Author Debra Goldstein's Unusual Advice on Writer Productivity

I can't multi-task, so when I hear about someone who accomplishes more in one day than I can think of doing in a week, it's like getting a peek into an alternate universe. My guest today has a surprising solution for writer's who want to increase productivity, but I'll let her tell you.

Debra H. Goldstein wears so many hats that it's best to let her describe herself:

"I hate to be pigeon-holed. Debra H. Goldstein, judge, author, litigator, wife, step-mom, mother of twins, civic volunteer, Yankee, and Southern Woman writer are all words that have been used to describe me.  My writings are equally diverse. Maze in Blue, my debut novel, is published by Chalet Publishers, LLC.  Even though Maze in Blue is a murder mystery, it is a safe bet that when it comes to my writing, "It's Not Always a Mystery." 
She modestly skipped mention of her awards for humor, nonfiction, and short stories, which offer proof that her methods pay off. Read what she's got to say and then give it a try. The worst that can happen is you'll do something nice, earn the respect of your family and peers, and become a valuable member of society.

Debra G. Goldstein's Advice to Writers
           Promising to focus time and energy on writing probably was the most recurrent 2012 New Year’s writer’s resolution posted on writers’ blogs and discussion boards.  Most of the pledgers plan to increase their writing output by limiting outside activities and distractions.  Not me.  I resolve to take the opposite approach – balance my writing with volunteering as much as I can.

            I’ve tried it both ways and for the sake of my sanity and my writing, I opt for interacting with family and community organizations.  Isolation may work for some writers, but, in reality, most of us can’t spend the entire day chained to our computers churning out quality work.   For me, walking the dog, sharpening the pencil I won’t use, cleaning my computer screen, patting the dog on the head, emptying the waste basket, deciding what to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then making and eating it, and taking the dog out for his last walk doesn’t result in many well-written pages.  I piddle the day away and when I re-read what I finally do get on paper, I realize that my ideas and writing, without outside stimulation, are flat.

            Imagination is the organic building block for poems, stories, and novels, but imagination alone isn’t enough.  Writers are thieves.  We steal setting, character traits and quirky behavioral descriptions from the people and places we come in contact with.  For me, doing things like helping with tornado relief, being a Girl Scout leader, or working with groups that fight breast cancer or domestic violence is an important means of giving back, but just as often it is the genesis for a character or setting.  Pro-bono legal work has found its way into two of my short stories; leadership articles reflect my Girl Scout experiences; and even selling doughnuts to raise money became a pivotal scene in my novel, Maze in Blue.  I’m not alone in translating conscious and subconscious elements from volunteer experiences into my writings.

            Scott Turow and John Grisham are examples of writers who used pro bono death penalty work to germinate their respective ideas for Ultimate Penalty and The Confession.   The bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, grew out of an effort to build schools for girls in Pakistan.  Mark Twain demonstrated how a person volunteers and what happens when each person does a little bit of work in the scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom finagles all the boys to paint Aunt Polly’s fence.  Perhaps one of the best depictions of an author’s use of the impact acts of giving can have on an entire community is found in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  In all of these examples, the writers stole gems of ideas from personal volunteering or observation to create their stories.

Passion and conviction for the cause one volunteers for often is the catalyst for eloquent writing.   It is only fitting to note on the day this blog is appearing, Martin Luther King’s birthday, that two of his most well remembered works are tied to actions on behalf of the civil rights movement.  His “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” might have been written in some form, but not with the intensity and depth of spirit his volunteer experiences generated.  Similarly, John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” spurred a generation to act on behalf of others and to produce written works and movies dealing with the concepts of ‘paying it forward’ and doing ‘random acts of kindness.’

            Writers also gain from the networking that is an indirect benefit of participating in community activities.  When I serve on a committee or board, I invariably meet people whose personalities spark character or story ideas, but I also build close friendships with people who have interests similar to mine.  Some of these friends have later been the ones to read and critique my manuscripts or to offer me the encouragement I need to reach the next level in my writing.

