The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta grew up in Austin, Texas and now lives in Boise, Idaho. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have been published widely, and she has been a featured storyteller at many events. Her 2012 poetry collection, The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell, was described by Ben Fountain as “wise, unflinching poems.”

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Elisabeth has literature degrees from Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Texas at Austin. She wrote a PhD dissertation on the intersections between memoir and myth, a concept that now informs her teaching. She teaches writing at Harvard Extension School.

Elisabeth lives with her husband, two children, and the best behaved Labrador you’ve ever met. She enjoys hiking, reading, cooking, making new friends and drinking tea with old friends.

Today, she gives us the gift of six minutes in the following guest post. She also has some terrific writing prompts on her website. Thank you, Elisabeth. Here is her post.

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As I stood at the sink in the 5’s this a.m. and pulled the lever for instant-hot water (we installed it after I burned the bottoms of three teapots because I got distracted while waiting the six minutes for the hot water to boil) I felt a lesson coming on.

Those missing six minutes glowed at me, a symbol for how in requiring things like hot water to be ready now, we lose small pockets of creative unmapped time.

Obviously I didn’t spend those six minutes well or particularly mindfully.

The reason for all the burnt teapots is that I usually spent them feeding the dog, opening some mail, trying to unload the dishwasher without waking the whole family, wandering off to clean some mess. Tasks, to-dos. The practicalities that spread a foundation for being able to indulge in my chosen luxury, the luxury of writing poems.

But those minutes were my minutes, minutes all to myself, minutes that hadn’t yet been spoken for. And as a new mother for the second time, I am aware of much life can fit into six minutes. Real life, good life, not just tasks. In six minutes I can write some compost into a journal. I can whisper “walk” to the dog and spend six minutes in the early morning moonlight. I can read, really read, an e.e. cummings poem.

I’ve spent years courting the opposite extreme, that for any creative thing to occur all of the practical tasks have to be finished first. I don’t believe this anymore. What I know now is that in the thick of a full life with all its major components – work, people, travel, habits, housework, spontaneity, eating, using the body – that the most reliable moments of recording beauty happen in tiny dashes, six minutes here or there. And a writer’s main job, in my book, is to force us to really look at all the beauty.

I don’t always accept this, but I try to remember it. I feel regret for the lost time I have spent disengaging with beauty and creativity because I was so intent on getting things done. I would like to tell my younger self, “You girl, you writer, you use those six minutes to be there for it all. Get distracted by the moonlight and by the words, by the poems you love. Be there and write about it and use a timer to go back to the tasks in time so another teapot won’t burn.”

Here, this morning, I take my hot tea (made instantly) into my perpetually cold hands; I whisper, “walk” to the dog and go outside in the early morning moonlight.

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Elisabeth Sharp McKetta’s new book The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers was born out of her experience as a writing teacher and her desire to create a series of short, fun workshops that busy people can do in as few as six minutes.

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Simplicity, you are an elusive beast.

This post existed as a draft called No-Pressure November for more weeks than I care to admit.Why? Because I’m too busy. If you read my blog, you’ve probably heard some version of this same tired old symphony more than once.

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I do it to myself.

I impose expectations and goals upon myself and then I feel pressured, so I decided to try a little experiment and No-Pressure November was born. Duh. This morning I realized that this approach shouldn’t be limited to just a month; my entire life will better if I can find some balance.

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Annnnnd…already there is a problem.

Balance is really hard to find. It’s a double whammy because once you find balance, it tiptoes away when you least expect and then you have to start all over again. It’s not a one-time achievement, but a never-ending process.

20140907_092205 Finding balance is really hard if you have by some sweet, sweet miracle managed to find yourself living a life rich in adventure and wonder. For the most part, I love my life and all of the people and activities in it. I wake up every single day thankful to find myself in a loving and supportive marriage (and as a really cool fringe benefit, it’s exciting and fun). My children are healthy and living successful lives as adults now. I love all creative ventures and the people who pursue them. I wish I had more time and energy to invest in friendships. I want to read the stacks of books that litter our house. I want to travel the world. I failed to adequately learn geography in high school and I’d like to fix that. I want to be super healthy and strong. I want to host parties and attend parties. I want to conquer all the yoga poses and bake decadent desserts. I’d like to meditate and not have my mind springing off in a million directions. I’d like to hug all of my cyber friends in person just once.This list could go on but you get the idea.

