Archive | Focus

Focus Defeats Fear Every Time

I’m just going to come right out and say it: focus drive the fear away.  Yup, it does.Eye Sculpture

Because when you are focused in the moment, you are connected with your work. You’re not thinking about the past, the 100th rejection you just got on your novel, or how the essay you’re working on refuses to come together.

You’re not thinking about the future—where you will submit this story, what your agent will think of it, if it gets rejected again.

You are in the moment, right here, right now just you and the computer, or typewriter, or pen and paper.  And in that moment, there is no fear.  Just you, putting words on the page.

Ah, but here’s the rub: it is fear itself that stops us from focusing.

I separate fears into two levels.

The first level is the obvious stuff, the things we let distract us.  We fear we will miss something if we don’t check Facebook first thing in the morning.   That we have to answer that text or phone call right now.  That the email we’ve been waiting for might have come in, so it is imperative to check one more time.  That one quick game of Spider Solitaire (or insert your favorite) will relax your mind.

 But then we get to the second-level fears, the really juicy stuff. Fear that what we are writing isn’t good enough. Fear it won’t accomplish our goals for it. (Best-selling novel! Article published in the New York Times! Short story accepted by the New Yorker!) Fear that all the hours alone in the room will come to naught. Fear that family will read the completed memoir and get angry. I could go on and on but I don’t need to, because I’m pretty sure you can insert your own special fear in a hot second.

The thing is, it is most often these deeper fears, the second level stuff, that leads us to first level activities. It is ever so much easier to read emails and cruise around social media first thing in the morning than it is to concentrate on your current work in progress. And, worse, as a writer, you can, convince yourself that it is vitally necessary for you to do all these things. You’re building your platform, after all. Keeping up with what’s going on in your field (we have to know everything about marketing and publishing now, of course).

And the really funny thing is that once you get to the page and start throwing words at it, you likely will be so absorbed that you’ll forget all your fears.  You just have to get there and you have to give yourself a few minutes at it to sink in.

So, I’m telling you focus is it, baby.  If you’re struggling with it (and I do all the time), here’s some suggestions for you:

  1. Call yourself out. Don’t tell yourself you’re researching when you’re looking at cat videos. Tell it like it is—you’re wasting time and distracting yourself from what you should be doing. Or:
  2. .Observe yourself. If you’re really in a distractible phase, #1 might be too much. The other technique is to just start observing what you are doing. Oh isn’t this interesting, I got distracted by ________ again.  The idea is that when you catch yourself doing it over and over again, eventually you’ll want to change your behavior.
  3. Build in breaks. If you really, truly must watch those cat videos give yourself time to do it—after you’ve finished your writing.
  4. Don’t rely on shadow comforts. I believe Jennifer Louden coined this term, and the first time I read it I knew exactly what she meant. A shadow comfort is mindlessly surfing the internet or whatever your distraction of choice is. It may be your default that you turn to when you are stuck in your writing or don’t know what else to do.
  5. Do things that feed you. Take a break and do the crossword puzzle, or go knit a few rows. Pet your cat (I say that because one of mine has just taken up residence between me and my computer). Walk around the block.  Whatever you do, make it intentional. It may be cat videos, and if so go for it.  But decide what works for you ahead of time.
  6. Do timed sprints. I tend to forget about and rediscover this technique all the time. When I’m doing it, I love it. Set your timer for an amount of time you’d like to totally focus.  Mine is 25 minutes. Then focus only on the task at hand for those minutes.  When the timer goes off, take a break.  Get up and walk around, stretch, grab a glass of water. And then start over.
  7. Download Freedom.  It will disable the internet on your computer for however long you tell it.  A wonderful tool, worthy of its name, and the basic plan is free.
  8. Don’t even think about multi-tasking. Think you’re good at it? You’re wrong. Read this article and your mind will change.

What are your favorite ways to find focus and defeat fear? Please share below, or hit reply and email me. And now please excuse me, but I’ve got a date with a game of Spider Solitaire.

