heavier themes than usual. 

I hope that you still find them useful, and please hit the Follow button if you’d like to be notified of future posts. 

Thank you, as always, for reading the blog, and I hope that you & your loved ones are staying safe during this time.  


Disclaimer 

If you’re experiencing mental health struggles, there are many resources available. For example, if you’re in Canada, you can consult this link for a comprehensive overview of crisis lines and information. International readers can also visit the Suicide Stop website for a list of global helplines. 

However, this article is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For diagnosis or treatment of any medical problem, consult your own physician.

4 Game-Changing Books to Read While Cooped up Inside

These are scary and uncertain times.

For many of us, practising social distancing is the new reality — at least for the foreseeable future.

And while you’re cooped up inside, one way to take solace is in a good book.

This post will explore four different books I’ve read in recent years that were legitimate game-changers for me.

Whether in terms of improving my finances, decluttering my home, or developing my personal growth, these titles have shifted the way I live my life.

So if you want to try and be productive during these periods of anxiety, consider checking out one of these books (even if you have to purchase an ebook due to store/library closures).

I’m linking to them via the Apple Books platform for ease of reference, but you can surely find them in other places (and I’m not being paid any affiliate marketing fees — these are my genuine recommendations).

1. The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money

Written by Chelsea Fagan and designed by Lauren Ver Hage, this is a must-read for anyone looking to improve their financial health.

Especially if you happen to be a millennial woman, this book is written is very approachable terms.

As someone who is truly horrific with math, this book broke complicated financial topics like budgeting or investing down to a level I could genuinely understand.

It’s still nuanced and interesting, but if you’re a true beginner at personal finance, this book is a great option.

After reading it a couple of years ago, I gradually implemented changes like developing a weekly/monthly budget, creating a debt repayment plan, and setting/meeting savings goals.

Since making those changes, I’ve managed to pay off over $3,000 in consumer debt, save up $5,000 in personal high-yield savings accounts, and even start investing in a TFSA (no matter how small the deposits!).

I now understand where my money is going, and I feel empowered knowing how to manage my finances.

The Financial Diet is a larger brand, too, including their blog and YouTube channel. I’m actually now a regular columnist at the blog, and have had several articles of mine turned into YouTube videos for their Making it Work series (see here and here).

So if you’re interested in the book, be sure to check out their digital resources, too!

2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Written by Marie Kondo, this best-seller has brought minimalism to the masses.

And, speaking of my column at The Financial Diet blog, I’ve actually already written an entire article about this book: see 6 Ways My Life Has Improved Several Years After Completing The KonMari Method.

Check out the article linked above if you want my full thoughts, but in short, if you’re someone looking to organize your home, this is arguably one of the best books out there.

It’s written in a clear and concise way, and the principles developed by Kondo are genuinely life-changing. Check it out if decluttering is one of your goals while practising social distancing!

3. The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well

Written by Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, this is another global best-seller.

In essence, it breaks down the Danish concept of hygge, which the author defines as “…when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.”

A rather nebulous concept, Wiking posits that hygge is the reason why Denmark often ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world.

It takes a while to understand the idea, but by the end of the book, you’ll take away your own personal definition.

I stumbled upon this title a couple of years ago at a bookstore, and it was a super pleasant read.

The physical book itself is beautiful, with gold detailing on its cover and stunning photographs throughout.

The pages aren’t text-heavy, so it almost reads like a grown-up picture book: focused more on simplicity and aesthetics than communicating dense writing.

Definitely give it a read if you need something comforting and uplifting (especially during this global pandemic). You’ll be sure to find actionable steps to living a happier life.

4. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Lastly, this self-help title by Eckhart Tolle is probably the closest thing that I have to a bible.

While I consider myself to be agnostic, this book has a great mix of spiritual and intellectual concepts.

Tolle bounces from referencing Jesus Christ to the Buddha to Descartes…and the result is incredible.

He doesn’t align himself with a single religion or belief system, but rather expands his idea of consciousness to encompass all different sects from across the world.

It’s been one of the most profound reads of my entire life, and I regularly return to it.

Particularly potent in this chaotic climate of 2020, Tolle speaks straight wisdom about the preciousness of the present moment.

Give it a read if you’re feeling particularly anxious, lost, or despondent right now. You won’t regret it.

Conclusion

This list was a bit of a departure from my usual Writing Advice series, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.

Give the blog a follow if you’re interested in more content about writing/reading in general.

I hope that you’re all staying safe and healthy during this chaotic time, and thanks for giving this post a read.