My life is filled with a lot of really cool shit.

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Combine this zest for life with a touch of crazy and you have a recipe for stress and pressure.

So. New plan.

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With the exception of work (because – sad face – they don’t pay me if I don’t show up), I will work diligently to discover what things make me truly happy. I will shrug off guilt and obligation and see what that feels like. I will learn to prioritize and focus. I will figure out how to get my arms around this bitter pill:

I can’t have it all.

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can have happiness and unbridled joy, but I can’t have everything at the same time. There is just too much in the world. It’s bursting with possibilities and opportunities. I’ll still have goals & expectations; they play a really important role in my life. They help me to get things accomplished and I love that feeling. They prevent me from sitting around eating salted caramel ice cream while watching Gilmore Girls or Hoarders. (I would do this far too often and for too long if I allowed myself. I know this because I have spent some frightening hours in the abyss and I don’t want to go back.) Goals push me into new and exciting places. They give me courage.

20141019_101444 It’s entirely possible that November will end and I will go running back into the arms of to-do lists and notes-to-self, my wallet and glovebox bulging with Post Its. But I want to try it anyway just to see what it feels like. I hope I can make some progress and learn new ways to make choices.

20140418_134726 This is why I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo this year. Or tango dancing, attending writing, crafting, or art groups. Not because these aren’t fabulous activities with incredible people in attendance. They are! I adore my friends and partners in crime. I love, love, love being in a room full of creative energy.

20140515_184601 There is just too much of it lately and because they’re all so glittery and sparkly, I can’t seem to whittle down the list. It’s like handing someone ten diamonds, each more lovely than the last, and asking them to chose. Maybe this makes me selfish, but I just want to shove them all into my pockets at once.

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Which is what I have been doing – snapping up every opportunity as if another will not come my way – and I’m tired.

088 Ah, simplicity! You are elusive and clever. But I’m stubborn and will keep trying until I get it right. Luckily, I have a road map of sorts. Months ago, I wrote a list of high level goals for myself, just to have a way of measuring success and progress in my life. It’s a way to make sure that I haven’t taken a wrong turn somewhere. These are the biggies for me:

  • Embrace positive change whenever possible
  • Exhibit open communication
  • Practice personal courage
  • Focus on experiences over material goods
  • Strive for excellence (Note to crazy-self: this does not mean perfection)

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I’m also working on paring down some things with Ink & Alchemy. Don’t worry – the artist features will stay. They are near and dear to my heart! But over the next months, I plan on culling through things and keeping only the truly useful, valuable, or beautiful. This means that I may end up removing selected artists from the list because I want to make sure that everyone who remains is active and that the links are all current. I don’t mention it much, but quite a bit of work, research, and email activity is generated from I&A and if I narrow the list down, it will reduce some of that maintenance and work on the back end. It will also support that last bullet up there – excellence.

082 If you notice that an artist has been removed, please know that it’s not a poor reflection on the quality of the work. I&A was founded with the idea of showcasing currently active artists and in some cases, I have trouble finding new work from artists, even though I check each one regularly. It’s likely that they have been removed because I haven’t seen new pieces from them lately. I also want to make sure that all of the work supports a certain aesthetic.

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If by some chance you are removed during my little tidying up process but wish to reapply, please do so. Here’s the submission form.

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Wish me luck taming the beast. I hope you enjoy a week full of things that make you happy.

Losing it.

Change involves loss. 

I always forget  – or choose to ignore? –  that part. If you’ve been following me in cyberspace for any length of time, you know that I’m all about change. Growth, transformation, and all that jazz. I truly believe in it.

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But it isn’t always easy.

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I was recently reminded of one of the dirty little secrets about this kind of life-affecting change. It involves loss. There’s no way around it. Sometimes there’s just no way to move forward without lightening the load, and unfortunately, this sometimes means letting loose of people in your life. I’ve done this many times and I understand how it works, but every single time I have to learn this lesson again. I have to force myself to do it and I usually don’t get there until it’s outrageously overdue.

Why? 