Photo by dbking.

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My BEST Writing Tip, I Promise

Writing_writer_dark_2531_lHemingway knew it and used it.

I've expounded on it numerous times, including recently. (That juxtaposition of sentences makes it appear that I might be comparing myself to Hemingway, to which I say: bwahahahaha).

It is the single most helpful tip for you to get words on the page, and here it is:

KNOW WHERE THE FECK* YOU ARE GOING BEFORE YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE.

Case in point:

Me, yesterday morning.  I got up at the usual time to work on the novel.  I've been doing some re-organization on it and I planned to finish that up before moving on. After my plot session with Cathy Yardley, I have some changes to make.  However,  I am not going to go back and fuss over the first few chapters.  I am making good notes and writing a few additional scenes, but I'm not going back to change things.  Because that way, madness lies.  And not finishing drafts.

The night before, I had dutifully made some notes of what I wanted to accomplish–where, ahem, I was going–on a little yellow index card.  And that morning I sat down, ready to refer to my notes and get going. 

But I couldn't find the little yellow index card.

Panic in Needle Park!*   (I looked it up! Its a movie!)

I couldn't, for the life of me, remember what I had promised myself I would do.  So I farted around on the internet.  Looked at knitting sites. Read blogs. Checked email, again.

And then finally reminded myself that my brain was stronger than that and I could indeed remember what I had set out to do. So I did it, sort of.  But I'd easily wasted valuable writing time.

And of course, later that day I found the little yellow index card.  And at least the experience reminded me of how important it is to my process to KNOW WHERE I'M GOING.  And it gave me a blog post.

Here's a little something I found for you, since we were talking about Hemingway.  It's his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  But before you watch it, how about you let on what your best writing tip is?

 

*Feck is my new favorite British-ism, or at least I'm assuming its British because I picked it up in that silly British novel I just read.

**Don't ask, its something my sister and I say to each other, based on, I think, the name of a long-ago book.

Photo by re_birf used under Creative Commons license.

 

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The Secret to Writing More Than You Ever Thought Possible

Cartoon guy with crayonTo get more writing done, you could get up earlier, or stay up later.  To get more writing done you could close the door to your office and post a sign threatening death and dismemberment to anyone who enters.  You could escape to the coffee shop or go on a retreat. You could run away from home or refuse to leave it.

All of those are great ideas for getting writing done.  But none of them are worth the powder to blow them to hell without this one thing.  And so, da da da dum….the secret to getting more writing done than you ever thought possible is…wait for it…

Focus!

I swear, in this day and age, focus is more precious than a king's treasures.  We have so many distractions pressing in on us all day, every day.  (For an amazing infographic that shows how much data is created every minute on the internet, click here.) And it's not just the internet. Some of us have families. (And don't think for a minute that once your kids are grown up, their distractions end. Ha! Then the grandchildren come along and it starts all over again.) Some have demanding jobs.  Or farms to manage. Or marathons to run.

All of these things combine to make focus a rare and twinkling jewel that is often hard to attain.  And since I am one of the most distractible humans on the planet (bright shiny object!) I have made a study of practices and techniques and even pills (yes, pills) that will help.  These are lessons learned the hard way, by me, the Queen of Beguilement. So here we go:

1. Know where you're going.  If you don't follow any of the other tips listed here, try this one.  It is the one that makes the most difference for me, hands down.  If I know what I'm going to write next, I'll get to the page and write it.  If I don't know, I stray onto the internet and before I know it, my time for writing is done.  A confused brain is a wandering brain.

2. Timed writing sprints.  Life saving.  Use the timer on your smart phone or find an app on the computer.  Set it for a pre-allotted period of time and then write and do nothing else until the timer goes off.  Then get up and walk around-sitting too long isn't good for you.  (Or get a stand-up desk.  I just did.) Start with 30 minutes and see how that works.  I've been working with 30-45 minute sprints.