Sometimes giving up a few hours of writing time can produce a work that will last far longer than the story one is working on.  When my daughter was in seventh grade, Anne George, the Alabama poet laureate and an accomplished mystery writer, came to her school and taught an hour writing workshop.  She showed the children how each could take a word like ‘blue’ and create an entirely different poem or story using it.  During that hour, she made writing real to those students.  Maybe if Anne George hadn’t repeatedly taken time from her work to visit schools, talk to youth groups and scouts, speak to women’s professional groups, or been willing to talk to aspiring writers about her craft, she could have written another book or two before her untimely death; but, the impact of her outreach and networking would have been lost.
            Although the 2012 New Year’s Eve resolution to write in a vacuum says what writers most crave – the need for time and energy for writing, it fails to reflect the give and take of the simple act of volunteering.  That from the giving comes energized thoughts that can be balanced, no matter how little time is available, into works of quality.

Thank you, Debra!  Make sure to visit Debra's website to read her blog and discover independent bookstores that sell her book. Maze of Blue is available in paperback and for Kindle and Nook


  1. I hope to do more volunteering in 2012. You make a great case for it Debra.

  2. It may sound petty to be jealous of a 7th grader, but how lucky was your daughter to hear Anne George?!?

    I salute your advocacy on giving back to the writing community. Last year, I facilitated Free Writes at my county library--little work on my part other than some prep and my time, but it was a lot of fun.

    The best learning experience of my writing life came through volunteering. I mentored a teen book group at a large public high school. I learned so much from the students--more than I ever learned from a conference or writing book.

    Both times, I felt I got more than I gave.

  3. A very inspiring post. But we do expand our writing universe when we do other things like teach or volunteer in the community. Even crafting or cooking frees those little gray cells to dig deeper and stretch our imagination.

  4. I loved this post. It's been proven that volunteering and giving back to others releases endorphins resulting in feelings of optimism and well being. Nothing like a few endorphins to stimulate a writer!

  5. This year the priest at my parish asked me to serve on the Bishop's Committee (governing board). At first I thought "I don't have time, I have to write." But after reading this post, maybe I should make the time and get away from the keyboard occassionally. And you're right about how writers fiddle away their time. Sometimes when I have a huge chunk of time to write I end up playing computer games. Thanks for your thoughts and getting us all back on track.
    Sally Carpenter

    1. Ah. I thought maybe the problem of wasted time was mine alone. Barbara Sher, a motivational speaker, says the more we do, the more time we wind up having. I've tried it, and she's right. I just don't try it enough. And a Bishop's Committee? How intimidating, but what an honor. You must have a lot to offer, Sally!

  6. What good points! I'm a bad one for overhearing (accidentally, of course) conversations around me, even copying them down sometimes. Can't do that at home.

  7. Debra used one of my favorite words: balance. It's also what I strive to do. Volunteering adds such a rich dimension to my life, which can only help with the inspiration needed to write. Great article!

    1. You're another great volunteer, Pam. Always giving back to the community. That's probably how you get inside your characters so well.

  8. Debra, I'm sorry about the delay in posting, but I've discovered I can't get to the comments with IE. Sheesh! Your inspiring. Seriously. You may have gotten my parish a new public relations person. They hinted around yesterday (which I completely ignored) but now I think it may be a win-win! Thank you for sharing!

  9. Thank you all for your comments..... and for all that I know (and read) that all of you do. In trying to write, I waste a lot of time searching for the right words or an idea that may have meaning, but it is the balance (and yes, I've learned over the years ... especially being a type A person... to strive for that) of family, volunteering, and all my other interests that, I hope, comes through in the pieces that I finally write. I'm not prolific, but I hope that the ideas are worth sharing. Jackie...thanks again for having me as a guest. It's nice to be invited to periodically wander from and my personal blog --- Debra

  10. Thanks for this. Very nice seeing this as an interview. Congratulations on Oak Tree. Tim of Sunny's posse at


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