The Importance of Keeping an Up-To-Date Writer’s CV

For most people, the idea of keeping a resume is pretty par for the course.

Whether you’re looking for a new job or just trying to stay organized, keeping an accurate record of your employment history, level of education, and key skills is a common thing for professionals to do.

But what about a writer’s CV?

Well, if you’re embarking on a writing career, this lesser-known record of achievement is extremely important. And for many years of my career, I skipped this step altogether.

Let’s break down what a CV is, why you should care, and tips for keeping yours up-to-date.

What is a writer’s CV?

CV stands for curriculum vitae.

It’s kind of similar (in nature) to a resume, but is generally a more streamlined list of one’s professional accomplishments.

And as an author, your creative CV will be specifically focused on your writing career.

You’ll usually need a writer’s CV if you’re applying for contests, grants, or residencies. You may also be asked to supply one if you’re submitting a manuscript for publication or trying to get booked for a gig (i.e. a poetry reading).

In essence, your writer’s CV serves as an easy reference for all of your career highlights.

Why should I care about keeping an accurate writer’s CV?

As I mentioned, I actually went many years without keeping an up-to-date writer’s CV. I was still in the early days of my creative writing career and didn’t understand its importance.

I eventually had to draft one up when applying for an editorial position several years ago.

The problem was, I’d been writing for many years and hadn’t been keeping track of every little accomplishment, so I sort of had to scramble while putting my CV together.

The risk that comes with hurriedly drafting a writer’s CV is that you may end up forgetting important accomplishments. If you’re not maintaining a running list of your achievements, you’ll likely forget some.

So, I’d recommend keeping a CV as soon as possible — ideally from the beginning of your career. If you’re a new writer, this should be one of your top priorities!

This will help you stay organized and ready for any exciting opportunities that come up; you’ll be able to easily send one over when applying for a contest or residency. Keeping an up-to-date writer’s CV will help you look polished and professional.

Applying for such opportunities is the main way you’ll grow your career. Especially when you first start out, you’ll want to take every chance possible to get your name (and your work) out there.

An accurate CV will help you put your best foot forward.

How can I draft my own writer’s CV?

Now that we’ve established the basics of what a writer’s CV is and why it’s important, we can go through the steps of actually writing one.

I’d say that your first priority should be creating a detailed list of every single literary accomplishment you’ve had. For this, I’d write a simple list either by hand or in a blank Word document. (You can worry about the design later.)

Remember that, especially as a new writer, no accomplishment is too small! Even if you’ve only been published in small student journals or maintain your own blog, that counts, too.

As a general rule, I like to break my writer’s CV into three sections: publishing credits, notable appearances, and awards/distinctions.

Now, I’m primarily a poet (in terms of my creative career), so this format may not necessarily apply to your genre. For example, if you write personal essays, you may not give many performances (as opposed to poets who regularly give readings).

Be sure to write down every little detail that would make you look like a qualified writer. Every minor publication, performance, or contest you’ve won will help.

If there are particular accomplishments that stand out, consider highlighting them in a separate section.

For example, I have a section titled “Of note”, where I mention the fact that my book is held at the University of Toronto Libraries. This helps the reader zero in on a particularly important achievement of mine.

Once you’ve got a basic list done, you can fuss over the design. I like to use Microsoft Word templates, but you could also use one from Google Docs.

Plug in all of your accomplishments and spend some time playing around with the layout. I’d recommend making it as visually appealing as possible, so that it’s easy to read and gives off a professional look.

One last important tip: regularly update your writer’s CV. A CV is of no use to you if it’s no longer accurate. At least once every few months, take stock of your recent writing achievements, and add them to your CV.

An added bonus? It feels nice to reflect on how far you’ve come, so this process can also give you an added boost of confidence in your career!

Wrapping up

Hopefully, now you’ve got an understanding of why it’s important to keep a writer’s CV. Remember to start small and stay organized.

This simple practice of drafting one can help you give a good first impression to potential editors or contest judges.

Just as a job hunter needs an impressive resume, so too does a writer need a professional CV.

_

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice column here on my site. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow the blog to be notified of future articles.

(I had to skip a couple of weeks, but we’re now back to our regularly-scheduled posts.)

Happy writing!

Freelance Writing on a Budget

Introduction

Starting a business can be overwhelming.

If you’re looking to become a freelance writer but are working with a limited budget, you may be nervous about up-front costs.

One thing I’ll say is that you should avoid going into debt if at all possible. Don’t take out a small business loan if you can avoid it.

