Writing Lessons & Pinky MacOinkus: Guest Post by Jan O’Hara

I met Jan O’Hara somewhere along the cyber highway. The when or where doesn’t matter so much as the fact that I liked her immediately. Maybe it’s her red hair or that sassy attitude or the fact that she loves Colin Firth as much (if not more) than me. Any fan of Colin is a friend of mine. I’m thrilled to host Jan today; she offers us great insight into writing and leaves us with a link to a virtual hug any time we want one. Welcome, Jan!

How Introvertus Interruptus Taught Me
Four Simple Writing Lessons

As a self-identified introvert, who generally becomes re-energized in solitude, imagine how surprised I was to find myself rocking a people-filled errand day this past summer.

It didn’t seem to matter where I went, either. Whether I was in the coffee shop, the grocery store, the bottle depot, the library, people were uniformly warm and receptive to my jokes. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “This could be addicting.” For a brief time it almost seemed possible to have a hive-free social life.

Then I caught a woman eyeing my chest.

Now, peeps, you don’t know me, but trust me when I say she wasn’t flirting with me or evaluating me as a sexual competitor. Nor was she a reality show makeover artist who’d found her next hapless victim client. Rather, she was my educator, for as her gaze scanned my boobage and a smile bloomed on her lips, I finally understood what had triggered that morning’s success:

  1. When I’d straggled out of bed and, in an unthinking moment, thrown on my husband’s pumpkin-orange t-shirt – the one with the caption My Mama Thinks I’m Special – I began to project a certain personality.
  2. Presumably thinking I was informal, approachable, and had a healthy sense of humor, strangers engaged me at an atypical level.
  3. We began a positive feedback loop in which pleasant conversation led to more of the same.
  4. The change was so profound I rethought my self-imposed label of “socially awkward.”

Why am I telling you this, and what bearing does this have on the world of writing? Well, I took a few lessons from that experience:

1. When working with people, it’s hard to go wrong if you operate from a place of self-deprecating humor. This is true whether you’re crafting blog posts, tweets, a Facebook status, or simply putting butt in chair to write fiction. People are eager to laugh and connect.

2. If the writing is going well, huzzah! Carry on. But if it isn’t and you’re trying desperately to recreate whatever worked three months or three years ago because that is the way you write best, dang it!, reconsider. Quite simply, we aren’t always the best judge of why things go well or go poorly. All we can do is experiment in a spirit of hope and tenacity until we find the combo that works for right now.

3. Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself about your struggles as a writer, because to some degree, we get what we expect. Optimists label setbacks as temporary, external, and specific to particular circumstances. So for instance, it’s healthier to say, “I haven’t mastered the art of scene transition yet,” than to say, “I suck as a writer.” (And it’s healthier to say “I tend to be an introvert” rather than “I’m a socially-awkward hermit.”)

4. Take the time to view your writing environment with fresh eyes. What does it tell the world about the importance writing plays in your life? What does it tell you? Within the resources available to you right now, are you making it as easy as possible to slip into a productive writing mode?

For instance, I work better without clutter. If my office gets away from me and I don’t have time to tidy it, I’ll head to the coffee shop or library to write, then come back to establish order.

I also work better when I don’t take myself too seriously, so I’ve tried to extrapolate that Forrest-Gump-shirt ethos to my office, using free or reasonably-priced props that require little maintenance. Once set up, they act on a subliminal level to relax me and buoy my spirits.

This is why my office walls feature Betty Boop tin art and I’ve been known to wear Mr. Bean t-shirts. My mechanical timer, which I use to motivate myself for less-pleasant tasks, is a pig named Pinky MacOinkus.

On days where I’m feeling a touch of loneliness, I switch Pinky out for a timer my brother made specifically for me. The latter displays a customized picture and sound, so every time I use it, it’s almost like getting a hug. (If you have a PC and would like to try it, you are welcome to download the TartAlarm with this link).

What about you folks? Are you an introvert who’s discovered untapped depths of extroversion? Have you worked to change your internal dialogue about your writerly struggles? If you could make one modest improvement to your writing space, what would it be? Conversely, what feature of your office brings you the most pleasure?

Jan O’Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer on Writer Unboxed, she’s hard at work on her contemporary romances, hoping one day soon to become unqualified for the position. She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children, and welcomes visitors to her citrus-infused blog, Tartitude. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

About Christi

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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35 Responses to Writing Lessons & Pinky MacOinkus: Guest Post by Jan O’Hara

  1. Vaughn Roycroft says:

    Oh Jan, I must have one of those tee-shirts. 🙂 Introvert here. Moved to a town of 400 to escape Chicago–the press of humanity became a bit too crushing there for me. I’m easily flipped from positivity, so I’m taking to heart your advice about staying mindful of the stories I tell about myself. In fact, I’m making it a resolution for ’12!