3.  Remember, the writer is the one who stays in the room.  Last May, my daughter and I went to Seattle for the weekend.  We spent one glorious afternoon ensconced at a table at Elliott Bay Books.  She read design books and I read books on writing.  I perused a book by an author whose name escapes me and what impressed me was his quote, something to the effect that the writer is the one who stays in the room.  Because, I know I'm guilty of writing a sentence and then allowing myself to get distracted in the name of thinking.  Pay attention to how you work, you might find the same thing. So stay in the room.  This is actually a mindful practice that gets easier over time.

4. Chunk it down.  Sit down to write a book and you'll get totally overwhelmed.  But tell yourself that all you have to write is one paragraph–or one sentence–and that is something you can do.  So break your writing up into doable sections.  Remember what Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird–she keeps a small picture frame by her desk to remind herself that all she has to write is what she can see through the frame.

5.  Try a probiotic.  Here's that pill I promised you.  The good organisms that grow in your gut have a direct impact on your brain, and if you don't have a healthy stomach, you might have trouble focusing.  There's been a ton of research on this coming out recently.  You can read one article here

6.  Cultivate healthy thinking habits. When I'm stuck, or just need to think for a minute, I convince myself that taking a brief break on the internet will benefit me.  Ha! There's a rabbit hole, for sure.  What does work is for me to get up and walk around the house, or step outside for a minute.  It works for me to knit a row or two, or go put a load of laundry in the washing machine, or drink a glass of water.  I need to remember these healthy habits and use them instead of the unhealthy ones.

7.  Remember your passion.  A passionate mind is a focused mind.  When was the last time you were so engaged in a project that time passed and you were unaware of it?  That's focus at its highest level.  And passion can take you there.

8.  Meditate.  I hate this one, but it works, if for no other reason than it calms your mind.  And a calm mind is a focused mind.  I'm an on-again, off-again meditator, and I've probably not ever done it long enough at one stretch to really reap the full benefits of it, but I know when I do do it how much it helps.

9.  Get your ya-yas out.  Otherwise known as journaling.  When your brain is full of things you have to do, people you're holding grudges against, or other minutia of daily life, it is not a well-functioning brain.  It is an overloaded brain.  One way to deal with this is to dump it all on the page.  Journal first thing in the morning or last thing at night.  Use your journal as a brain dump, putting it all out there so your mind doesn't have to deal with it.

10.  Keep a notepad, scratch paper or index cards next to your computer.  When you have an idea that distracts you–a thought for a different part of the project, something you forgot to do, an item to add to the grocery list–note it and carry on with your writing.  Then make a time to go through all your jottings and deal with it accordingly.  This is an enormously helpful practice.

So those are my hard-won ideas about focus, what are yours?

Photo by julosstock.

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Reviewing Your 2013 Writing Life

Infodesign-calendars-design-52489-hSo, we've got two days until the new year, and I don't know about you, but I've been busy thinking about 2014.  I have so many writing goals I want to accomplish–novels and stories to get out in the world, and classes and products to offer here on the blog.  So this year I'm trying to approach it logically (not my strong suit, as I'm about as right-brained as they come), and write out my goals now.  (I'm using this workbook that my daughter got me for Christmas.)

The difference for me this time around is that I'm actually taking the time to review 2013.   Yeah, I know, brilliant idea, right?  Anyway, as I was working on this project earlier this morning, the thought occurred that maybe you would like some guidance on looking over 2013 as well.  So herewith, I offer questions to ponder and answer in three areas: writing, motivation and putting it into the world (also known as marketing).

(And by the way, I'll be back on Thursday, newsletter day, with guidance for planning your 2014 writing life.)

1.  Writing.  

We start with this because it is the basis of everything.  Duh.

–What was the best thing about your writing in 2013?

–What was the worst thing?

–What are you most proud of?

–What is your biggest writing accomplishment?

–What felt good around your writing?

–What felt off?

–What lessons did you learn around your writing?

–What do you want more of?

–What do you want less of?

–What was your biggest writing problem?