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Well, I like people and I understand foibles. Oh my goodness, do I understand mistakes – I’ve made more than my fair share.  I think some of the wackiest people are some of the most interesting ones. I believe in second – and third & fourth & sixteenth –  chances.  I don’t want to judge people because I know things aren’t always what they seem from a distance.

But still. 

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Certain relationships just run their course. Not only do they not add anything to your life, they begin to detract from it. They become weighty and too complicated, loaded down with obligation and guilt. When there is no evidence, not one single shred, of positive change in a person’s life, spending time with them inevitable drags you down a wee bit. Life is too precious for that.
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Of course, my first instinct is to inspire that person. In fact, I hope to inject life and energy into everything I do and every interaction I have. I try.

But you can’t save them all. Some of them don’t even want to be saved. And who the hell am I to make that determination? I’m not in charge of anyone else but myself. It’s me I need to worry about.

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I’d been wrestling with a relationship like this for several years and last week I stopped fighting. I harbor no ill-feelings toward that person. In fact, I hope he goes on to a very happy and successful future. And of course he, like every single one of us, is free to define ‘successful’ in any way that he chooses.

But I will not be there to watch, because I’m consciously choosing to spend my time in a different way. I won’t lie and say that I’m completely alright with that. I feel like a selfish ass. I feel like I’m being judgmental. Yes, I’m still feeling some residual backlash from the decision, but I know it’s the right thing to do and I need to get better at doing it when it’s warranted.

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On another topic,I was interviewed recently via Skype for a podcast and you know what? I kind of sucked. I don’t say that in a self-deprecating way, but as a fact. I was surprised and chagrined as it unfolded to realize that I really didn’t have anything that interesting to say. Surprised because I almost always have something to say. Further, the interview was about art and creativity and these are topics that I can talk about all night long. In my sleep. (In fact, I probably do – I’m making a mental note to ask my husband about this.)

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So, what happened?

I’m not really sure, but at the very least, life has offered up yet another opportunity for growth. Funny how many of those pop up along the way, isn’t it? The tricky part is to recognize them and take action, which may require introspection. I’m just spitballing here, but it probably requires at least five freaking minutes to think about the problem and come up with some possible solutions.

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I don’t allow myself enough of this kind of time.
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I’m one of those insane people who are always doing something. Seriously, unless I’m sleeping, I’m engaged in some activity and my life is carefully planned to make sure everything fits. What this plan fails to account for is unplanned time. (Ha! I’d better plan in some unplanned time!)

Time to just sit around and think about the world. Ducks. Time loops. How to draw flowers. Maybe I could just sit around and think about nothing. Nah. That’s crazy talk.

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Hey, you know what? Maybe I’m just not good at interviews. It’s okay to not be good at everything, isn’t it?

(Ouch! That was even difficult to type. I’m gonna admit that I may not be completely buying that last bit, but it’s a start. I’ve got a long way to go.)

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I’ll probably set some specific goals this year related to my career, my relationships, and my creative endeavors. I just can’t help myself. But the most important resolution that I will strive toward in 2014 is to be a little kinder to myself. Control my life such that the negative is minimized. Stop being such a perfectionist. Take time to enjoy the world. How about you? Got any big plans for the upcoming year?

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Simon Birch is a Featured Artist at Ink & Alchemy and it is his art you see sprinkled throughout this post. Incredible, huh? See more at his website or Facebook page. And as always, you are invited to visit me for art and inspiration.

Happy holidays from Ink & Alchemy!

