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On Finding a Reason to Join the Crowd

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

I attended my first SouthWest Writers Saturday meeting a couple of months ago. By the time I got there, all the seats were taken, so I stood in a back corner of the room. I began meet-and-greet by circling the room, smiling at people and idling near interesting conversations. When I gathered the nerve, I made a beeline for the most densely populated part of the room with every intention of adding my perspective to some rousing debate. But by the time I made my way into the hub, my heart was racing, my palms were sweating and I felt as though my expression had gone wild eyed and maniacal. I beat a retreat to the food table, grabbed coffee and a cookie, and tucked myself back into the corner from whence I came.

Standing there terrified and praying that the crowd wouldn’t turn on me like an angry mob of rabid zombies—have I mentioned that my anxiety is both wildly irrational and excessively creative?—I wondered why I seemed to be the only writer completely paralyzed by her own introverted nature. Goodness knows, I can’t have been the only introvert in the room. And yet, if there were others, they were so graceful in maneuvering their way around that particular obstacle that no one was the wiser.

Dusting cookie crumbs from my shirt, I wondered what motivates introverted writers to behave so against the grain of their nature in situations such as this. Myself, I am hard-pressed to think of more than two things that I value enough artistically to push through the hyperventilation and flop sweat to have a discussion with complete strangers. Then I remembered a lovely encounter my husband and I had on a recent weekend in Santa Fe.

We were having a quiet breakfast at Bishop’s Lodge. The restaurant was empty, but for ourselves and a well-dressed older woman contentedly dining alone. At the end of our meal, as we rose from the table and moved to push in our seats, the woman politely motioned us over to her table. My husband and I were taken aback and a bit incredulous. She just wanted to thank us, she said, for our genteelness and consideration. She appreciated that we didn’t talk on our cell phones during the meal or make her an unwilling participant in our conversation by talking too loudly. She told us it was refreshing to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to hear herself think. Or, more accurately, to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to concentrate on editing.

As it turned out, she had been editing the galley of her novel while dining. When I asked her about the progress of her editing, she smiled courteously and mildly cursed the “find and replace” function of her editor’s word processing program. But when I asked her about her novel, she transformed from a quiet, unassuming diner to a passionate artist and enthusiastic salesperson. While she maintained her impeccable decorum in discussing her novel, her eyes lit up, her vocabulary became peppered with hyperbole and she leaned in so close to us that she nearly put her elbow in her eggs. The novel she was editing was the first in a series that married theology, spirituality and history. And while this combination isn’t my usual fare, her exuberance made me want to run out and buy the first copy to hit the bookshelves.

I clutched my Styrofoam coffee cup to my chest and willed myself to breathe deeply, and thought about the impetus for her transformation from mild-mannered Lone Diner, valuing quiet and solitude, to enthralling Intense Writer, discussing theology with strangers. Quite simply, I had asked her about a piece of work that she believed in, that she had worked on for years and that she now wanted to share with others. Discussing and promoting her book were so important to her that there was nothing else she could have done in that moment but passionately broach taboo subjects with two random fellow diners.

If this level of enthusiasm and passion for writing is at the heart of the conversation and buzz at our Saturday meetings, I am simply awestruck. Awestruck and humbled. Awestruck, humbled, and determined to find that piece of work that will propel me into the throng with wild abandon, leaving my introversion in the corner with a cookie.

BentleyClark125Though it has virtually nothing to do with this article, Bentley Clark wonders if zombies can get rabies. Opine and give her a piece of your mind in the comments below.

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

The Athletic Mind-set for Writers

by Sherri Burr


In May 2009, I took a research trip to France that included a trip to the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros. At the time, I was putting the finishing touches on a book chapter called “Athletes as Television Celebrities: Why we watch, How they benefit, Must they be responsible.” I love watching athletes at the top of their game and feel they have much to teach writers about discipline, preparation and the head game or mind-set of a champion.

Tip 1: Discipline

Webster’s Dictionary defines discipline as “to train or develop by instruction and exercise [especially] in self-control.” Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and Raphael Nadal became stars in their sport because they trained and developed their talent and skills to a level of perfection that permitted them to overwhelm opponents. One of the challenges is to keep that up after you have obtained a certain level of success.

All of these players struggled in their opening rounds of the French Open as they faced other individuals who were developing their game, wanted to win, and had the discipline to practice, practice, practice. Nadal eventually lost to a Swede named Robin Soderling who thought of him as just another player and exploited the fact that Nadal was not disciplined about his game in the early rounds. The Williams sisters also lost well before reaching the championship round when they showed up with limited preparation to play on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Similarly, writers must be disciplined about developing talent and continuing to exploit it. Just as there can be one grand-slam wonders in tennis, there are a lot of one-book authors. The trick is to keep plugging away. Authors like Tony Hillerman did not start out on the best sellers list. Nor did he write one book and decide to rest on his laurels. Rather, he loved what he did and kept plugging away. Even toward the end of his life, Tony was trying out new plot ideas on friends.

Tip 2: Preparation

Athletes must constantly prepare. They smash balls with hitting partners before their games, study their opponent’s game, and make themselves as physically fit as possible to endure long matches. As writers, we must master our craft. I recommend attending workshops and classes even when you consider yourself an accomplished talent. Be open to learning from different genres. Although I write nonfiction, I once attended an 8-week novel writing class. This class was helpful when I wrote my memoir Living with New Nephew.

Tip 3: The Mental Game

While discipline and preparation are important, star athletes must also have their mental game operating at its peak. The mental game requires belief that you can win and the ability to calm yourself and keep plugging away when you don’t win a point or match as quickly as you’d like.

The number-one ranked female tennis player going into the 2009 French Open was Dinara Safina, a lumberjack-looking 23-year-old Russian who never won a grand slam tennis tournament despite being in three finals. Physically, Safina looks like she can overpower any player with her 6’0″, approximately 180-pound frame. Mentally, she becomes a wreck when she has to play in the finals for a championship. She chastises herself for missing points. “Why am I such a chicken?” she openly asked at the French Open championship.

As writers, we cannot afford to be like Safina. There are enough critics in the world. Rather than become your top critic, become your most important supportive coach. Tell yourself that you can write that article or book. If your dream is to become a published author, then create a business card that says your name followed by the word author. You have to believe it before you can make it a reality.

The bottom line is that to succeed as a writer requires discipline, preparation and a strong mental game. In other words, writers can benefit from adopting an athletic mind-set.

A Short and Happy GuideSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored twenty books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the September 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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