2.  Motivation

Yes, one could argue that this could come first, but I maintain, as mentioned above, that when you're a writer, writing is the starting point of everything.  

–What inspired you?

–What motivated you to plant your butt in the chair and write?

–What de-motivated you?

–What got in the way of your writing?

–What is your biggest issue in finding time to write?

–What time of day were you most inspired?

–What books inspired you?

–What blogs inspired you?

–What magazines inspired you?

–What other creative pursuits inspired you?

3.  Marketing

I know, ick, but if you want your work to go out in the world, you've got to consider it.

–How did you market your work in 2013?

–What were your most successful channels?

–How many times did you submit your work in 2013? Or, how many pieces did you publish yourself?

–Which social media outlet did you rock?

–Did you blog or maintain your website consistently?

–What did you learn about yourself and your writing through marketing?

–Do you have a mailing list?  Did you grow it this year?

–How did your off-line marketing efforts go?

–Did you get media publicity this year? In what venues?

–What areas of marketing did you most enjoy?

Okay, there you have it–30 questions to answer about 2013.  I'll be back on Thursday with thoughts to ponder for 2014.  In the meantime, would you care to comment?  What was your biggest writing accomplishment in 2013? 

Image by eliazar.

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What Do You Focus On?

Estock_commonswiki_328901_hWhat you put your attention on grows.  It's that simple.

So if you put your attention on how wonderful it is to write every day, that writing habit will grow.  If you focus on how much fun it is to submit to agents (I'm feeling funny today), you'll do more of it. If you think about your novel when you're not writing, you'll spend more time on it.  That's just the way of the world.

So, piece of cake, right?  Just focus away and off you'll go.

Would that it was that simple.  Because in reality the art of focus is incredibly complex, or at least we humans make it so.

It takes discipline and work to train your attention to writing every day.  Usually, what happens in our brains is a thought process like this:

Oh my God, I didn't write today!  I'm a lazy idiot!  I can never get a writing habit going! I'll never finish my novel!

And then we're focusing on the exact condition we don't want to create–not writing.

Negative thoughts, like all forms of fear, are sneaky beasts.  They can be so ingrained that they form a constant low-level litany of which we're barely aware as we go about out days.  It's the proverbial vicious cycle:  you think negative thoughts–>you create negative conditions–>and then you think more negative thoughts.

Heavy sigh.

What's a writer to do to get her focus on the right things?  Here are some suggestions:

1.  Attentional Training.  This is pretty much a fancy word for meditation that I learned in a book by Jonathan Fields.  You can do any version of it you want: zazen, TM, insight mantra, or just close your eyes and take a few deep breathes throughout the day.  Honestly, it's a pain in the butt, and it is helpful for every aspect of your life, including your creativity and your spirituality.  If you're like me, you'll probably be convinced that you're not doing it right, but no matter how you do it, the practice really helps.

2. Active Attentional Training.  And this is the same as above only, as the name implies, in an active fashion.  So, it's when you are performing sports, or playing music, or, more to my tastes, knitting, sewing, weeding, even mowing the lawn (I do actually do that once in a while–with a push mower even).    You're doing AAT when  you're involved in a repetitive activity that does not require constant attention, or if you're engaging in an activity driven by speed, novelty, or intense bursts of concentration.  A recent example of this for me was doing homework for a class I took at church last week.  I had to read some fairly dense texts and process them mentally.

3.  Eternal vigilance.  Like I said earlier, it is a constant process.   You have to watch and monitor your thoughts endlessly.  But, they are your thoughts, and you are going to have them whatever you do, so you might as well work at turning negative ones into positive ones.  It's a lot more pleasant than, say, rerunning the fight with your boyfriend all day.

4.  Show up.  What's the famous Woody Allen quote? Something along the lines of, "99% of success is showing up."  So very true.  If you keep showing up at your writing chair day after day after day you're training yourself to eventually start focusing.  Because staring at a blank screen does get boring.

