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Writing Life #4

When I give workshops, I usually end with two things: the importance of setting goals as a writer, and the importance of creating a road plan (to-do lists) to reach those goals. Then I babble on a bit wanting to be a travel writer back in 1999 when I started my freelance business. That goal stayed in my head for about three years, until it dawned on me that I’d need an action plan in order to “become” a travel writer. I ended up with a three-page “to-do” list. Daunting? Yes. Do-able? Definitely. Within a year, I added “travel writer” to my portfolio.

Fast forward to 2020. I’ve been in a rut. I’ve grown accustomed to writing the same-old, same-old—for markets which are familiar to me (safe, eh?); I got slack and stale.

For me, upping my game involves many things including learning new skills (writing and photography) and this always creates a degree of anxiety. I don’t learn as quickly as I used to. I struggle with concepts; takes me awhile to “get it.” The notion of finding new markets (and being rejected) is unnerving, and the same applies to facing a blank page and working with a new editor.

So, two weeks ago I holed up in “The Shack” for three nights (a small cabin our property that husband operates as an Air BnB. No electricity or plumbing. Pretty basic.) I went there with one thing in mind: review my business plan, which, to my horror, I hadn’t revisited in over six years. No wonder I was in a rut.  

First, I removed a bunch of things from my plate including trying to figure out a way around the Chronicle Herald’s all-rights grabbing contract. (Please folks, never EVER sign your rights away!) Well, that was simple. Stop trying to find a loop hole. Bye bye CH. I also said bye bye to other low paying markets, and removed a lot of time-sucks such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram accounts that were cluttering my in-box.

Then I looked at my old to-do list which included things like: line up the rest of the interviews re: Maud—and many other things related to completing a book about Maud Lewis. But my heart was not in that book, and hasn’t been for the past two years. Guess what? Off my plate! Bye bye Maudie.

Next, I added things I’ve wanted to do but didn’t have the time to do (or so I thought). For example, finish an online photography course with Annie Leibovitz I started a couple of years ago; figure out how to write better (including how to craft braided essays and hermit crab essays—and find markets for them!); write a book about my mother (working title: Mama Stories); write a book about my goofy dog, Bailey (working title: From Bailey’s Point of View); change the focus of my lifestyle/ travel stories to more in-depth features/narratives. Etcetera. But I’m also conscious of removing from my roster more than I add, as one of my goals is to create more space in my life. Eh-yep.

And here’s the thing: I believe that as soon as we do our part (the grunge work) someone in the next realm does their part and opens doors. Could be angels, fairies or that great unknown spirit-in-the-sky. Matters not. The stars line up; things happen.

To wit: As I continued where I left off a few years ago with Natalie Goldberg’s writing prompts (# 63 to be exact) a couple new ones that I wrote actually held some promise. I fleshed one out right away about the healing power of Pâté Chinois, and workshopped it with two colleagues.

Miracle of miracles! Early this morning I saw a call for Op-Eds in the NYTimes which I thought was a good fit. I also polished a pitch (food essay) and sent to Harpers Magazine. Mind you, chances of getting a green light at either place may be as slim as a sheet of paper, but those two publications are looking for work (as discovered in the member’s Job Bank of the Canadian Freelance Guild). Gotta go fishing to catch a fish, right?  The point is that I’ve  upped my game and I’m seeking new markets. That simply was not in the cards a month ago.  

Part of my to-do list includes re-reading books I’ve recommended to others about the craft of writing. But I’m committed to going beyond just reading them. In the process, I’m re-inventing myself as a writer. I’m excited! I have a new boss. Moi! And I like her.

I’ve also connected with a colleague in another province and we’ve teamed up to poke and prod each other. Over a phone conversation last week, a book title crept into the conversation: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (edited by Dinty W. Moore.) Shortly after we finished our chat, I went to abebooks with the intention of ordering it. Only, when I saw the cover, it looked familiar. Sure ‘nuff, it’s been sitting on my book shelf for years—in mint condition, collecting dust. More about this book (and other resources) in my next post.

Meanwhile, if you are a writer reading this, do you have a goal or goals? (If so, when was the last time your revised them?) Do you have to-do lists/road maps related to your goal[s]?

Do tell—or at least give this some thought!


  1. joesy joesy
    May 21, 2020    

    I’m looking forward to meeting the NEW Sandra Phinney and reading her amazing writings.

    • May 21, 2020    

      Haha. Joesy, you crack me up. But let it me known that I’m waiting for YOU do come up with goal[s] and to-do lists. I will nag you until you do!

  2. May 21, 2020    

    A very timely read this morning – first email I saw (other than the zillion ads/promotional ones). Ive been “playing” at writing my memoir for two years and have not much to show for it. Time to settle down and make a plan, the first step of which will be – write it or not.