Eli Tynan: her story & help with charitable donations

Eli Tynan is an artist. She was kind enough to share her journey with me and today, I would like to share her story with you.
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 Eli focused on music during her younger years, although she has a rich background in art as well; her parents collected art and her grandmother was an artist. She was involved in musical endeavors throughout high school and graduated from university with a major in Music Education. During summers, she worked as a camp counselor for the Art Institute of Chicago. Something was stirring deep inside.
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 Eli founded and ran a private music school for children and then something life-changing happened. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. From this moment on, her focus was to minimize stress in her life. She took a 14 month break from her life, went to California, and began to focus on her art. She had a realization: the music in her life brought stress and consumed her precious energy while practicing her art was a source of relaxation and peace.
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 Art become healing and transformative in Eli’s life. It was clear that her passions had led her to this place in her life. While Eli had been creative in a musical sense and was comfortable with that, she needed to learn to embrace a vision of herself as an artist. This was a whole new kind of creativity!
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 She hung pieces of her art in her own home and began hearing positive feedback from friends and visitors. Slowly but surely, Eli morphed into an artist. She began interacting in artistic communities online, and talking with people about her art. Suddenly, she realized that she saw herself as an artist.
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When I asked her about the biggest artistic challenge she faces, she mentioned rejection. It’s a fact that artists must live with: not all art is for everyone.  She learned that the best way for her to create art was to focus on process and growth. She makes art for herself. It’s  crucial for her to have the freedom to express her true self in each of her pieces. She has learned to let go of perfectionism and often looks to this quote for inspiration:

“…what does exist, however, is a continuous series of imperfect moments, filled with infinite possibilities and opportunities for you interpret them, and do with them, as you please.” ~ Marc Chernoff

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Dealing with the business of being an artist is a challenge for Eli. Pricing, cataloging, and labeling are part and parcel of being an artist, but this isn’t her favorite part of the job. She tends to overanalyze at times which can make an unpleasant task even more difficult.

Recently, Eli was approached about donating art to a silent auction for charity. She wanted to participate, but was worried about how to assign a value to the art. She didn’t want to devalue the worth of her art or art within the community so she did her homework. This research helped her arrive at a solution which was fair for all.

She recommends this article to learn about how to participate in art fundraisers and this website to find donation guidelines.  Using these resources, Eli was able to draft her guidelines for charitable donations. You can find her version featured here, with other resources at my website, and are welcome to copy it and use as you see fit.

The art in this post was created by Eli Tynan. Click any piece to visit her FB page to see what other terrific things she is working on.

As always, you are invited to visit my website. I’d love to have you!

Alter ego, you so crazy.

I recently had a creative writing revelation. I realized that my notion of being a writer was strongly linked with accurately expressing myself. I’ve been writing fiction, but at the same time I’ve been wrestling with a burdensome responsibility to somehow use that fiction to put my truth on paper. What audacity and hubris! My truth isn’t necessarily important or enlightening, except maybe to me. And what a terrible way to approach creative writing. Memoir, sure. But, creative writing?

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I’m not even sure where this idea came from and I wasn’t aware of being a slave to it until this past week. It is betrayer to my creative life.

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As you may know, we’re currently in the throes of annual NaNoWriMo craziness, which requires truckloads of creativity.  I sat at my computer laboring over my novel, honestly intending and trying to be creative, when the lightning bolt hit.  I’m my own worst enemy.  I travel the same well-worn ruts over and over again, trapped by my own experiences and perspective.

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An insidious voice, quieter than a whisper, is constantly censoring and evaluating my thoughts. I’m changing that today. There is freedom is releasing myself from these constraints, but for me the execution is difficult. I am me, after all, and it’s hard to get away from that.

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So I’ve come up with a strategy.

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Today, instead of trying to express myself, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I’m going to imagine myself as someone else – an alter ego, of sorts – and write that way. Unencumbered. The concept seems simple, but for me it’s ground breaking. This other broad can be as wild and weird as she wants to be.

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Wish me luck!

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The gorgeous art in this post is courtesy of, Stephanie Corfee, Featured Artist at Ink & Alchemy. It’s teeming with life and riotous color and it makes me very happy. The perfect art to spur creativity!

Visit my website to learn about my efforts to smear art & lit all over the planet. You can also find resources to use in your creative life and business.

Stupid questions to ask self-published authors

“Did you use a real publisher?”

“Is it a real book?”

I’ve heard these questions and other similar queries many times, and not just from those dissociated with the writing and publishing industries. What kinds of people ask these questions? Traditionally published authors. Struggling writers. Non-writers. Friends and family. The guy at the bus stop. Basically anyone.

This is rude and thoughtless. It’s akin to walking up to a set of new parents, gurgling baby in arms and asking, “Can you trade it for a real one?” “Will it get any cuter?” Inherent in those questions and especially in the particular phrasing which uses the word real is the assertion that a self-published book isn’t valid. Dead wrong.