5.  Respect the work.  When we don't show up, when we don't focus our attention, we're not respecting the work, or  ourselves.  And what's the point of calling yourself a writer if you're not respecting your profession?  Respecting the work leads to better focus and better focus leads to better work which leads to more respect. Another one of those cycles, this one not so vicious.

So, there you have it, some tips on focus.  Got any of your own you'd like to share?

Photo by Julo, from Wikimedia commons.

 

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10 Ways to Ground Yourself for Writing

Planet_earth_australia_264109_lThis has been an exciting week for me, what with the release of my debut novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior.  I've been consciously working on staying open to receive the blessings of this event.  I must admit, though, at times I've felt myself flying high, as if I'm no longer anchored to the earth.

Or the present.

Or my life.

Or my writing.

Excitement and joy are good, yes they are, but when they cause you to spin about in the air above everything that is happening in the real world, something must be done.  And that something is grounding.

You gotta get yourself back to the present moment, back into the energy of your body, back into your fertile brain.  This is especially important for writers, because how you can put words on the page if your brain is spinning out of control into the stratosphere?

Luckily, there are easy fixes for being ungrounded (if that's a word).   I list them here, with the obvious ones first, followed by some not-so-obvious:

1.  Journal.  This is the number one way I find my path back to myself.  For writers, it's a no-brainer.  Open that journal and write. 

2.  Meditate.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  But at least try closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths.

3.  Prayer.  Also a good route.  Ask the universe for help in getting back into your body.

4.  Walk.  A reliable mind-clearer.

5.  Drink wine.  I don't know why this works, but it does.   A nice glass of red will bring you back down to earth.  This is why I always want a glass of wine after I've flown somewhere.

6.  Cook/eat.  Something about reconnecting with the most elemental of urges–hunger–gets us back on solid ground.

7.  Get outside.  Hug a tree.  Lie on the grass. Make a snowball.  Get outside and enjoy nature.

8.  Go barefoot.  Especially when you're indulging in #7.  The earthers (not to be confused with birthers) believe that connecting with the energy of the earth has major positive health implications.

9.  Take a nap.  Nothing like a quick snooze to reorient your brain.

10.  Soak in water.  Did you know that water used to be considered a health cure?  I worked on a book that had a whole chapter on hydrotherapy and was fascinated.  Water is good for a variety of things (be sure to drink it, too) but a hot bath can soak away other people's energies and bring you right back into yourself.

Do you need to get yourself grounded at times?  What's your favorite way to do it?

***My novel is now for sale!  Click here to find links to all the major online outlets.  And thank you everyone for your support!

Photo by monique72.

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Fear and Focus

Photoxpress_1687829We don't always think of fear and focus at the same time, but there's very good reason to pair them.

Focus.  It's what we all desire, what gets the writing done.  Because the words don't go on the page without it.

Fear.  It's often what keeps us from focusing.

The kinds of fears we writers and creative types deal with are the insidious ones.  They may very well be so insidious that we don't even recognize them as fears.  Instead, fears can masquerade as a lack of focus. Have you ever told yourself any of the following when it came time to write?

I don't need to work on the book today

–The kitchen floor needs washing.  I better do it now, instead of writing.

–I need to check my email.

–Writing is too hard, I'll look at Facebook instead

Perhaps some of the following fears are hiding behind this sudden desire to do something, anything, other than write:

Not knowing what to write

–Not knowing how to write

–Going deep

–Not being good enough

–Being too good

–Putting yourself and your words out in the world.

Interestingly, dealing with issues of focus takes immediate care of many, if not all, of these fears.  Why? Because choosing to focus is choosing to be in the moment.  Choosing fear is opting to be mired in the past or worry about the future.  You can't do either when you firmly in the present.

So herewith, some strategies for both fear and focus.

1.  Remember that you are enough and have enough for what you need in this present moment.  You have all the tools you need to write or create.

2.  Have a curiosity about life instead of assuming an air of knowing everything.  Be present to the amazement of life.

3.  Move before you feel ready.  Send that story out even though you know it's not perfect, commit to writing a novel even though you don't know how.  Such leaps keep our creative selves alive and are one antidote to fear.