    Awesome post, Jan, and thanks for my New Year’s resolution! Thanks for having her, Christi.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Well that goes to show you: I would have predicted you were planning an office renovation.

      If you’re looking for t-shirts that make you laugh, I love Think Geek. 🙂

  2. Michelle Beattie says:


    I was wondering where you were going with that woman looking at your chest…ha!
    I live too far from a coffee shop to just pop in, so when the muse isn’t working, I do dishes. I loathe dishes, but they always get me out of jam. A dirty office doesn’t bother me as much as the rest of my house. There was one day I had to vacuum. Once that was done, I could concentrate again. But I agree with you that we aren’t the best judges of our work. Often times the scenes I think are awful and are like pulling teeth to write, end up being the best ones when I’m editing.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      There’s something about water that works for a lot of people, Michelle. I have friends who swear by the shower. One went so far as to install an aqua board, which I gather scuba divers use to communicate. However, your family probably appreciates your technique.

  3. Pingback: Christi Craig: Brave Host or Outrageous Risk-Taker? « Tartitude

  4. I am only in recent years owned up to my introversion (is that a word?). I haven’t learned much from it, but I am a huge introvert. So is my husband. I spent too many years trying desperately to be an extrovert and the life of the party, but now that I’ve owned up to who I am, I’m much happier. 🙂

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      April, I think that’s true of many of us — trying to be something we aren’t. It’s easier to be older, wiser, and more self-accepting, isn’t it?

      I have one introvert child, too. I think I’m a better mom than I might be otherwise because I know he’s not shy, so much as needing to recharge.

  5. Great post, Jan! I find I flip from introvert to ‘able to fake it’ extrovert’ based on a bunch of factors, including how well I’m writing at the moment. I like your advice to reframe your internal dialogue — I’ve been trying to just IGNORE it, which doesn’t seem to work as well. : )

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Liz, I’m laughing because my capacity to cope with “life” very much depends on my perception of the writing. (Putting “life” in quotes, because it’s an artificial construct to view it as separate from writing.) I think you’ve seen my favorite Neil Gaiman quote?

      “When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”

      That’s me all the way.

  6. Introvert who loves to chat with people but needs a crowbar to get her out of the house. And I recently made a big improvement to my office space. I convinced my husband to move out of it. I love him but not in my office and not when I’m writing. 🙂

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Sheila, I didn’t know you were that much of a hermit. That explains a few things… 😉

      The ToolMaster and I shared an office for years when I was in school and he was working overtime at work. We did well together, but there’s no way I could write with him in the same room. You probably saved yourself an unnecessary divorce.

  7. Jan, I think the experience wearing your husband’s shirt is like … if you whistle a happy tune, no one will know you’re afraid. It’s like you were fooled into believing if only for that one day, that you were an extrovert and badda bing … you became one.

    The trauma of extreme change can send me into a tailspin. I just did a complete overhaul of my work space, and while I haven’t gotten the “grove” back I do see that when I recover, I will be very happy to work in a calmer place.

    “Fooling” myself into a good mood or proding me out of a bad mood begins with music, so at the end of this horror I went to Pandora PC radio and played two non-stop hours of old Christmas songs. By the third go-around I was rockin’ around the Christmas tree and felt better 🙂 Thanks to you and Christi for this thoughtful moment.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      That’s exactly how it worked, Florence. The neat thing is, once a person has been tricked into acting differently, they can never go back; I’ll always know I can be outgoing in the right circumstances and mindset.

      Wishing you many happy writing days in your new work space.

  8. Can somebody tell me HOW to clean my office? I know I would work much better without the Clutter, but I keep putting one more thing in here “just for now” and I feel like the Cat in the Hat and this mess is so big and so deep and so tall!

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Yes. I will tell you. Use a timer and dedicate 15 minutes a day at the end of the day when you’re too tired to write. I actually have a 15-minute tidying period programmed into Outlook now. I ignore it at least 4 days of the week, but that’s 45 minutes I slip in seamlessly that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It helps, Suzanne.

      But Dr. Seuss is also very fun. The ToolMaster has a Cat in the Hat t-shirt I’ve been known to borrow, too. 🙂

  9. Beth Hoffman says:

    Wonderful post!

    *waves arms over head* I’m a card-carrying introvert, and the older I get, the more I’m thrilled by it. LOL!