Self-publishing is a perfectly acceptable way to get your book into print. It’s quick and inexpensive. What it isn’t, however, is easy. It still requires the same hard work. You still need to write on your lunch hour and burn the midnight oil. You still need to write, write, and thump on that manuscript until it doesn’t make you want to choke with embarrassment. Then, you need to find a trusted cadre of readers brave enough to give you true and harsh feedback. Rewrite again. Find an editor. Rewrite again. Proof that sucker multiple times.

The process of writing hasn’t changed a bit.  It’s still really hard to do it well and terribly difficult to find success. The good writing will hopefully get noticed and the bad writing will sink to the bottom. Note that this  is just a general rule and isn’t necessary true in all cases – see  The Cuckoo’s Calling and 50 Shades of Grey.

You finally drag your tired carcass across the finish line with this raggedy-ass manuscript in hand and guess what? More work and lots of it. You either need to hire someone to design your cover or get very familiar with GIMP or Photoshop. You need to navigate the idiosyncrasies of .mobi files versus .epub. You must slay the dreaded auto-indent that lives in KDP-land.

I’m not saying that every self-published book out there is a sparkling, beautiful gem, just waiting to be discovered. Sub-standard work exists and the fact that anyone can publish pretty much anything they want means that the publishing world has drastically changed. We need to change with it. We need to accept and understand the new paradigm and begin to strengthen it.

What I’m saying is a self-published book doesn’t suck simply by virtue of being self-published. It very well might be poorly written and ill-imagined, but you must read it before you make that determination.

Self-publishing isn’t new, it’s e-publishing that’s new. Proust paid his own bill in order to get Swann’s Way published . Many familiar authors such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Benjamin Franklin,  and Edgar Rice Burroughs (among countless others) utilized some form of self-publishing.

So your manuscript is finally ready. You go through the steps required to turn it into an ebook and then a physical book. Are you finished?

HELL, NO. You are not even close to being done.

Now you must market this thing. You must network and promote. And lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify something here – when I speak of marketing and promoting, I mean you will spend months, maybe years, building a platform and maintaining it.

This process is not for cowards. It isn’t going to work for those who lack initiative, follow-through, or tenacity.

So – have some respect, please. The next time you speak with someone who just self-published a book, think about the tremendous amount of perseverance, hard work, and sheer heart that it took. Congratulate them on their huge accomplishment. Give that author a big old bear hug from me!

If you wish to have an opinion on the book, you will need to do one of two things:


1.) Go buy the book and read it.

2.) If you don’t want to buy the book, ask the author if you may receive a free copy in exchange for an honest review. I guarantee every single author will agree immediately. Now go home and read that book.

Finally, go to AmazonGoodreads, and B&N and review the book. Be kind but give them your honest opinion. These reviews are invaluable for several reasons. Remember I said anyone can publish and they do? This means that the market is glutted and one of the important ways that authors differentiate themselves is using reviews.

Yikes! I can hear everyone out there clamoring and shouting questions about the current state of book reviews.


 Are they trustworthy? Can one pay to get a review?


Answers:  I don’t know. Yes, I suspect so.


This is a topic for another post and I will table it for now and come back to it at a later time.

Let’s just focus on HONEST REVIEWS. If you can deliver them with clarity, honesty, and specificity, they can serve to help the writer better understand her readers. That is worth it’s weight in gold. If you have something to say that might seem a little harsh to just toss out there into the cyberworld, limber up your fingers and send that author a kind but honest review of his book. This is a kind and generous, and something that most people don’t take the time to do for writers.

Criticizing or diminishing the efforts of self-published writers weakens the industry. Instead, let’s take a positive approach. Encourage and applaud self-published authors. Review. Refuse to give anything but an honest review.

By the way, most of these principles also apply to indie artists who are trying to make their way. Let’s lend support and love to all creative people brave enough to put their work out there.

P.S. If you choose not to read the book, you only have one option. Kindly shut up about it until you have something informed and useful to say.


These gorgeous collage pieces were brought to you by one of Ink & Alchemy’s Featured Artists, the talented Emilia Elfe. Clicking any artwork will take you to her website.

As always, thanks for spending time with me. If you wanna hang out some more, visit my platform.