4. Stand for yourself.  Take responsibility for yourself and your work.  You committed to writing, now do it.  For some weird reason this always helps me with my fears.

5.  Meditate.  Everyone recommends it for a reason.  It really does help.

7.  Develop a morning ritual and/or spiritual practice that grounds and centers you.

8.  Do ONE thing at a time.  Multi-tasking is death to focus.  My tried and true trick is to set a timer for 30 minutes and only write during that time period.

9.  Work hard, play hard.  Focus and concentrate.  Then take a break and have some fun! 

10.  Don't forget physical exercise.  Move your body in some way, whether you like to take walks, do yoga or Qi Gong, swim or ride bikes.  Sometimes we just need to wear the old brain out to get rid of our fears!

Do you have strategies to accomplish focus and banish fear?  Please share.

 Photo from Photoexpress.

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7 Ways to Master Concentration

White-Background-Hand-87578-lOne morning last week I worked on social media: answering blog comments, and scheduling tweets.  (I collect quotes and love to tweet them–if you have any to share, let me know.)

But I was feeling, to put it mildly, unfocused.  I couldn't concentrate on one thing for long.  I'd check Twitter, then answer a blog comment, then click onto my home page to see what was up on the news, stare off into space, check Twitter again, answer an email, look at my blog stats.

Felt to me like I was totally and completely lacking any kind of concentration.

I beat myself up over this, kept talking to myself about how unfocused I was that morning.  And then I thought to check what I'd done: answered numerous blog comments and scheduled a day's worth of tweets.

Oh.

This experience made me realize that sometimes I'm my own worst enemy.   I'd accomplished much more than I'd thought, all while berating myself that I wasn't concentrating.  And all this got me thinking a lot more about concentration, mostly because being intently focused on work (like a piece of writing) is more pleasant than the distracted state I describe above.  There's nothing I love more than being in flow while writing, and yet this can be an elusive place.  So I thought about and tracked what allows me to concentrate and here I share the results with you:

1.  Feelings Lie.  Emotions are tricky buggers.  We think they are always telling us the truth when sometimes they are overwhelming us for a completely unrelated reason–like that something triggered a long ago subconscious memory.  If your feelings, like mine, are telling you that you're unfocused, look deeper.  Maybe you've gotten more done than you think.  Give yourself a break already.

2. Set a Timer.  I proselytize about this all the time, because it works so well.  Seriously, try it.  This is how I get most of my writing done these days.  I set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes and dive in, doing nothing but writing for those 30 minutes.  Then I take a brief break.  Only usually I'm so absorbed I hit the timer off and keep going.

3.  Keep a Success Journal.  I've been doing this lately in relation to my writing non-negotiables.  At the end of every work day, I pull out my Moleskine and ponder what I've accomplished, and then I write it down.  It's very pleasing to review and it also helps with #1 on this list.

4.  Change Your Venue.  If you're distracted at home, pack up and go to a coffee shop and vice versa.  Try a different room in your house, or go outside on your deck.  Even though I have a laptop, I get rooted in place in my office and once in awhile I need to remind myself to change things up.

5.  Keep At It.  True confession: my concentration was initially all over the place as I started this article.  But I kept returning to the work, and eventually concentration kicked in.

6.  Nap.  Sometimes there's just no substitute for some shut-eye.  I actually hate to even admit this, coming from a family that abhorred inactivity and napping, but sometimes it is exactly what you need.  Doesn't have to be a long nap, close your eyes and doze for 5 or 10 minutes.  It can be incredibly mentally renewing.

7.  Learn What Works For You.  Napping may make you sleepy all day and changing your venue may destroy any concentration you could muster.  What works for me may not work for you, so pay attention and figure out what does.

And speaking of which….please share.  I'd love to hear your tricks and tips for concentration and focus.  I'd love it if you left a comment!

Photo by Batreh.

 

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