    Thank you so much for the prod and good luck with the “new you” too.

    • May 21, 2020    

      Oh Ceci, I hope that within a week, you’ve contacted me to say you have a plant TO WRITE your memoir. Just do it!

  3. Susan Surette-Draper Susan Surette-Draper
    May 21, 2020    

    I enjoyed your article on re-visiting goals. I especially like the positive note at the end. There has been so much bad news lately. What I really wanted to tell you though, is that our writers group (which can’t meet physically these days) is communicating using the list of prompts you sent as a guide. Every week we work on one. It has been the perfect way to stay in touch and encourage each other with our writing. Thanks a lot!

    • May 21, 2020    

      What great news that your group is still able to communicate and that you are using the prompts! Best news ever Susan! The next step of course, will be to set a time for everyone to select one and develop it into an essay for publication! Do keep that in mind so the prompts don’t languish cooped up in a binder. Carry on!

  4. Ginny Boudreau Ginny Boudreau
    May 21, 2020    

    As always Sandra, you inspire me to look at things in new ways. I’m now thinking a plot plan (maybe one that I can physically “see”!) would be helpful. I’m going to give it a try. I’ve come to realize that mostly I have a lot of nebulous ideas clanging around in my head and it’s pure serendipity (as opposed to any structured advance planning on my part) when “the stars align”. This was great food for thought and a perfect way to begin the day. Thank you!

    • May 21, 2020    

      Yes, Giinny, I think “seeing” plot plans means I can also “see” my progress. And it’s VERY satisfying to cross things off the list. I’ve always used to-do lists in my work but now realize that because I hadn’t revised my goals for so long, the to-do lists were simply repeating themselves. Different topics maybe but same outcomes. Now that my goals have changed, and my game plan relfects that, my outcomes are going to be very very different. And much of this has to do with you, dear heart, and your inspiring interview.

  5. May 21, 2020    

    Sandra – well said. It reminds me of something I read recently: write with intent. Shortening the list of to dos and focusing is a great step. More is not necessarily better. I think in all this Covid time I am learning that. Slowing down to let something simmer, or to readjust, is a good thing. I discovered I love writing at night! Weird, eh? haha. I always thought morning was my time.
    You inspire me. Keep shaking it up! Melanie

    • May 21, 2020    

      Eh-yep … Marion Smith is BIG on writing with intent. And, yes, slowing down is good. Challenge for some of us. haha. Interesting that writing a night is now your time. Yay for you! And, Melanie, we need to yak about you being a guest here and talking specifically about writing your memoir book. xxxooo

  6. Charlotte Charlotte
    May 21, 2020    

    This confinement has cleared my agenda to finally pull out my writing archives. Some material might be salvaged with careful editing to create a collection of essays. Looking through all this material tempted me to write again, especially with two or three ideas that recently emerged. Now that I have been back for 20 years in Montréal, I feel my English is no longer as strong as my French. While the potential market in English is far bigger and more lucrative than it is in French, I would have to see if writing in English, especially a novel, is realistic. My action plan is leading to a pretty long to-do list. Thank you for sharing your wake-up experience and I know you will gain from pulling out of your former comfort zone.

    • May 21, 2020    

      How lovely to see you pop into view Charlotte! For what it’s worth, I’d be tempted to write in the language that feels most comfortable. Publishing houses have translators! On the other hand, if you are seeking markets for essays, yes, there are more options in English … but you also can hire an editor to check for word usage etc. Although I bet with practice (writing more in English) that your skills/word usage would slide up to par with your French skills. Experiment!

  7. John Irving John Irving
    May 21, 2020    

    My goal is to read “Mama’s Stories”. So, when you get to writing them….

    • May 21, 2020    

      Ahhh, John. I have several written. Now I need to revise them, add to them, then pull together into a manuscript. I’ve started that journey. But would be happy to send you a couple vignettes via email if you wish. Do you have memories of her???

  8. Kathleen Kathleen
    May 22, 2020    

    You go grl! I think you’ve made a very wise choice and I may just try and emulate you, though doing it with art work (painting and printmaking). Keep on keepin’ on!

    • May 23, 2020    

      Happy to hear this Kathleen! Send an image or two when you can. I’d love to see your work!

  9. Joyce Glasner Joyce Glasner
    May 24, 2020    

    Wonderful piece on rediscovering your excitement & enthusiasm Sandra! Very inspiring!

    • May 26, 2020    

      It’s wonderful to FEEL inspired Joyce!n Thanks for popping into view dear heart. Long over due for a visit!

  10. June 2, 2020    

    thank you for giving me inspiration {as you always do}Busy in my garden for now.
    Always thinking of writing memoirs.

    • June 3, 2020    

      Happy to see you pop into view Mabel! Hope you get beyond “thinking” of writing your memoirs. I know you have a bazillion stories in your belly!

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