  10. Louise B says:

    Jan, thanks for the chuckle. I have always been an extrovert until about 10 years ago when I found that people are exhausting. As I age, I am much more comfortable in my own skin and alone in my own home. But I need to connect with others or I become a hermit. a grumpy one. So I strike a balance between extroversion and introversion.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Ah, yes. I have the same requirement for balance. Too much time with others and I’m cranky, too little and I’m grumpy. Our poor families, huh?

      Thanks for coming by, Louise.

  11. I would say I’m a closet introvert. I know, sounds oxymoron-ish, right? Let me explain. I grew up a pretty shy kid. Then I met my best friend who was the opposite of shy. Then I met my husband in college. Again, the anti-shy. My job out of college was as a technical recruiter for a staffing firm. My job was to meet people and hopefully hire them. However, as I have pursued my writing career, I could sit for days without stepping out in public. I don’t NEED to be out there in the world. But once I do, I will gab like I have a pull string in my back.

    If I could change something about my writing space would be that I would have more shelves and an organization system that I would actually use. I have yet to find one. My office is a hot mess right now. No wonder I have been feeling unproductive.

    The one thing I love about it is that it is all mine. My husband thought he would be able to bring work home and get some things done. But he wouldn’t step in here if I was sitting here naked. He hates clutter and I am sure he might have a heart attack if he had to spend more than thirty seconds in this chaos.

    Great to see you on Christi’s blog!

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Hallie, you probably straddle the lines between introvert and extrovert. That’s a nice place to be.

      LOL about your husband. If you want a solution, do give a timer a try, especially if it’s something that doesn’t require brainpower so much as time and dedication. I put on loud music and do it for fifteen minutes. Sometimes I don’t even stop.

  12. Christi Christi says:

    Jan, I’m loving this whole discussion. I’m so glad you dropped by for a guest post!

    For me, I’m an introvert who can play extrovert for short stints. However, my body always gives me away. I heat up like a thermometer and turn red from my chest to my ears. Crazy.

    My office is collecting dust right not. It’s organized, for the most part, but it’s also ten degrees colder than the rest of the house. I write better under warm blankets than I do the basement office. I write best in a coffee shop down the street. I think it’s that fancy brew.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      I’m thrilled you had me, Christi. Thank you. You have lovely readers.

      Re blushing: are you that fair-skinned? I blush, but I don’t think I’d be impersonating a fire engine.

      Coffee shops are wonderful, aren’t they? Spendy and rear-enlarging, but wonderful.

      • Christi Christi says:

        I’m quite transparent (imagine: after a long winter, the first day in shorts can be hazardous to those around me because of the glare alone). It’s sort of becoming my “gimmick,” since -like you say- when working with people, humor works best 🙂

        On coffee shops, I felt bad for a bit that I was spending money on cup after cup of Jo, then a friend suggested I look at it like an investment in my writing. I thing I can afford to invest a few dollars a day if it means the words make it to the page.

  13. Victoria says:

    Ah ha! Yes, like Christi, I want to be warm and my usual writing spot makes my toes curl. Sitting here on the couch under blankets and cats isn’t imbuing a sense of writing urgency so much as–ah, look at that tree with all the lights; I should make cocoa. I think I need a Mr. Bean shirt.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Everyone needs a Mr. Bean t-shirt.

      I like the couch when I’m feeling particularly anxious about a scene, but otherwise, the coziness and tendency to slouch make me sleepy. Your couch-cat-tree set-up sounds lovely, though. 🙂

  14. Lisa Ahn says:

    I loved following you along on this story, though I had no idea where you were going. You write the best adventures 🙂
    My favorite line is this one: “All we can do is experiment in a spirit of hope and tenacity until we find the combo that works for right now.” There is so much of value there, from the tricky combination of hope and tenacity, to the idea that every tool passes its “best buy” date and then we invent, scrounge, or borrow another one — for now.
    I also needed to hear your advice about the stories we tell ourselves about our abilities as writers. I think I need some serious — or not so serious — revisions there. Thanks Jan.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Ah, from one self-doubter to another, I understand. (And many thanks for the kind words. You’ve always been hugely encouraging.)

      Lisa, have you read “The War of Art”? There’s a passage in it which is strongly-worded, but which I’ve found to be true. You might appreciate it:

      “Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reasons with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of sh*t.”

      That protean aspect is true for me; that’s why I believe the solutions have to adapt, too.

  15. Jan, what a great post!

    I’m seriously late to reading it, but definitely taking a few things from this. Your advice about the stories we tell ourselves hit home. And I have to find a fun timer and start using it – especially for that unsavory tidy time.

    And now, this troll is going back into her cave. 🙂

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