Writing doesn’t require a lot of special equipment, so it’s possible to keep overhead costs very low at first.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Use your existing tech devices (if possible).

When it comes to freelance writing, you’ll definitely want to have a functioning computer.

A laptop is ideal, since you can travel with it easily, but a desktop computer is fine if that’s all you have.

Don’t just go out and buy an expensive computer in the name of starting your freelance writing career.

If you have a computer that works, try to stick with it (at least for the first several months).

A smartphone with data coverage is also pretty crucial, since you’ll need to follow-up with clients in between work sessions.

But, again, don’t go spend hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a new phone just because you’re starting a business.

In the beginning, you’ll want to keep costs low as you build your clientele.

2. Opt for a home office, coffee shop, or co-working day pass.

Again, you shouldn’t be spending tons of money at the beginning of your career.

You’ll want to first build your business (and figure out if you’re truly passionate about the job in the first place).

You might end up not liking the gig — so it’s not worth signing the lease for a new office if you’re still in the early days.

If you have a comfortable amount of space in your home, designate a workspace for your freelance writing.

A spare room, nook, or corner of your bedroom could all work.

And keep in mind that you can often write off part of your living expenses as business-use-of-home (contact your national revenue agency for specifics).

On the days that you want to get out of the house, a local coffee shop is ideal.

Starbucks is great, since their business model is built on the premise that many people come in to use the WiFi while sipping their coffee.

But if you have a local coffee shop that allows customers to linger with their laptops, that’s fine too. 

Try to spend minimal amounts of money ($3-10 per visit is ideal) so that you don’t have to invest too much money in the beginning.

Also make sure to keep your receipts, so that you can claim business meals as expenses on your tax return (again, consult your national revenue agency for specific guidelines).

A step above would be to purchase a day pass at a nearby coworking space.

If you’ve never been to a coworking space, they’re basically shared offices for freelancers and other digital creatives. 

They usually include unlimited coffee/WiFi, and offer meeting spaces (for an additional fee).

If you have the funds, purchasing a drop-in day pass every now and then can be a nice treat. (Here in Toronto, they typically cost $20-30 CAD per day.)

3. Utilize free online tools.

When it comes to your digital toolkit, go for free options wherever possible (at least in the beginning).

Google Drive

As I’ve written about here on the blog before, Google Drive is a solid word processor for freelancers (with a comprehensive free version).

The fact that it’s cloud-based makes it simple to move from device to device, no matter where you go. And freelancers in particular are often on the go.

Grammarly 

Grammarly is also a must-have for anyone who writes in a professional capacity. 

It’s the most thorough spelling/grammar check I’ve ever used. Even the free version is more than enough.

Never submit an article to a client without running it through Grammarly first. I can’t tell you how many times it’s picked up minor errors that I would have never noticed on my own (even as an editor).

4. Maximize your local library card.

Many people overlook the offerings of their local library.

The average library card can offer much more than access to free books.

For example, a valid Toronto Public Library card includes free use of Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning), which usually costs $20+ per month.

Those types of online learning platforms can help you get a leg up while also saving money.

[Another digital learning platform is edX, which anyone can use for free. Users can choose to pay for a certificate of completion upon passing a course, but it’s entirely optional.]

Most public libraries also offer plenty of access to digital magazines, ebooks, and audiobooks (all of which can help you stay on top of current industry trends).

5. Use paid services wisely.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s good to keep expenses low when you’re first starting out.

But some costs are truly worth the money, such as:

Plagiarism checkers

I pay for the Premium version of Copyscape, which is a comprehensive plagiarism checker. 

It costs me pennies per article, and it gives me the confidence that my work is 100% free of accidental plagiarism.

Also, many clients will request or require you to use Copyscape, so it’s a good thing to have available.

Accounting software

I don’t know about you, but I’m horrible with numbers.

I tried to do all of my business accounting by myself at first, but it didn’t go too well. I kept losing track of important receipts and missing out on possible deductions come tax season.

So, I now pay $4.99 CAD per month for QuickBooks Self-Employed (which is a promotional rate I got when I signed up). 

It syncs with all of my bank accounts and credit cards, so I never have to worry about keeping complex spreadsheets on my own.

This is one area that is genuinely worth spending on.

In summary

Every business has unique needs. And these are just my general suggestions.

Take into account your own situation: your finances, goals, and preferences. 

Maybe it’s totally worth it for you to upgrade your laptop or spring for an office space in the beginning. 

See what makes sense for you personally, and try to avoid massive up-front costs if possible.

Stuck With Writer’s Block? Here Are 5 Tips for Pushing Past It

Every writer’s been there.

You sit at your desk, wanting to draft up some new work…but nothing comes to mind.

Especially with creative writing, waiting for that lightning bolt of inspiration to strike can feel frustrating.

Taking a break from writing is sometimes the answer, but there are practical tips you can take to push past your writer’s block.

Let’s look at my top five:

1. Start journaling.

Sometimes, we as writers get too precious about our creative work.

We feel as if we need to be “on” 24/7 — that every new bit of writing needs to be amazing.

In reality, writing is a muscle.

Just like you can’t expect to start deadlifting 200 lbs. before ever stepping foot in a gym, you can’t expect your creative output to magically appear if you never put in the effort.

Honestly, the bulk of what you write isn’t going to be your best work…and that’s fine.

It’s more important (especially as a new writer), that you just start doing the thing: writing.

So break out a nice journal and start writing.

If you don’t already own one, head over to your local dollar store — they’ve usually got plenty of options that won’t break the bank.

The structure here isn’t important; write whatever you want.

You can jot down an informal diary entry, or you can loosely write a new poem.

You can describe the bowl of fruit sitting in your kitchen, or write about the view from your window.

It truly doesn’t matter what you write — as long as you’re flexing your creative muscle.

Chances are, there will some nugget of interesting content hidden in there.

Whether it’s a single word, phrase, or concept, you’re bound to stumble on something of note.

Then, you can more seriously play with whatever idea you had, and get a bit more intentional with your writing work for the day.

2. Listen to some great music.

No matter what your taste, there’s bound to be certain music that inspires you.

Put on one of your favourite albums — and if you can blast the volume, all the better. (If you’ve got roommates or it’s late at night, use some headphones.)

Sit down and really engage with the music: What are the lyrics? What are the harmonies? What is the artist saying?

Pay attention to what you hear. When you catch something interesting, make note of it.

Maybe a certain word catches your eye, or a guitar solo really speaks to you. Write about it!

The same principle goes for other types of art — if you’re a big movie fan, or a visual artist, engage with other types of work that inspire you.

Watch one of your favourite movies, or sit down with a favourite painting that you have hanging in your house.

Oftentimes, all we need to get a bit of inspiration is to appreciate the work of other artists.

3. Read the work of others.

Last week on the blog, we covered why reading poetry is just as important as writing it.

This ties back in with #2, since reading the work of other writers is just another form of appreciating art.

In terms of developing a personal style and getting inspired, there’s no replacement for reading.

Take out one of your favourite books, or pick up a new one from the library!

Read it closely, just as with the music-listening exercise:

What is the author saying? What rhetorical devices are they using? What are my favourite lines? What are my least-favourite lines?

It can also be very useful to expose yourself to classic works of literature, since they’ll often challenge you and teach you words you may have never heard before.

Shakespeare is good for this sort of thing, since his language is so rich. Hamlet or Macbeth are especially engaging in terms of the writing.

4. Check out local calls for submissions.

Another way to get inspired is to find calls for submissions in your area.

Oftentimes, publications will have specific themes or prompts for each issue.

For example, they might list a word, phrase, or question for potential writers to engage with.

This is an easy way to get inspired and focus on a theme for your work (not to mention that your new work will be pertinent to submit!).

Google “call for submissions” + [the name of your city] to get some ideas, and start drafting up some new work.

5. Interact with other writers.

I’ve touched on this point in previous blog posts, but it warrants repeating.

Interacting with other writers can give you a huge boost of inspiration (and also act as a generally fun social activity).

You could take a writing workshop or class (either a one-time or ongoing thing) to get the ball rolling.

Workshops are especially useful, because they’ll usually involve some type of writing exercise/prompt to get you started.

If you’re in college, trying researching your school’s creative writing courses, and enrol in one (if your schedule permits).

If not, local libraries are often good places to start.

You could also attend general literary events in your city, such as poetry readings.

Google “poetry readings” + [your city] to get started.

If you’re in a metropolitan centre, you’ll have an easier time, but don’t get discouraged.

Even if you’re in a rural town, there are usually literary events (even just once a month or so) if you look hard enough.

Wrapping up:

Hitting a writer’s block is truly inevitable — even for the most experienced of authors.

But don’t let the experience dampen your spirits.

Try one of these tips to help you get inspired and back to writing.

_

As always, be sure to hit Follow if you enjoyed this post.

New blog posts are up every Friday and centre around the theme of Writing Advice.

You can also reach me at services@mercedeskilleen.com with any questions, or to inquire about quotes for my writing & editing services.

Happy writing!